I have never played an 18xx game and in fact have never really had an interest. My lack of interest was mainly due to the extended play times of many 18xx games (I’ve heard some of the more complicated and advanced versions can take up to 10 hours to play!) as well as the theme itself, that of building rail lines, connecting cities and worrying about something as uninteresting to me as the stock of the companies in the game. I always seem to get an image of Ticket to Ride, which is not a bad game just one that I don’t want to find myself playing a lot!

But, when 1846 was resurrected by GMT Games and given the deluxe edition treatment in their reprint version, I was immediately interested mainly because GMT is a solid gold game company who doesn’t waste their time on sub-par games. As I began to look into the game I was struck by the interesting looking map, the multi-colored track segments, with their puzzle like shapes, that were available to each player to build and the varied companies that players will have the opportunity to control with variable powers and benefits. Also in looking at the map I noticed that Centralia, Illinois was included. You might ask why does that matter?; and my answer would be that I lived in Centralia for 6 1/2 years. I was the City Manager trying to improve this railroad company town that was a pivotal location along the Illinois Central during the American Civil War. So I went about trying to get a copy and GMT was gracious enough to provide me a review copy (thank you Tony Curtis!).

I have read that many 18xx players use 1846 as an introductory game to teach new players. As I looked at the game I noticed that the play time stated 2-3 hours, although it does warn that you will add 2 hours with new players, and this was my experience with the game as it took us 6 hours to setup, review the rules and play through a full game. I have also read that many of the non-intuitive aspects common with 18xx games are not present in 1846, so this is also a bonus to me as a first time player.

Before you read the review, we did an unboxing video to show off all of the great new components in the deluxe edition.

What is 1846 The Race for the Midwest About?

In 1846 The Race for the Midwest, designed by one of my favorite designers Tom Lehmann (Race for the Galaxy, Favor of the Pharaoh, Fast Food Franchise), 3-5 railroad tycoons compete to earn money through connecting the most lucrative routes between various Midwest cities including Chicago & Cairo, Illinois, St. Louis, Missouri, Wheeling, West Virginia, Detroit & Holland, Michigan, Columbus, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania and to build the best and most profitable stock portfolio by investing in and operating railroads that pay dividends to its shareholders, thereby increasing the value of their stock.

Five competing railroads, in search of access to the fertile and rich Midwestern grain regions and markets, crossed the Appalachian mountains in the early 1850s: the New York Central, Erie, Pennsylvania, Baltimore & Ohio, and, via Canada, the Grand Trunk, backed by Boston merchants.

Players begin the game by investing $400 apiece in drafting private companies and launching corporations. With fewer than five players in a game, some companies and corporations are randomly removed, making each game different and providing new routes and strategies to try.

Play consists of alternating stock rounds with pairs of operating rounds. During stock rounds, players buy and sell shares, possibly launching new corporations from those available to them. During operations, each railroad — with its majority stock holder (President) making all its decisions — lays track and stations, runs routes, declares dividends, and possibly buys bigger and better trains.

As new train types appear, older trains go obsolete, representing technological progress. A corporation without a train must buy one — with its President having to make up the difference out of pocket if the corporation doesn’t have enough cash!

The game ends once the bank is “broken” or in other words, runs out of money. The player with the best stock portfolio and most cash on hand — not including any money held in the coffers of the corporations — wins!

 What I Liked About 1846 The Race for the Midwest

We absolutely loved our first play of 1846. Going into it we had no experience with 18xx games and had no understanding of the rules or the strategies involved with being successful at the railroading business. Here are some reasons I liked it, and some reasons why it’s particularly good for new players:

Private Company Draft1846 starts with a Private Company draft in which your drafting options vary randomly from one game to another. As part of the draft, each player is able to take from the deck an many cards as there are players plus 2 cards. From these cards, the player must select one card and replace the others not chosen at the bottom of the deck. This proceeds until there are less cards than the number of players plus 2 cards. Players then reveal and pay for the costs associated with the Private Companies and they are to be used by the player to enhance their company.

The Private Company abilities. Almost all of them are valuable and will assist a player in getting a head start in their goal.
The choices are almost all good (see picture to the left) and I don’t feel that you can ruin your chances of victory through poor choices at the very start of the game, because almost any set of Private Companies will offer you some reasonable options (the Companies with weaker powers typically generate good income). I have heard this is one of the aspects of 1846 that is easier on new players than the typical 18xx game as it usually starts with an auction. I have read that if you are unable to get the right Private Company, you can almost lose the game before it even starts.

In our game, I was able to get one of the 2 Independent Railroads, Big 4, that allowed me to collect half of the income from it’s train operations each round as a dividend to me personally.  I simply used this money to play in the stock market and was able to get great starting positions in my chosen railroad, the Illinois Central (I ended up owning 6 of the 10 stocks available) as well as buy into several other good performing companies such as the Grand Trunk Railway and B&O.  At game’s end, this jump start helped me to score the most in the stock market because of my portfolio’s diversity.

Companies Begin Operation in the Stock Round Immediately – after the President’s certificate is bought, the players can immediately buy in the Stock Market which I believe is a change from other 18xx games. This is known as an incremental capitalization game, where players can run a company in which only two shares have been bought. This allowed all players to get started right away and made the game interesting from the very outset, rather than a slow and trudging path to finding capital dollars to expand and buy new engines.  It also made each single share purchase decision a very important one. In our game, I was able to get early capital dollars to buy various stocks and this got me out to an early lead.

Each Company has a Single Stock Price – this again is one of the differences between 1846 and other 18xx games.  From reading about 18xx games it appears that there is a par price for shares that have never been bought and a market price for shares that have already been bought and sold at least once. The latter approach is less natural and intuitive for most players and this simple change makes learning the game much simpler. I like the general simplicity of the stock market as that is an area that I was most concerned about the game before playing.

Notice in the picture of the Stock Market that there is only 1 price for each company’s stock. This is a major change from most 18xx games and offers an easy transition for new players into the complexity of the stocks, one of the most important parts of the game.
Simplified Map – the map contains only full-size cities, not the “dot” towns that are common in many other 18xx games. The dots are treated differently in the various games that use them, but leaving them out makes life simpler for first-timers. This made the map very easy to read and easy to find the towns that we were interested in at the outset. Another kudo for 1846 simplifying the game.

Lots of Hard Choices on What to Do with Earnings1846 is a game with lots of choices and several paths to victory.  There is no easy or straight path to victory but there are many critical decisions to keep in mind as you play in order to improve your chances of victory. Sometimes it’s best to pay dividends from your earnings, but at other times your company should retain all or part of its earnings because you need to invest in a new train. This is the continual struggle. Paying dividends increases your share prices, which in the end gets you closer to victory as your portfolio will be more valuable but it is a balance! You can win by starting a company at a high share value and buy only a few shares, or by starting one at a low share value and buying a lot of shares. There is also this continual concern about your company’s stock and who is buying it from the other players. In my opinion, you need to make sure that you are earning more than the other players on your company stock and try as hard as you can to earn nearly the same as the others on their companies. This is much easier said than done but is key to winning the game. You can win while being the President of only one company, or by running two.

Another point under this same discussion is the decision about which companies to invest in, whether your own or those of other players. This is not always an obvious choice as you need to pay attention to several things including that company’s assets in cash, their current trains, their stock price, etc. This really added a lot of intrigue to the game and kept me very interested in what the other players were doing so that I could make the best investment choices. This players interaction is very different than Euro games, where you can almost completely ignore what your opponents are doing and still win the game.  You have to pay attention and make timely decisions before it is too late!

Relatively Quick Play Time – 1846 plays RELATIVELY quickly, as compared to other 18xx games. I haven’t played others but I did see that there are several with 10+ hour play times.  Our game took 6 hours, but the first 45 minutes was set up and rules review, so our actual play time for 3 players was about 5 hours and 15 minutes. I believe that on our next play, we can cut at least an hour off of that time and play it in 4 hours. I also cant believe that I am saying this but the 6 hours flew by and I never once got bored, lost interest or simply made quick decisions to move the game along. Each decision was agonizing and I cared about each of them. Notice I said RELATIVELY quick playtime! This is also one of my concerns about the game (and its obvious tendency for AP) but more on that later.

Interesting Puzzle Making with the Track Hexes – while it was extremely difficult, time consuming and sometimes made my head ache, I enjoyed having to try to figure out how I could lay new track, especially once we unlocked the next Phase’s upgraded track, to benefit me in reaching the most lucrative markets. These colorful track pieces can be fit together in about a 1,000 different ways and I actually enjoyed trying to do a little pre-planning and trying to fit various pieces into the puzzle of the train track network that criss-crossed the map.

I have not played other 18xx games, but I can say this, that the concepts in 1846 are very intriguing, fairly easy to pick up and understand and made for a very fun, interactive and tension filled game to the very end!

 What I Didn’t Like About 1846 The Race for the Midwest

Long Play Time – while above I mentioned that I felt the 6 hours it took us to play our first game didn’t feel long, the reality was that it was long! The game advertises a 2-3 hour play time but warns that you will need to add 2 hours for new players for a total play time of 4-5 hours. I am a wargamer and it is commonplace to have a 5-6 hour scenario or a 10 hour campaign, but I didn’t expect that in this game. After we played, we were trying to think of ways to speed play up or to shorten the game and the only thing we kept coming back to was taking out of play more money from the bank than is suggested in the rules. I don’t know if this would lead to an imbalance or affect the overall gameplay experience but it would definitely shorten up the game.  As I said above, I think on our 2nd play we can eliminate the 45 minute setup and rules review and at least trim off an hour or more for play but we are still staring down the barrel of a 3-4 hour game. At this length, it will be hard to get this game back to the table….OFTEN! It will come back but not as often as maybe it could if it was truly a 2-3 hour game, or shorter.

Rulebook – my complaint with the rulebook is that in parts it is fairly vague and doesn’t necessarily explain the rules well.  In fact, at one point during the game, we had a discussion about Off-board areas and whether you can connect through to another Off-board area to an adjacent city and the question was asked by one player “Does it explicitly say that I cannot connect through?” and the response to this question came “I also cannot find where it says you can though!”. This seemed to plague our play and maybe another thorough read through of the rules will provide the knowledge base to be able to answer that question during the next play. I was very grateful for the Detailed Example of Play and the Index but also found small issue with these.

Components (Player Boards and Paper Money) – normally, GMT does a fantastic job with all of the components and in this game, they did many things right. In fact, more right than wrong! The counters were thick and colorful, the track hexagonal tiles were thick, clean, very colorful and functional and the mounted map board was a thing of beauty! I just really didn’t like the Player Boards or the use of paper play money! First off, my complaints about the Player Board is that they were not large enough to hold all of the various items including money, available stock certificates, Private Company cards and trains without hanging off the edge or most bothersome, covering up the key information on the special abilities of the company or the only Player Aid that was provided.  I also hate the paper money, although this might be a thematic choice. I will say that the paper money is thick and colorful and will wear well through many plays. I would rate this area as only average as this is what I would expect from lesser game companies. Functional but just not great as I am accustomed to with GMT Games.

The various elements don’t fit cleanly on the Player Board. Notice money hanging off, available stock teetering on the top of the board and the Private Company hanging on in the upper left of the board. Also, the trains cover the only Player Aid provided.
Concern about Replayability and Use of Same Lucrative Routes – this was an area that we all had concerns about after our first play. On one hand, we only used 5 of the available 7 railroads and only a few of the Private Companies. On our next play, I would expect to see some variability in these elements.  Our major concern is with the end goal and the best way to get there, hence the reference to the most lucrative routes. In the three pictures below you can see what we though were the 3 most lucrative routes and figure that in future games, these routes would still tend to be developed as they pay well.  I am sure that there are others that can be explored, such as the route from Pittsburgh to Chicago but it appears that it would pay about the same as the various routes below.  This will be something that we can explore in future games but I am sure the 3 routes will at least be used and this is the concern with replayability.

Lucrative Route #1 – St. Louis to Chicago- Connections. This route was fairly simple to build for the IC player and returned $90 in the early rounds and up to $210 later in Phase IV.

Lucrative Route #2 – Chicago-Connections to Sarnia Off-board area through Detroit. This route, while a little more complex to build and connect, ended paying out $770 in the later rounds to several companies.
Final game board! Notice that we stacked the improved tiles on top of the tiles underneath. These should have been removed back to the supply. The Lucrative Route #3 was from Pittsburgh Off-board area to St. Louis and offered a payout of $390 in the later rounds.

 Summary & Conclusion

For our first experience with a fairly complicated, lengthy and intimidating game series as 18xx games are, we thoroughly enjoyed our play of 1846 The Race for the Midwest. It was challenging (math is used often so fair warning and a scientific calculator is recommended!) and actually very fun and engaging. I really enjoyed the stock side of the game and learned a lot of lessons that can be used in the future. And no, it was not as complicated as I had feared, although as stated earlier the game takes a simplified approach to the stocks with only 1 price so there is no need to be an expert on splits, short sales, deferred income benefits, options, ETF’s, IPO’s, etc. that would require you to take a class to become a Certified Stock Broker. All three of the players were happy with the game, which ended with a victory for me with $4,686, Tim with $3,775 and Alexander with $3,358. We hope to be able to play a 4 or 5 player game in the future to see how it scales but I expect it will do nicely. For those players that have always been intrigued but intimidated by the 18xx series of games, 1846 is a great introductory game to try out to see if you like it. Good luck with your trains!