1841 Strategy, v.1

by Steve Thomas

The following article was written about 8 years ago and therefore applies to the first version of the game.  Please note that I no longer agree with everything in it, and the emphasis isn't strongly enough on mergers. My ideas about 1841 strategy have matured since I wrote it, the most important omission being the idea of having your company launch another company at 340 in order to loot it properly. I stand by the last two paragraphs, though. 

A great deal has been written about 18xx strategies in the past, but most, in my view, concentrate on inessentials, such as which Corporation to own. An example from Avalon Hill's 1830 (chosen because most readers will be familiar with it) will illustrate the problem. A much-followed opening strategy is to launch the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, buy three 2-Trains, and, by suitable track- and token-laying, earn at least $130 in OR 2 and more thereafter as long as the 2-Trains last.  Faced with this opening, opponents can react in two basic ways: they can buy B&O shares and leap on the gravy train, or they can start other Corporations and try to ensure that an early 4-Train eliminates the B&O's earnings potential. The critical point is that, except in 2- and possibly 3-player games, it takes more than one player to accelerate the pace of train-buying through to the 4s quickly enough to prevent B&O shareholders racing away with the game. I have been in a game where the B&O never got to run its 2-Trains at all, and another where they got to run for five or six rounds. With this range of possibilities, the question of whether it's a good idea whether to run the B&O like that is one that's really hard to answer unless you know something of the playing styles of your opponents. More generally, discussing the relative merits of the various corporations has its place, but only in the context of what you want to do with them and what your opponents can do about it.

So, what can usefully be said about strategy? Well, one observation is that all 18xx games are, in their early stages, exponential-growth games. Money makes money, so in the opening phases it's generally a good idea to divert Corporation money into personal money at every opportunity and, within limits, regardless of the exchange rate. One way to do this (in most 18xx games, not just 1841) is to set the par price of your Corporation as low as possible, to maximise its price-to-earnings ratio. This leads to two medium- and long-term problems; your Corporation will become short of money for rolling stock, and your portfolio will have too many low-valued shares in it when certificate limits start to bite. In some18xx games - 1837, for example - these problems have no very good solution, and in these correct strategy is normally to set high par prices. 1841 is not like that. A single mechanism holds the solution to both problems - mergers. Merging two corporations raises the amount of capital in them, and leaves you with fewer shares of higher values.

Because of the way the merger is done, it's a good idea to hold more shares in the cheaper predecessor corporation than in the more expensive. If you already own a medium-priced corporation, two decent ideas are to launch another at a low price (L.68 or L.100) and buy 60%, or to launch the new corporation high (L.216 or, better, L.340) and buy two or three shares only. Which one is better will depend on circumstance. The `launch low' technique tends to increase your holding towards 60%, whereas launching high tends to dilute your holding. Launching low requires less investment, which is handy if that's all that can conveniently be raised, with the corollary that it injects less new capital. Even so it's often the right thing to do since if necessary it can be repeated next round without losing too much stock value because of the L.250 cap on merged corporation prices. In either case, the new corporation should be launched in a city far enough away from existing track so that its tokens are cheap, yet close enough that it can be connected to your existing corporation at the right time despite the best endeavours of your opponents.

In all 18xx games, being the president or director of a corporation has several benefits: you gain a measure of control over track-laying and train-buying; you have a safe place to invest your money; you get to balance short- and long-term needs the way you want; you (usually) get a double share which helps towards certificate limits at the end-game; and, if there are money-making scams going (such as buying Private Companies in 1830) you get to participate. In 1841 most of these either don't apply or are of limited benefit, especially early on. This suggests that competition for the concessions should not be too fierce. Exact values for the various concessions are still a matter of debate and are in any event dependent on playing styles, but the bottom line is that if you don't end up with a concession, you can usually invest your initial capital (in the second Stock Round, when prices are lower) in the corporations which are floated, as most of them will. The disadvantages are that the best shares will have been snapped up, and it can be very bad to hold several shares in someone else's corporation when the concessions disappear - especially if the priority deal is in the right place.

Of the historical corporations available at the start of the game, the Ferdinandea is by far the most interesting. Its early earning potential is huge; with four trains it can easily earn around L.600 by the third round. The gravy train judders to a halt when the first 4-train is bought, triggering, inter alia, the Ferdinandea Secession. At this point one powerful corporation becomes two underfunded minors, and their president (or, sometimes, presidents) must try to find a way out of the mess.

The simplest idea is to try to own 60% of the Ferdinandea when it splits and then merge the two halves back together when the border between them disappears. The corporations will need either a 3-Train and a 4-Train between them or a 3-Train each and the wherewithal to buy a 5-Train. All this is hard to achieve in large games, since the capital is rarely there, but in small games it can be a decent plan. A variant idea starting from this position is to launch two new minor corporations, one near Milano and the other near Veneto, merge the two pairs of corporations to form two majors, and then merge the resulting majors together when the border disappears. Yet another plan is to have the share price of the minors high enough so that they can transform themselves into majors, which can then merge together. All of these can work if the pace of the game is right, but the dividing line between success and failure is particularly narrow.

All the previous plans assume a share-holding of 60%, or maybe 50%, in the Ferdinandea before it splits. In large games this is rarely achievable. However, owning only 30% can give you 60% of one of the minors and none of the other. If track has been built connecting Milano and Veneto, and there is a Ferdinandea token in Mantova, the Veneta will have satisfactory long-term routes and most of the Ferdinandea's assets, and the Lombarda can safely be left in the hands of either the Bank Pool or some deserving opponent. Even if all this goes to plan, the usual lack of capital will require that the Veneta be merged with a non-historical minor, and then possibly with another major.

For rather different reasons, it can be hard to win with the Tuscanian corporations. At the start of the game the Lucchese and the Maria Antonia can be very profitable, but the Leopolda is usually much less so. A traditional route is to launch the minors low and the major high, resulting in a high share value when the Tuscanian Merge occurs. The trouble with this is that the Livornese owner will normally have a modest number of shares in a high-valued corporation. Even if the Livornese is well-funded, the modest mid-game revenues in Tuscany will normally ensure that its owner finishes in the middle of the pack, ahead of those who did not manage the train obsolescence well, but behind those who lived on the edge and got away with it. Often, however, especially in small games, the Livornese is not well-funded after the presidents of its constituent parts their assets into their other corporations. Being President of such a Livornese is a disaster, so unless you own at least two, and preferably all three, of the constituents, it's best to avoid too large a holding.

The Genovese and the Novarese are each excellent corporations. They normally have ready access to Milano, and one of them will normally establish a token there. The Novarese, because it only has one token on the board at the start, is somewhat at the mercy of the Genovese, but the two corporations have largely common interests when it comes to developing routes and the Novarese will usually end up with much the same routes after a few operating rounds. In either case, the general plan will normally be to merge with a non-historical corporation, launched in either the Conservative Zone or in Cuneo once the concessions have disappeared.

Finally, we come to the most important strategy tip of all. In real life, the Cuneense is doubtless a fine railway corporation, but in 1841 it is the source of nothing but problems without providing any opportunities. Owning it is like clamping a huge ball and chain round your leg at the start of the game. It is possible to do well with it, especially if its president also owns the Genovese, but I've never seen anyone win with it, and much the most common outcome is bankruptcy. [Note: I have now seen someone win with the Cuneo. I suspect they'd have won by more without it, but...]

Opinions about the merits of 1841 vary enormously. It's a rather chaotic game, with ample opportunity to arrange profitable financial scams. The prospect can be rather daunting, but the techniques outlined in this guide should show why the better players act as they do. I find 1841 one of the most enjoyable games in the 18xx series. Once you understand what's going on, perhaps you will too.

[Note: A somewhat different version of this article by Steve Thomas was printed in Rail Gamer #9 (January/February/March 1999), pp. 6-9, with a few illustrations of the game's components.  It was titled: "Railroading, Italian Style - 1841 Strategy." The article posted in this website was its predecessor.]

Return to Lou's Game Corner: Railroad Game Links     Return to Lou's Game Corner
This page last updated on 11 January 2007.   If you have a game interest or question, you can leave a message by writing to "gamecorner".  I use earthlink.net.