This is Joshua Wood’s story in the competition due to our 2nd anniversary.
A year ago I would never have imagined that I would be able to differentiate between several games that all have four digits as their titles. How did this come to be?
I first started with modern board gaming a few years ago, and quickly started to regularly trawl boardgamegeek.com (BGG) for new and interesting games. It wasn’t long before I ran across 18xx titles, but the length (8+ hours!) and financial calculations (calculators and spreadsheets were used!) put these titles firmly in the “way too involved” bucket for me. When I thought about the stocks and share market, price manipulating, auctions and valuations, I imagined that these games required the players to have some sort of financial education, such as economics or accounting. The idea that players were tracking all these numbers and making decisions based upon them was not for me; I’ve only done a basic accounting course, and that was over 20 years ago. Further initial investigation portrayed these as potentially vicious games, and if you weren’t on the ball, an early poor choice could see you out of the game or limping along for the next several hours unable to recover. As someone new to this hobby, this didn’t sound like fun at all.
So I carried on exploring mid-weight (mostly so-called “multiplayer solitaire”) Euros, those in the top several hundred BGG ranks, which play in the 90 – 120 min time frame. Since I didn’t get to play multiplayer as often as I’d like, I also began to explore solitaire games. Mage Knight was the king of this realm, but again, like with 18xx, the several hours required to play, combined with the complicated rules, meant this was not a game to be attempted by me.
But still, curiosity kept creeping back. If Mage Knight was so long and complicated, how could it be ranked so high? A lot of people must play and really enjoy this game. I kept thinking about Mage Knight. Something about it intrigued me, even though I was equally intimidated by the game. It’s strange to feel intimidated by a game, by a thing made of card that just sits on the table until you take some action. I can better understand intimidation in a multiplayer situation, there might be expectations of ability or intelligence, peer pressure and broken egos. But intimidation in a solo game? It’s just a game, what’s the big deal? Gradually I accustomed to the idea of just jumping in, biting the bullet, and giving it a shot. I was eager to understand why this game was so loved, even if it proved too difficult for me, and if so, I could just sell it. So when an opportunity to buy this game at a very good price suddenly turned up, I clicked the buy button.
The TL;DR end game of the Mage Knight story is really that of personal growth, confidence, exploration, and discovery. When I look back over the last few years, I can see a very clear arc that my board game journey has taken. I believe everyone that’s passionate about this hobby will, over time, have an arc, and this will be unique to them and their path of discovery and personal learning though this hobby. One of things I love is that there is so much variation and choice in games today, and this allows for these voyages of discovery and growth to occur for those who seek it. I grew up playing the standard family games such as Monopoly, but wanted to give these more modern games a try, upon learning that they existed. The early titles were brought for the purposes of spending time with family in a new way. I found I initially enjoyed the puzzles of these “multiplayer solitaire” titles. Then I tried my hand at solo gaming. Then I found myself exploring more complex games, and longer games. I learned over time that I love abstracts, and route building, but hated social deduction and hidden role games. My preferences in game mechanics was changing slowly as I played more and varied titles, which should really come as a surprise. I sought more player interaction – not the direct stealing of resources because a card says so, but more focused on blocking or denial of action – “Oh, you wanted to go here, did you?”. Slowly the economic games and some entry/mid-level, manageable, train games were piquing my interests. Games like Food Chain Magnate and American Rails seemed to really hit the sweet spots. Sure, the winner is the player with the most points, as is usual. Except that points are money. And that means playing with poker chips. One of my absolute favourite things with board games is the tactile feedback and sensations you have while playing, and poker chips just doubles down on that. The route building of games like American Rails, Through the Desert, and Kingdom Builder also hit home to my aforementioned found love of abstracts. The player interaction was there, and in the form I enjoyed. These elements should have all come together to create the perfect 18xx storm. Except they didn’t, because I wasn’t cognizant of them at the time (it’s much easier to see this upon reflection, not so in the moment), and 18xx wasn’t a thing that was played where I lived, that I knew of. And I had read about the disasters of new groups trying to figure it out together for the first time. Oh, the disasters. They didn’t sound like fun at all.
18xx was still thought of by myself as this long, complicated, and mean game, and I was too scared of this disastrous first time experience that could occur, to tackle it myself. Some experience with games such as Mage Knight had given me confidence in reading and learning the rules to complex games, but Mage Knight could get away with its length on the grounds of being a solo game. I wasn’t (aren’t) aware such an option exists in the land of 18xx, unless you wanted to play all sides by yourself, in the way that many war gamers play. Not being a war gamer, or familiar with war gaming at the time, this is not something I had experience with, nor had I even considered it as a viable way that people play solo. But in the same way my curiosity for Mage Knight kept nagging at me, my curiosity to explore 18xx did likewise. I eventually discovered the game Poseidon, and after reading how it’s 18xx-like but plays in 3 to 4 hours, I figured I could probably manage to convince people to play a 4 hour game. See, the problem with trying new and heavier games and going on a personal voyage of discovery and exploration, is that unless you have a group going with you, or it’s a solo affair, you might quickly find yourself on your own. So while you might run ahead of the group, you can’t stray too far from the pack for fear of becoming separated. I was the lone wolf, but Poseidon was my anchor, my stake in the ground, that said to me, “I’ll explore this far, and if I’m lucky, I might get to try this with others”. So I brought Poseidon. And it sat on my shelf, somewhat forgotten about, in favour of more standard Euros. And then 18xx happened, by a few chance events.
Fast forward a bit and I found myself part of a board game Slack chat group, which included an 18xx channel. I happened to stumble across this Slack group by pure chance. I had arranged a Kickstarter group buy, and one of those group members was the person who set up and administered said Slack channel. He happened to offhandedly comment that there was a Slack group and should anyone wish to join, they’re most welcome. Interested in what sort of board game chat was happening in my area of the world, I joined. The 18xx channel was an auto-join channel, and so I lurked around for a while, reading the discussion but posting very little since I had little to contribute. Eventually that 18xx curiosity came back in force; I somewhat knew these folks after having chatted for a while, and they’re local (well, a few hours drive away), and they play 18xx, so who better to help dispel any 18xx (mis)perceptions I had. The folks were very helpful and friendly, and the math and spreadsheets (of which I was very worried would be too involved) was reduced to a simple “you have 5 shares that pay $17 each, how much do you have? No spreadsheets used, calculators optional if you can’t do the basic math”. And it had the player interaction that I enjoyed. There were no cards saying to take things from another player, and anything that happened to me was because I ended up in that position, and perhaps I shouldn’t have let that happen. These new details really accelerated my interest. An economic game with poker chips, route building, and the kind of player interaction that I enjoyed? I was tickled pick with the idea. And that there were experienced people who were friendly and welcoming and happy to help teach someone new to the genre. This, this was the perfect 18xx storm, and a game day was happening very soon.
The game was to be 1846, and a few others were playing for the first time also. I read the rules in advance, and had decided my goal was simply to make it to the end without going bankrupt. It was a long game of 1846, and my head was spinning at the end, but I managed to achieve my goal. Trying to take in the game flow in addition to trying to figure out strategy and how to make the money move around between player and company was full on. The next day a game of 1834 was played (which is derived from 1830), but I had not read the 1830/34 rules. After a quick summary of the differences to 1846, I strapped in and held on to my hat. Again, I managed to keep my head above water and make it through without going bankrupt. I considered both games a success! The experienced players at the table were very helpful in treating these as learning games, so were more than happy to discuss strategy, decision points, and what-ifs, and I found this absolutely fascinating (I highly recommend every learning game be like this, if possible). It gave me a very high level look at the multitude of decisions, ramifications, and potential butterfly effects that these games have. And I was shown that there is so much depth to these games, and that I have much to learn and understand about strategy. Playing an 1830 style game beside a more operational 1846 style game was a great comparison also. For one, that fact that I could muddle my way though 1834 with very little in the way of rules explanations speaks to the learnability of 18xx once you know one game, and whilst you can quickly pick up the new rules, this is not to say you’ll know how to play the new game well. This system, that with minor rules tweaks can produce radically different playing games with different play styles and strategies, is part of what’s made me fall down the 18xx rabbit hole. There’s just so much to explore here. I wanted to play more. Except I didn’t know anyone local that plays 18xx.
I had to drive to another city, about 2 hours away, for my first 18xx games, and I’ve since been back a few times to play again, and will continue to go back. But that’s a bit of a commitment. I wanted to play more. I wanted to play weekly. That’s the 18xx bug that’s bitten me. Thankfully, I knew of a local group that play a lot of Euros, many heavy, such as Terra Mystica. I proposed the idea of 1846 to them and they were interested, even though one had had a bad 18xx experience in the past. Thankfully it went down a treat and they all loved it. As a result, I’m on a print-and-play bender trying to determine how to make a nice copy of 1889 to play with them, for contrast to 1846 (I’m already and oh-so-soon considering buying a laminator because there are a number of print-and-play titles available). Meanwhile, 1830 has been ordered and is on route (by plane however, not train). There are so many other 18xx titles that I want to explore, that I feel like I did when I began this modern games hobby – like a child in a candy shop, I want to try them all. And, just the other day I remembered all about Poseidon, and got that to the table. For me, it was interesting, but didn’t scratch the 18xx itch I have. So in hindsight I’m somewhat glad I didn’t get a chance to play it first, and (potentially) stop there. I’ve now played several 18xx titles but am still very much a beginner – I know the rules and can play – but there is much more to learn about how to play well. I can see that when I play with the folks in the next city over, who play at a much more considered level. It’s helpful to see this comparison, since it makes you realise just how strategy rich these games are, whereas without this, it’s possible that a group could consider that they’ve seen the game and move on to something else. Just as my discovery and exploration of modern board games over the last few years took me on a journey and created an arc of progression for me, so too will my exploration of 18xx. I don’t know yet what that arc will look like, but I know there will be one, and that is enough to make me very excited.
I hope that as 18xx grows, more players will try these games without automatically discounting them as “not for me”. After playing a few rounds the rules complexity and game sequence settles down. If you can’t manage the basic math required, then you need to learn since it is essential in your general life. As for the length? Well, some are shorter than others, but if you’re playing a game you enjoy with friends you enjoy spending time with, does it matter whether you play 1 game or 3 during a day? It does not. I encourage anyone with a passing interest in 18xx to find a welcoming 18xx group and give it a go. And even if 18xx is never tried, or not your ultimate destination, I hope you enjoy your board game journey – it’s an unbelievable time to be involved with this hobby. Game on!