So late Sunday night I got back from the 5th annual HeavyCon, put on by the folks over at Heavy Cardboard. It’s taken me a couple days to recover from the 20 hours a day spent playing extremely taxing games, but I think I’m ready to talk about it.

Maybe. I just woke up from another nap and am very tired. I guess I’m not as young as I once was.

Unlike last week’s post about Geekway to the West, I don’t think I’m going to list and discuss all the new games I played, mostly because I ended up playing a lot of games I’m already familiar with – your Gaia Projects and Food Chain Magnates – and most of the rest of the time, I was playing 18XX games.

So, yeah, this is mostly going to be a post about 18XX games. But hold on! Don’t run away yet. Look, I get it. I know what’s it’s like listening to people yammer on about 18XX when you have no interest or context.

One guy is like, “18PZ is like 1837, except you can only make one widget each operating round instead of two.”

And the other guy is like, “Only one widget? But then how could my private companies lay enough track to get to the moon? My mind is blown!”

So without going into the nitty-gritty details, I invite you on a short expedition with me to explore my feelings on 18XX games, to see if we can get some insight into why I can’t stop thinking about them.

First of all, let’s acknowledge some of the bad things. These games are usually stupidly long. Like, all day long. On Sunday, I played a game of 1817 for 6 hours and only got about halfway through before I had to leave for my flight.

There’s also a lot of math. And most of it is usually toward the end of the game after your brain has been completely fried. I am no longer capable of remembering what 6×7 is, but now I have to figure out what ((31×3)+240)x6+((23×3)+145)x2 is for my final score. Make sure to bring a calculator.

And then there are the rules. There are a lot of rules. And even after you learn the 18XX basics, it still may take 30 minutes in some cases just to teach how this particular 18XX is different from other 18XX games. Especially if the tile set is different. But, umm, yeah, let’s not get into tile sets.

But a game being long isn’t always a detriment. Sure, it makes it harder to get to the table, but if you can get it to the table and play it to completion, it very well could be worth the time invested. Imagine being fully engaged in the board game story unfolding in front of you over 6 hours. The rise and fall of companies. That one decisive move 2/3 the way in. Epic games like this can stay with you, wiggle into the center of your brain and leave you craving more. And I don’t see the problem with a complex rule set, so long as it is justified to create a space that will allow you to make meaningful decisions to explore a vast and interesting system.

But none of that explains why these particular games are so compelling. I mean, I played a full game of The Colonists once, and was like, “Yeah, okay, never need to play that again.” But most of the time I finish an 18XX, I immediately want to sit down and play it again. Or better yet, a different one.

And I think this might be one of the keys to the appeal for me. It’s like walking into a candy shop with hundreds of different types of candies. Each one offers a slightly different experience and you are just compelled to buy one of each so you can try them all. There are so many different 18XX experiences to have, so many different games to try.

But I think what appeals to me most is how interactive the games are, and the specific ways in which they are interactive. I think that’s why I liked John Company so much, as well, which forces you to argue and negotiate with your friends, but you never leaves you feeling powerless, like your are stuck helpless on the wrong side of a bad deal.

Sure, there isn’t much negotiation in 18XX (at least in the ones I’ve played), but there is a very real sense of separation between the player and the companies the player owns, which hasn’t really been captured very well in any other game I’ve played. Some have tried, but the separation between company and player is the true heart of 18XX. I can be invested in a company you are president of and want it to do well, even if I want to eventually beat you in the end. Players work together, and then stab each other in the back by selling all their shares into the open market when the time is right.

And, sure, you’ve got pure negotiation games like Diplomacy that probably do stuff like that better, but this is combined with a logistical game of building on a communal map that I also find very compelling. It is a spatial puzzle, trying to figure out how to best use your trains to make as much money from your routes as possible.

And there’s other interesting stuff, as well. Manipulating stock prices, anticipating the transitioning of stages and rusting of trains, but I promised not to get into the nitty-gritty. I guess the general idea is that 18XX is a unique game experience that I simply haven’t encountered before, and all its various elements intrigue me enough to get stuck in my brain, making want to play it more.

So, to talk briefly about specific games, I got to play 18Chesapeake, which recently finished a run on Kickstarter. It was a really solid, fun game and I think lives up to self-ascribed status of being a good introductory 18XX game without adding too many extra rules like 1846 (the other accepted introductory 18XX) does.

And then I got into a game of 1825, which taught me a valuable lesson about the different sides of the 18XX genre. You see, I enjoy 18XX games because I like playing great games, but I guess some people just like trains? I really couldn’t care less about trains, but apparently some people care a lot and they make games more to teach you about history rather than give you a compelling game experience. Also I guess 1825 is important to the history of the 18XX genre because it is very similar to the original 18XX game, 1829.

1825 (with all units and expansions) was essentially the complete unabridged history of the entire railway system of Great Britain. There were about 30 different companies (most games have maybe 8-10), and all the interesting aspects of an 18XX game had been largely excised. It was at the same time incredibly complex and incredibly dull. Something hard-core veteran 18XX players might play when they want to relax, which really doesn’t make any sense to me. It was horribly tedious and taught me that I should think twice about joining any random 18XX game that is starting up around me. Because there are bad 18XX games.

On the other hand, my last play was 1817 and it was great. Yes, as I said above, it was terribly long, and we didn’t finish, which was disappointing, but it added some really interesting rules about company mergers, acquisitions, and liquidations, as well as short-selling company stock, which made for a much more dynamic and immersive experience. I promised not to go into the nitty-gritty, but I am very keen on trying this one again if I can get the chance. It may be my favorite of the genre. It also helped that there was no tile set memorization required, because screw customized tile sets, am I right?

Also I just want to give a quick shout out to SpaceCorp 2025-2300AD, another game I got to try at HeavyCon. It was a really great experience, except for when I ran into those space pirates in the asteroid belt. Those guys can go to hell.