Colin Y.J. Chung

My brother dragged me into the 18XX world a couple of months ago starting with 18Chesapeake (2020) on 18XX.games. Read the rules a couple of times and got thoroughly trashed.

And then we tried the variant, 18Chesapeake: Off the Rails (2021). The 50% to float and weird stock prices... not sure it helped. Played three games here. Lost one, won one, and a close second in the last one. Still had no idea what I was doing.

I think I thought I was grokking it... but who knows. These games are complex.

I wrote about it elsewhere...


Prisoner's Dilemma... but with Trains?

I've been playing 18XX games lately. 18XX is a series of board games where you run train companies in the 19th century.

What makes this series of games interesting though, aren't the trains themselves... it's the stock market. Players can found train companies, float them (bring them public), and invest in other players' companies. Conversely, other players can invest in your companies. And that's where the shenanigans begin.

You see, 18XX games aren't really about trains at all. It's about fucking over your opponents via stock manipulation. For example...

  1. You can buy up a bunch of your opponent's company's shares... only to sell them at a later turn and crashing their stock price.
  2. You can float a company, attracting opponents' money (them thinking you'll run the company properly)... only for you to embezzle all the money out by acquiring private companies you don't need. And after you do that...
  3. You can sell all the shares in a company you control, and "pass" the presidency to another investor, leaving that player holding the bag of a worthless company.

Now, can you run a company "correctly"... (that is, increase revenues,  expand your customer base, and pay out dividends with the fiduciary duty of a responsible corporate stakeholder)? Yes, you can... but you won't win the game. Not if others are manipulating the stock market.

It took me several games to finally understand this. 18XX games are intentionally designed to teach you how a 19th C. robber baron thinks (by cheating, lying and stealing). Sidenote: Just like how the original Monopoly was intentionally designed to teach you about the evils of capitalism and landlords.

But I had another epiphany this weekend while playing one of the 18XX games...

These Games Are The Prisoner's Dilemma in Action

When you invest in an opponent's company, or they in yours... you're basically walking into a prisoner's dilemma situation with them. Will they betray you and run the company to the ground... or will they build it properly and increase share value... and/or at what point will they start draining its coffers to enrich themselves?

And in each of those transactions, you have to start thinking... do I trust this guy, and/or how long do I trust them for? Or, should I preempt them and start trashing the company now and get out?

This is, essentially, a reflection of every interaction/transaction we have with other human beings on a daily basis.


OK... Back to Our Regular Programming

So we end up playing a few of these games live at some wargaming conventions. One game of 18Chesapeake, another 1822. 

I think I'm getting a hang of it? Didn't love 1822. Way too many private companies and not enough stock manipulation.

But tonight, we finally played...

The Original Granddaddy of Them All

1830 (1986) by Francis Tresham

For the first three Operating Rounds, I hung back, heavily invested in two solid companies: Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania. Both produced dividends and their shares kept rising.

But then our resident expert and rules teacher convinced my brother to buy up three 2-trains and a 3-train. That expedited everything. With 4-trains on their way in, ready to rust the beat up 2-trains... I started selling all my shares in the fourth Stock Round.

Now I was cash rich with absolutely no companies while my three opponents had just spend three rounds fighting over tracks into New York City (it looks like a huge mess). A lovely one where they ended depleting each others' resources.

That's when I decide to float both companies that are far away from the fray: Chesapeake & Ohio and the Canadian Pacific Railroad. My original plan was to make CPR a dummy corporation I could loot by buying up my two useless private companies... and pick up a 5-train to sell to C&O... while C&O would build out to Chicago, but also expand Eastward into the hot mess everyone else had built.

Fortunately/unfortunately, my opponents threatened to build a railroad up to Montreal, forcing CPR to buy a train, turning my shell company into a real one. How dare they. So I ended up buying a 5-train and not selling it... and running it instead. 

With C&O, I bought a 6-train to rust all their 3-trains. This triggered a cascade of problems for everyone else. In the end, my brother was bankrupt while our rules-teaching friend had few options left... while second-place was trapped by the fact that I bought back all the B&O shares I had sold to the bank in the first place. If B&O made money, I made money. If B&O's shares went up, so did my net worth.

But was all this strategic and intentional? The truth... no. I got up at 230am this morning, tried to go back to bed, tossed around, and went to work. By the time it got to game time at 630pm, I was exhausted. Whatever I was doing, it was some other brain process running in the background.

BUT...

I could follow what was going on and recount it all here a couple of hours later. So, maybe I can take credit for winning?