Posts about Game Observances

Following Curiosity

What should be used to introduce a new or potential player to…

Use whatever interests them.

You are assumably playing this game, this teaching game for them, to help them, to expose them, to pilot their ignorance toward their curiosity with a steady hand – and not for you or your interests. It doesn’t matter what game that is, how unapproachable or complex you think it might be, or any of the rest. That’s your head, your evaluation, your value system and not their’s. They are interested and that interest is effectively the universal solvent for any and every problem.

Oh look, I got completely smashed and destroyed and I have no idea how or why that happened let alone what I could possibly do about that, this is incredibly confusing and I simply have no idea…isn’t that interesting!?”

And lo! That implacable unconfrontable morass of a game gradually dissolves before nothing more amazing than someone just being interested. Don’t waste the primary weapon and faith the other player is entrusting with you.

Inflationary Spending

A fundamental question is how to deploy capital into already extant companies and the friction and costs thereto. Possible methods include:

– Half-pays: intercepting part of the flow of capital from train-runs into the treasury. 18India and Rolling Stock perhaps take that particular pattern furthest in allowing the president to freely declare any between $0 and the full value of the the treasury plus run. Partially along this line, 18EA allows the company to “pad” the dividend with capital from treasury – often used to edge into a higher multi-jump stock increase.

– Revenue-generating assets sold/held by companies instead of players. This can be anything from cross-invested shares in 1841 to private companies with revenues, to bonds and other derivatives, to inter-corporate loans/securities and so forth.

– Horizontal transfers from other companies or other financial instruments, possibly newly floated or created for the purpose, can be interesting. Mergers, acquisitions, take-overs of objects with assets…can all fit in here.

– Direct access to the president’s personal cash. While 1832 has the London Bank private (company and personal cash are no longer separated), emergency train buys are the classic form of accessing presidential cash, but there are other ways from 1831 allowing presidents to freely contribute to train buys (and in some games, also other purchases), to even billing all shareholders for such elected purchases (pro-rated by the percentage held – yes, just being a minor share-holder is an ongoing risk in such games).

– Then there are loans. The most common form have the companies take the loans (eg, 1817, 1856, etc), but in some cases players can be the ones taking loans (1824, 1844, etc), sometimes solely by force (had to buy a train for a company and couldn’t afford it), and sometimes electively. Typically loans exert some sort of pressure, be it a constraint on future choices (eg most Double-O games), or interest payments (eg 1817, 1856, etc), or a long-term penalty on final score (various Vellani games).

– Company-issued derivative assets, be they 1817’s shorts or 18NE’s bonds or 1849 Electric Dream’s bonds or the Bill Dixon games with re-issuing treasury shares (also seen in 18C2C), or other ways of dynamically increasing the share issuance (ie the company dilutes its extant shares by issuing more shares that might be bought – ala 18201)…etc. (This is an area in which I expect to see considerably more innovation)

More broadly, the costs of redeploying capital are a largely untapped and rich field to be explored in 18xx games.


  1. I should note that the cost of deploying capital in 1820 is particularly high, averaging just over 40% in the early game (spend $100 in order to deploy $60 of capital) and varying from there onward. 

Falling Down The Sky Above

A play in three acts.

Act 1

I first meaningfully encountered the 18xx during a consulting gig in Groton Connecticut. It was in the rather grim basement of Citadel Games, the local game store in Groton. The game was 1870, the teaching was absent, I was out of my depth and adrift in multiple dimensions and I entirely and vehemently foreswore the family of 18xx games.

Act 2

Jump forward a few years and back to California and I began to think that I’d been unfair, I clearly didn’t understand the 18xx and yet I’d damned them. That seemed stupid. I’d been stupid and could do better. So I started working on 1830 and divers other games with a local mate.

It did not go easily.

Many things will submit before mere persistence, but it might take a while.

To give a sense of scale, several years after resuming my assault on the 18xx, we were up past a hundred 18xx games played, and I was damned if I was going to give up. I’m tempted to say, “It was personal”, but it really wasn’t. I’d said I’d not render judgement until I understood them and that was enough to persist.

By this time, after not much under a half dozen years of trying to push myself into the 18xx, I wasn’t doing noticeably better. I’d still only won the one game a few years back – which we’re convinced was a banking error – and more importantly, neither clarity or ability were dawning. I continued to not only lose and be confused and adrift, but to be destroyed and routed in every game. Every game, every time. Like a comatose sheep to the slaughter.

Act 3

A change of approach seemed in order.

I setup an 18xx-playing group: SFBay-18xx, a sort of sub-chapter of the South Bay Boardgamers, and we started playing 18xx at least once a week and often two or three times a week. Pretty much the same handful of people every week and a fairly small roster of games (almost all bought off the secondary market).

And suddenly, shockingly, gob-smackingly, things started to work for me. I tried gambits and…they worked! (They’d never done that before) This was different. I was able to make plans and carry them out, to make and test hypotheses, and thus to learn.

Previously I’ve written that I was unlocked because now when I tried things, they weren’t immediately shut down by a more skilful player exploiting my execution weaknesses. Now I could try things and even though my execution was fumbling and imprecise, I could see them (haltingly) work because my opponents didn’t know any better than I did. Now not everything failed. And I could see their attempts and struggles and failures and partial successes as well.

Maybe that was it, but I’m not entirely convinced. It is a bit too convenient and neat a post-facto explanation. It also wasn’t the only change I made – I’d also started spending at least 30 minutes on analysis for every hour I played. If I played a 6 hour game, then I spent at least 3 hours (usually more) working through that game and its implications. Sometimes I put in 2 hours for every hour played. That also had value.

We played a lot of…oh, go look at the geeklists: they’re all there. One result now is that I’m far less convinced of the wisdom of gateway games, teaching-games, on-ramps to the 18xx then I was then. I expect we’d have done better just diving into whatever interested us and carrying the new people along for the ride. Enthusiasm and interest are great vehicles. If there’s both interest and fortitude, I see little reason for players not to start with any title. Pick your interest and dive in.

So play and play and learn I did, ~rapidly unrolling and testing, verifying, vetting the ideas, notions, gambits and conceits I’d built up over the previous years. Even more importantly, I started to build a conceptual language of how the games worked, of what the immediate forces were, what the shaping forces were, how the games were structured, how they were shaped and defined, and what the players did both in the details and at the almost macro-economic level in their game decisions.


And that was maybe 6 years ago. That language and its backing conceptual framework is and has been my most valued take-away. Much has changed since then and I’m still working on that understanding except that now my primary investigation tool is game design.

meteing capital

On the difference between full and incremental capitalisation systems:

In full capitalisation games a little money creates and controls twice as much money. You invest $500 and get to control $1,000 and only half the income. In incremental capitalisation games there is no inflation of capital. Instead it is about income: a small investment controls a larger income flow. $500 controls $500…and 100% of the income. You don’t get free money, you get control of twice as much income. Which is why high pars are so difficult (you can’t get enough of the income you control to buy more shares quickly enough) and cross-investing rather than a gift of capital is a direct attack (your investment has stolen their income and fundamentally weakened their company for the long term).

Which in sum shows what’s needed for a successful second company: enough opportunity (usually time but can be track etc) for enough income to out-perform other opportunities.

counting cain

I’ve long mused on writing an article on Track-Tile Rosters In The 18xx: Their Use & Management. And clearly until now I haven’t. Well, almost. Perhaps a collection of quotes from my posts on the area will suffice.


A collection of minor and marginally impolitic rants about track-tile management and use in the 18xx, with focus paid to their use and abuse by players and the process of learning to do so.

On the use, abuse and lack of recognition of the existence of the track-game in the 18xx:

Summarising: You and your opponents are either too incompetent to see the track games before you or (less likely but it happens) are unwilling to engage them, and are (as sadly the vast majority of players are) utter crap at offensive track management and route building. Which is fine. It just means that there’s large chunks of the game you have neither seen or learned yet and so you have things still to do. Good stuff. The first step is recognition of the opportunity.

But your and your opponent’s incompetence does not mean that the game is absent.

Done well, track will just seem to happen, to be obviously impossible or inevitable and of course it came out that way. But it came out that way because a good track builder knows the tile distribution and the timing constraints of the game and made it happen. They saw that you’d need a #23 in a few rounds and arranged for them to all be used elsewhere, that you needed a #46 to do the second best thing and…oh well, that too. And that all the tiles they need are just automatically available when they need them, perhaps liberated by the upgrade their other company did just before. And this all looks so natural and easy that it seems incidental.

And it isn’t. No more than Curry’s casually tossed off 3-pointers or Messi’s corner kicks that tuck into the net with the light inevitability of gravity, or Bjoern Borg’s effortless ground play driving McEnroe to his knees – those aren’t just fate either, and for the same reasons.

But most players are crap at track. Really utterly dreadful. Even many of the old hands have just never put in the work to fully learn how to play the track game. Instead they think it is about drawing point-to-point lines using funny-shaped tiles…and then they struggle and hem and haw over irrelevant details and wondering what tile does what or if there is a tile that does this…and never give a thought to having planned those lays three ORs ago and having already considered and managed the implications of the other connections incidentally created by that track lay and what that does to the mix of available tiles and how that affects every other company’s track future…and thus they miss the game staring them in the face.

Which is not to say that the track game is the greatest or best sub-game in the 18xx. It isn’t. It is just one sub-game among several, and it happens to be the one that novice players are most ready to claim is obviously absent…(as I did)…and then spend untold hours faffing about and mostly accomplishing nothing and using that as a demonstration of their conclusion rather than of their inability.

Start out by learning the tile roster. Every tile, every count, and all of its connectivity and upgrade paths. This is easy enough in 1830 – there are only 85 tiles across 46 tile types in the game, so that’s fairly easy. Then start thinking about the implications of dits not upgrading, of the double dits and OO tiles in particular, of how many edges are ever connected by a given track tile and why 1830’s permissive track rules are important there…and then you should be able to give a reasoned argument for why there are only four #7s and #57s in the game…any why, and thus how you setup to use that limit to or against your advantage.

Then leading forward into the particulars, the actual management and definition of the problem space:

How many different possible ways are there for one line of track to cross a tile? A moment’s thought tells you 3: straight, broad & sharp curve. Okay, that’s 9 tiles down: the simple track, dits and yellow cities. Ooops, two of the yellow city types are missing, so 7. (I wonder why? Go to the map and fiddle for a bit, imagine what could be done with broad and sharp curve cities – ooooh, lots of balance problems there!) Next, let’s look at tiles with two routes. How many different possibilities are there? Yeah, a lot. Okay, break it down: How many where the two routes don’t intersect and join at an edge? So two different routes joining a total of four edges.... There are 9. Ergo there are 9 possibilities for green co-existing track tiles, 9 possible double dits and 9 possible brown OO tiles. Of course 1830 doesn’t have them all, for instance there are only 5 double dit tiles – so 4 are missing. Same for the brown OOs. And only 4 greens? Which are missing, and do the different tile types overlap?

Okay what about the green switches? Two routes connecting only three edges? How many of those can there be? Well, obviously one route could be a straight, broad or sharp; and the other route could also be a straight, broad or sharp…but they have to connect, so they could connect at either end of the first track. Oh, and some of them are impossible like straight/straight can never connect only 3 edges and broad/broad is either 3 or 4 edges and is rotationally symmetric…and yeah, a bunch of them fall out for being the same shape, just rotated, like the broad/broad switch is the same track no matter how you spin it. So fiddle with pencil and paper for a few minutes and you should come up with 10.

There are 10 possible green switches. 9 possible coexisting patterns and 10 switches. That’s not so many. Are they all in the game? Grrrrr, some are missing. Which?

Green cities? They connect 4 edges. How many permutations? Yup, 3: X, K and chicken foot. Except the last isn’t in 1830. Hurm, these exceptions are starting to be annoying. Still, we’ve just done 26 of the 46 different tile-types in the game and have spent what? Only a few minutes? More than half way done in so little time or effort.

On to the browns. Oh, they are a mess! So confusing! Or are they? We’ll use the same tools to cut them down to size. How many different routes on a brown tile? Yep, 3 or 4. Unghh. Okay, how many different edges are connected on any given tile? Yep, 3 or 4 and…yes..all the ones with 3 edges also only use 3 routes. And a given edge with track only ever has 1 or 2 routes. Never 3. Okay, grab your pencil and paper: How many possible ways are there of doing that? Now for the 4s, how many? And…which are missing from 1830?

Nothing joins 5 or 6 edges…? Oh, just the brown cities. Everything else tops out at 4. Really, everything. Go check. Does that have any…significance? Yeah, connected edges never go away across upgrades…so every time you lay a yellow tile you’re committing 2 of the 4 possible edges to be connected for the rest of the game. And when you do a green upgrade to a switch you’re committing the 3rd edge…which means that only one more edge can ever be connected. There are only 4 edges, ever.

There are no 5- or 6-edge simple track tiles. So during upgrades you can just count the edges, and if its 3 or 4 its possible, but otherwise, no go no how. Hang on, 1830 track is permissive! That means that when you plop down a green co-existing tile you’ve just dictated, forever, which 4 edges of that hex will be connected for the rest of the game. And switches…they commit two routes to an edge. Once that switch is down, nothing else will ever connect to that edge. Ever. Those are pretty strong commitments that you’re making with simple track-lays. Maybe, just maybe, you could use those little tidbits to make decisions?

So far in this little exercise you’ve spent what? We’ll call it an hour, maybe two hours; a little under or over. And yet you’re already significantly ahead of most 18xx players. Truly. Now keep going and figure out some more patterns. As you’ve seen, it isn’t hard and pretty quickly things like that 4-edges bit fall out, and that’s one hell of a handy weapon. Are there more?

Is any bit of the above process hard or even particularly time-consuming? No. Its just simple stuff, applied simply, one step at a time in simple and even obvious ways. Just plod along thinking it through, step-by-step. The only things that screw it up are the exceptions/missing-tiles – but even those tend to fall out in fairly clear-cut ways when you carry them back to the game and ask yourself, What would happen if these were present in the game? Would they significantly change things or would they just be irrelevant? Why? Does it make things easier or harder? For…everyone or just in these special cases? Do those special cases matter? Really?

It is easy. A bit laborious I’ll give you, but easy enough that just spending time and low levels of effort will get you there – things to fiddle with in your head while in the shower or commuting – and the pay-backs are strong and close to immediate in your games.

On holding the bar and setting expectations:

No, you’re way overstating and in the process affirming the dilettante’s self-reassuring assumption of, “That’s too much work…” Rather than holding up the clearly visible and should-be-rotely-assumed goal: Of course people know these sorts of things about the games they play.

The idea that things like the above aren’t an automatic part of playing any game, that they are just as obviously necessary as knowing the rules, is something continues to baffle me. What do you think of the player who asks the same questions about the game rules, makes the same mistakes, again and again and again, game after game after game after game after game after game? The same rules questions. The same mistakes and stumbles. Every game. Again. Why is that any different than a player asking and stumbling and tripping over the same questions about the track-tiles in a game, game after game after game after game? How is it different? The track tiles and their arrangements are just as much game rules as those about selling shares or running trains.

That said, I’ll happily admit that it took me a long time to get to seeing the above and using them constructively, starting from scratch with no guidance, but that wasn’t for lack of pushing. It was manifestly obvious to me that something was possible even if I didn’t yet see what it was, and so I hammered away and didn’t get far for a while. (It took a comment from Mark Frazier before the flashbulbs all went off)

Estimation of effort and structural similarities to trick-taking card games:

At no point am I deriding people who haven’t learned or figured out this stuff. I am deriding those who aren’t even trying. We all start out not knowing. The question is, What are you doing about that?

I assume you play or have played Poker or Rummy or Canasta or Euchre or some such. How many cards are there in a standard french suited deck? 52? How many suits? 4? What are the suits? Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades? How many colours? 2? How long is each suit? 13? What are all the cards in a suit? Ace, 2, 3, 4…10, jack, queen, king?

Simple, right?

You know all that, and I bet know it without a second thought and consider it “easy” and “automatic”. You likely use this knowledge in deciding what cards to play in games like Hearts without blinking. 1830 track tiles are not substantially different. They are just funny shaped cards. Their particulars are a bit different, but not a lot different: they just have a colour and 1-4 lines drawn across them in some pretty limited and standardised ways. They’re actually simpler than playing cards!

You also know the various melds for playing cards like 3 and 4 of a kind, runs of cards in order etc. Track tiles are also laid out in ordered structures, essentially cards in a shared tableau we call the “board” and the placement rules are even simpler than those for say Poker melds: Put down any tile anywhere so long as it:

a) Matches the type of what's underneath it.
b) Doesn't change what was there before.
c) Can trace a line from the new tile back to one of your
station markers.

And that’s pretty much it. (Everything else is basically an edge case or exception) Or if you want:

a) You have to follow suit.
b) The card must be bigger than the previous card if any.
c) Some connection rule which maybe doesn't map to
trick-taking card games well.

That’s really not so hard.

This isn’t a question of me operating in realms beyond mere mortals. Ptui! There’s not a single damned thing listed out above which you and every other reader here can’t observe, utterly and completely, in a few seconds. I’ve done nothing unusual above beyond articulate something that’s mostly obvious in one (hopefully) fairly cogent lump.

And of course, the parallels in Carcassonne, honing in on structure:

Carcassonne tiles have basically three types of features: castles, cloisters & roads. Each feature has simple constraints/patterns: castles always join 0 or 2 corners of the tile; cloisters sit in the middle of the tile; roads always run from the midpoint of the edge to the center of the tile, are never inside castles, and there can be 0-4 of them. And…that’s it. If you want to add in the river, it follows the same patterns as and is exclusive of roads. That’s pretty much everything structurally. Everything from there is about the distribution, how many of this tile versus that.

And I don’t think memory is really useful – certainly not in the presence of a tile sheet that’s just handed out – or for 1830 either. It isn’t being able to chant off how many #45s there are in the game (2), but rather understanding the patterns and rules of the system that’s been built. What is possible? What isn’t possible? What are the constraints? Which priorities does this create on players? How do you detect, determine and assess those? What edges does this knowledge create and how can you use it? Etc. None of that is based on learning tile counts, though that tends to happen as a side effect, but instead on understanding the implicit rules of the game as explicitly encapsulated in the tiles. There is a pattern and a logic and a set of structured limits there that can be readily understood and used.

In Carcassonne players learn really quickly to count the number of open edges on their castles. The more edges, the harder it is to ever close. Simple enough and not a memory thing. 18xx track has similar structures: 2 routes maximum on an edge, no more than 4 connected edges, 3 basic track types, 9 co-existings, 10 switches, all brown tiles are pairs of switches (there’s a new one for you)… All these things define the space in which the game happens and implicitly define the game rules even if they never have words put to them in the rules. They are just as much the rules to the game as what the train limit is or how much money the players start with.

So learn the rules to the game.

Pidgeon opponents

Another thing written elsewhere

Part of respecting your opponents is respecting them as opponents and thus being willing to have them win or lose, to be hurt or happy, to succeed or be crushed or be somewhere in the middle. They are grownups now: they can and should take care of themselves. They are your opponent and that is what they are there for, so respect them for it and give them the roughest, most aggressively unforgiving, unrelenting and challenging game you can along with and as part of your respect.

Evaluating evolution

Note: The below was originally written as an email to a friend just starting out with an 18xx design project. I’ve copied (and lightly edited) it here for preservation.

More directly, I think you are losing sight of the game, or at least where the game lies within the larger system.

The 18xx are fairly simply structured from two and a half almost-complete games bolted together. There is a spatial route building game and a stock market game, and they are glued together with a creative destruction technology race to make one complete game. Each of those components is damn near a standalone game in its own right, and certainly other games have been made from just those subsystems (Greentown, Lokomotive Werks, etc), but at the end they are just mostly-isolated subsystems with the actually interesting bits in their connections to each other (the players sit in the connections).

The internal structures created by that glueing process are also boldly simple:

  • There’s an evaluation function which each company uses to generate a number using as inputs the network on the board and the trains in the company, and we call that evaluation function “running trains”. You can get all sort of complicated here about the details of track and tokens etc, but at the end of the day there’s just a function that does something and returns a number that is input into the stock market game. All the rest is internal implementation details. Sometimes the number is a bit special in that it expresses a liability for the president (emergency train buy), but it is still just a number communicated from the evaluation function to the stock market game.

  • The stock market game takes the numbers that the network game generates and thence changes its own numbers in well known ways.

  • And, as a back-flow, the stock market game moves some of its numbers back into companies (withholdings, etc) via the creative destruction technology race glue to change the inputs to the network evaluation function (train purchases and rustings).

And thence of course those new numbers go into the stock market game and so forth.

And so we have a triangle: The network game informs the stock market game which informs the technology game which informs the network game which…etc. And the players sit in the middle fiddling with the dials in all three sub-games: moving the numbers around in the stock market game (shares), moving the numbers around in the technology game (trains), and moving the numbers around in the network game (building/changing routes), all while the loop keeps cycling as a feedback loop, round and round and round.

Which I assume you already know – there should be no surprises there – but you might not have articulated in such a stark format. More usefully and more to my point, what this really basic deconstruction does is to highlight where the game is. The game is in the players fiddling at those three key junctures in the triangular feedback loop while the game spins underneath them:

  • Players can fiddle with shares

  • Players can fiddle with technology

  • Players can fiddle with the evaluation function inputs

And that’s pretty much it. Everything else is in the feedback loop orchestrated by the rotating sequence of SRs and ORs stepping around and around the feedback loop and relentlessly driving the game forward.

What this means however as a game designer, is that it outlines where your interests and activities lie. In order to do something interesting in the 18xx world you have to either alter one of the three interaction points (shares, technology, evaluation function) in a way that substantially changes player concerns, or you have to alter the properties of the feedback loop itself (1880 did this latter with its new intertwingled OR/SR model; 1846 did this by fundamentally changing the feedback loop of money with how its incrementally capitalised companies work; 1860 did this by allowing entities to enter, leave, roboticise and re-enter the player interaction-space, etc etc etc).

My general sense is that at the litmus-test level, in order for any change to be interesting, it must substantially affect at least two corners of the triangle in ways that provide both substantial opportunities and problems for the players to address. Just touching one corner isn’t enough, as that’s almost instantly an internal implementation detail rather than anything materially interesting. And so you need at least two player touch-points to change in a way that’s substantial and different and interesting.

But more usefully (I hope), that deconstruction provides a set of analysis tools and litmus tests for your candidate changes. You can look at any candidate change and ask how it affects those three contact points, how that change to those contact points significantly alters the three stages of the feedback loop and thence how it changes the player’s competitive lives. And if you come up with a good answer, your idea potentially has some good legs under it, and if you don’t come up with a good answer, then your idea is more likely just shuffling the deck-chairs around.

And, shrug, I find that useful, as it sure weeds out a lot of options that fiddle little numbers inside one of the touch points without actually doing anything structural. Oh look, now this little internal number that isn’t actually a primary contact point is a little larger or smaller or different or has little brass bells and is painted red…but everything else is exactly the same…and…this…is…interesting…WHY? I do that a lot, and then I slap myself on the back of the head, say “Doh!” and move on.

– JCL

PS BtB this deconstruction has an amusing side effect of also dropping out the four basic types of 18xx by extrapolation – which is kinda cute and unexpected (by me).

Notes on a vantage

Three quick quips which I’ve had cause to reference multiple times and thus seem useful to keep stashed. First a comment on how and why I live:

Meanwhile the universe is interesting, delightfully interesting even, and I apply and dedicate my awareness and interest to that end. I assume, generously and with scant evidence, that it is a Good Thing to Have Understood, or at least to have Striven to Understand. I don’t know if that is in fact true, it seems quite likely that it isn’t, but it also seems a fine and possibly even wonderful conceit to live under.

And thence on the critical structures and requirements of something being a (viable) game:

That the answer is complex.

Primarily I see it as a function of cognitive ability. Oh, not in any elitist or superiority sense, but simply in terms of capacity. Tic-tac-toe is a fine game for younger children as they simply don’t yet have the cognitive abilities necessary for recognising what’s necessary to remove the game. It is rather less interesting if you or I played it. Similarly, the game of Go is very interesting for people precisely because we don’t have the cognitive capacity to remove the game. In short: in order to be a game the system as presented must fundamentally exceed our ability to comprehend the system.

How it exceeds us, by complexity for instance, or by stressing analytical forms we humans are inherently weak at like conditional probability, or by requiring modes of thought that we’ve not yet fully developed (and thus a lot of games for pre-adolescents stress symbolic thought as they’ve only just developed that capacity (it comes in around age 11)) – how it exceeds us really doesn’t matter, just that it exceeds us and is hauntingly close to the apparent edge of our capacities so as to provide the taunting illusion of almost-graspability. And it will remain a game only to the point that no matter how hard we study and analyse and work it, that we will still not fully understand the system represented or implied by the game.

(Somewhere in here there’s a fine rant that I’ll skip for now on the necessity for ambiguity in games, and how far too many so-called “games” are not in fact games because they don’t contain ambiguity: they just have game-states that are hard or laborious to parse)

Now a kicker in this is that most games rely on the fact that as humans we cannot completely model another human (of comparable capacity to ourselves). Godel’s incompleteness theorem guarantees that, and provides the primary reason I rarely ever play 2-player games. The problem here is that the modelling problem is also a cheap out for lazy game designers (ahem – there’s no subjectivity in this declaration, no sirree!). In this I find that the more interesting games exceed their players in both their systemic demands and in their demands of modelling the other players (and thus in the intersection of multiplayer interactions and the system, an implicit third factor).

After that basic, well, it gets murky and subjective and ever so much more complex. A lot of the subjective preferences there are arm-wavingly discussed in my profile text here on BGG. And, not to short shrift you too badly, I need to get ready for a gamesday with one of the top 18xx players in the world (Todd vander Pluym) who is in the area for a few days…and fascinating as this question is (and it is truly interesting), that’s a time-bounded opportunity and this question isn’t. Sorry.

And finally on the activity of playing games:

I find that face-to-face games provide context and variety which is largely not available in solo study. That alone more than makes face-to-face play worthwhile. Just participating in a game with other actors, and observing those actors, actors not in my mind, suffices a lot of my requirements for playing a game as you say. Much of anything I may think during that time or later will be catalysed and informed by my observation of those actors during the game – which is the great thing about playing games rather than merely thinking about games.

18xx Structural Analysis

I wrote the following on Boardgamegeek and it seemed worth preserving locally:

There are four basic types of 18xx:

  1. Run Good Companies
  2. Where’s the Free Money?
  3. Put Things Together (typically mergers or company pairs or synergies)
  4. Timing Games

Clearly some, most, all(?) 18xx games are mixtures of the four camps in various degrees and at various times during a given game. The private sales to companies in many games is a free-money element, but so are destination runs with multi-jump stock increases and the extra 40%-50% in free capital given when floating companies in full-capitalisation games. The mergers in 1817, 1824, 18EU, 18C2C etc are clear plug-things-together moments etc, but so are the synergies between privates and majors in 1846, 18C2C etc. The portfolio management of the 1825s, 1853 and the like fall out cleanly as timing games, but 1826’s focus on getting the right trains into the right companies arguably does too.

Few if any interesting 18xx seem to be purely any one of the above meta-types, rather they move and shift focus across a balance of those points over the course of the game.

Amusingly, 18xx players can also be classified across the above four criteria, and like the games, the Run Good Company players are considered the least interesting and the Free Money players get all the despairing head shakes.

Other structural divides centre around elements like:

  • Fast trains: Some games tend to focus on train rushes, and coming out on top after the dust has settled. The key metric is how large a fraction of the purchase cost is the typical run value and how many times they’ll run. 1843’s trains generally need to run three times in order to cover their purchase cost, but will often only run once or twice before rusting. Another key metric in this space is whether trains sometimes rust before they ever run. This usually means that the key decisions in the game are made leading up to the early cheap permanent trains. 1830, 1841, 1843, 1849, 18Mex etc all tend to feature blistering train rushes (though 1843 skips the cheap permanents bit). David G. D. Hecht designs (as a broad for-instance) tend to have rather sedate/processional train progressions.

  • Low or high income: A basic measure of how rich the game is, especially as a function of train purchase and company floatation prices, but it can also be as a function of more basic operational costs (eg tack-laying costs). 1830 is the most notorious example of a low income game, but 1849 gets in there too. 1843 tries to be a low income game and often is. 18C2C and most of the Double-O Games designs are high income games.

  • Tile manifest: Are the tile limits a significant function of Good Play? 1830, 1843, 1849, many of the Wolfram Janich and some Double-O Games designs fall into this camp. In other games, the tile manifest is explicitly generous, or at least rarely if ever a consideration in Good Play (1817, 18C2C, most-but-not-all David G. D. Hecht designs, etc).

  • Stock appreciation vs dividends: Which is more important: dividends and cash in-hand or stock appreciation? 1830 is the grand-daddy of stock-centric games with 70+% of player scores descending from stock appreciation. Most Mark Derrick designs are heavily cash/dividend focused.

  • Certificate limits: Are key strategies in the game focused on managing certificate limits (yellow fever, forbidden forest, variations in share density, number of presidencies, etc). Most any game with a classically coloured stock market falls into this camp with 1830 and 1870 being the two most notorious examples. 1817 plays in this space with share densities and thus the balance between stock appreciation and dividends.

  • Liabilities: Are investments possibly significant liabilities? The classic form of this is the potential requirement to buy a train out of pocket. Not all 18xx have that property (eg the 1825s, 1860 etc), and several of the Double-O Games titles feature not-very-onerous loans which smooth the edge there. The 1825s, 1853 and to some extent 1860 conversely impose no requirement for companies to own trains, just financial hiccoughs if they don’t.

  • Balance of share values: Which is more important, owning the best shares or owning more shares? Does that change over the course of the game? 1846 for example is notable in being readily won while still not at paper limit – it is a game in which owning better shares is commonly more important than owning more shares. Conversely 1830 is the poster child of owning more shares typically defaulting to being better than owning fewer better shares.

It is worth nothing that the shape of the stock market does not feature anywhere in this list. 2D and 1D stock markets are effectively identical, just with rather more complex price movement rules for the 2D markets.