[Guests voice] “Designing the perfect 18xx” by Jon Cant

Of course this is entirely subjective, as what you value in a game vs what I value will differ but broadly speaking there does seem to be a consensus, Vox populi or mystique regarding certain titles – like 1841 from the ability of companies to own and run companies, 1822 with its many auctions or 18Ireland with its tight economy and hostile take overs.

So, What makes a game good that will last the eons compared to a game that is purely novel and quickly by-passed? As with any genre of gaming ‘cult of the new’ is rampant, and there are some golden oldies that just don’t see the table as much. My own experience is limited in this as all 18xx are new to me and I’m happy to play any title!

I’ll start with the obvious 1st choice for any game which is location, barring a few outliers 18xx is a geographic historic simulation – part of the design is to simulate the period of train expansion (or appropriate economic engine) usually starting in the 19th century – artistic license aside. This may seem arbitrary to some, as a game is a game regardless of geographic location. With all the 1830 spin offs there’s clearly some truth to that, but for me location does play a role as I’m much more interested in UK titles than say Canadian ones as it’s my home locale. This might be an idea taken from the broader modern board gaming scene but I want to feel the location. Not at the cost of the 18xx tenants but maybe as a compliment to them.

So onto the more generalised elements of a perfect design, I would posit three main over arching tenants which unlike many of the design choices made as a game goes from initial concept to a ready to publish title:

  • Balance (or lack thereof)
  • Opacity
  • Brutality

Balance is key and can be a victim to groupthink as much as design.
A particular strategy might seem to be an auto win because of the way people play or how certain privates or companies are valued by different groups. An example is the prevalence of the C&O or CPR in 1830, some groups seem to value these highly and they will be greatly fought over along with the privates that fuel their particular strategies. Where as to other groups these companies are only started late to get ahead of the train rush or as briefcase companies.

With imbalance/asymmetry being an inherent part of 18xx, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s important that there is a feeling of ‘being’ in the game. Quite often I’ll hear players say a game is won/lost with the auction, if that’s the case then the game is a poor one. Yes you can get a good lead in an auction if allowed but it should never be an auto win, as there are other weapons in an arsenal above and beyond which private companies one gets. Route planning/denial and timing can often have a bigger Impact, and being seen to have a strong lead can backfire as everyone will see you as the biggest threat early on. Of course a runaway lead is extremely hard to stop especially in the hands of a competent player. Which I would say is another core tenant of 18xx – vis no built-in catch up mechanisms, you have to make your own catching up strategy. But playing the perfect game in 18xx is a fallacy and you never know when an opportunity will be handed to you inadvertently. Learning to see those openings and taking them is one of the joys of growing in this hobby.

Opacity is another core element for a great game of 18xx, or any game in fact. Guessing/reasoning what people might do and planning for it, with all the information available yet with such a high number of possibilities, knowing how things will go is a skill I’m certainly still developing. For the most part 18xx games have the same starting point, with only player count and player order changing. And even this can bring a staggering number of games. Some of the newer titles have built in variation such as the order of the auctions in 1822 or the order of the minor companies and selection of privates in 18Ireland. The jury is still out whether including inbuilt variables enhances the design or a way of a designer to bypass the need for balancing certain elements, 1822 for example uses the auctions to self balance each private, this brings its own issues as experience with 1822 will greatly help a player over someone with less experience. But that’s maybe another facet of 18xx that differs from the wider board gaming world, that it rewards the players who’ve invested themselves more into the genre.

Finally brutality; aside from gentlemen’s agreements which could be
a discussion for another article, ‘no holds barred’, ‘anything goes’ and ‘all bets are off’ makes 18xx one of the dirtiest and brutal genres out there. And designing a game that allows for some heinous acts but also limits things in a compelling way is certainly tricky. Some things you cannot defend against like in 1817, which rewards the leader picking on the weakest player by using his position to short weak companies and avoiding those pesky liabilities. And some punish players own actions, again using 1817, opening oneself up to having a company dumped on you with max loans and no way to pay the interest by buying a 2nd share in a company. Games that limit the potential brutality also limit the choices you have and as I grow into this genre my inclinations are tending towards the more brutal openness and away for, the staid ‘gateway’ games which have been fettered, usually so it doesn’t scare the muggles away. There is certainly a place for intro games, and I’m a big advocate of 1846, but I also now find that now I play it more to experiment than play to win because winning isn’t why I play 18xx.

Bringing these elements together with the highly unconventional ‘open source’ approach to the 18xx archetype has allowed for innumerable titles to be published from the highly sort after hand made by Mr Tresham copies and expansions of 1829 to the sleek production of AAG to the polished mass produced standards set by GMT. It’s an exciting time to be a player and collector of 18xx games. Just this month there’s been announcements gallows about plans for future publishing and current publishers finding new 18xx projects to publish.


And are you interested in designing an 18xx? If so what elements do you look for in a game? What excites you most about the up and coming titles?

Clearclaw maintains a list on BGG that keeps track of titles in the works and what’s been released about them, you can find the link here https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/50723/18xx-weather-forecast-what-coming-and-why-it-inter/page/1

Jon Cant (The Game Trainer)


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