As you know, we are wargamers and prefer wargames….all types of wargames really, including hex and counter, CDG, solitaire, etc. with the occasional crossover into fantasy dungeon crawlers like Gloomhaven, Descent and Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth and games with high levels of player interaction such as Dune. We have dabbled into the 18xx genre of games with our plays of 1846: The Race to the Midwest from GMT Games but it has never quite caught on with our group. We enjoy long and very involved games, but prefer them to involve combat and maneuver. Well, you might say 18xx has both combat and maneuver with the deft use of stations to block opponents and a twist on track placement to change fortunes but as I said it just hasn’t caught on. With that being explained, when we received a new shiny review copy of 1848: Australia from GMT Games in December, we wanted to see what others thought of the game as they are trying to reestablish a small focus on 18xx games. We posted a call on Twitter for someone to play with their group and do a written review for us and we chose Chip Roush (@ChipRoush on Twitter) for the task. He accepted with gusto and I sent the game to him. He has returned the following review on the game. Enjoy!
A Review of 1848: Australia from GMT Games by Chip Roush
Welcome to a rare non-video review on The Player’s Aid blog! [Editor’s Note: I will interject here that we have done a lot of First Impressions review posts over the past year or so including In Magnificent Style: Pickett’s Charge Deluxe Edition from Worthington Publishing, Atlantic Chase: The Kriegsmarine Against the Home Fleet, 1939-1942 from GMT Games, War Room from Nightingale Games, 1944 Battle of the Bulge from Worthington Publishing, Virgin Queen: Wars of Religion 1559-1598 from GMT Games, Dominant Species: Marine from GMT Games and Bayonets & Tomahawks: The French & Indian War from GMT Games Harrumph! 😂] I’m Chip Roush, and I’d like to thank Grant and Alexander for this opportunity to share some 18xx enthusiasm on their site (and for the copy of 1848: Australia, for this review). I’ll also thank Vince, Sean, and Phil for helping play and rate it.
To be clear, 18xx games are not generally classified as war games—but the player interactions in railroad route building and stock price shenanigans can sometimes feel like a battle. Thus there is some overlap between grognards and train game enthusiasts. This review will attempt to address each group, as well as players new to 18xx games.
First off, 1848: Australia is a worthy addition to any 18xx collection. We’ll go into more detail below, but there are several interesting wrinkles that had our game group exclaiming “I’ll buy this one!” That said, I don’t know if it’s the best title to start an 18xx collection. The game is straight forward enough to learn (BGG rankings show a 3.78 weight, which is slightly less than some “beginner-friendly” titles, such as 1846 or 1889). However, the wrinkles that make it interesting are different enough from the vast majority of 18xx games that beginning with 1848 might make it harder to learn others.
In 18xx games, players build railroads and/or invest in each other’s railroad companies. The companies make money by connecting high-value cities; players make money by buying and selling shares of companies (and collecting dividends from those shares). At the end of the game, it doesn’t matter how much money the companies have in their treasuries. The winner is the player with the most wealth, in cash and stocks.
As the game goes on, the railroad engines get more powerful, so they can connect more cities. The cities also grow more valuable. Alas, as the technology improves, the older locomotives “rust” and cease to run. Cities that become popular may fill up, denying access to other rail companies. The player who owns the most stock in a company makes all the decisions for it: if/where to build track, if/when to buy a new train, if/where/when to buy one of the limited stations in the various cities. All of these decisions have significant consequences: a mismanaged company can lag behind its competitors or even go bankrupt, costing its director the game.
At least, that’s how most 18xx games work. In 1848: Australia, companies will not go bankrupt. Instead, they may go into “receivership,” whereupon the Bank of England takes over their management. The presence of the Bank of England is one of the biggest differences from other 18xx titles. Each time a company goes into receivership, that triggers a reduction in the number of share certificates a player may own (the director who allowed it to happen has their limit reduced even further). Taking a company into receivership increases the value of the dividends paid to shareholders in the Bank of England (whose shares may be purchased just like other public companies). The Bank of England also offers “loans” (actually grants, as they need not be paid back). It creates several strategic wrinkles.
Other differences include track gauge changes, bonuses for connecting certain cities, the presence of a late-game express (“The Ghan”), and a late-starting railroad which comes with two automatic home stations—even if those cities have already been tokened out! You can see in the picture, the gray tile on Adelaide (slightly displaced) has three available stations and four tokens. There is also an innovative mechanism for the private auction, which is closer to a game of “chicken” than the familiar waterfall style auction of 1830 and its cousins.
As much as I would like to rhapsodize about the strategic implications of some of these features, this is supposed to be a review, not a strategy guide.
Let’s start with the positives. The game is fun, and well-produced. The components are high quality, and there are numerous examples of good design choices. The iconography is clear and helpful; the phase track is informative (see photo), and the par price tokens are an inventive way to create the extra space for that track. There is a “Bank of England” disk which is handy on the Revenue Track.
The way 1848 implements gauge changes is elegant. There are four regions on the board. Within each region, trains run as they do in most other 18xx titles: a 2-train connects two cities, a 3-train connects three cities, and so forth. If a company wants to run to cities outside their region (i.e., to run trains on different gauges of track), they must use a slightly-more-expensive train with a “plus” in its name (2+, 3+, etc).
A gauge change marker (white disk) is placed on the route at the boundary between the regions, and essentially counts as a city with no income. Thus a 2+ train can connect two cities across a boundary, or a 3+ train can connect two cities on one side and one city on the other. A 6+ train can connect six cities in one region, five cities in two adjacent regions, or four cities across three regions. Diesels can travel through all the cities and gauge changes it can legally reach. The gauge change tokens look enough like city spaces that they make it easy to plan and run routes. By indicating only the gauge changes, 1848 eliminates the need for a variety of gauge size symbols (cf. 1849) and minimizes the need for a large pool of different tiles. (Although players will likely wish there were a few more tiles; with so many cities on coasts, there can be stiff competition for upgrades.)
While we didn’t find any real negatives with the game, its design or its production, there are a few changes that our group would suggest for an eventual second edition. It would be nice to have a “remove train” icon on the Bank of England placard, after the 2nd and 5th companies go into receivership. Similarly, a “50% limit” printed in the Bank Pool would be welcome. The “Priority Card” is fine—and we’re spoiled enough by other games that we were hoping for a priority kangaroo. Ditto the included paper money – it’s serviceable, but most 18xx fans use poker chips (or train game chips).
I found it useful to make my own “-1 cert limit” and “-2 cert limit” markers, as reminders that the director of a company in receivership has an even smaller certificate limit than the overall reduction as printed on the board. In the second edition, I hope GMT includes some of these markers with the game (maybe they can re-use the cards that were once Priority indicators).
Our biggest complaint has to do with the game’s bonus procedure. 1848 awards bonuses for routes that include at least two of the five major cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney. The more of these cities a railroad connects, the larger the bonus. These cities are all marked with a “K” on the map, and on the green and brown upgrade tiles. There are no yellow tiles with a “K” on them, but the game includes a number of white disks with a “K” to use (you can see the disks, and the bonus amount table, in the photo, lower right). We understand that this is more cost-effective than printing a bunch of yellow tiles that can only be used for one specific game, and we actually found the “K” disks easy enough to use. The problem is the letter “K” itself. If there is an historical reason for referring to the five cities with a “K” then we retract our objection. Otherwise, in a game where the players refer to tiles by the shape of the rail lines printed on them, where many of those tiles are called “X” or “chickenfoot”—or “K”—then it can be confusing whether one player is asking another to hand her a tile with tracks that look like a “K,” a tile with a letter “K” printed on it, or a tile with both.
The last nit to pick may or may not be a concern to the reader: the tiles are the usual large, sturdy GMT 18xx tiles. I personally like them—and I know a few players who grouse because the bigger tiles do not fit into their personal tile trays. Your mileage may vary.
As promised, the penultimate paragraph is for experienced 18xx players. While there is a robust enough stock market to manipulate prices a bit, 1848: Australia is mostly an operational game. The fun here comes from the Bank of England and its loans, which may help afford the maximum payout for privates, buy a train earlier, or infuse just enough cash to place that last station without withholding and stranding hundreds of dollars in the company. Each loan does cause the company’s share price to move two spaces left, but the benefit may outweigh the consequence, at least occasionally. The K cities bonus will drive connections at first and then loops of track around non-K cities, and the increased potential for late-game tokening also presents access challenges, so track building enthusiasts may find a lot to love. Starting a company once a 6/6+ train is purchased is usually risky, but this one comes with dedicated home stations—what an intriguing risk! 1848 is a full-cap game; companies float at 60%; a director may own 60% (or 70% with three players). Dividends are either full pay or full withhold, which move tokens one space right or left. There is no spinning in place, or double- or triple-jumps. The tile set is deliciously tight, with too much coastline and too few (often ONE) green tiles of the right configuration. Also, the OO cities are dead ends until brown (but I’m not bitter about it). The box says 3-4 hours. Our learning games were around five hours—so, not a school night game, but you can probably get two played in a game day.
In conclusion, I recommend 1848: Australia. Helmut Ohley and Leonhard Orgler have designed a winner here. If you’re looking for a “run good companies” style, relatively short 18xx title with many intriguing twists, this should absolutely delight you.
Chip Roush grew up in small-town Ohio, where he learned Rail Baron in a spare room in the local bowling alley. They played D&D and Squad Leader before either was “Advanced.” Now a Unitarian Universalist minister, Chip lives with their wife in southwestern Michigan. He tweets as @ChipRoush
I want to thank Chip for this well written and insightful review on a very interesting looking title from GMT Games. I also want to thank the group he played the game with including Vince, Sean, and Phil. I know how important a good gaming group can be, especially one that will drop everything on a moment’s notice and play a 4-5 hour game a few times.
If you are interested in 1848: Australia, you can order a copy from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-768-1848-australia.aspx