Confusion

One of the things I find cool about Stronhold’s recent game Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War is how it develops interesting and severe information asymmetry as the game goes on. When you’re making the final push to get the briefcase to your opponent’s baseline, you get into a situation where you’re using just a few pieces about which you know a lot because you’ve had to move them frequently to get them into that position. Meanwhile, your opponent is likely defending with a number of pieces about which he knows almost nothing, but you know everything. This makes for interesting opportunities to bluff and makes the situation very tense for the defender.

I like this particularly because Confusion goes through these very different game phases – development, dueling for control of the briefcase, endgame push – completely organically, without any explicit or coercive rules. While I like some 18xx games (1825 is my favorite these days), I’ve come to dislike the way it does phasing, with lots of rules and explicit game parameter changes as the trains are bought through. It’s a fair bit of rules complexity which trips up new players. Power Grid is similar, although less severe. I now much prefer it when a game can go though its phases organically, as with Confusion, Diplomacy, Container, or Rivals of Catan.

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1829 Mainline

1829 (South) was the first 18xx game, published back – it’s hard to believe it was so long ago now – in 1974. 1829 is a very fine game, with the caveat that it takes, oh, about 12 hours to play. Especially problematic in light of the fact that it’s only fun for maybe 6. But you know, there just weren’t as many good games back then.

1825 tackled this problem by keeping the core game more or less intact, but chopping the huge 1829 up into much more manageable chunks. Two games (1829 and 1829 North) become 3 base games plus 3 regional expansions plus an expansion to lengthen the game plus at least half a dozen more mini-expansions adding various features from the original. Some additional rules streamlining and game balancing was done, and players were given significantly more flexibility, but 1829 at its core is clearly recognizable.

Playing the small 1825 games, though, you miss out on the scope of the bigger 1829, the long runs and open play. 1829 Mainline is an attempt to do an 18xx game that is both simple and short(er), and operates on a large geographical playing field, as well as bring us a game that is different enough from 1825 and 1829 to be worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed was the streamlining that eliminates the last few major 18xx features that non-regular players find troublesome. The main one is the phases of play (certain trains trigger rusting of other trains, changes in tiles available, changes in train holding limits, and colors of track available). Now you can just buy whatever is available, and upgrade track whenever you want. All good. There are also no longer restrictions on buying and selling stock; you can buy whatever is available and sell whatever you want. All of which is a relief.

The operations phase is mainly familiar to players of 1825 or 1830, with the only major rules change being that yellow tiles (basic track) can be put down in large batches, jumping ahead to the next city in one fell swoop as long as no drastic maneuvers are required. This is simple, but combined with the larger board it opens up a much richer tactical game than is typical in these games. No longer are entire geographical regions non-viable because of the plodding pace of tile laying. No longer is building bypasses necessarily an excruciating process of laying one time at a time over many turns. You now have a lot more flexibility in developing your runs, and with lots of cities and lots of companies, there is interesting competition for the best routes.

The major changes, though, are in the stock round.

For those unfamiliar with 18xx, stocks are bought and sold in rounds, where each round you can buy a single share. This tends to give everyone a crack at owning desirable companies, and also allows some to-and-fro as some players may sell to take advantage of an opportunity or defend their holdings from takeover, and others then scoop things up, with opportunities opening and closing as the round goes on.

It also means things can take a while, and can be uneven when some players are buying and selling heavily while others are watching (due to cash constraints, lack of interest, or greater or lesser foresight). 1829 Mainline tries to both simplify and speed this up. Instead of selling at any time, you can only sell the first time around the table. Instead of buying one stock at a time, each turn you just buy as many as you can afford.

Obviously, this shortcut wouldn’t work with the basic 18xx system of having a large pool of stocks available to everyone at the same time. So instead there is a mixed system. Each player is dealt a hand of some number of stock cards (around 10) at the beginning of the game, which you can buy from freely. This is your private pool. Then there is a draw deck of stock cards; if you want, you can take a random draw from it and either buy it, or not (ending your turn if you don’t, thus adding an interesting element of risk). And there is the discard pile of rejected stocks, which you can keep buying off the top of. To keep some motion going, your turn must end by flipping a card of the draw deck and not buying it.

I like all this in principle. It dramatically speeds up the stock rounds. It eliminates a couple fiddly rules about when you can’t buy stocks you’ve already sold, rules which sometimes seem artificial and can hammer new players. And it adds a nice element of variance (because the stocks available for immediate purchase will vary each game), planning (working with the cards you’ve been dealt as well as judging when to keep reserves of cash to take advantage of opportunities since you can’t freely sell) and uncertainty (the draw pile) which 18xx generally lacks. I’d be happy with it if it were not for two issues.

The first is how companies float. Like in 1856, your company can begin running as soon as two shares are sold. Also like 1856, your company gets money to its treasury only when people buy stock.

Here is the problem: your companies need a lot of cash to succeed in the long-term. Therefore, they need to sell shares. What if those shares aren’t available, because they are buried in the draw/discard pile or because someone is sitting on them in his or her hand because he or she has other priorities? It’s really tough to be sitting there in the middle game on a company starved for cash, but with 50% of the stock unavailable to purchase at any price. Also, companies that other players buy into early will tend to do much better than those with a single sponsor, as they have so much more money. This problem can crop up a bit in 1856, where good companies like the CPR, LPS, or Welland will get other players’ cash, while second-tier companies won’t, to their own detriment. At least in 1856, though, you have the ability to take out loans and “flip” your own stock to generate the cash you need. 1829 has no loans, your ability to flip stock is limited, and with the random availability of stock, who knows if it’s even available to buy? It’s possible to get behind the 8-ball here and not have a lot you can do about it.

The second problem combined with the above is simply one of length. We played with 3 very experienced 18xx players who didn’t play slowly, and the game took 4.5 hours. On the scale of 18xx games, and with players new to the specific game, that doesn’t sound too bad. But with the random allocation of shares, and the reduction in flexibility in the stock round, I think 1829 Mainline really wants to be 2.5 to 3 hours. Which, interestingly, is what it says on the box – and Mr. Tresham is usually pretty good about getting these estimates right, even when they are unpalatable; the numbers for 1829, 1853, 1825, and Revolution have been quite accurate, even erring in favor of being too generous, for me. But I have a hard time seeing my way clear to a 2.5 hour playing time on this one.

Which leads me to my last point. Somewhat unusual for a Francis Tresham game, the 1829 Mainline rules have a few problems. As a fan of 1825 I was able to work them through, but the cost to build on various terrain types (rivers and mountains) are nowhere to be found – we just used 1825 values. Also, it is possible, if unlikely, for a company to become completely unowned, and what happens in that case is not covered (as it is with the receivership rules in 1825). So it’s possible that there is a rule missing here. If, for example, whatever cash is not paid out in dividends were to go to the company treasury, this might make a significant and possibly positive difference in the game.

At the end of the day I’m a bit on the fence about 1829 Mainline. Although I am unsure if it works quite right, I do like the new stock round rules and will give Mr. Tresham the benefit of the doubt until I’ve played some more. I like the large-scale tactical feel of the game, and I do think it’s successful in giving us the opportunity to do some really interesting, long-distance route development. But I am concerned by the time it took us to play it. I don’t mind losing a bit of control in the stock round in general, especially if it compresses the game a bit and because the game has opened up more flexible and interesting route-building options. But given that the semi-random allocation of stock does have a driving effect on the game, I worry that it’s a bit too easy to suffer misfortune in the middle game and then have to play a game you are out of for too long.

18EU and 18xx

When I’m back in Ohio, Kim & I usually get together with our friend Mark for an 18xx game of some kind – of late we usually do 2038 or 1825. This time, Mark had his relatively new copy of 18EU at hand, and since it was supposed to be a bit shorter (4 hours?), we decided to give that a spin over the 1825 we were originally thinking of.

For those of you whose 18xx lore may go back a ways, 18EU is based on an old Minor Companies Variant for 1835. In brief: 1835 contains 6 minor companies, companies with no shares that are simply owned by players outright but run similarly to public companies, with half the profits going to the player and half to the corporate treasury (most companies in 18xx games sell shares then split the profits among shareholders). These companies would then ultimately be scooped up and merged into one late-game über-company, the Prussian national railway.

1835 was the first 18xx to use minors, and it was a cool idea, but had one major problem: the minors were a vastly better investment than anything else in the game. A 100DM investment in a minor company would outperform any 100DM share of stock, often by a wide margin. Since the supply of minors was limited and uneven, getting more of them was a big head start in the game.

So along comes the 1835 Minor Companies variant. Instead of starting the game with a mix of private, public, and minor companies, instead all we get is a whopping 15 minor companies; then to start the public companies, you have “grow” a minor, with the newly-formed public company getting all the minor’s assets and the player getting a president’s share. This nicely solved the balance problems, since now there were plenty of companies available, and any unevenness in distribution could be made up for by the fact that some minors were better than others.

18EU starts exactly the same way – with 15 minors. Then instead of buying major companies with fixed bases, you instead have to “convert” your minors into majors, which can start anywhere (so you can get the Belgian state railway emerging in Austria, if that’s all that is available and/or the president is feeling slightly perverse). In the late game, companies can be started in the traditional 18xx fashion, by selling 60% of the stock, but you can pick a home base from any available on the map.

The rest of the game is largely 1830 in character – numerical trains with a rapid obsolescence cycle, a 2D stock market that will trash your stock price if people sell, and so on.

This was my first trip back to an 1830-style game in a long, long time. I’ve played 1825 a bunch recently, and occasionally a 2038, but it’s been ages since I played 1856, and even longer since 1870 or 1830. While at some level I remembered why I liked these games, on another level the return trip was a bit disillusioning.

For starters, I had forgotten how much I despise the “loot-n-dump” ploy that 1830 added to the mix. In 1830, the key innovation of financial markets – limited liability – does not exist. If you are the president of a company, and that company does not have a train, and not enough cash to buy one, you are forced to go into your own pocket to do so (this is not the case in 1829, 1853, or 1825). Practically speaking, what this allows is for a player who runs two companies to clean out one of all its cash and trains, selling the stock and sticking another player with an albatross. This results in very stultified play, because everyone is afraid to own more than one share of anyone else’s stock (with only one share, you can never become president). Everyone is going to get to their holding limits by buying 60% of their own company and 10% of every other company. There are a few exceptions, but the net effect of all this is adding a lot more rules in order to make the play of the game more boring. You miss out on the far more fluid and interesting stock market of 1825. Of all the 1830-style games, only 1856 has an interesting stock market game.

18EU’s other major failing is the endgame. As I have said so many times, in an ideal world, a game will end at the latest shortly after the winner is apparent, and hopefully nobody has to play to much after it’s clear that they have no chance to win. In most 18xx games, the last few turns of the game are played out rapidly, “on paper” or using a spreadsheet. The tiles are all played already, the cross-board routes are built up, and 90+% of the companies’ runs are locked in; it’s just a question of whether the folks who played for the late game have allowed themselves enough time to make up the difference in early game earnings. In 18EU, though, there are endless possibilities for adding trivial amounts to your runs, so runs are never locked in and lots of time is spent adding an utterly inconsequential £10 or £20 to your £450 run, which is tedious. At this point most players will know about where they are in the pecking order, and I found the last hour plus of this game to be a bit painful.

Last thing, I was a bit surprised by how “closed” 18EU was. A key tool of competition in 18xx games are stations: these are used to both extend your own runs and to block other players. In every other 18xx game (except the outlier 1841), these stations cost money, usually substantial money ($40 or $100, remembering that the most money a company usually starts with is $1000). In 18EU, stations are effectively free (you are forced to pay $100 upon floating for all your station tokens). When combined with the fact that most cities have room for only one station, the board gets jammed up quickly and most of the route-building is focussed on circumventing blocked cities, which is not all that entertaining.

For me personally, I found that these drawbacks to 18EU were not balanced by any countervailing upsides. The playing time is twice 1825, comparable with 1830, and the design is certainly nowhere near as clean as either. It adds complexity which largely serves to take away options. The whole early game with the minors was not sufficiently interesting, and the opening auction of minors is impossible to play sensibly until you’ve played the main game a few times, which will make 18EU inaccessible to all but the people who play 18xx games regularly. And that, I think, is the ultimate message here: 18EU is a game for the 18xx fans. It’s a game that’s different from other 18xx games, so will provide some variation. It’s got a reasonably sensible playing time, while most of the post-1830 18xx games are too long (often much too long). But it’s nowhere near as solid a game as the core games of 1825, 1830, 1853, 1856, or 2038.

1825 – Unit 3

As these things go, I’ve been playing a fair amount of 1825 in the past 6 months or so, and been enjoying it.

I bought 1825 Unit 3 mainly because a) I’m a completist and b) it helps cover the numbers well beyond 4 players (so if you were to play with 5 players, Unit 2 plus Unit 3 would be a good choice, where Units 1 and 2 don’t quite add up right it seems to me). But Unit 3 is also playable by two players.

18xx games are generally not very amenable to 2 player games. Especially on the 1830 side of the family (1830, 1856, 1870, 2038, 1835), the loot-n-dump is such an ongoing threat that you would simply never buy an opponent’s stock, which would take a whole interesting element out of the game. But if any of the 18xx games could support 2 players, 1825 would be it. Without the huge stock market risks, you’re free to make interesting investment choices.

I actually ended up liking it more than expected. The initial companies seem rather well balanced, so one player won’t be at an obvious geographical disadvantage. There are lots of interesting choices in the middle game, with 3 minor companies and one major company available to start in different areas of the board. This is the first time I’ve played 1825 in which the minor companies really made a difference, and I like how they work (you get to pick the par, unlike most companies which have a fixed par, and they are capitalized incrementally – getting cash as shares are sold – all of which makes for interesting cash-management decisions).

I used to play 1830-style games quite a lot in college, but rather rarely since. I’m happy that 1825 has helped me rediscover them. I like the blend of onboard tactical decisions and the investment decisions. I like how well-balanced all the mechanisms of the game are when compared to the classic 18xx games – investment is important, tactics are import, cash management is important, and you need to balance long-term strategy against immediate needs, but all the elements seem much more equally important than in 1830 or 1870, where so much seems to revolve around the simple acquisition of a permanent train. And, of course, the length is far more sensible.

It’s possible that 1825 will play out more rapidly than the meatier and more wide-open 1856, but until then, 1825 seems to have taken its slot as a favorite “heavy” euro.

1825

I used to play the various 18xx games a lot back in college, when time was cheap, good games comparatively few, and good short games even less common than that. The first one I played was 1830, which was a big departure from the games I played predominantly before that (Civilization, Diplomacy, Star Fleet Battles, and Avalon Hill wargames like Squad Leader, Third Reich, MBT, and Arab-Israeli Wars). But it caught on right away – shorter than Civilization, with less downtime and fewer problems with kingmaking and destabilization with poor and/or vindictive play, it still had a lot of depth and was engrossing.

The Achillies heel of 18xx, though, is replayability – they all eventually play out. There is little randomness not introduced by the players, and after a certain number of plays you figure out that no, starting the CP on the first turn really is not a good idea, the C&A should sell for $320, and so on. So the hunt was on for more 18xx titles – 1853 and 1829 at first, but then slowly more were published, including 1835, 2038, 1870, 1856, and the many gamekits. 1856 was easily the best of the 1830-style games – the rest played through even quicker than 1830, or, like 1839 (now known as 1841 I think), were basically unplayable at all.

Today, with so much pressure from great, substantive, but hugely playable games like Taj Mahal or Amun-Re or Puerto Rico or Goa, the days of big 18xx games seem to be past. Fortunately, 1825 fills a very nice niche as a middle ground between the big, old-style 18xx games and the German game revolution. 1825 can be played, with rules explanation, in under 2.5 hours by 3-4 people. It manages to convey a lot of the tactical depth of 1830 in a smaller package. And it is a more even, euro-style game that relies on consistantly making a lot of good, meaningful, smaller decisions rather than having a couple big, major win/lose type events surrounded by filler (for example, it could be argued that in 1830, the game is about owning two companies and getting each of them a permanent train, with the rest being somewhat peripheral).

Even though the 1829 branch of the 18xx family (including 1825, 1829, and 1853) has a reputation for being for the “engineers” (i.e., route-builders), as opposed to 1830’s (including 1856 and 1870) “financiers” (share manipulators), 1825 strikes me as a much truer investment game. Each turn you have to take stock of each of the companies, figure out which ones have the best prospects, and invest your money wisely – dumping the losers and buying the winners. In 1830, by contrast, minority shareholders can get stuck personally paying a company’s unpaid bills if the president bails out, so once people figure out how dangerous it is to own stock in a company whose president also runs some other company, the game seems much more about running your railway, getting the right permanent trains, and so on – stuff 1825 is also still good at. While I used to love 1830, today 1825 seems the more solid fundamental game. Plus, 1825 can be played and enjoyed even if you only play occasionally, because it has the lowest rules overhead and is the most intuitive as tactics don’t revolve so much around funky train-swapping that you couldn’t possibly figure out without playing a few times.

As a final bonus, 1825 does a great job of solving the variability problem with a bunch of expansion kits that you can use to change the company, train, and track mix, or lengthen the game into something a bit meatier.

All in all, 1825 is more successful for me than similar “heavyweight” euros like Power Grid or Age of Steam. Maybe it’s just my long history with 18xx games, although perhaps the true fans of 1830 and 1870 will never be converts. But it has a lot of good stuff for the eurogamer looking for something heavier, so check it out if you get a chance.