Story by Jason Begy (1st place in our competition, BIG congrads Jason)
In Which Our Hero Learns 18xx But Not Dutch
By Jason Begy
“Why do I have so many damn games about stupid trains?” I muttered to myself, cramming boxes into flimsy disorganized shelves in an overpriced Boston apartment. I had just returned from Utrech, the Netherlands, accompanied by a pile of “souvenirs” from The Joker. I had never been very interested in trains, yet somehow they had become the dominant theme in my game collection, surpassing far more exciting topics such as farming, medieval trading, and…farming. Despite my sophisticated use of poetic language, I knew the reason: It had all begun a few months prior, when an in-progress game innocently sitting on a table in my office ate my brain and changed my life.
2010 was a pretty good year for me, overall. I had finished my Master’s degree at MIT, and was working at the Institute full-time in a research lab dedicated to all things games. That academic year we were lucky to have Scott Nicholson (of “Board Games with Scott” fame) as a visiting scholar, and we had become good friends, meeting once or twice a week for gaming. One day he sent an email around to the lab, asking if anyone would be interested in learning 18xx. I was aware of these games, but had yet to try them. I was, however, enthralled by Age of Steam, and enthusiastically agreed.
Two other colleagues were roped-in, and the game was to go like this: we would play for an hour or so each week, during the work day, until we had finished. Maybe not the ideal scenario, but everybody’s schedules were packed with research, teaching, meetings, conference travel, and all the other trappings of academic life, so it was the best we could do. The game was to be Steam Over Holland, which is a wonderful teaching game for many reasons. Most importantly, it has a set length: five stock rounds, each followed by two operating rounds, and then the game is over. This circumvents the new player problem of interminably long games, and more importantly, if someone is not enjoying the game they have a definitive out.
The first session was teaching and the first share round-operating round set. Scott took us through the rules, we all started companies, and soon were off and running. We played quite slowly, discussing and analyzing every facet of the game in a way only game nerds can. After the end of the second OR we had to pack-up, and the table with the game was wheeled into my office for safekeeping.
I cannot remember how long it was until the next session, but I do clearly recall walking past the board several times each day. Each time I did it caught my attention, and I nearly always stopped to ponder everyone’s positions, the potential tile lays, and how the next stock round might go. I began to spend more time on BoardGameGeek, reading about the different games in the series, and totally not procrastinating on that paper I was writing.
At the next session we played through the following two SR-OR sets. In the third SR Scott opened a second company (he was the first to do so), and the game began to unfold in ways I never expected. In truth this wasn’t just my first 18xx, it was my first stock holding / shared-ownership game, and although Scott had emphasized that we were not our companies, seeing this in action drove-home just how different a game this was. Reasoning that he was the most competent player at the table, and probably had a good reason for doing this, I gladly purchased two shares of his shiny new company with its unpronounceable Dutch name. In the next OR set I watched as he used both of his companies to help each other and solidify his lead.
Before SR 4 we had to stop for time, and the game went back into my office, where it continued to interrupt my thoughts. Naturally the game state was much more complex at this point, and I found myself running through various scenarios whenever I had a spare moment. I was so absorbed in thought about the game I once walked right into a chair. Thankfully it was unoccupied. I think.
The final session took place a few days later. We played through SR 4 and the next two ORs, and I was enjoying it immensely. I was fascinated by how well the mechanisms fit together, the numerous ways players could manipulate the game state, and how each and every decision had secondary effects to consider. I had played complex games before, and even spent a few years thinking about little beyond bridge (like any ordinary teenager?), but this was on another level. As we entered SR 5, I noticed something odd: Scott had left his second company, the one that I had so enthusiastically supported, trainless! He was first-up in the stock round, and before I knew it two things had happened: 1) I was the president of a broke, trainless company, and 2) I was completely hooked.
In the final OR set I scrounged up enough money to pay for a train, and we finished out the game without further major incident. What made the company dump so compelling to me, despite being the victim, was that it showed how the game supported multiple playstyles: players could peacefully run their companies, or aggressively attack each others’ positions. Games that support this effectively are rare, but it is a feature of all my favorite titles.
After we finished, I missed having the game in my office to think about, and began looking for ways to play more 18xx. I soon purchased my own copy of Steam Over Holland and Bill Dixon’s wonderful 1856, which back then could be had for a song. Scott and I shifted more of our game time to the genre, and were constantly bringing other people into our sessions.
After that academic year ended Scott returned to his old position, and a few months later I moved to Montreal, where I was lucky to find an active group of 18xx enthusiasts; seven years later we are still gaming together regularly. Despite numerous plays of Steam Over Holland I still can’t pronounce any of the company names, which is probably due to a total lack of effort on my part. But I have used it to bring many new 18xx-ers into the fold, and it remains a personal favorite. And my shelves aren’t as full as they used to be, probably because I got rid of all those damn games about stupid farming.