Other Wise

Twitter Week: 2009-09-26

Twitter Week: 2009-09-19

Early Experience: 18EZ

18EZ is marketed as an easy entry path into the 18xx for players new to the 18xx and without an experienced 18xx player to guide them into the field. The stated hope is that new players should be able to pick up the box and be easily and enjoyably playing an 18xx-like game without great effort or a large time commitment.

A key point here is that I am not in 18EZ’s intended audience and am partially incapable of reviewing the game for that reason. I run a monthly 18xx group and play 18xx often. As an experienced player, I teach 18xx to new players every month1. I have a reasonable idea of what it takes to guide a new player into the 18xx and can support that notion with direct and recent experience on both sides of the student and teacher fence. But, I’m no longer qualified to comment on the new-user never-played-an-18xx-before starting-from-scratch experience, the experience of a brand-new player faced with an empty table and expectant players who want to find out what this 18xx thing is all about. I’m a bit past that now.

I evaluated 18EZ on two grounds:

  1. Does it succeed in providing a system for new players to ease into and learn the 18xx so that they can then reasonably move on and play the other games in the series?

  2. Is the learning course that 18EZ provides sufficiently attractive as a game or as a set of games to maintain the interest and be thought worth playing by such potentially new 18xx players?


18EZ consists of three games: Level-1, Level-2 and Level-3. Each level builds on the one before, in sum providing a sort of ladder of increasing complexity which in toto introduces most of the 18xx concepts.

  • Level-1

    Somewhat akin to the basic game included with 1856 and 1870, each player players runs a single company — there’s no distinction between players and companies — laying track, and running and buying trains. This is a rapid, relatively labour intensive exercise which introduces the concepts up track upgrades, train rusting, and running companies for money.

  • Level-2

    Level-2 introduces the distinction between players as investors and companies as investment targets, the stock-market, company floatation, capitalisation, shares, dividends, placing stations (one extra per company), certificate limits, train rusting, forced train purchases, and having the game end on a bankruptcy or breaking the bank.

  • Level-3

    Level-3 finally attempts to deliver an 18xx game, adding private companies, an 1830-style private company auction, half-dividends2, minor companies which merge into a major company on the first 5-train purchase, and more station markers.

The Good and the Bad

Technically, Level-1 succeeds at the introduction problem, and fairly well to boot. The Level-1 game is extremely simplistic, but introduces the core notions of track and running trains in a coherent fashion. In game terms, it is also about as interesting and attractive as paste3. For introducing those key early notions, it does well, albeit painfully. I would be surprised if any set of new players played it for more than 10 minutes before throwing up their hands and asking, “Where’s the game?”

The Level-2 game is similar. The map is mostly symmetric and thus entirely lacking in positional texture. With small variation, anything interesting accomplished anywhere on the board can be replicated in each of the other sectors for similar effort and rewards. While this quality is good for learning, it is less interesting as a game-quality. There are a few small shortages in the tile-set, mostly in the simple yellow-tile upgrades. but they should rarely make an appearance or have a significant effect. What is left is a little dance around priority, operating order, and the key question of who gets to buy the first 3-train and the first 4-train (to rust the 2-trains). Game-wise, again, there’s little here4. There’s very little ability for players to differentiate, even less reward for them differentiating, and the handling of stock value and capitalisation is fundamentally broken (more on this later). Due to its greater complexity, there’s more to the Level-2 game, but there’s little if any extra game-value, just more moving pieces. Like Level-1, Level-2 is a game of going through the motions as an exercise in building familiarity. There’s no texture, no differentiation, and no character for the player’s to exploit and build positions around; just a system laid out for the players to become comfortable with. This time however, due to the additional complexity, I can understand new players playing for a while, perhaps even finishing a single game before quitting in exasperation over looking for the game. I’d be surprised if any ungoaded player willingly put them selves through more than one game of Level-2.

Level-3 is the presented as the Real Deal for 18EZ and is also where the main problems come into sharp relief. Most of the new materials added, like the private companies, are pretty ignorable5. There are two problems, one introduced in Level-2 (but not such a problem there due to the general lack of game at that level), and the other brought in newly with Level-3.

  1. Broken company capitalisation

  2. Flat stock market

The resulting exercise teaches almost as many bad lessons as good, while continuing to have few grounds for interest as a game. I would expect new players to struggle through Level-3, thinking they’re learning the ropes, perhaps even for 2 or maybe 3 games at the outside, before giving up in exasperated exhaustion. As written, there’s just not enough game.

Broken Company Capitalisation

In Level-2 and Level-3, companies float as soon as 5 shares have been bought out of the IPO set, with the resulting companies starting fully capitalised6. As with other 18xx, stock prices fall one row for each share sold. Like 1826, 1832, 1846, and 1870 and a few other 18xx, shares in the IPO pool pay into the company treasury. However unlike those games, companies in 18EZ are not allowed to buy back their shares from the Open Market (and can’t issue their shares to the Open market to raise capital — but that’s a lesser point). This is a severe and even crippling problem.

First, some background: The 18xx are games of capital management. They are capitalist wet dreams. Oh there’s the whole business of companies and trains and track and stations and tile upgrades and stock prices and what-not, but that’s all just frilly distracting glamour on the core of the game: management of capital. That’s all the players do really: they manage capital. They invest that capital in shares in order to earn dividends and stock appreciation, thus adding to their capital. They float new companies so as to gain control of yet more capital via capitalisation, and then leverage that larger controlled capital into accelerated growth of their own capital. They manipulate the market and the trains and all that other palaver so as to minimise the risks to their own capital while maximising the risks to other’s capital. They manage capital from the moment the game starts until the moment the game ends, and they measure their success (score) in the game by, yep, measuring their total capital. The 18xx are games of capital management.

The problem is that 18EZ allows capital to be destroyed without any recovery, and that prevents capital management in any useful sense. In a standard 18xx, like say 1830, shares in the Open Market pay into the company treasury. While this may be somewhat counter-intuitive, it provides a reward and recovery path for a company that has had its share price trashed: all those Open Market shares are now paying their dividends into the company, capitalising it, and increasing its viability as a company. Thus the director of a company whose share price is trashed may wince, but they also appreciate the resulting influx of capital as those shares pay into the company treasury. The company is weaker…and yet stronger, and that trade isn’t such a bad one. And, most importantly, company presidents are able to manage their company capitalisation via keeping shares in the Open Market7. In all the games I know of that have IPO shares paying into the company treasury, the game also allows companies to buy back their own shares (at the new low market price) and thus still receive the capitalistion benefits of the shares8. In this way a company director in those games can directly manage his company’s capital and capital income.

In 18EZ Level-3 share shares reduce stock price, just like normal9. Additionally shares out of the IPO market cease paying into the company treasury. The result is that it is in every 18EZ player’s interest to move all their competitor’s shares out of the IPO market and into the Open market as fast as possible, thereby not only destroying their opponent’s share value, but also destroying the ability to further capitalise the company without withholding. There is no risk to a player in destroying another player’s share value in this way. There’s nothing but upside: the other player’s net-worth (ie score) is reduced and their companies are greatly weakened due to lost capitalisation ability. All with no cost or risk to the trashing player! This free supply of You_Lose! activity is not present in other 18xx, and for good reason: it encourages pathological and abusive behaviour.

In short, 18EZ’s pattern, which directly encourages share trashing without any value return for the destroyed capital value, encourages abusive and pathological behaviour. Once past the 3rd Stock Round, the primary incentive of every player is to ensure that all his competitor’s share-prices are pushed down to the floor — and he can do that very easily and with no cost or risk to himself.

18EZ also teaches players to withhold regularly, frequently, as the only way to capitalise their companies once they’ve run through their early train money. This habit is death in a normal 18xx. The base 18xx pattern10 is that players should never withhold dividends unless it is either with their trailing/trash company11 or the company can thereby immediately buy a permanent train after withholding. 18EZ’s effective insistence that further capitalisation is only possible via withholding (combined with the flat stock market) directly encourages players to withhold frequently; a habit that will sink and damn (and befuddle) them in almost every 18xx game they later play.

The big problem is that these traits destroy much of the value of the game as a teaching tool. The game as currently written teaches its players to play badly, and to make the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, thus reducing their ability to play other 18xx games until they un-learn the bad lessons 18EZ taught them. It does this by rewarding them for playing badly. It teaches them that capitalisation control is non-existent, and it isn’t, not in every other 18xx. It teaches them that stock trashing is free, obvious, and carries neither risk or penalties, and that’s simply not true in every other 18xx. It teaches the new players that having your stock trashed is an unmitigated bad with no possible upsides, and that there is nothing you can do about it except suffer, and that too is not true in every other 18xx. It also teaches new players that capitalisation is fixed, that there is no such thing as creative capital destruction12, and that capital under control is actually an almost completely illiquid quantity, and yes, that is just not true in every other 18xx. Finally, it teaches players that there is little to no penalty for withholding dividends, and that managing withheld dividends and capital across companies is mostly unimportant, and yes, that’s also not true with every other 18xx.

I expect an 18xx-teaching game to teach new players good habits and patterns of thought regarding capital management. Or at the very least, not to teach them bad habits and sloppy thinking that will kill them as soon as they step into a real game. 18EZ fails on this score.

Flat Stock Market

18EZ’s stock market is a model of equilibrium. Every stock-appreciation delta is $10. It doesn’t matter where the stock is in the market, right or left, up or down, the deltas are always $10. This seems nice and simple, and it is, but it also loses a key value of the 18xx: the rewards for getting a stock’s price marker to the right.

In a typical 18xx stock market, the stock-appreciation for shares far to the left can be but a few dollars. However, if a stock manages to get to the other side of the stock market, far to the right, then a single price-appreciation step may easily add $50 to a share’s value, rather than the (say) $3 for another share far to the left. The varying rate of stock-appreciation across the stock market is the foundation of several core lessons and principles of 18xx. As roughly 70% of a player’s final net-worth (and thus score) in a typical 18xx game is the value of their portfolio, getting high share values for their companies and thus having their portfolio stuffed with high-appreciation shares is critical to successful 18xx play13 — but 18EZ loses that lesson in its entirety by having a flat stock market, and the result, again, is that 18EZ teaches its players bad habits and poor decision-making processes.

Fixing the problems

Fixing the above problems isn’t hard. While the problems are large, they are also easy to address. There are two obvious approaches to fix the capitalisation problem:

  • Instead of IPO shares paying into the company (which is the more rare form), have shares in the Open Market pay into the company (the more common form).


  • Stay with only IPO shares paying into the company, but change the capitalisation of companies from full capitalisation (100% on float) to incremental (as each share is bought from the IPO pool its purchase money is added to the company treasury), and also allow companies to buy back their shares from the market during stock rounds (putting them back in the IPO pool) as well as to sell their own shares into the Open Market to raise capital.

Both approaches work, both approaches restore the capital balance of the game, and best of all, both approaches teach new players that they can in fact predict and constructively manage capital into the future. The players learn the right lessons. The first form is simpler and perhaps more obvious for new players. The second address is more complex and allows for a much larger range of creative options, but may be thought too confusing for new players (a fair complaint).

Fixing the stock market is also relatively easy, but requires some number juggling. The current stock market has 6 rows and 14 columns, for a total of 18 unique stock-price ranks. While I’m not fond of the shape, it isn’t terrible for this sort of learning game and could be left unchanged. What needs changing are however the stock prices! Currently they range from $20 – $200 in steps of $10. Something vaguely like the following stock-value sequence, counting in diagonal rows, would be better14:


Happily there is definitely still time available for a rules-errata and all the above fixes can be made easily and even fairly cheaply.


18EZ almost works as a teaching-game. It has most of the right basics together, but a few critical flaws prevent it from succeeding. However even with the flaws fixed, it is difficult to see 18EZ ever being more than a somewhat laborious exercise rather like the Geography games played in High School, which while they were certainly educational, were also abysmal games. With the fixes, as a $45 exercise to be done a few times just to learn the 18xx, 18EZ will probably work fine. At this level it is effectively paid-training that is discarded once it is (rapidly) surpassed. The problem with such paid-training is that it had also better be enjoyable or most of the audience will abandon their good intentions early rather than drudge through15. This is perhaps the main area where 18EZ falls short as a game. It is, pardon my candour, almost inescapably boring at all levels simply because there is no differentiation, no texture, no character, and no significantly unique qualities to player or company positions, and it remains at heart a training exercise that feels more like a training exercise than a game.

Even with fixed capitalisation and a graded stock market, the game remains abstract and texture-less. The very genericy that makes it easy to use as a stationary bicycle to learn how to pedal, also removes the differentiation and character that are the keys to human interest. Most 18xx games are tightly tied against both a specific period of history and the specific terrain of a certain part of the world. That simple aspect of realism, of relation to the player’s world, does a lot to resonate with players, even if they don’t know that period of history or that part of the world well. Some of the names ring bells, they understand mountains and rivers and lakes, they kinda sorta see why there might be cities in some of the locations just by the geography and their faint memories of skipped history lessons, and all the names of companies and locations ring with echoes of the culture and language of that time and part of the world. While a subtle effect, it is surprisingly emotionally powerful, and 18EZ not only loses that, it also aggressively devalues it, and I don’t think that double-whammy can be recovered from.

  1. For example, this coming Monday I’ll be teaching 3 more new players.
  2. I had quite a surprise here. I’d not expected half-pays in a teaching game.
  3. The white starchy edible glue used in pre-schools and kindergartens.
  4. And the grind just to get through the trains is painfully slow and tortuous.
  5. The private companies are pretty over-priced and entirely bland and uninteresting. Only the $20 trigger is clearly worth its face value. The rest are arguably over-priced and thoroughly uninteresting. They’re certainly not worth bidding much more than face value for, and in general I’d feel advantaged to start the game without owning a private company just due to the greater capital flexibility.
  6. 10x par price as the starting capital for the company.
  7. In fact it is common for company presidents to sell shares of their own companies into the market just to get that extra capitalisation (among other details).
  8. The stock-price may be hurt, but the company got some free money (the difference between the par-price and the new lower stock-price).
  9. ie The stock-price moves down one row per share sold.
  10. This is a very tough one to teach — trust me on this — new players have a notably hard time internalising this lesson.
  11. And there’s another hard-to-teach distinction.
  12. It is creative capital destruction, the cyclical creation of vibrant new capital via the destruction of other older capital, that I see as the real heart of 1830-style 18xx. It also happens to be a fairly decent game-model of our rapaciously cannibalistic industrial economy.
  13. In fact it is easy to predict the winner of most 18xx games: Which player owns the most shares of companies at the top/right of the stock market? Most of the time that simple heuristic will give the right answer.
  14. Sucked purely from the end of my thumb with no attempt to verify balance across the arc of the game.
  15. Just ask any trainer at a gym!

Twitter Week: 2009-09-12

  • Splotter's Greed: http://tr.im/xXmB Let the competitive frothing begin. #essen #spiele #
  • Ahh, one copy of the Pere Marquette made (inkjet, Super77, manilla file-folder, some cutting). Now to find a table to inflict it upon. #18xx #
  • Good article on the evolution of software/product development and implications for licensing: http://bit.ly/Yhmzv (via @hnshah, @joshelman) #
  • It seems I am the west coast #18xx champion. 4P 18Mex, $1.3K, $1.1K, $1K, $500 (bankrupt on the 4Ds). Pretty much a straight capital game. #
  • @andsoerinsaid @scottredracecar I expect 18EZ is a poor game at all levels. (Barely) Okay for teaching as a walk thru, but unexciting. #18xx #
  • @scottredracecar @andsoerinsaid 18EZ is thoroughly Bill Dixon-esque, perhaps the least interesting of the #18xx design-styles. #
  • @ChrisTheCat I won the (single game) #18xx tournament at PaifiCon/ConquestSF (ala west-coast WBC). in reply to ChrisTheCat #
  • RT @timoreilly:Good Washington Post article: 5 Myths About Health Care Around the World http://bit.ly/139Yzs Be informed in your opinions! #
  • 6P 1830. Bankruptcy on first diesel. 2nd by $50. Wild stock market. A teaching game where I think I learned more than the students. #18xx #
  • 3 days of #18xx. About to go and start the third. More 1830 perhaps? I've been learning a lot about prediction & control of bankruptcies. #
  • Just listen. Carefully. RT @timoreilly:Beatrice Golomb on conflicts of interest in medical research: http://bit.ly/13tfSs #healthcare #
  • The return and welcome of the extinct bee: http://bit.ly/PZvv0 Charming. #
  • Newt Gingrich, William Gibson & I seem to agree? Shocking! Pretty good Obama education speech: http://tr.im/y6yF Not brilliant, but good. #
  • @BrenoKummel I'm still learning too much to want to slow down. I finally have a handle on what is required to be at least mediocre. #18xx #
  • @BrenoKummel http://bit.ly/AWN5Y Oh, & follow the money & think very hard about tempo. in reply to BrenoKummel #
  • @BrenoKummel I'm learning at lot about control of capital ATM. Great stuff. It has taken me ~100 games to get to this point of half-a-clue. in reply to BrenoKummel #
  • On Drowning in Games (http://tr.im/y6GH), my blog-post on learning curves and hope is suddenly getting a little rash of web-attention. Cool. #
  • 3P 18FL, got priority, dumped the dog, floated new company, got $2K capital under control, 4 permanent trains, and ran away by miles. #18xx #
  • @BrenoKummel @andsoerinsaid 18FL was interesting solely because I pulled off the great swindle. I see little other value in the game. #18xx #
  • 1830 Coalfields made & ready to play: http://twitpic.com/h5phm Wabash & Nickel Plate are next. Maybe Chesapeake Bay Bridge too. #18xx #
  • Greenspun surveys healthcare models and comparatives: http://bit.ly/2Hzxl #
  • Somehow I find this art-video viscerally scary. It hits a sort-of uncanny-valley goosebump-revulsion for me. No idea why, http://tr.im/ymUo #
  • @msaari That's a fine chipset for #18xx. May suffer if playing larger bank games. eg 1830+Coalfields, $20K or 18C2C, $80K (heavens forbid) #
  • @msaari I would change the chipset a little: 50×1, 75×5, 75×25, 50×100, 25×500, either 25×10 or 25×2.5K. Total $20,050 or $82,300 #18xx in reply to msaari #
  • @msaari We often run short of 5s and 25s, popular chips, not often 1s, sometimes 100s in the late game. Thus adjusting for that. #18xx in reply to msaari #
  • @jesnellm @msaari Yeah, spreadsheet is good but having full bank allows visually gauging the end-game. Can see the bank running out. #18xx in reply to jesnellm #
  • @icheyne @msaari @jesnellm I mostly use my 320 chip set these days. I'd adjust it a bit too if I were doing at again. More 5s & 25s. #18xx in reply to icheyne #
  • @ekted The #Twitter concept of a conversation is not a sequenced thread but rather a set of time-ordered messages bearing the same #hashtag. in reply to ekted #
  • @msaari Welcome. Actually the chips you'll want are a function of the games & players you play with. You've got a good base though. #18xx in reply to msaari #
  • RT @cshirky:"Dark Stalking On Facebook" http://pjf.id.au/blog/?position=590 (h/t @lehrblogger) #
  • Black Toad (a fine schwarzbier) on an empty stomache, followed by a 20oz steak chaser, has left this lad's digestive tract feeling insecure. #

Twitter Week: 2009-09-05

  • 3P 1889, tried to mix appreciate/dump/2x float with investing. Not as good as a pure capital drive. Barely won: $7.3K, $7K, $6.5K. #18xx #
  • @jdludlow I’m interested in how slippery the Sidepot Veneratis are. I’ll probably go for Super Diamonds for my next set. #18xx #pokerchips in reply to jdludlow #
  • @jdludlow We don’t bother with exact banks. Just run on paper once you determine which set of ORs the bank will break in. #18xx #
  • @jdludlow I would bulk up the $5s & $25s a little and drop the $5,000s. Some games, like 18Mex, chew through $5s & $25s. #18xx #pokerchips #
  • 4P 1844, 7hrs, Daniel $11,781, me $11,331, Aliza $10,598, Jim $9,345 http://twitpic.com/fyglz #188xx #
  • @ingredientx @mgoadric What I like most about #LyX is I don’t have to care about layout at all and I still get beautiful documents! #TeX in reply to ingredientx #
  • 4P 1826: A game that focuses on all of my weaknesses and rewards none of my strengths. DFL of course. We’ll have to play this more. #18xx #
  • @sedjtroll You betcha. 1826 rewards none of my strengths, but rather directly fights me & the manner I usually play. It is the anti-JC #18xx in reply to sedjtroll #
  • Played Endeavour. Clearly not my sort of game, but an interesting sort of not-my-sort-of-game. It appears to reward moderate extremism. #
  • @sedjtroll Endeavour will probably rate a 4 here. The right/left binding is horrible, bad snowball, but some ineresting interplays. in reply to sedjtroll #
  • @elenuial Group-sorting Twitter client without AIR or Flash: #nambu in reply to elenuial #
  • @QarldeV Less than 30% (~15%?) of decisions in Chicago Express R/L bind & alliances care more about turn order than R/L adjacencies. in reply to QarldeV #
  • RT @GreatDismal:”Feel the Dickmentum” http://bit.ly/3RltH5 via @markos (This one is for Becca T, who will know why, won’t she?) #
  • @neilhimself Dear Neil, Please mind the gape while in Watford. (Said in the most plummy London Underground tones) in reply to neilhimself #
  • Endeavour did not improve with 2nd play. Thankfully not much worse either. Strong R/L binding, fairly stylised play, likely over-computable. #