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1830 Game Theory and Strategy

By John Puddifoot

Late Spring 1998/Vol 5, no 2

As the box notes, 1830 is The Game of Railways and Robber Barons. You play a Rob ber Baron, emulating the likes of Gould, Vanderbilt, and Fisk, all of whom built personal fortunes of a magnitude unimagined today while making huge contributions to the industrialization of North America. This is the opportunity that 1830 presents to you.

In playing 1830 you will find it to be one of those rare games that minimizes player luck while maximizing player skill. What you do, and what the other players do to you, solely determines whether you win or loose. Dice, cards, or spinners do not determine your fate. Yet there are no sure strategies. This can lead to very different games depending on the style of the players. While 1830 has moderately simple, logical rules, it is not a simple game. Like Chess and Diplomacy, the rules of 1830 form a framework that allows players to test their skills at any level. After playing well over 1000 games of 1830, I have yet to see two the same. An additional complication to 1830 is that the best actions and strategies change as the game progresses. What is an excellent move early in the game is often precisely the wrong thing to do later on!

Here I will suggest some strategies to the novice and intermediate player. If you are looking for the basics of how to play, the Avalon Hill computer version of the game is a fine teacher for game flow and rules. However the computer is only good to the intermediate level -- Sharks will beat the computer every time.

Railroads & Robber Barons
The object of the game is to maximize your personal wealth at the end of the game. Keep this firmly in mind because it is easy to become wrapped up in the game's railroading aspects. At certain points it is desirable or more often required to use your own funds to improve the fates of your companies. This is fine, but it is not the player with the best company that necessarily wins so keep your contributions to your company to an absolute minimum. Likewise do not become emotionally attached to your stock. If it is a bad company it matters little if it is your bad company or someone else's. In some situations it might be better if the presidency was in other hands!

In 1830 there is no one perfect strategy: every play has its advantages and drawbacks. It is the skillful player who will be able to discern what these are and be able to forcibly demonstrate the failures of the other players' actions. Similarly, it will be how you react to the other players' actions that will determine your standing in the game. Knowing what to do and when to do it is critical. Nearly all strategy in 1830 depends upon the ancient art of timing.

In the group I play with the only random elements of 1830 are the players. Predictable play in 1830 leads to quick defeat and it is to your advantage to be diabolically random. Keep the other players guessing as to what you have planned. If they know for sure what you are going to do, it is likely they will thwart you if it is not also in their best interests or if they think you are winning.

The rules of 1830 are subject to some variations. Like most games, 1830 has several commonly played variants that arise out of different but still somewhat valid interpretations of the written rules. While there is a set of standard rules currently under discussion by the Train Gamers Association, I recommend that you discuss the rules with any players you have never played with before. Do this before you start the game to avoid fiery discussions later! These variants do not really affect the way the game progresses, but they do improve and hinder certain strategies. For the purposes of this article we will assume that the rules followed are as used by the computer version of the game.

Etiquette Suggestions
To make the game more enjoyable for all players, as well as improving your own play and speeding the game, try to think ahead as much as possible. Try to predict what the other players will do and plan accordingly. If everyone takes only a few seconds to purchase stock and a couple of minutes to run a company, the game can easily finish in four hours.

To speed play, don't be rigid about backing the game up if a player makes a legitimate oversight. This removes player paranoia about making foolish errors. While there are obvious limits to what is acceptable, be friendly about it. Remember, you are playing this game for fun. Besides, a victory because of an unintentional blunder is hollow at best and proves little about the relative skill of the players.

Making the amount of money each player has public also quickens and improves play. This permits each player to make their decisions with some certainty about the options available to the other players, thus reducing the analysis required for each play.

If you, or another player for that matter, gets shafted early on in the game, then I suggest that you change your objective from winning. Instead try to place ahead of one of the other players, or try to set a record for the highest dividend. Don't simply walk away. You may even win despite your best efforts!

I suggest all of the above "rules" so that the game will move quickly and be more exciting. While games of 1830 should be finished in four or five hours at most, simple dawdling by players can drag out games. This has given 1830 and other 18XX games the reputation that they take forever. My experience is that the players can take forever to make up their minds or finish their negotiations. The actual playing of the game takes relatively little time.

I also suggest that you "rate" your players and be kinder to newbies. Our group uses a three level scale: guppies, chum, and sharks. Guppies are new players who are largely unfamiliar with the rules and strategies. We give guppies accurate information regarding the ramifications of their actions, outline their play options to them, and generally do not try to manipulate them. This encourages them to play again, even if they lose badly, and improves their play quickly. The next level, chum, are players familiar with the rules and some of the strategies, but who do not have their skills finely honed. We graduate players from guppies to chum after they have won their first game. Sharks are those feared players who have honed their skills to a high level. Show them no mercy. Sharks tend to feed on chum.

Game Keys
Barring disasters, 1830 has four key components: controlling track, cash flow, controlling trains, and diplomacy. Having all these areas under your control will normally ensure victory. Unfortunately the other players may not allow this.

Controlling track is making sure that the track network develops to the greatest benefit of companies you own shares of, while companies you do not own end up running the local bus service for peanuts. Cash flow is keeping cash coming into your hand so that your options each stock round do not necessitate having to make undesired sales of stock. Controlling trains is ensuring that you are able to buy trains according to your schedule and not that of one of your opponents. Diplomacy is the fine art of influencing the other players to make plays that are in your best interests.

Stock Market
1830 is a game that can be won or lost on the stock market. Your decisions as to which stocks to buy and which stocks to dump determine your cash flow in the coming, and subsequent, rounds. This decision will also determine which companies you will control, willingly or unwillingly and the eventual value of your stock portfolio. Picking winning stocks is therefore critically important.

Good Stocks/Bad Stocks
But what is a good stock? In the simplest terms the return on a stock is the total of its declared dividends added to its change in stock price. For one operating round in the future this is easy to calculate, further into the future may not be so effortless. For most situations, you can assume that a railway will declare dividends and increase in share value. (Why this is so will be explained in part two in the next issue.) It is also easy to predict if a railway will sell out. These two observations will tell you where the railway's price will be on the stock market. Dividends are a bit more difficult to calculate. If the company is not expected to buy or lose any trains, assume that it will declare the same as the previous operating round. Adjust this figure for any obvious track improvements and any purchase or loss of trains. This should give you a good first guess as to what the increase in value will be. This calculation is simplified if you are the president of the company in question, as you generally know what the company hopes to do and what its chances of succeeding are. Remember that a random element, another player, may not do what you expect. There is no "sure thing" in the 1830 stock market!

Let us look at an example. During the stock round the Pennsylvania's price token is sitting in the 67 box in the red starting zone. There is one share left in the initial offering and no shares in the bank pool. There will be two operating rounds before the next stock round. If the Pensy sells out by you buying the last share, and no one sells, the expected increase in value will be $15 per share. ($4 for all sold, $11 for dividends.) Last operating round the Pensy had a single 2 train and ran for $4 per share. As the Pensy has lots of money, you expect it to buy one three train and increase this dividend by connecting to Baltimore (B) with the help of the B? and laying the C? tile. This should increase the dividends in the first round to $8, and in the second round to around $16 if everything goes as expected. This totals $24 in dividends. Thus you think the total increase per share value in the Pensy will be about $39 or 58% (39/67).
There is a critical difference between the absolute increase in value and the percentage increase. Early in the game you should look at the percentage increase in value when doing share value calculations. This is so you can get the greatest return on your money. Later in the game when you are approaching your share limit you should look at the absolute or dollar increase in value. You do this because you can no longer trade one share for two cheaper shares that together increase in combined value more than the one share because you are restricted by the game's share limit.

On first inspection the best share will be the one that has the best increase in value, percentage or absolute depending on how close you are to your share limit. If there were no other factors, you would fill your portfolio with as many of these shares as you could purchase, selling less desirable shares in the process. Of course there are other factors so it is not this simple.

When to Sell
The most important reason to sell, and the one you should always consider first, is "Do I hold two or more shares of a company I do not want to be president of?" The title of "Mr. President" is highly undesirable if it is the president of a company that has little or no money and must soon buy a train. To be the president of such a company is the leading cause of bankruptcy in 1830. If you are in such a situation, the safe play during your next stock action is to sell as many shares as necessary to reduce your holdings in that company to one or none depending on what you think the company's long term prospects are. Hopefully you can do this before anything unfortunate happens. You can hold more than one share in relative safety if the current president cannot sell enough shares to make you president because of bank pool limits. You can also be at ease if the company is safe in the short term and you can sell before the current president has a chance to dump the company in the next stock round. Of course if you want to be president of the company, hold as many shares as you wish.

Dumping a fiscally questionable company you are president of on a unfortunate player who bought more than one share in a company is usually a good move. Hand him the company charter with its depleted treasury and address him as "Mr. President!" in a deep, ringing voice. Then laugh diabolically! Before you do this however, make sure that you can replace the shares you are going to sell with something else. If there is nothing to buy you will end up holding cash and fall behind the other players who have their cash invested in moneymaking stocks. Also make sure that the company is truly unsalvageable. There is nothing worse than to dump a company on someone and then to have him demonstrate your incompetence by using it to win the game! It is important to consider if the new president could go bankrupt at this point. If it is likely that he will, then also check to make sure you will win when he does. Don't hand victory to someone else! Of course if it is a matter of your survival, dump at the first opportunity!

Another reason to sell is simply to raise cash. You could need cash for many reasons. You could wish to trade the share(s) you have for a better one(s) available for sale or you many want to raise cash to start a company.

Adjusting the operating order of the companies by selling shares is well worth considering. Which company gets to go first in the following operating round may determine if a company gets to run that last time with a soon to be dead train, which company gets to buy the first 5, which company gets to trade that 4 in for a diesel, which company gets to place that critical piece of track, or which company gets to place that decisive station. Pay attention to the operating order, and predict what will happen if it remains unchanged in the following operating round. If it is not to your benefit, try to change it so that it is!

In the rare endgame scenario where you are certain that the game is going to end on a bankruptcy immediately following the stock round, you should as soon as possible sell all shares that will not increase in value further or yield further dividends. Remember when doing this that sales will change the operating order, so be aware of the new order after the sales occur when deciding what to sell. These sales will both knock your opponent's totals down while ensuring that they do not do the same to you. As games that end in bankruptcies are often decided by slim margins, this action may be the key to your victory.

Of course if you are a mustache twirling fiend with no scruples you may simply wish to trash a competitor's share price. This does have advantages in that it reduces the other players' portfolio values while not harming your own. It is not always the thing to do though. Selling, especially when to do so brings the stock into or near the non-counting yellow zone, can often free up share room for your competitors. It can also leave you holding cash while the other players hold stock -- not a good thing. Beware also of retribution from other players who may start to trash your stocks.

What to Buy
If you have money, you should buy the best stock available. The simple reason is that money in your hand does nothing. Money invested in stocks grows providing you with more money for the next stock round.

Starting a Company
Starting a company is an extremely effective way of making money. For every dollar you invest, you get two dollars back in the company treasury assuming you sell the sixth share bought. If other players help you, you get a greater multiple. This company money can be used to purchase worthy private companies from your holdings at twice their face value or to help prevent a fiscally unsound company of yours from raiding your personal cash reserves. Running a company gives you greater control over what will happen in the game and gives you a better chance of ensuring that your shares will be worth the most at the end of the game. However it is unwise to sell all your shares to start a company. If you do you kill your cash flow from dividends in the coming operating round and thus your flexibility in the next stock round. (You can avoid the cash flow problem if you have one of the larger private companies to loot with.) Once you have bought the president's certificate, the company is usually yours, so you may be able to take advantage of other opportunities during the stock round before finally starting your new company.

When you are considering starting there are six magic numbers to keep in mind: $402, $432, $456, $492, $540, and $600. This is the amount of cash you will need to buy the six shares necessary to float the company. Make sure you have it in hand before you buy that presidentís certificate as unliquidated shares can change in price as other players sell or the bank pool can fill up preventing you from selling. As to a starting price, set pars at lower values at the beginning of the game so as to maximize the percentage return. Later in the game, start as high as possible as you will need every dollar to buy those expensive trains.

The question of which company to start is one that is hotly debated. In actual fact, the best company to start, or to run, varies from situation to situation. In general start companies that are near to other running companies. This will get your dividends high quickly because the other railways in the area will already have largely developed your track network. Start companies that have a reasonable chance of getting an eventual run of at least $ 24 per share. Companies that are trapped in a small section of the map because of unfavorable or malicious track lays are not good candidates. Check also that the critical pieces of track to get the company started and running well are available!

Other Purchases
You may want to consider buying shares in a competitor's company so as to benefit from his stock while at the same time avoiding the liabilities that running a company brings. I refer to this as leaching. Riding someone else's coattails can be very profitable. Just make sure you jump off before you become "Mr. President" or before someone else dumping first sends the stock into the toilet. This is also a useful tactic to employ when someone is running a company into the yellow zone. These shares are cheap, don't count against your share limit, and prevent the president of that company from gaining too much benefit when these shares eventually do pay. And they will pay. Avoid becoming president of such a company however, unless it has a lot of cash or your have a masochistic streak.

If you have nothing else to do, be on the lookout for arbitrage. This occurs when the open market price for a share is higher than its par value and there are still certificates in the initial offering. Buying the share from the initial offering at par and then immediately selling them into the bank pool at market can often gain you the extra few dollars you need to buy the share you really want, or allow you to start your company. At the very least it is a quick profit!

When you are nearing your share limits, start to buy up companies that have higher absolute returns if you can afford them and buy shares that are in the non-counting colored sections of the stock market. If you are nearly full and there are still reasonable shares to buy, consider putting one of your companies in the colored sections during the upcoming operating rounds to make further share room. While this may not pay off in the short run because of reduced cash flow, the extra income you get from your higher number of shares and the extra company money for stations and trains can pay off handsomely.

Priority Deal
Keep a keen watch on where the priority deal card is going to end up. If you act last in this stock round, you will have the last chance to react in the next stock round. This is not good as you will be vulnerable to becoming an unwilling president, to having no company to start when you desperately need to, to having all the good shares snatched up by other players and/or having shares that you wish to sell depressed in value by previous sales. The later you are in the next stock market turn order the worse it is.

To optimize your next round position, try to get an idea of where the priority will end up. Can you influence other players to move you up in the next round queue by your buys and sells? If you can't and you are far down the line, look to make critical moves in this stock round rather than waiting for the next one. Buy that presidential certificate a stock round early and sell some of those hazardous shares that could make you president of an insolvent company. It might not be the best time to do this, but it minimizes the damage next round.

The best method to keep the priority close to you is to figure out what you want to do this stock round and then do it as quickly as possible. It may even be worth while passing before you are completely out of cash if it means that the priority ends up in a significantly better position.

Next Time
I hope that the above has given you some insight into how to improve your play in 1830. However manipulating the stock market is only one part of 1830. Next time we will look at how a railway is actually run and discuss the pros and cons of various railways. See you then!

Editor's Note: As you may have guessed by now, this is the first part of a two-part article. The second part will appear in the Summer 1998 issue of the TGG.

John Puddifoot has been a TGA member of long-standing ( recently appointed to the TGA board) and a charter member of the dreaded Vancouver Sharks (an 18xx group). He helped to playtest many Bill Dixon designs and I consider him to be in the top echelon of 18xx players in North America.

 


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