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 month. 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:
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?
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.
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 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 finally attempts to deliver an 18xx game, adding private companies, an 1830-style private company auction, half-dividends, 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 paste. 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 here. 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 ignorable. 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.
Broken company capitalisation
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 capitalised. 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 Market. 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 shares. 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 normal. 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 pattern is that players should never withhold dividends unless it is either with their trailing/trash company 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 destruction, 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 play – 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 better:
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 through. 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.