18xx games, now in musical form
May 20, 2019 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Maybe you've heard of the 18xx family of railroad stock-market boardgames? It all started with the game 1829, and today comprises a huge range of games, lasting from 2 to 10+ hours, mostly set in the nineteenth century, in locations all around the world. The market for these games has always been tiny, so there's a thriving niche community of amateur design/printing. Well now, 18xx meets Les Miserables, in a ten song musical version by podcaster Ambie Valdés.

Ambie has other (shorter!) boardgame songs (songs from Disney movies, pop songs, Pokemon, etc) on her Youtube channel ambierona. She co-hosts a boardgame podcast called Board Game Blitz.

She also has a short series of videos thru Dice Tower introducing new players to the 18XX series of games -- what is it, where to start, etc.

Here's boardgamegeek.com's page on the 18xx family... reddit thread on where to start with 18xx... And fair warning, if you play you may develop opinions on which are the best poker chips.
posted by LobsterMitten (13 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Bwaha The Confrontation is good (it's at 18:37), and it feels like the one single time I played an 18xx game. So does "Play now, play now, get ready for some stocks" for that matter.

And I see you board game EXPEDITs.
posted by fleacircus at 10:35 PM on May 20

How directly does enjoying more rail-building-centric games like Empire Builder (or even Ticket to Ride) translate to 18xx games?

that bookcase with all the games in it, wow
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:51 AM on May 21

I've never heard of 18XX games, but they seem really interesting. Given that there are hundreds of them, which one would be a good one to start with? Maybe one that could be completed in a couple hours?

Also, given that this game is all about money and profit, does it bring out the rage that Monopoly does?
posted by sixohsix at 3:28 AM on May 21

The Master of the House one is good too.

which one would be a good one to start with?

IDK but Javert recommends 1889.
posted by fleacircus at 5:38 AM on May 21

Given that there are hundreds of them, which one would be a good one to start with? Maybe one that could be completed in a couple hours?

18Lilliput condenses a lot of 18XX gameplay into a Euro-style shell and lasts about ninety minutes to two hours. It is not, in any sense, a "pure" or "classic" XX title, because it adds an action-selection mechanic that fundamentally changes how the game plays, but if you enjoy playing it you will probably enjoy advancing to "real" XX. (If you want to condense even further, Chicago Express takes about an hour and turns XX into a pure Euro, at which point it really isn't XX any more but is still a fun game.)

If you want to try a starter "true" XX, the recently-Kickstarted 18Chesapeake is an excellent choice since it is firmly designed to be "a first 18XX" but is still an excellent game for experienced XX players (whereas Lilliput is kind of a novelty). Also, per the video, 1889 works well as a first XX also (and can be print-and-played from files available on Boardgamegeek), although it lacks a couple of mechanics that make Chesapeake an ideal first XX (like the train exporting).

Also, given that this game is all about money and profit, does it bring out the rage that Monopoly does?

Monopoly causes rage for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is usually that the game boils down to who gets the best die rolls. 18XX are no-luck games, so ultimately the only person you have to blame if and when you go bankrupt is yourself.
posted by mightygodking at 6:40 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

which one would be a good one to start with ?

I personally started playing Imperial and Imperial 2030 games that are kinda like a mash up between a stock management game and diplomacy (plus with rondel action!). Really not exactly the same thing, but whetted my appetite enough to search out these other games and dive in from there.

I would say if you can find it 1846 would be my choice? It's a solid intro into the 18xx series and doesn't have too many really crazy features that some of the others can have. It's a big enough map that you'll always feel you have things to do without the real cramped, terrible cutthroat start you can sometimes find.

Otherwise my other suggestion is to check out Continental Divide. It's a Winsome game, but the mechanics are solid and I think even a better introduction into the railroad board game subgroup. It's helpful in that there are some clear goals and it's a cube rail game so there's less worrying about some of the more in-depth track choices you can find in others. On the goals piece too it's helpful to get you started, you only have enough track to barely cross the line getting you more, so it's a balance between generating revenue at first but also making sure you have enough track to keep your train company going, or do you just use one purely for revenue so your second company can make the great jump?
posted by Carillon at 9:08 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

oh, and:

whichever XX you play, don't use the paper money. Use poker chips.

They very literally cut an hour off total playtime.
posted by mightygodking at 9:51 AM on May 21 [3 favorites]

Oh hey, my friend plays this and streams it on YouTube a lot! Link if anyone is curious:
posted by hjo3 at 10:08 AM on May 21

If only more things in life could be explained via Les Miserables musical parodies...
posted by Captain_Science at 1:13 PM on May 21 [2 favorites]

How directly does enjoying more rail-building-centric games like Empire Builder (or even Ticket to Ride) translate to 18xx games?

18xx games tend to fall on a spectrum that has at its ends "operational" and "financial". Games that are more operational tend to be focused more on track laying and running good companies. Games described as financial typically have more complex stock markets and ways of affecting the stock prices of others' companies.

The rail building games like you mention could be seen as similar to the more operational 18xx games in that they all feature rails being built. But really they are going to feel very different from 18xx as a whole. For instance, 18xx doesn't necessarily need to be about trains. It's more about the shareholders and presidents of companies and how their differing interests interact.
posted by o0dano0o at 2:50 PM on May 21

How directly does enjoying more rail-building-centric games like Empire Builder (or even Ticket to Ride) translate to 18xx games?

Empire Builder is fundamentally a pickup-and-deliver game, where the challenge is crafting an efficient network that gets you from A to B to C and so on and then you just deliver loads of goods. (I generally dislike the crayon rail games, because the last third of every game is a dreadful slog - you've built your rail networks, and now players are just randomly drawing tickets and delivering goods and the player who is furthest ahead when this starts usually wins.) Ticket to Ride is simply a modified form of rummy. (Which doesn't make it a bad game! It's a fine game! But it is absolutely rummy.)

o0dano0o's comment about the "operational versus financial" 18XX spectrum is correct, but I don't think he's emphasized enough how different 18XX plays from those games, because in most entry-level rail games there is fundamentally no distinguishing player from train company: player A is rail company A, player B is rail company B, and so on and so forth. In 18XX, the players are basically rich people whose plan is to get richer via investing in rail companies, so the companies are a separate thing from the player: you have to keep your funds separate from company funds because, except in rare and specific circumstances, you can't pay for things (like rail lines or locomotives) on behalf of the company. This means that someone else can become the director of "your" company by acquiring more of it than you. (Or, if the company has lost a lot of value and will soon require a lot of help to operate, someone else can become the director if you dump your shares of it into the stock market. This is a common play strategy in 18XX.)

Which means every turn, when you operate "your" company's trains (and by "your" I mean "the company in which you have a controlling interest"), you have to make a bunch of decisions, usually stemming from the simple decision to pay out dividends to the shareholders (which means you see the majority of money from the company's profits that turn) and increase the company's stock price (which means an asset you control gets more valuable) - or withhold earnings to put them into company treasury, which harms your share price but also means the company now has more money to, for example, buy a better train. And since in most 18XX games companies have to have trains, and since trains gradually "rust" over the course of the game (because the scale of these game are in decades and eventually old trains just don't work any more/aren't economically feasible to run, and this is how the game simulates that), this is something you'll probably want to do at some point!

But it's not quite a binary choice. For example, if you have a majority interest in a company but other players have also heavily invested in that company (because they figured it would be profitable), then it makes more sense to withhold earnings because yes, you're hurting your asset a bit short-term, but you're denying other players asset value and money right now while building up your company in the long term. But if it's a really profitable run, and someone else has enough shares in the company, maybe you run the trains and pay out dividends and then dump the company on them later after you've extracted all value out of it.

All of this just scratches the surface, because these games all share a central system but among the really good ones, the variations can create immensely different gameplay. Like, one defining mechanic of most 18XXs is how companies "float" (IE, are started). In some games, you start a company when players have bought a certain percentage of the shares, and then the company gets 100% of the operating funds as if 100% of the shares had been sold (simulating bank investments and the like). In others, companies start very quickly with a very low threshold of shares necessary to start a company, but instead of getting "full capitalization," the companies get money incrementally every time somebody buys a share from that company's IPO. And the thing is: this seemingly minor rule change creates radically different gameplay! Full-capitalization games tend to encourage equity-building strategies and company-shuffling because the only risk in buying other players' shares is having a useless company dumped on you, whereas incremental-capitalization games tend to encourage more operational games because every time you buy a share of someone else's company, you're extending that company's lifespan - but even then, this is only a guideline.

Basically, if you get into 18XX - and I will be the first to say that these games aren't for everybody, because I know a lot of boardgamers hate the idea of spending three to six hours on one boardgame that has a lot of mathy thinking involved - you really come to appreciate the differences great and small that go into the genre, whether they are insane stock-manipulation games like 1841 (where companies can actually own shares of other companies, giving you the chance to create shell corporations) or 1817 (where you can short-sell companies into oblivion), or patient, rail-builder games like 1849 (where the entire board is extremely expensive mountains and there are two gauges of track and there's never enough money to do what you want) or 1880 (where you represent foreign investors building complex rail networks in China - until China kicks the foreigners out, anyway).

Simpler train games don't compare. 18XX, when it is good, is essentially "Capitalist Abuse: The Game." Which is how you should enjoy capitalism, rather than letting it happen in the real world.
posted by mightygodking at 5:04 PM on May 21 [5 favorites]

Thanks o0dano0o and mightygodking.

That’s very helpful, and enticing if intimidating. I like crayon rails and like stock sims but worry about my ability to manage a “3D” stock sim/rail game.

I see there’s a java implementation out there, but without AI. (Which would probably be quite a challenge to program, even with my barely-pop-sci understanding of how game AI is coded.)

I’ll probably never play one of these but it’s still fascinating.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:03 PM on May 23

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