18xx with Ambie: Where to Start

September 11, 2018

18xx with Ambie is Ambie's video series about 18xx board games featured on The Dice Tower's YouTube channel.

In this video, Ambie goes over which 18xx games are good ones to start with.


Hi! I’m Ambie, and this is my video series about 18xx games. If you’re not sure what 18xx games are, check out my first video in the series. In this video, I’ll go over some 18xx games that are good to start with if you want to play!

Like other board games, the best way to learn an 18xx game is from an experienced player and good teacher teaching you, and if you have that you could really start with any game that interests you. But if you don’t have someone to teach your group, then the following titles are ones that you should be able to obtain and start playing with a group of beginners!

One thing you should know going in is that it’s difficult to learn an 18xx game for the first time from just the rulebook. 18xx rulebooks tend to be written like legal documents - a lot of text with numbering and sub numbering for each section. This makes it straightforward to look up a rule clarification, but difficult to learn for the first time. I learned my first 18xx by reading the rules a couple times, but since there weren’t any pictures, I didn’t really understand it until I started playing. Luckily, there are more videos now that can help you get a feel for what 18xx games are like. And once you learn one game, since a lot of the base mechanisms tend to be similar, it’s a lot easier to learn a new game. I actually haven’t read through the full rules of most of the games I’ve played - I’ve had them taught to me or I’ve just learned the rules differences.

Also, the game will probably take a lot longer to play with all beginners than with more experienced players. Time estimates vary greatly by group, and a lot of 18xx games even mention in the instructions ways to be considerate to others in the group and how to speed up the process. For your first game, if everyone in the group is fine with it, you probably shouldn’t try to optimize everything, so you can just get a feel for the game without taking a long time each turn. But you should probably still set aside a day for the game just to be safe.

One of the oldest 18xx games and the most popular one is 1830: Railways & Robber Barons, which takes place in the Eastern United States. There are multiple published versions of 1830 - one from Avalon Hill in 1986 and one from Mayfair Games in 2011, so this title has the most copies in circulation of any 18xx game, and it’s not too difficult to find a copy. I found my copy in a math trade, and I’ve seen other copies at flea markets for $20-$30. Also, Lookout Games is currently working on a new reprint of the game, so it will soon be available new!

Because 1830 is an older game, the rules are basic compared to many other 18xx games, and actually many games have rules or player aids that just list the rules differences from 1830, so once you’ve played 1830 you can pick up other games easier. But even though the rules are relatively simple, the game is still very fun, and I think it can give you a good feel of the different aspects of an 18xx game - from the route building to the stock manipulation to the bankruptcies. Also, bankruptcies end the game, so with a bankruptcy the game can last about 2-3 hours, but if you’re playing entirely with beginners, a bankruptcy is less common and the game can last about 5-6 hours. 1830 plays up to 6 players, so if you have a lot of friends who want to try out 18xx, then 1830 could be a good starting game, although you’ll probably want some experienced players if you’re playing at 6 players.

1830 can be a punishing game where a decision you make early on hurts you a lot. If you have an experienced player teaching you, they should be able to advise you on those decisions, but for your first game with all beginners, instead of having an initial auction, if you want, you can just deal the private companies out and pay a set price. With more experienced players, 1830 is a ruthless game that’s more heavily focused on the stock market and manipulating the shares than making good companies, so if you’re interested in that, you should try out 1830! 

Also, if you like watching instructional videos, I have a How to Play video for 1830 on the Board Game Blitz YouTube channel which should help with the rules! And.. since a lot of the mechanisms are similar to other 18xx games, my how to play should be helpful even if you don’t start with 1830.

1846: The Race for the Midwest is another 18xx title that’s been widely published and is available! GMT Games published a version in 2016, and as of when this video was made it’s available to buy online for about $60! There are more rules to 1846 than 1830, but the game itself is more forgiving to new players. A lot of 18xx games, like 1830, have private auctions at the beginning that can be bad for new players who don’t know what the companies are worth, but 1846 starts with a draft instead, which can be easier on the players.

I mentioned that 1830 tends to be more ruthless and focused on the stock market. With 1846, although the stock market still matters, it’s in a different way than 1830. 1846 is a game that is focused more on making a good company, and there won’t be much company dumping on another player like there is in 1830. This makes 1846 a less ruthless and mean game, and also bankruptcy doesn’t happen often in 1846. So if you’re more interested in trying to build up the best company, then 1846 could be a starting game for you. 1846 also scales well from 3-5 players, and the game takes around 3-4 hours.

And that’s it for easily available games. But if you’re fine spending $100, or you really like to print and play, then 1889: History of Shikoku Railways is one of my go-to games for introducing new people to 18xx games. 1889 has similar rules to 1830, so it’s also relatively easy to learn. The game can be less ruthless than 1830 because there are fewer companies. Also, the map is smaller so the route building is a little easier to keep track of than 1830, and the game is shorter because the bank is smaller. Even when there isn’t a bankruptcy, the game can last about 3-4 hours. Also, 1889 plays well with 3-4 players, so if you have a smaller group, it’s a great game to play.

But as I mentioned, 1889 isn’t as available as the other two. You can print and play it yourself - the designer wants as many people playing it as possible, so he gave people permission to print and play. But print and play requires a lot of work and materials. The other way to get 1889 is to buy it from All-Aboard Games, which is a publisher of 18xx games. But unlike a traditional publisher, All-Aboard Games is one person making the games himself, basically like a really high quality print and play. So the games he makes are expensive because they cost him a lot of time and resources to make. But if you’re fine spending more money, then 1889 is a great one to start off with.

Another upcoming 18xx beginner game is 18Chesapeake. I haven’t played it yet, but currently All-Aboard Games is planning on having it produced externally in the beginning of 2019 with a big print run, so it will be available for about $60. So if you want to wait a little bit or if you have a friend who got a prototype copy of 18Chesapeake, that could be a good starter game! It has similar rules to 1830, but it is less ruthless, has a lower chance of bankruptcy, and the game lasts 2 and a half to 3 and a half hours due to some rule changes like a smaller bank and train exporting.

I hope this helped point you in a direction for an 18xx game to start with! And even though all the games I mentioned are good introductory 18xx games, they also all have a lot of replayability and are lots of fun to play even if you already know how to play! So don’t feel the need to buy a bunch of different games, because with each of these games, you’ll be finding new things each time you play!

Also, in addition to not trying to optimize your routes and turns, one way to shorten the length of the game is to keep buying trains. Since the games don’t last a set number of rounds, the game lengths are variable, and buying trains is generally what moves the game forward. So if you’re with all beginners, you might consider buying a train when your corporation can to move the game forward! In my next video I’ll also go over some accessories that are really useful for speeding up play.

Thanks for watching 18xx With Ambie! You can comment below or email me at ambie@dicetower.com with any questions, comments, or suggestions for future videos!
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