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A couple of years ago Chris and I were exchanging e-mails on the subject of 18xx and found that we were agreed on the desirability of a shortish (3 hour) game that was for 3-4 players, had logical finance, proper route development and yet which, without being complicated, had enough in it to challenge experienced players as well as beginners. My suggestion was for a North of England scenario (Birmingham to the Scottish border, but to a slightly bigger scale than you get in 1829/25 and with London and Scotland providing off board targets). My reasoning was that this region had interesting geography, interesting railway history and six good companies. Of course, being North Country, it had the added attraction for me of being my home patch. However, Chris reckoned that the map would be too big and so the tentative plan to work together was dropped. I doodled on and off with my idea and after pitching a lot of the unnecessary chrome that had helped put Chris off it, managed to produce something that my group enjoy. Meanwhile, Chris, using a design of Mark Derrick's as a starting point, had been working much more assiduously and he has produced something that just about everybody should, for it really is a quite splendid achievement.
The setting is Kentucky and Tennessee, not a piece of railway territory with an obvious story line to it (unless you are a Country and Westem singer with an interest in giving suicidal truck drivers something to aim at) but that doesn't really matter. What does is what Chris and Mark have done with it.
The game has five private companies and you use as many of them as there are players. One of them carries with it the director's share in the Louisville & Nashville and the two optional ones an ordinary share in the same company. Apart from that, they just pay a dividend. There are no special powers that come with them and they can't be sold to public companies. So straight away that is two fewer things for new players to have to worry about. A third comes from the fact that there is no bidding and passing that goes on during their sale. Instead, the cards are just shuffled and dealt out. You then pay for the card you have been dealt and the game starts. Their sole function is to give the players early income and to ensure that the L&N is one of the starting public companies. There will probably be two others.
The next simplification that Chris has made is to get rid of small towns. The only other game I know that does this is the Dutch 1839, but it is not a bad idea. It simplifies the tile mix and it avoids the "how to avoid them" problem that is a feature of all the other North American scenarios. In 1829 small towns were fine, because they could be upgraded, but in the games where they can't be, they are a problem and result in some very odd-looking routes. In 1851 the track laid looks sensible and this is one of the reasons why. The other is that Chris has provided a strong incentive for players to build to the edges. There are five red off-board hexes and if a train begins its run at one of them and ends it at another, a bonus of 10 is scored for each station visited. This is significant extra income and constructing a red-to-red route that also uses the full station allowance for the train is a problem to keep route builders happy. And in order to make sure that it is not going to be an easy problem, Chris has also come up with a way of ensuring that a lot of station markers are going to be laid. Unlike most games in the series, you don't pay to build a station. Instead, a company buys its four station markers as soon as it floats. So thereafter there is no reason not to play them all. It is just a question of where and a significant amount of inter-company competition results.
Companies finance themselves by selling their shares and all sales are at the current market price. Shares that have not yet been sold belong to the company and it gets the dividends from them. Dividends from second-hand shares in the bank pool are retained by the bank. A company can buy back shares from the bank pool, thereby giving itself a source of extra income, and it can also sell its shares to the bank, should it need to raise capital. For a simple model, this is a satisfyingly realistic picture of how real companies operate in real stock markets and we are spared the illogicalities that I, for one, find irritating in the two Mayfair games.
The stock market is 1830 style, but without the coloured zones at the bottom end of the chart. Share prices go down when shares are sold and when the company fails to pay a dividend. They go up if all the shares of a company are in private hands and if the company pays a total dividend equal to its share price. Half dividends may be paid and if they are the share price will still go up, provided the dividend actually paid out to shareholders is high enough. Once again, this is simple enough to be easy for new and occasional players to remember and yet still has scope enough to give more experienced players room for manoeuvre.
The appearance of the game is everything we have come to expect from Chris's game kits and there are lots of clever play-aids to remind you of what you need to do at various points and to give you key information. It is all very impressive and it plays in under three hours. Recommended to all 18xx fans and also to those who like the idea of 18xx but who are put off most of the other games in the series either by the time they take to play or by the feeling that unless you have been to an intensive course on how to play, it is dangerous even to sit down.