[Guests voice] Why is 18xx so compelling? by Jon Cant

18xx is often described as a lifestyle game, more than just the wide variety of titles there’s a certain fanaticism. I’ve been playing for 11 months and I only really play other games if 18xx isn’t available. This is partly due to arriving late to the genre, which means that I’ve got a lot to catch up on. Thankfully I have some very good friends who’ve been in the scene for many decades and are happy to entertain a new player. But also it’s much more than that, even one title has more depth and complexity (due to the decision space, as the rules are usually fairly simple) than nearly everything else out there. I know people such as Eric Brusius whose passion has settled on playing 1846 more than 200 plays recorded to date. His next highest recorded 18xx is 18EU with only 22 plays.

Certainly not a definitive list of reasons why I find 18xx so compelling:

  • Scarcity of players/titles/time
  • Limitless decision space & incalculable outcomes
  • (Mostly) transferable skills & the whole ‘man’
  • There’s room for growth & identity

Scarcity of resources, whether players or games. Thankfully this is diminishing but there was a time when I only knew 2 others who’d play with me and we only had 3 titles and we only had 1 session every few weeks with which to play these games. My current situation precluded more. But it meant I spent a lot of time thinking about playing and researching games, we’ve since started a group on Facebook to connect 18xx players as we found bgg a little dated.

Onto the actual games themselves, the endless possibilities, yes some things are going to happen nearly every game, but as the outcomes are very hard to work out, especially on the fly and usually dependant on what others do. Sometimes you come away from a game knowing the exact mistake you made or the exact move that someone else made that won them the game but often it’s not as easy to pin down. Most recently playing a game of 18Africa, it felt like we were all still in with a chance to win and I couldn’t tell you definitely why the winner won. What this feeling leads to my neurones firing following a game so I can mull over and consider what the underlying reasons for a win vs a loss. Though sometimes obvious like playing an incorrect rule or paying out instead of withholding at the wrong time. But using 18Africa as an example, the winner controlled the economy well and had the most companies so benefited from the boom state more. This made a big difference, and he was canny enough to change the economy during the operating round so other players would have their companies running in less favourable conditions. This seems obvious now after reflection but setting it up took planning and work.

Whether you play by working out all the possibilities or try and ‘feel’ your way intuitively there’s a general system that once you’ve a few titles under your belt learning another takes minimal effort. This idea rewards those who’re more invested (mentally, socially, emotionally and financially) in the genre. I say mentally as often what your mind dwells on day to day becomes the desire of your heart, which leads to the emotion. Winning a game against challenging opponents and after a significant time investment it feels great. Your decisions feel like they really matter. Rules arguments get heated because people care about the result. That’s not me saying that playing for position is bad and I’ve certainly lost/bankrupted my fair share of games. Sometimes due to my own mistakes and sometimes due to others good play. Finding the balance between friendly competition and winning at all costs is hard and something I need to personally keep practicing. If you win but lose the people you’re playing with then you’ve ultimately lost. As your behaviour can mean they’re less likely to play against you again. This naturally leads on to the social angle, finding a place where you fit, are accepted and even welcomed is intoxicating. There’s a reason why gangs persist, and social grouping happens at all levels and especially in an esoteric genre where equals are so few and far between. Finally financially, 18xx is not cheap, especially when you get into ordering from the US publishers. When most board gamers pale at paying upwards of £100 for a game, theres maybe 10 games that can command prices beyond that in the general circuit. Nearly every newly published 18xx game is upwards of £120 plus shipping and customs etc. if not more. “Where your money is, you heart is there also” is actually biblical in origin but it sums up my point. Your money especially your disposable income shows a lot about yourself.

There’s room for growth, both within my own game but also introducing others. I’m a born evangelist and introducer. I ran a gaming group in London where nearly everyone was introduced to gaming personally by me. Now I help run a group in Retford and I enjoy introducing and teaching games, 18xx fits perfectly into that idea, though I’m now the crazy train guy at the group. But it’s all in good humour and there’s still budding interest from certain quarters.

Thanks for reading, let me know your reasons for loving this genre and how you got into it.

Jon Cant (The Game Trainer)

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