18XX: The best games for beginners
There are more games in the 18XX series than years in the 19th century. With so much choice and such a confusing naming convention, it can be difficult for beginners to know which games are best for them.
After introducing dozens of people to the genre, there are four games that stand out as being a good first experience. But none of them are perfect. Each one has its own benefits and drawbacks to keep in mind before bringing them to the table.
1830: RAILROADS & ROBBER BARONS
Pound for pound, 1830 remains one of the best games in the series. Through a simple ruleset, it captures the aggressive brand of capitalism that drove the development of American railroads. It’s fun, mean and exciting. While not one of my favourites, it’s one of the greatest entries in the franchise and the most influential.
It’s hard to go wrong with 1830. Like all Tresham games, it has an elegant ruleset. It’s deeper and more strategically varied than its variants, even the newer ones. But it also has some newbie traps, like a mispriced item in the initial auction and a company, the New York Central, that might get blocked early on. Much of what gives the game its texture is not found in the rules. This makes for a more interesting game, but also presents a hurdle to newer players.
1830 is best with at least four players and is a bit longer than the alternatives. One of its best features is that having a company pay out consistently is a good strategy. However, this means the game must take four hours rather than the three of its smaller successors. Don’t be afraid to call it early.
1830 should be easy to find. It has been printed by several publishers and is language independent. You can probably find a copy of the new Lookout or the previous Mayfair version for 40 to 60€. There’s even an old PC port with good AI if you don’t mind tinkering with Dosbox.
1889: HISTORY OF SHIKOKU RAILWAYS
Essentially 1830 on a smaller map, this Japanese variant boasts 3 player support and a shorter playtime. Both games feature a similar playstyle, with practically identical rules. They even have the same trains! Many games try to reduce 1830 to a smaller size, 1889 is one of the few that manage to do so without losing the appeal of the franchise.
Despite its smaller scope, 1889 remains a rich game. It may be won based on revenue, stock appreciation or managing the train rush. It doesn’t have some of the interesting attributes of 1830, though. The companies are not as different, and the tile set has been toned down. But it’s a good game. If you can’t do 1830, 1889 is the closest replacement.
One aspect I do dislike is that trains get stuck unless players negotiate. Since the train roster is the same as in 1830 but there’s one less company, there simply isn’t enough space to bring the diesels otherwise. While negotiation is my favourite genre, I find it at odds with 18XX. I’ve also found beginners are afraid of taking such a dramatic step, leading to a stall.
1889 was published by DTG, a boutique publisher, but it’s hard to find a copy. Fortunately, it’s also available as a print’n play, which is not difficult to build. Another publisher, Grand Trunk Games, is working on a Kickstarter release with higher production values.
1825 UNITS 1, 2 & 3
What if I told you there’s a 18XX that can be played in two hours, has simpler rules than Brass and requires only two players? 1825, a remake of the first game of the series, is one of the best introductory games and also one of my personal favourites. It belongs to a different branch of the family focused on portfolio management and timing.
Unlike its American sibling, there’s no stock manipulation in 1825. Rather, the focus is on riding the waves of profit, stealing trains from contested companies to boost the ones you are invested in. There’s no bankruptcy and you can dump presidencies onto the stock market. It’s kind enough for new players, but in a way that remains insightful.
1825 is simpler than any other game in the series but takes advantage of every single detail. The route-building is challenging because we must run several trains at once. The stock market is lively and sees action every round. And there’s more embezzlement because there are fewer consequences.
Sadly, copies of 1825 were made by hand by an elderly Francis Tresham. They are hard to find and expensive. Were they given a wider release, I would recommend it as the best introduction to the franchise. But today, it might prove easier to just play 1830.
18Chesapeake was designed with the goal of introducing new players to the franchise. Like 1889, it uses 1830 as a template and translates it into a smaller map. But unlike its Japanese predecessor, it takes specific steps to iron out the edges of the original and provide a smoother experience.
A new mechanism takes a train out every round, keeping them moving even if players fail to do so. The initial auction is less punishing and designed with replayability in mind. And I really like the map, which is more lively and varied than in 1830. These are all good features for a beginner’s game. However, 18Chesapeake is also too nice in ways that don’t help new players.
The main issue is the stock market. It’s very small and companies reach the floor very quickly. This makes for a peaceful game. Most of the time, it’s impossible to trash stocks or change the order in which companies operate. But with less opportunities – and rewards – to do so, newbies don’t learn as much and have a duller experience.
After all, aggressive play is fun. It’s what attracts people to 18XX. People want to tell their own stories of trains rusting before they run and dump trainless companies onto their rivals. What newbies hate is not bankruptcy but moving the same train up and down without anything exciting happening. 18Chesapake is good for learning but I don’t think it’s as engaging as the other games in the series.
18Chesapeake is published by All Aboard Games. At 100$ plus shipping, it’s expensive, even by 18XX standards. The production quality matches the price, but nicer illustrations are less important than a set of poker chips.
18AL – Another small 1830 variant. Limitations like only being able to buy one train per turn make it less interesting than either 1889 or 18Chesapeake.
18CZ, 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties – These are complex games, with several kinds of companies, mergers, auctions and the like. 18CZ has beginner scenarios but the game is still fundamentally complex, and I would not recommend it for your first game.
18Lilliput, City of the Big Shoulders – These games are not part of the 18XX series. They use different mechanisms like worker placement and action selection. They are also not simple, City of the Big Shoulders is closer to baroque euros than it is to the elegant designs of Francis Tresham.
1800 – Don’t bother to print this one. It’s not a good learning tool, because it differs from the other games significantly, and it’s a terrible game on its own terms. I regret printing my copy.
1846: The Race for the Midwest – 1846 simplifies some aspects of the series. There are no towns, no par price, no stock market manipulation. But it’s still more complex than all the games listed above and too different from them. Partial capitalization is a complex mechanic, which most games don’t use and which is hard for beginners to wrap their minds around.