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A Guide to 18XX Games

18XX Games Guide - 1846 Race for the Midwest

There are a whole host of these railroad games out there and pretty much every game store will have one or two. I’m not going to go into specifics about any particular title but rather talk about them in general, so this is just as much about 1829, or 1856, or any other title. Purists might argue there are two strains one about stock picking and portfolio management and the other about prediction and stock manipulation, and it is true to say that the latter is more cutthroat.

Ultimately, 18XX Games are games about operating railroad companies and generating wealth, so there are elements of track building and investment in locomotives, and in financial management and stocks and shares, and the winner is always the player who has amassed the greatest personal fortune through play. Gameplay is cutthroat, as players invest in or sell shares in various railroad companies in an attempt to increase their own personal wealth or force an opponent to spend money to prop up a railroad company in financial difficulty.

Be aware most of these games are fairly complex and long. A typical 18XX game will with five or more players take upwards of four hours, and some upwards of six. These games tend to have a fairly steep learning curve and a fairly fat rule book, and may not for the faint-hearted, so what is it about these games that has kept them popular for decades?


Play usually starts with some sort of auction to determine initial stock.  From then on and in all these 18XX Games the turn is split into two phases, a Stock Round and an Operating Round.

Stock Round 

In the Stock Round players buy and sell shares. The more shares bought in a railroad company the wealthier it is and the more it has to invest, whilst selling shares reduces the market value of other shares in that railroad company. Normally players can in turn either buy a share or sell any number of shares from one railroad company, and a Stock Round will continue until all players have finished buying and selling. In the Stock Round only shares are bought and sold, and their value may go up or down depending on these sales, no other actions are possible.

Players with the greatest number of shares in a particular railroad company are termed as the Majority Shareholder and are responsible for operating the railroad company during the Operating Round.

Operating Round

There are a number of things players do in the Operating Round:

  • Lay track tile (hexagonal tiles) onto a game board in an attempt to create profitable routes or block routes for opponents. As play progresses different tracks become available, increasing the financial return from operating Locomotives. This may be more complex pieces of track or city upgrades which increase revenue.
  • Operate Locomotives.Each locomotive a player has can operate from Station Markers (waymarkers) of the player providing they are not blocked by Station Markers of opponents. This action generates income for the railroad company which can either be paid out to the shareholders or held back in the company as finance, but whilst holding in is often necessary it does result in a fall in share value.
  • Buy and sell locomotives. Locomotives with a higher number can travel further and generate more income but these only become available as the game progresses, and at certain points lower numbered locomotives are scrapped. Companies without a Locomotive cannot operate locomotives so cannot generate income, shares fall in value, and must as an action buy the cheapest available Locomotive at the earliest possible opportunity.
  • There may be more than one Operating Round between Stock Rounds, commonly the number of Operating Rounds increases as the game progresses. In this way the game accelerates as play progresses.

The Core Elements of Competition

Make no mistake, these 18XX Games are extremely competitive.....

  • Manipulation of Turn Order can be really important when it comes to who gets to buy or sell Shares first.
  • Shares will go up and down as they are bought and sold, and only the most desirable or profitable companies will have their shares increase in value on a very regular basis. A majority shareholder may even sell all his shares in one company creating a new majority shareholder, this is particularly likely if a railroad company is in financial difficulty or in need of investment in new locomotives.
  • Locomotives can be traded between railroad companies. In this way a player may protect the income of one railroad company for which he is Majority Shareholder at the expense of another railroad company for which he is Majority Shareholder.  This sort of thing is especially useful if the player in question is planning to sell his majority stock in the company left with no locomotive (providing of course he can do this before everyone else sells their stock – see manipulation of turn order).
  • At certain points in the game new locomotives become available and older ones may be scrapped. This may serve to leave an opponent as Majority Shareholder in a railroad company which has no locomotive.
  • Track Tiles can be played to increase income for a railroad company by securing a valuable route, or to block a railroad company held by an opponent. Similarly Station Markers can be used to secure valuable routes or block other companies.
  • Because players will have a wide portfolio of stocks including those of railroad companies where an opponent is Majority Shareholder, care needs to be taken to invest in the right railroad company and if possible to protect that interest.
  • If at any time a railroad company must purchase a locomotive and cannot afford it from the railroad company coffers, then the Majority Shareholder must make the purchase out of his personal wealth.

Winning 18XX Games

The winner is the player who has amassed the greatest personal fortune when the bank runs out of money.  Fortune is calculated from personal wealth plus the monetary value of each share held.  Money held in railroad companies is not included. Ultimately, it is about that portfolio of shares – buy and sell wisely.

18XX Games - Final Thoughts

18XX Games are long and complex. They have a rich and detailed financial market of shares coupled with developing railroad routes and generating income, and there is a very nice balance between these aspects. Ultimately, they are about generating personal wealth not railroad company wealth, though of course investment in the company is a necessary step towards creating that personal wealth. They are extremely competitive and cutthroat games, for example 1830 is subtitled “and Robber Barons” for a very good reason, but then they are simulating a harsh and cutthroat business environment.

If these games appeal and you are new to them then maybe 1846 is a good introduction. 1830 is a classic and highly rated. I adore 1856 though it is on the more brutal end of the cutthroat scale.  But don’t be limited by my views, there are plenty of alternative titles and all are fun, challenging and competitive.

Go back to the 1800’s, enter the pioneering days of the railways and try to amass your own personal fortune. The theme is powerful and both content and play true to the theme.