Ever go to a board game con and look in the train room? Ever wonder why they dedicate entire rooms to train games? “What kind of people go in there” I used to wonder, steering myself subtly to the other side of the hallway. Do they just like trains? Do they all have basements full of train models, a dusty pair of overalls and one of those hats lovingly placed on a rack in the corner? Is there some kind of allure I’m missing over these rolling, metal, erect structures glamorized in the past but largely ignored by my generation?
Nah, it turns out these train games are just really damn fun.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve played an 18xx game with anyone yet who is actually a fan of trains themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But for most the appeal of train games is entirely incidental to the setting. Train infrastructure just happens to be about routing, which is fun in a board game, and the age of rail had a lot of big business intrigue, which is also ripe to be transitioned into tabletop excitement.
There are other train games with different emphases, but I’m going to be talking about 18xx today, and specifically GMT’s 1846: The Race For The Midwest. It was my introduction to this sub-sub-genre, and I suspect due to its branding and the fact that it’s been picked up by GMT, it will be the introduction for many others. Tom Lehmann designed it to be an easier, gentler example of the genre, and while I’ve grown to appreciate more hardcore 18xx games, I have a soft spot for 1846.
The fundamental part of 1846 that separates it from many other economic games is that each player acts as an investor rather than the owner of a company. If you own the most shares in a company you do get to run its operations, but that can change throughout the game. In theory, you can play, and do decently, without running any companies (though I’ve yet to see it happen).
After an initial draft, the game alternates between stock rounds, where you can buy and sell your stock holdings, and two operating rounds, where the rail companies lay track, generate revenue from their routes, and buy trains.
There are so many different angles in a game of 1846 that it’s tough to know where to begin. I suppose laying track is the natural place to start. Each operating round every company can lay up to two new sections of track–one of which can be an upgrade instead of a new area. You want to connect major cities to each other in order to get the revenue they bring, and ultimately you want to gain coveted east/west routes, which connect the off-map cities along the east coast to the newly developed cities extending past the midwest.
The race the title alludes to is felt all throughout the game. Connecting those eastern spaces to the western hubs are the primary end-game goal, and being able to lay the track to your company’s preferences can be the difference between getting there first and spending 2-3 operations rounds trying to fashion some kind of routing behemoth just to get to the other side of Chicago.
The value of each route is calculated based on the cities it passes through. Regular cities provide a modest, predictable amount of revenue. Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinatti have more lucrative payout structures, making them popular spots to pass through. Chicago starts with very little revenue but quickly grows to be by far the most lucrative place on the map. Of course, to reap those rewards you need a train good enough to hit those cities. At the beginning of the game the only trains available are “2” trains, which can only run from one city to another–2 stops. Quickly those will be gone and the 4 or 3/5 trains open up for purchase. The latter can trace a route through 5 cities but only count the best 3 for revenue. By the end of the game, with enough cash, you could have your hands on a 7/8 train, deftly rolling all the way from New York to St. Louis.
The separation between your money and the company’s money is most acutely felt with train purchases. Every company has to have at least one train, and as the game progresses new trains get more expensive and older trains become obsolete, leaving the game. You don’t want to be pushed into an emergency train purchase scenario, where all of the company’s cash is drained and you have to tap into your own holdings (which, again, are your victory points) in order to keep the company running.
1846 is gentler than other games in the genre in this regard, as trains don’t become obsolete quite as quickly, giving novice players a good amount of time to prepare for more expensive purchases. But I find planning out how much money my company takes in to be a subtle and engaging exercise.
See, in 1846 when you buy stock in a company you’re buying those shares from the company holdings–so the money from the purchase goes into the company. Similarly, when the routes are calculated and paid out, they’re paid to the shareholders–you, other players, and the company itself, proportionally. You don’t have to pay out revenues, though. Instead you could withhold all of the money into the company or withhold half, paying out the other half. Doing that, though, deprives you of the money you’d get from your own company, hurting your ability to purchase more shares in the stock rounds. It also can drop the price of your company on the stock market, harming its short and long term potential.
Ideally, a company will retain enough shares to pay for its track expansion and trains without having to withhold very often, or at all. There’s calculation in this, certainly, but there are so many different possible, subtle, outcomes from any given player’s decisions that pure calculation is impossible.
In one recent game, an experienced player had set himself up in a good position going into the 2nd stock round. He had a good company, the board was on his side, and he held a solid 40% of the company, so he had an edge in income going into the round. Everyone could see that this was likely to develop into a very strong company. I was first to go and immediately bought a share of this company, recognizing that it was probably going to be a powerhouse. The rest of the players also bought shares, and I realized: these shares were going for $60 each, and the company would soon be entirely owned by players. Each purchase put a little bit of money in the company, but certainly not enough to fund the trains it was going to need to run the routes it was developing. And now the company would have to at least withhold half of its earnings if it wants to bring in any money at all. It had been destroyed by its own potential.
In that same game, another player (his first time playing) decided to start his company with the highest possible stock price–$150/share. The company never hurt for money, but by the end of the game it was overflowing with cash and had nothing to spend that on. The player never owned more than 30% of his own company because there were more cost-effective shares available on the market that paid out similar dividends for lower prices. He did well “playing investor”, effectively, but his own company was successful without much benefit to him.
You can see how the initial stock price of a company can really effect the rest of the game in dramatic ways. After playing multiple 18xx games and a lot of heavier euro games lately I’m convinced that one of the most important key indicators to a game’s strategic complexity is how much it front-loads important decisions. 1846 has a number of important early game decisions, starting with the draft. There are a number of small companies and a couple of independent railroads up for grabs, for a price, in the pre-game draft. The private companies give you a modest income and some kind of special power–maybe you’ll be able to tunnel through expensive mountain passes easier, or get extra income by transporting beef to Chicago. The independent railroads start with their own 2 train and, most importantly, can build track like any other company. Want to accelerate that rush to the other side of the map? Use one of these small companies to help your larger one.
Trying to coordinate your draft with what company you expect to begin is a pure delight. There’s so much potential for mind games and trickery here as you try to figure out what other people have taken and attempt to keep people from gaining too much of an advantage from the start while trying to help your own position.
There’s so much delicious flavor in these private companies and in the peculiarities of the major companies to gobble up. While jaded 18xx veterans might decry 1846 as too soft, I absolutely adore the story created with each play. Illinois Central starts with government subsidies and a corner of its own, giving it a strong early game, but it has to work hard to not be blocked out of an east/west route for the end game. Grand Trunk has the quickest path to an east/west route, but has to contend with the nearby NYC, Erie, and Penn railroads which want to all cover the same territory. B&O and C&O are blocked behind some tricky Appalachian mountains, but can do surprisingly well if they’re underestimated.
Seeing these train tendrils reach out from the starting stations to creep across the countryside always brings a smile to my face. There’s optimism in this expansion, echoing the mythos of the American westward frontier. Maybe you got hosed last time you played, but this time you’ll learn from your mistakes and come out triumphant. Or at least discover a new way to lose.
1846 rewards backwards-looking post-game analysis. Find the one spot in the game where you think you lost and trace the path that lead you there. Did you get tokened out of a key route? (I forgot to mention–there are station tokens you can place that can block other companies from tracing routes through those cities. Nasty little things.) How did that happen? Maybe you simply didn’t see the possibility the turn before. Or maybe you lost the opportunity to token the space first because your company’s stock value was lower than theirs, because you decided to withhold an extra time to ensure you wouldn’t lose time in the phase 3 train transition. Was that extra freedom worth the loss of priority order? Could this have been avoided by setting a higher initial stock price? What would be the other externalities generated by that?
Like industry rippling across the fruited plain, decisions in 1846 echo in multiple directions, and the discovery process of understanding those reverberations in a deeper and deeper way is one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve ever had. The past couple of times I’ve come into the game with a particular strategy in mind–something unusual and probably bad that I want to try out just to see what happens. Eurogames, even heavy ones, frequently feel bounded in ways I didn’t realize before trying 18xx games. They’re designed to guide the player within a corralled set of strategies so as to not alienate the new player.
1846 is the closest I’ve seen in the genre to being like that, but even it feels like a wild west sandbox from a Euro perspective. That comes with some annoyances, though, as the genre wasn’t built for the casual gamer in mind and has done very little to change that. Counting routes can be a pain, especially 4 hours into a game when your mind has been crushed under an avalanche of numbers already. The routes and the station tokening get more complicated as the game progresses, and doing the counting and division required to figure out a single train run can be mentally exhausting. Did I mention that you should have a calculator on hand? That’s not just for final scoring.
Compared to the games most people will be used to playing, 1846 isn’t exactly a looker. The colors seem oddly dissonant and there’s not so much art as there are graphics. This is by design. With a denser artistic approach, lush with figures, the game would become even more difficult to visually comprehend than it is now. Those colors and plain lines are utilitarian to the extreme. They are designed to help you play the game, and they’re a perfect reminder of why art is not theme. 1846 is incredibly thematic, and that happens mentally between the players, aided by the board’s display of the progress of the game. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise–there’s story and narrative and depth here.
Those colors and small cards and track patterns are a learning aid as well, as all other 18xx games will have precisely the same elements. Learn one and the next one becomes vastly easier because there are so many familiar visual elements. It’s a brilliant way to keep a game system accessible, even as it’s complex and often extremely unforgiving.
That said, GMT’s production of 1846 is pristine. All other 18xx games I’ve played have come from much smaller companies who are just trying to get the games out as economically as possible. (Where else do you see such passion and love for something as the idiosyncratic corners of enthusiasm in a given hobby?) GMT can afford thick cardboard, a bigger board, and the kind of assured quality you’ve come to expect from them. The rulebook is even quite good, which is something I can’t say for…literally every other 18xx rulebook I’ve tried to read. I’ve already got their next 18xx production preordered. The only thing I desperately wish they’d included was a guide to how the operation rounds play out on the company sheets. The biggest issue I’ve had with teaching 1846 is getting players to remember some of the key areas in which the order of resolution in those rounds is vitally important.
There are so many aspects of this game I haven’t yet discussed–the little strategic maneuvers you can perform or certain quirks of the board that can create prickly situations–that I need to force myself to stop here. After seeing more of the 18xx world, 1846 can feel a bit quaint, but I love it all the same. The battle potential is softer, but I find the decisions can be just as meaningful throughout the game. They’re just more subtle. Instead of making a mistake and going completely bankrupt, you might have to withhold funds into your company one additional round. That does mean that games can drag on with some players effectively out of it but not removed, where others might mercifully eliminate them from the game altogether. But I love the process. I love pulling on strings just to see what happens at the other end. I love staring at that board, mumbling inaudible calculations to myself, trying to find a way to screw up the leader’s plans. I’ve found other 18xx games I think I like better, but I am so glad that 1846 was my entry point.
Length: 3-4 Hours
Learning Curve: 4/5
Brain Burn: 4/5