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18xx started out with Francis Tresham's 1829, a game covering Great Britain's rail network that was available in 2 editions, North and South, and that has been out of print for a number of years now.
1825 is a successor to 1829 and covers much the same ground, but although it uses broadly similar mechanics the rules have been polished up and the game is now completely modular. Where the old 1829 was either North or South, 1825 can have game units used either alone or combined to cater for different playing times, complexity or number of players. Unit 1 gives you Southern England, Unit 2 the Midlands and Unit 3 (as yet unavailable as of this review, January 2002) should have Northern England and Scotland. These Units are each playable alone, or can be combined (not 1 & 3 as there'd be a hole in the middle of the country, but 1 & 2, 2 & 3, or 1, 2 & 3), and can also have regional kits (e.g., Wales) added and other extras such as special trains, extra tiles, and so on.
The basic units are quite simple by the standards of some 18xx titles, and the play encouraged by the setup is relatively straightforward compared to some of the more buccaneering approaches often used in others (1830 is usually cited as the 18xx where wheeling and dealing is uppermost). This is a two edged sword, of course, particularly good for someone looking at train games for the first time, not so great if you're already a keen 18xx fan, but the way options can be bolted on freely makes it rather easier than other 18xx titles to customise the game to the people and occaision as required.
The main problem with the expandabilty offered is actually tracking down the various kits and/or waiting for them to make it into print to start with: Francis Tresham isn't known for rapid publishing turnover, and even in the UK it can be rather awkward trying to get kits.
The components are good but not great, though it's the basic 18xx system that's the real prize in the box: if it wasn't so good it wouldn't have spun out so many other titles working from the same base. If you're not familiar, players invest in railway companies by buying shares, and the companies are run by whoever has the most shares, building track and running trains to make money which is paid out as dividends to the shareholders or ploughed back into the company. Through the stock market, control of companies can change, and it's possible to do well in the game even if you don't actively control any of the companies operating on the board. It's usually the case that if you do something that's good for you you'll probably benefit several other players too, so it can often be difficult to tell exactly who's winning before the final count-up of money.
The rules are quite a handful to learn to start with, but once play starts it's generally quite straightforward, without too much reference back to the rules required.