18OE: On the Rails of the Orient Express
To many, the (real) Orient Express is a once-a-lifetime adventure given how prohibitive a ticket is. Likewise the 18OE Orient Express game (one of the many 18xx titles we at OTK enjoy) could be a once-a-lifetime experience for many gamers given how prohibitively long the playtime is (12hrs min?). Anyway we decided to give this game a spin on a mid-week public holiday. Read on to get a good overview of how this game plays out, and where next for the Orient Express?
This 18xx title is not bestowed the moniker “monster game” without a good cause. This title is not the first though. Mark Frazier has been playing and promoting his self-published 18C2C (Coast-2-Coast) played on the full map of US of A. The 18C2C a monster 18xx title; contains 32 railroad (RR) companies, 18 privates and takes 10 hours or more to play.
That was then.
In 2011, Ed Sindelar came up with a design for another mammoth 18xx project, this time set in Europe (after he’d gone on an Europe trip!) and he approachd Mark to help with game development. They spent over 3 yrs developing, prototyping, and testing their idea. The outcome is what we now know as 18OE: On the Rails of the Orient Express, which was kickstarted successfully back in 2013.
The Kickstarter project was delivered on time, and our copy landed on our local shores by mid 2014. Yet it remained unopened. Till yesterday. When a “monster” chose to hibernate, you do not disturb it. 😛
Recently the Sg Long group brought their copy out for a spin! The joy of seeing the 18OE board on the table – even if it’s just a pic on your friend’s Facebook feed – makes one imagine the feel of breezy countryside air in your face as your 7+7 Orient Express train swept the length of Prussia into Bulgaria, across to Varna before taking the ferry across the Black Sea into Constantinople.
One can only wonder.
Or one can get a group of fellas together and open a copy of 18OE to get your own Orient Express route going! With a double-date holiday this week (Thaipusam + FT Day), we just can’t miss this opportunity to attempt a run at the Orient Express.
THE ORIENT EXPRESS: GAME ZERO
A “monster game” would certainly have a not-insignificant first setup time. Tiles to be punched, rules to read, and tokens to apply stickers. Tokens. Ah yes those tokens. 110 large ones and 234 small ones for a total of 344 that need stickers to be applied to them. They actually included a one-page instruction on how-to apply the tokens! You can skip the instruction but there’s the aesthetic of matching the stickers and token colors (the dyed tokens are part of the Kickstarter Stretch Goals). #ocd
Now we understood why the publisher offered to do the “stickers” for an extra USD30. Since I didn’t opt for that, we have to do the “stickers” ourselves, thankfully we’ve a bunch of (in)competent “RR engineers” all too eager to do token-sticker duties.
Note: The initial setup of the game took us awhile – and that excluded rule readings as that was done prior to game day. Anyway setup’s a one-time “time” cost and won’t hit us time-wise for future sessions.
RAILROADING CIRCA 1882
1882. That’s the year of the first Orient Express run. That’s the approximate time period the game map is set in case some are wondering why you are seeing the Ottoman Empire in it.
I won’t dive deep into a review or description of what an 18xx game is, and if you already knew the 18xx system and wanted to know how “different” is 18OE, then my short answer would be “80% similarity”.
If you are new to this 18xx genre, you can read my earlier sessrep on 18TN – one of the best introductory game for the 18xx series.
Significant things that are new or different in 18OE:
- Regional Railroad (RR). Besides Privates/Minors/Majors (all standard 18xx), this game introduces Regional railroad companies – there are 24 of them but only 18 will be in each game, and it’s up to the players to decide which 18 gets floated and which 6 would not be in play. This introduces some variability to the setup of each game. Regionals are 25% share companies while Majors/Nationals are (the usual) 10% shares companies.
- National Railroad (RR). Another new addition to this game, Nationals are railroad companies owned by a specific country (but operated by the player who holds the most share in it). So they get national privileges not afforded to other regionals and majors operating in the same country such as buying (rusted) trains for free, no terrain cost for track laying, and cannot be tokened out of a route. Technically all these are not free but the Govn is paying for the expenses (via the bank).
- Buy/Share Shares by Major RR. Railroad capitalization is on partial basis (ie when shares are bought) so this means RR may start with limited working capital. Majors have the option to sell (and also buy back) shares from its Treasury to the Open Market (during it’s OR) to raise capital.
- Track Rights. The starting RR ie Minors and Regionals have “track rights” which define where they are allowed – and not allowed – to lay tracks. Basically Minors and Regionals operate within their track rights zone. Minors can choose in which nation they start but Regionals are locked in to their own starting zone. To break out of this track right constraints (obviously you can’t do the Orient Express run if you are track right bound), you need to expand (upgrade) your Regional into a Major.
Note: We played one rule wrong here. Two Minors have track laying discounts (E & F) and if they start with Track Rights chit that also provide track laying discount, these discounts stack up eg 20% + 30%.
- 100% Ownership. Possibility to own up to 100% of a railroad company, even a Major but it comes at double the price for any shares above the 60% threshold (Major). I thought this is an interesting counter-balance mechanism to the 100% ownership rule rather than just let a player buys up all shares of his company at “normal” stock market price.
- Reserved L2 Trains. This game starts with thirty 2+2 (L2) train types but unlike most 18xx games where these are available to buy for any RR on first-come-first-served basis, here they are all reserved for the floated or soon-to-be-floated Minors (12) and Regionals (18). Which means every RR has to start with a single 2+2 train (no chance of grabbing two or three of these babies) and the next train purchase has to be a L3 train or higher.
- Tile Points (TP). The no. of tracks you can lay are determined by tile points (TP) instead of the usual one tile per Operating Round (OR). Minors/Regionals get 3 pts, Majors 6 and Nationals 9 per OR. Each yellow track is 1 pt, upgrades 2 pts, tracks on Metropolis (large lucrative cities) cost twice the points. I find this a good way to implement the scale of minor/regional vs major vs national in their ability to build/expand their own rail networks. With 9 TP and no-terrain cost, Nationals are the most efficient in track laying, which is reflective of their status as a national railway.
- Track Laying across Open Sea. Given Europe is surrounded by a few seas (North Atlantic and Mediterranean), one might think the track laying aspect of this game is largely down to jostling for land grab. Not so. The ability to be able to lay tracks – and even place your RR’s tokens – (albeit at a high cost) thru an inland port across the sea zones into the far shore opens up the strategic aspect of the game tremendously. With this open sea track laying capability and the power of the port / ferry lines, this game opens up so much flexibility for your plans in expanding your railroad empire from London to Constantinople!
- Ports (public/private/offshore) and Ferry Lines. One of the most notable inclusion for this game. Without this, 18OE would be a land-grab struggle similar to other 18xx titles. With ports & ferry lines, the options remain open and flexible on how you can set up your RR empire for the final rounds!
- Single City even in Upgraded tiles. Most 18xx start with one-city token in a yellow tile but upgrade that to 2-city token from green onwards. But in 18OE most of the cities are one-city token tiles even when upgraded to green/brown. Only Y-cities, Grand Cities and Metropolis have more than one-city token space. This makes for a very interesting and tough fight for board positioning.
- Transfer Tokens. Tokens between RR owned by the same player may do a token transfer between them. Given most of the cities have one-city token space, this is an important maneuver to keep in mind.
- The importance of making the Orient Express run. While we’ve not played enough of this game to know if this is a must-do if you want to win, but looking at the bonus added to your train route revenue – plus a solid first-run bonus – if you are able to do the Orient Express run, it does appear sizeable and not to be neglected unless you have a better plan somewhere. 😛
ALL ABOARD NOW!
Let’s jump straight in for a quick walk-thru as I recap our first (half) session of this monster 18OE.
FAST START: Pre-defined Starting Packets of Privates/Minors
To save time (and I suspect we probably cut 1.5-2 hrs of play time here) and given all of us were first-time-play on this game/map which means none of us would comprehend how the ability of each Private and Minor may work together and on the map; we went with the recommended pre-defined allocation of the starting packets of Privates/Minors and assigned randomly to each player.
Our game was a 6-player session and everyone got two Minors with the 10 Privates distributed among us. Everyone has $460 remaining cash while I’d $480 and Ainul $440 (due to the different cost of the Minors/Privates allocated to us).
I like the Fast Start generated by this approach – coz even if we do a proper Auction Round, I doubt most of us at this stage have enough background info to make proper value/price decisions on the choice of Privates and Minors. What I think can improve this may be to allow players to auction for their starting packet instead of randomly assigned.
ISR/SR1: Initial Stock Round
With the starting packets quickly allocated, and the each of us having a quick familiarisation with the respective powers/abilities of their Privates & Minors, we are off to the Initial (first) Stock Round (ISR).
Most of us floated our Minors as the first action (as you then get earlier dibs into the choice of Track Rights) but one or two of us floated a Regional instead. After a few turns, all of us ended up with two floated Minors and two floated Regionals.
Note: We shouldn’t have moved the (additional) 6 tokens into the Regional charter yet. They are only available when the Regional expands into a Major. None of the Regionals put down more than 2 tokens in our session anyway but having – or not having – the extra tokens helps to indicate visually whether that company is a Regional or Major.
A few of us had the “cash” to float a 3rd Regional in this ISR but I guessed having not understood the tempo of this game, we decided to err on the cautious side rather than ambitiously trying to operate 5 RRs in the first OR!
While Track Rights is much cheaper in the Scandinavian zone ($10), I opted to start a Minor (G) and Regional (POB) in the Prussia region ($40). If given a choice I would have placed my Regional to start in the neighbouring region of Austria-Hungary but Abraham has already dropped a minor and a regional in there, and I’m not keen for an early land tussle.
My 2nd Minor was started in southern Italy. That was to give me early access to Napoli (another Metropolis) and also a ferry line across the Adriatic Sea to Greece. It’s an iffy situation coz if another player invest heavily into Italy (which Ivan did), you could get cut off from the rest. And beyond the initial few inland tile laying, this RR has to stump up additional cost to do cross-water tile laying be it to the other islands of Italy or across the sea to Ottoman Empire / Greece.
Heng started mostly in Russia attempting to build his empire in the Motherland (tsk tsk). Ivan as noted above was mainly in Italy while having one RR in the Scandinavian. Abraham invested all-in to Austria-Hungary (perhaps he was so capitvated with the lure of the music of Strauss). Dith and Ainul had some “things going on between them” in UK / France-Belgium / Spain-Portugal.
My 2nd Regional (PLM) started in southern France-Belgium with the hope of sneaking my way into Paris. But eventually PLM headed towards the Minor-G / POB lines as it became clear Paris was going to be locked out to PLM.
OR1: First set of two ORs
18OE plays to a fixed cadence of two Operating Rounds (OR) per Stock Round (SR). Which I find a good thing rather than vary the number of ORs based on game phase (standard 18xx).
The first set of OR were mostly quick build-out from each home city, purchasing the obligatory 2+2 train which was reserved for each RR and churning out fairly standard revenue among all RRs. While this looks like a scripted start, it’s far from it. The choice of the starting city for each Minors is flexible to everyone, and even the choice of 18 (out of the 24) Regionals to be put in-play is all down to player’s choice. To echo Heng, this startup approach mirrors the start of 18EU where the in-game player choice of starting positions for the Minors would influence greatly how each game pans out. In contrast, other 18xx have fixed home city for RR with some RRs favored to be starting companies. That appeared more railroaded than 18OE.
Note: There is an illegal build above (if you are sharp enough to spot it). But ah well, this was everyone’s first game and we are forgiving. tsk tsk.
Our first OR took longer than I think we should mainly due to us trying to understand the intricacies of building on/across ports / ferry lines / offshore ports / cross-water tile laying etc. My guess is next time we jump into this again, the first set of ORs should be done and dusted fairly quickly as all the RRs can literally build simultaneously.
Above: Three RRs (all under the collusion of Dith, Ainul & cos) headed towards Paris meant my PLM won’t get a sniff there. #giveyoula 😛
So I decided on a change of tack and headed south towards the port city of Marseilles with the intention of building up the sea zones network which would probably be important in mid game as Ivan’s two RRs in northern Italy would likely choke out my Minor-G in the south. A sea route via Sea of Sardinia and the Tyrrhenian Sea remains a good plan B.
SR2: Majors delayed
I’ve added one more Regional – the WW with home city in Warsaw – in this 2nd Stock Round. Warsaw is located just north of the Austria-Hungary border (which were dominated by Abraham’s three RRs). I reckoned having WW might not be a bad choice as it can be my Plan B to break into Abraham’s Austria-Hungary hegemony especially if I need to take the land route thru Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria to get to Constantinople.
With only 12 Regionals floated, we are six short of triggering the next Auction Phase (Major RR Phase). We did float 5 more Regionals in this round but due to various reasons, the group was unable to float the 6th (and last) Regional.
This has some repurcussions which we now understand better, retrospectively.
- First, we cannot buy secondary Regional shares
- No RR can purchase a L3 train (this restriction by default was only for SR1)
- No existing Regional can expand into a Major
While every RR has only a single 2+2 train, you might think everyone’s getting the same revenue. But one or two players would have built a more lucrative early route (Metropolis / Grand City), and might be making 30+% more than the rest per OR (eg $60 vs $80).
Therefore it is in most players’ incentive to accelerate past the early game stage quickly into the Major RR Phase to enter mid game, without giving too much financial advantage to those players having the more expensive early routes. Now that we’ve understood the arc and tempo of the early game better, I’m sure we’ll adapt to this in our next sessions.
Note: Deswai this is a learning game la
OR2: More tracks laid, networks getting “closed out”
Nothing much dramatic happened in this set of ORs. With 5 more Regionals floated, there were more Tile Points which meant more tracks were laid and networks – especially the more lucrative ones – were getting closed out. This does mean “late” RRs would need the help from its owner’s other RRs in order to set up good routes.
Dith and Ainul managed to seal off Paris for their own cronies. Now all that’s left was for me to use my PLM and Minor-G to block them out of middle Europe so they need to find another path to Constantinople!
YOU SHALL NOT PASS!
Or maybe… I could still sneak into Paris. 😛
SR3: Welcome Majors!
So the Major RRs finally arrived in the next SR when Ainul floated the last Regional (wah, rich fella!), and 12 of the early-start Regionals expanded into Majors.
OR3: Major expansion!
With Major RRs given 6 TPs to lay tracks which is twice as many TPs as Minor/Regional, and the availability of Green tiles (since the first L3 train was picked up by the 1st operating Major), we saw serious track growth in this OR.
With the arrival of Green tiles – and the expanded capability of Major RR in track laying – there’s now a serious contention for routes in north-western Europe given there are two Metropolis here (Paris & Berlin) and close proximity to two more Metropolis in the UK islands (London & Birmingham).
Three of my RRs – PLM, Minor-G and POB – have got their network connected. The newer WW can be hooked in with relative ease. However it remained a challenge trying to get Minor-M which was in southern Italy to be hooked up since Ivan’s two RRs controlled the path across northern Italy.
And even if I do make the breakthru connection, there’s still much work to be done building up the “last leg” of this Orient Express route in the Ottoman Empire / Greece region.
Meanwhile on the eastern side, Heng’s almost completing his north-south link across the vast Russian land mass into the port city of Sevastopol, which is the common exit port (and also a lucrative one) towards Constantinople.
This is a quiet – and perhaps “boring” and less contentious – side of the map. However the route passes thru 3 lucrative Red Cities – plus St Petersburg which is a Metropolis herself – so you are looking at serious money here once you get the route/trains going. Red Cities are usually end-points ie you need to end your route there but the Red Cities in Russia are pass-thru cities ie trains can pass-thru and continue their journey beyond these Red Cities. So if you have a good enough train eg L7 train, you have a really obscenely lucrative route.
Likewise while UK appears “far away” from Constantinople, the maturing rail network here and the ability to reach New York (the most lucrative Red City in this map!) can make this a properous ticket for Ainul’s RRs even without getting into the tussle to head into Constantinople.
Playing UK well does require one to grasp quickly the nuances of the ports & ferry lines, and how best to leverage them to your advantage. I suspect given the eventual choke that’ll happen on the land mass, the sea routes represent a very viable path to riches.
Our session ended here. Have spent close to 8 hrs today including pre-game setup and rules teaching, we’ve reached I suspect the start of the mid-game phase. We have just completed SR3/OR3 so that’s six ORs done, and one can see how fast the map develops. Some of the RRs already owned 3 trains at this stage, and the L2 trains would have rusted this round if we’d not agreed that this is the “last” OR for today.
A full game I reckon would take us till SR6 or SR7 (at most) so we’ve reached the half-way point of the game in about 6 hrs (if we take out the time for pre-setup and rules). We did speed up our play with the ORs happening in blocks of simultaneous turns by each RR (but where there were likely conflict/competition, we paused to let each RR do their actions in turn order).
Those RRs earning around the $40 per share were running 3 trains, while the ones lagging behind have not capitalized on getting more trains to maximize their earning potentials.
I’m pretty sure everyone can do better than the Earnings Per Share (EPS) numbers above in their next play as this session was more about understanding the arc & tempo for this game/map, and learning all the new features for 18OE (ports, regionals, etc) hence the timebox to end it prematurely instead of trying to complete a full game.
Our intention was to experience the full arc of privates/ minors/ regionals/ majors/ nationals – we did get to the Majors phase but not the Nationals. We were down to the last L3 train so a couple more train purchases would have put us in the point where one can convert a Major into a National. Guess we gotta save that for the next session.
Okay, now that the session is over, the recap is done (above), what are my thoughts on this game? Does it stand as a “monster 18xx”? How does it fare among all the 18xx I’ve played?
The “monster” tag is easy to comment. This game certainly qualifies. Both in size, scale and playing time. The “long” 18xx I’ve done – and enjoyed – in the past are 1856 and 1841v2. If an 18xx game plays long just for the sake of being “a long game”, the end game stage can get samey, draggy and boring. 1856 and 1841v2 are two that are long (rated 6 hrs) but provide an interesting arc all the way to the finish; 1856 with the Canadian Govn RR (CGR) and 1841v2 with the companies merger.
Note: 1817 is rated longer than both 1856 / 1841v2 but I’ve not had the chance to play a complete session yet.
Private/Minor/Regional/Major/National. In terms of scale, this is likely grander than all the 18xx I’ve played. There are 3 different RR types at startup (private/minor/regional) and mid-game – which comes quickly in SR2 or SR3 – would see two more RR types enter into play i.e. the Major RR and National RR. The natural progression of the Minors & Regionals into Majors would mean everyone has to plan for their obsolescence, the only question is timing the expansion and merger (too early and you might lose a good cashcow, too late and you risk losing board position & opportunity cost).
National RR. While it’s easy to dismiss the “National RR” as a poor gamer’s fallback plan to cover up forced train purchase (FTP), it’s not that straightforward. A non-FTP Major can be converted into a National RR if the owner so desired. We haven’t operated any National RR yet so can’t yet write from actual experience but remains very intrigued with this new class of RR. Am pretty sure it’s not slotted in as a stop-gap measure to prevent a player from getting bankrupted (due to FTP). The National feels similar to 1856’s CGR but offers more flexibility both in their ownership (everyone can nationalize their own RR) and execution (you are still constrained by national borders so need to know how best to maximize your investment here).
Ports & Ferries. I personally love how Ed/Mark integrated ports & ferries into the game; not just as minor elements but potential game changer especially for the faraway lands like UK, Scandinavia and to some extent Spain-Portugal. The ports/ferries made these locations viable starters, and not second-rate options if you cannot snag the first choice starting points. For us who have been used to maximizing land-based track laying, it does a shift in thinking in order to capitalize on the opportunities afforded to us via these sea routes.
Stock Market Play (or lack of it). This game lacks any stock market shenanigans. Or even if someone attempts it, likely have minimal impact. But the designer has already mention that was never his focus. Operations and network building remain the core of this game. With the variable startup approach similar to 18EU, and an epic level game board in the shape of the whole of Europe (and part of Asia), the ability of ports/ferry lines to open up your options – and you have possibly one of the best Operations-focus 18xx game ever!
Orient Express! Ah, the romance of the Orient Express. Who wouldn’t love to travel in one. And here, you get the chance to set up an Orient Express run for one – or more – of your railroad companies! We’ve not got an OE run in our session yet though I suspect Heng (and even one of Ivan’s) is close to making this run in the next OR.
This was just our first play (and even then, half the full game). I’m sure we’ll continue to discover more layers to this beautifully designed game. It’s one of the few 18xx that have everything falling into the right place. Except perhaps for the time it takes to play a full game. 😛
Till next… keep gaming!
p/s If you wish to join us on our next 18xx sessions, get in touch with us via our Facebook page. We aim to host more 18xx sessions in the coming weeks. Dun worrry, it’s not always that we bring out a “monster” game like this. We do have a series of 18xx titles, some are good for introductory sessions.
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