Cincinnati or Bust: 1846 (GMT Games)

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Once upon a time, GMT Games produced wargames and nothing but. Luckily for the gaming public at large, they’ve long since diversified their product line with games on everything from lemmings to stock cars, including their first foray into the niche realm of 18XX railroad games, Tom Lehmann’s 1846: The Race for the Midwest.

1846 GMT Games Edition

Originally (and still) available through Deep Thought Games, a bespoke 18XX producer with a several year waiting list, 1846 serves as a relatively simple (yet still cutthroat) introduction to the 18XX family of games. GMT’s lavishly produced and reasonably priced edition offers this game series to a wide audience, hopefully converting some new fans to the financial skullduggery of these railroad games.

I recently had the opportunity to play through much of a game of 1846 with my good gaming friends Mike and Jess at Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC. Neither of them had much experience with the series, but they both picked up on the fundamentals quickly and we criss-crossed the Midwest with rails before long.

Unlike the most well known of the 18XX games, 1830, 1846 has a streamlined process for launching corporations and also gives them the ability to deal in their own stocks. I launched a single corporation while Mike and Jess each launched a pair. My B&O focused on Cincinnati and environs; Jess tried to get into Chicago from the east and south; and Mike worked the routes around Lake Erie. Forced train purchases (caused by technological progress in the game, resulting in old trains being removed) pretty much drove all three of us into bankruptcy, as we hadn’t optimized our track purchases—or much of anything else—leaving us without enough funding for new trains. Though player bankruptcy doesn’t end the game, we decided to call it while the game was still in the third of five phases and while we still had some dignity left.

We all want to come back to it, though. There’s something about 1846, and indeed 18XX in general, that speaks to that part of the brain that wants to get an economic engine ticking just so—all while fending off the predations of others seeking to profit off of your every miscue. Brutal games indeed, and brilliant for it.

The Eleven Pound Railroad: 18OE

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Many games place the player in a particular role—grizzled space pilot, bouncing bird, dungeon keeper, omniscient general—from which the gameplay more or less follows. The 18XX series of games puts players in the role of a railroad tycoon, building track, buying trains, manipulating stock, and running routes. It seems rather sedate, but the gameplay in these rail games verges on the cutthroat, with players driving others into bankruptcy, forcing their tracks into convoluted curves and unprofitable runs to whistle-stop towns. Apparently, rail barons weren’t the nicest people on the planet. I’ve played my share of mean, backstabbing games, but the 18XX games are the worst (or best, if you will) of the bunch.

The newest entry in the 18XX series (all of which derive from Francis Tresham’s 1829) is 18OE: On the Rails of the Orient Express, a two-map monster game recently released by Designs in Creative Entertainment, designed by Ed Sindelar and developed by Mark Frazier. The game covers railroad construction and operation in late nineteenth century Europe, centered on the Orient Express run. Funded on Kickstarter in the summer of 2013, 18OE proves that crowd-funding can be wildly successful if handled in a professional manner, and DICE really came through on that front. The game is, to put it mildly, stunning, not to mention the heaviest game in my collection at eleven pounds shipping weight.

18OE Component Close-Up

The bulk of the weight comes from the two mounted maps, covering Europe and European Russia, plus a mounted info/stock market board. The maps have a satin-like finish, and they look to be a treat to game on. It’s not an exaggeration to state that they’re the nicest mounted maps I’ve ever owned. The other components—stock and train cards, railroad charters, track tile counters—are similarly top notch, though the die cut tile markers are a bit thinner than I would have liked. I’m sure they’ll play well in practice, but as a wargamer, I’m used to slightly thicker counters. Perhaps it’s just as well, because I’m worrying about finding a shelf sturdy enough to support the box as it is. (And, sadly, the hexagonal track counters don’t fit in my new counter corner rounder, as the counters come out of the tree with just a bit of a nib.)

Rules-wise, there’s tons of chrome, with ferry crossings, national border transit rights to buy and sell, and multiple railroads to operate. Any game that lets me run both a Norwegian and a Romanian railroad is a winner in my book.

Multiple short scenarios (on single maps) give me much hope that I’ll actually manage to play this game, but even as a shelf queen, 18OE cuts a fine figure.