Merging: the Key to 1841 Strategy

by Steve Thomas

Introduction by Lou Jerkich

After a first game of 1841 (version 2), the four of us who played it felt that we were playing too conservatively and had a lot to learn. (None of us had ever played version 1.) It took much of the day to learn the game and stumble our way through it. None of us really knew what kind of strategy we should be pursuing. One of our players who began with the Leopolda and Maria Antonia down in Tuscany found himself controlling the Livornese company after the Tuscan Merge, but the merge process destroyed his position and he languished behind for the rest of the game. (The Livornese had ended up with three 3-trains in the merge process.) That player finished the game with only about two fifths of the assets held by the winner!  It is rare in our group for someone to have that big of a score discrepancy in an 18xx game in which no one has gone bankrupt. We also didn't manage to get any non-historical companies into play until the late phases of the game when the 6-trains were already in play. (The first non-historical company in play bought the first 7-train.) Moreover, we never developed any track in the original Conservative Zone area although the rest of the board was well-developed. The winner was the player who started with the Ferdinandea and got control of both daughter companies. We all felt that the game was interesting and challenging, despite the learning curve. Yet we were sure that our play of the game was far too conservative and that we had done many things wrong. So we sought advice and tips regarding 1841 strategy.  Steve Thomas provided the following responses to our specific questions and in doing so imparted considerably more advice about the proper way to play 1841.

Steve's Responses to Our Questions

Q. We would appreciate some advice on strategy, how a typical game plays out, etc., so that in the next game we have a better grasp on the proper ebb and flow of this game.

The first observation is that you played much too conservatively. 1841 is much less about running trains profitably than any other 18xx game, though large earnings certainly still have their place. The rules allow a great deal of flexibility for companies making money by investing in other companies and by merging, and, properly used, these can inject a great deal of cash into the game. If someone's doing that, anyone not doing it will trail a long way behind the technology curve and become doomed. Too, you can improve your own position by suitable investments and merging.

One way to make money personally is for a company to launch another company at 340, and then after the new company has run once merge your low-priced company with it. Sure, you halve your number of shares, but they're worth far more, and you can reinvest in the ensuing stock round. Perhaps better is to launch a company cheaply in the stock round, buy 60%, and then merge with your medium-priced company as soon as possible.

The Conservative Zone isn't of much use for actually running trains, since the cities there are worth at most 40 or 50 and that's somewhat derisory compared with Milan or Rome in the end game, but it has loads of places in it to launch new companies. In consequence it tends to get a lot of track built in it, but that track rarely gets upgraded to brown until the more "central" spots (i.e. near Milan or Rome) have been fully developed.

Q. Among other things, in a four-player game, how many of the 8 concessions usually get bought by the players? Is it better to start two companies at game start or focus on just one? At what value would they normally be started in a four player game with players starting with L.840 in cash?

Most get started. The SFTC is a complete lemon in v1. In v2 it's much less so, though I lack experience in evaluating it properly. The Tuscan companies tend to be poor payers in the middle game (when they've formed the SFLi) but if you're going to end up running the SFLi it's best to ensure that you own most of the components and, furthermore, have all three components fold in. This makes owning the SSFL somewhat more attractive than it might otherwise be. Even if the merger goes reasonably well, SFLi is usually short of funds, and a merger (often with a company launched in Genova) will solve the problem. Selecting the right price for your companies is tricky. Personally I tend to set SSFL high (144 or 216), SFLP and SFMA low (68), and anything else either 100 or 144 depending on how the cash seems to work out. Launching low will mean you attract investors, but leads to long-term cash shortages. But a merger or two will fix that.

In fact, that's a general observation; in 1841, the answer almost always lies in the merger rules, pretty much independently of the exact nature of the question.

Q. Our player who had the SSFL and the SFMA when the merger with SFLP took place ended up feeling impoverished and short on shares. I take it from your explanation that he should have dumped his SFLi initial offering shares as soon as possible to start a company in Genova and then merge with it.

That's one way of going about it. Another is to launch a company (probably at 68) in Genova personally, and merge. Ultimately, you'll want to own 60% of any company that's any good, and in general it's better to buy them at 68 and merge up to 242+ than it is to buy them at full price. Of course, you should always watch out for other players launching at 68; it's probably going to be profitable to invest in one share of it.

Q. In our game, the starting values for the initial companies were:
IRSFF - 100
SSFL - 216
SFMA - 100
SFLP - 68
SFTC - 144
SFTG - 144
SFTN - 100

Did we start SSFL too high? SFLP too low? How about the others?

Those don't seem particularly out of line. If a player is launching two non-Tuscan companies it's probably better to have one at 68 and one at 144 than it is to have two at 100, because that way you can profit by mergers more easily.

Q. When the SFLi formed out of the Tuscan Merge it was at 127.

That seems low. Its price should be almost the average of the SFMA and SFLP prices plus the SSFL price at the time of the merge, and it's hard to see how you could have knocked down prices so dramatically by the time of the Tuscan merge.

Q. At the time of the Ferdinandea secession, the SB and SFL were at 111. The SFL actually did far better than the SB in train revenues, but the SB had twice the stock value at game end: 298 vs. 152.

My experience is with v1, where the analogues of SB and SFL are minors, but your experience doesn't seem unreasonable given your unwillingness to merge. Milan is worth much more than Venice, so of course SFL revenues, when it has a train, will be higher. On the other hand, the fate of a company at a price of around 100 should be to merge with something to get its price higher and inject capital.

Q. I wonder how aggressively companies should be buying stock in other companies? My SFTC ended up with five certificates. Others mostly ranged from 2 to 3.

Don't forget that companies selling stock will usually depress prices, and doing this aggressively will probably prevent other players' stocks rising through paying dividends. (I.e. they rise off the ledge when they pay, only to fall back when someone sells; repeat ad infinitum.) In the meantime, of course, your company has profited by one payment and one stock increment. Corporate stock buying steps are a scarce resource, though, so the choice of buying for profit and mayhem, and launching a company to stay solvent, is a toughie.

If SFTC ended the game owning five stocks, it was definitely doing something wrong, though. Once your company owns two permanent trains and is at a price above 242, it's basically done and shouldn't be doing much other than running and paying. The one exception is buying and selling stock to depress prices, but to do that you only need about one share's worth of excess capital.

If I keep banging on about mergers being the route to salvation, it's because most players don't do it anything like enough. In fact, experience at other 18xx games can be a positive handicap at 1841, since the usual seat-of-the-pants heuristics of most other games will lead you astray. It is possible to launch and merge too much, as various members of the Kentish Mob have shown, but novices at 1841 probably won't err that way. And as Robert Jasiek has implied, strategy will only take you so far. As some point tactical considerations will overrule most of the strategic tips we've given. Learning when to apply that particular bit of strategic advice is something only experience can do for you.

Q. The box cover for 1841, v.2, says that the game takes 4-7 hours to play.  Is this accurate?
Even amongst experienced players, 4 hours is rather on the rapid side. It can be done, but it's rare. 5-6 hours is reasonably common, though a slow player or two can easily stretch the game beyond 7 hours.

1841 is probably the 18xx game with the greatest strategic depth. There's almost always something you can do beyond the basics of laying track and running trains, and much of the time there's something you ought to be doing. So it's never going to be a quick game.

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This page posted on 10 January 2007.   One small change made in the Introduction on 19 Feb. 2007.  If you have a game interest or question, you can leave a message by writing to "gamecorner".  I use