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.