It can sometimes be difficult to enjoy such a niche series of games as 18XX because there are not always people around who know how to play, are willing to learn or, as is often the case with me, have the time to set aside and play. With the internet, it’s as easy to find people now as it probably ever has been, but there are times where you feel the call to expand the circle somewhat and introduce gaming friends to this corner of the hobby that we all enjoy.
I recently decided to try exposing some of my non-18XX gaming friends to an 18XX game and to get a sense of if it is something we can get to the table with some regularity. We have played some economic games before and the response has been mostly positive. We have also played route-building games and those also have been viewed as enjoyable. We have played some longer games, although nowhere near as long as even a shorter 18XX title, but we had the time and I had the faith that the attention spans would all remain intact.
So we gave it a shot… and it did not go as well as I would have liked. Since then, I have been thinking: What went wrong?
After the game was over, I asked them what they liked and what they didn’t like to get a sense of if this was something inherent to the title or to the genre on the whole. (I’m not going to say which title since this is not a review on that specific title.) There were some rumblings about the sheer quantity of rules, about the length of the game, about some of the number crunching that is required and that sort of thing, but that was not the worst of it. No, the worst part was a moment where I floated a company, moved a 4 train to it and then had it upgrade that 4 Train to a Diesel, which in turn crippled one player who had the other 4Ts.
To people who have enjoyed 18XX titles, this sort of move just happens. We’ve seen it done — maybe even executed it ourselves — a bunch of times. It’s part of the game. But for a novice, those actions were minor parts of the repertoire… and the chaining together of them just felt mean.
Those of us who play and enjoy these games sometimes joke about how mean these games can be. Listen to a conversation, or any of the excellent podcasts about these games, and you’ll often hear about how one game is a bit more malicious than that one, that one title has a little more room for stock manipulations, and so on. They are part of the character of the games and I am certainly not advocating that they ever be removed. What keeps rattling around in my head is “How much?”… and “How early?” do we introduce these concepts in that way?
I see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, you can certainly argue that these games are going to go that way anyway, so you are better off being as mean and heartless and vicious as you can right away so players can see the full scope of that these games have to offer. No mercy. If they can’t stomach it, then they can go play something else. “Maybe Monopoly would be more their speed?”, you might say with a sneer.
But at the same time, is overemphasizing that aspect of the game every bit as damaging as underemphasizing it? These games are not just about route-building, so it is a disservice to reduce (or even eliminate!) that vicious component of these games, but standing at the far end of the learning curve and hurling obstacles to those at the novice end does nothing to encourage people to join the games that we enjoy. Is it a necessary hazing… Or is it inhibiting the growth of these games in the larger community?
This situation makes me reflect on when I started playing serious, competitive chess as a child. Oftentimes, I would go to a tournament and in the first round, I might draw a Master player. Invariably, I would get destroyed and before I could even make sense of what was happening, it was over. I might say that I learned something from the effort, but that was mostly cosmetic. I said it because I knew that was what I was supposed to say. If I asked for a post-mortem with the other player, usually the response was along the lines of, “I could explain it to you, but you would not understand it anyway.” Then I would get drawn into players more of my caliber and I would enjoy the tournaments more. I needed to feel as though a victory was at least possible, that my effort could potentially mean something. At least then, if I lost, I might understand the loss more and better. And that peer might be more willing to work through that loss with me.
If the tournaments had been only those crushing defeats, there’s a chance they would have motivated me to work to become a Master myself; there is a much better chance I would have given up on chess completely. I’m still not sure the best way to introduce 18XX to new players, but I do know that being (or even representing myself) as a cynical Master is not the way to do it.