Reviewed by Joe Huber
18EU (DEEP THOUGHT GAMES, 3 to 6 players, ages 14 and up, 4 to 6 hours, Free)
18xx games, for anyone not familiar, are complex economic games where players invest in railroad companies, and then the player with the most stock in each company runs the company, having it build track, buy trains, and run the trains, either withholding the money (lowering the stock price) or paying out to the stockholders (raising the stock price). Different 18xx games will focus on the stock market, with companies regularly changing hands, or on company operation, with a greater emphasis on how the companies perform. Each game also has different settings, and different aspects beyond the core elements. Typically (though not always), the purchase of bigger trains causes earlier, smaller trains to rust, encouraging players who aren’t taking best advantage of the current trains to push things forward. 18EU (designed by David G. D. Hecht and now available for Print and Play at http://www.deepthoughtgames.com/#games/18EU/downloads) is a reasonably interesting take on 18xx, set on the European mainland.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 18EU is the 15 minors that start the game; major companies can only be formed by growing one or more minor companies into a major. This leads to the biggest issue with the game: the minors are auctioned at the start of the game and there can be HUGE difference in positions after the auction, so much so that many don’t feel the game necessarily worth continuing after the auction, which rather defeats the point. But…
Back in 2017, or around then, Paul Zieske, Franklin Adams-Watters, and Richard Price created and made available a variant. Instead of auctioning the minors, they are drafted, and a 16th minor is added for the four-player game, so that everyone gets the same number of minors. Each minor is numbered; the lowest numbered minor gets the first choice of starting position, but has no special ability; special abilities get stronger and stronger until finally minor #16 gets a train that (unlike all of the other starting trains) never rusts. The other special rules for 18EU remain the same. Companies earn a bonus for running between the major, edge-of-map cities, based upon the number of their stations they run through on the way.
Speaking of stations, in 18EU companies pay 100 Pounds up front and can then place stations for free, one per operating round. As with most 18xx games, the game ends at the end of the set of operating rounds during which the bank runs out of cash; players scores are the combination of their cash and the value of their stock, with the richest player winning.
The addition of these minor powers changes the game in two significant ways. First, it solves the issue of inequitable auction results: the minor powers might or might not be perfectly balanced, but they’re close enough to not result in any particular minor being seen as an automatic choice. The minor powers also add an element of variety to the game since the powers appear in different places from game to game, and the combinations of minor powers vary even more widely, which makes the game more replayable for me. Having said that, I must admit to having warmed slowly to the minor power variant – and starting to cool on the game as a whole. Besides the issues with the initial auction, the basic game is a bit slow moving – the game only allows one track placement per company per operating round other than in the first operating round, which is sufficient – but rather limiting. The variant helps some with this, but only a small amount. In spite of this, 18EU remains my third favorite of the 18xx games, if a long distance back from my second favorite.
The setting of Europe is interesting, though the Alps – and the cost to build track through them – tends to somewhat limit options in the southern half of the board. The game doesn’t offer a dynamic enough stock market to be a good fit for those who prefer their 18xx games focused on stock market manipulation, and the game lasts long enough – three hours or so – not to be an ideal learning 18xx game.
While the game is now available for print-and-play, it was available for purchase via Deep Thought Games for a number of years; my copy is from there, and is nicely produced, if not at the level one might expect for a game produced in volume. It was priced at a level one might anticipate for a hand-produced game, however, so the availability to produce it to suit offers not only the opportunity to create a copy to that appeals to the individual, and at just a cost of time and materials. As rule sets go, the 18EU rules are – sufficient. A little spotty on a few details, or ordered in such a way as to make it difficult to check questions, but – I’ve always been able to find answers. The minor powers variant rules are far less detailed, and therefore require more interpretation.
As I noted, it took me a while to really get to appreciate the minor power variant for 18EU – but I’m now absolutely convinced of its superiority to the original game for me. I’m less convinced of the need for 18EU in my collection at all. I still like the game, but having played the minors variant a number of times online in 2020, I’m finding that the game doesn’t – as I look for – improve with more frequent play. I’m still keeping the game in my collection but I’m much less certain that it will be there forever. Still, it took more than ten plays of the minor power variant for me to reach that conclusion. It’s hard to argue with the utility of a game which provides ten plays of interesting exploration. – – – – – – – – – Joe Huber
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