On Keeping It Simple [guest voice]

A few months ago, I played a game of 1879, the title set in the American Northwest, and I was second to act in an operating round.  One of my opponents was running a railroad for an increasingly growing revenue and was acting first, immediately ahead of me.  Then it hit me:  If I sell my shares in his company, he will move down in the stock chart and I will get to act ahead of him and get to do something that first, which at the time, seemed like a great and potentially game-deciding move.  (Spoiler:  It wasn’t.)

The result was that I sold the shares and they were immediately bought by a third player.  I got my short-term advantage, but in the end, that company still ran for a very high revenue, picked even better trains and was the deciding factor in that player winning the game.  After the game was over, I did the rough and quick calculations in my head and realized that if I had held those shares, given how much it had paid out over rest of the game and how much the share price increased, I would have been much closer and I probably could have won the game.

So why did I do it?  Why did I feel compelled to sell off shares that I knew were profitable and were for a company that was directed by a player I knew was a good player and could make the most of them?

I could come up with a lot of reasons and justifications, but the short answer is that I did it because I could…  and that’s not always a very good reason.

One of the things that most 18XX fans like about our games of choice is that there are so many things that can be done.  Operationally, we know that the sequence is short and structured.  Tile, token, trains, pay it out or hold for the company.  But while the moves themselves be sequentially simple, the rationale behind them can be impossibly complex.  Where do we want to go?  Where do my opponents want to go?  How do I keep the most options open for me while trying to block them out?

And that’s just the trains and route building aspect.  All that route building is to answer a very important question:  How does this make the most money for my companies and, as a result, me?

Financially, there are usually even more levers to pull.  We often hear games categorized as being either “route building” or “stock manipulation” games, although this can be something of a false binary in assigning games to one group or another.  But it does speak to how many bits of shiny chrome there are and like a lot of shiny things, they can be pretty and distracting in equal parts.

One of the most notorious of these mechanisms is “dumping a company” on someone.  I have seen players refuse to hold 20% of any company at any time for fear of having a company with no trains and no money drop into their lap.  And while that is certainly an unfavorable situation, the circumstances where that can be feasible to pull off and financially rewarding don’t often arise.

The great chess grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch famously wrote, “The threat is stronger than the execution.”  For players like the one I just mentioned, he has made more bad plays from the fear of having a company dumped on him than from it happening!

Back to my first situation, I realized I was guilty of what poker players call “FPS”, which stands for “Fancy Play Syndrome”.  I knew something I could do and fell in love more with the action itself than the reason or purpose behind it.  My best move was to simply keep going forward, sticking to my plan and not pulling that lever just because I knew it was there.  My point is not to imply that it is never correct to sell shares or dump a company; I just sometimes need to be reminded that I win by my share of the money I own, not by the share of the rulebook I used!

Christopher E. Smith

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