1853 Game Review

by Lou Jerkich

1853, set in Imperial India, is a Francis G. Tresham 18xx railroad game design published by Hartland Trefoil. It is purportedly a "tracklayers" game--even the box cover advises that it is a "game for Engineers who've had enough of the Financiers." This game was actually designed before 1830, although it wasn't published until 1989--three years after 1830 had appeared. 1853 has a wide range of interesting and often novel features. It retains the linear stock market of Tresham's original 1829 game without the 1830 enhancements that made stock manipulation so popular. A company's stock value advances when dividends are paid out, but it only loses value if both no dividend is paid and there are shares of that company in the bank pool. Player transactions use "cash" but company funds are in separate notes called "credits"--nicely avoiding doubt as to which pile of cash belongs where. The board is large, consisting of six large interlocking segments of various shapes, plus a small two-hex section for the southern tip of India. There are no private companies, no company charter cards, nor any "survey parties" as in 1829. Instead, to determine who gets to start which company, players follow a contract bid procedure based on linking key major cities. Shares are issued based on the bids made, and if 6 shares (5 shares in a 5- or 6-player game) have been issued in a given company, it qualifies to start. Companies that start without any player having two or more shares will have a "manager" rather than a director. Unlike directors, managers may buy a train on credit, but managers may not declare dividends. The shares of companies named in the Contract Bids are available simultaneously, but players may only buy shares in additional companies according to a specific order, beginning with the company with highest par value on down to that with lowest par value. Starting par values for each of the eight companies are fixed, ranging from a high of 100 to a low value of 70, and companies always "operate" in this same order. 1853's "priority deal marker" is an "Elephant" which may be sold by its holder to any player for a mutually agreed price. The holder of the Elephant may also postpone a stock round by calling for one additional operating round to be played.

Each company has territorial restrictions on where it may build track. For example, the NWR (North Western Railway) may only lay track in the area west of Delhi and north of Karachi, including the row or column defined. The four smallest companies in 1853 may lay only one tile each turn, but the four largest companies may lay one or two tiles per turn, provided that the second tile connects to a different base and does not share the same track line as the first tile placed. Small towns may be upgraded to green tiles having either small or large towns. Yellow and green track may be either broad or metre gauge between railheads, and only trains of the appropriate gauge may run on the track. Brown and grey tiles are dual gauge and take either type of train. Moreover, all brown and grey non-station tiles are junctions that have no revenue value even though they look like small city tiles. Hills, mountains, "Himalayan" mountains, and rivers entail various construction costs, but the metre gauge track has noticeably lower costs than its broad gauge counterparts. Each company may also designate one of its trains (metre gauge included) in each turn for the "government mail run," thereby giving it a bonus income equal to the value of the stations at the start and end of its run. (This mail run bonus is always retained by the company, thereby adding to its company treasury even when the rest of its revenues are paid out as dividends.)   In addition, some northwestern and northeastern map hexes are considered frontier outposts and provide a bonus payoff for trains of either gauge if reached. Also, when the cities which were "bid" by a player have been connected by track of any line or combination of lines, the player receives back the cash which was set aside when he made his initial "bid." A game ends only when a company's share value reaches the end of the stock market board or at the end of the operating round in which the bank runs out of money. No game is ended by player bankruptcy.

Despite its many interesting innovations, the combination of the bidding rules, the fixed par values, and the rigid order in which company shares must be bought after the initial bidding rounds all conspire to unbalance 1853 in favor of the players who have guessed best in the bidding phase. It is entirely possible for a player to do poorly in the bidding and realize before the end of the first turn that he has almost no chance to win. Moreover, it is quite possible for a player who obtains no directorship in the bidding phase to also find himself unable to obtain any directorship during the entire game, thanks to the rigid sequence in which shares must be bought in companies that were not started in the bidding phase. Needless to say, a player who can't lay any track at all is highly unlikely to be enthused about this game designed for the "tracklayers." Fortunately, as early as 1990 Stuart Dagger and Steve Jones published an article in issue #1 of Strategy Plus designed to rectify the game's imbalances and make it more enjoyable for all. Under the title "Retuning 1853," this article was published in print in Rail Gamer #7 (July/Aug./Sept. 1998).  "Retuning 1853" is also currently available online with a few improvements over the previous versions. 

The online version of "Retuning 1853" proposes 12 rules modifications, a rule clarification, and a couple of optional rules. Included is a commentary on the rules changes that explains the impact of each modification on the play of the game. In essence, these rule variations cause the bidding session to become more open, so players may modify their game strategy as they see how others are developing their game plans. Other changes help balance the distribution of initial companies so that even the minor companies may be worth starting. One, the BBCI (ranked 5th in par value position on the stock chart), has the possibility of starting as a major company if it has a Director by the end of the first Share Buying Round. In addition, the BAR (Bengal Assam Railway in NE India, the railway with the lowest initial par value) may be permitted to lay two tiles on its first turn. Moreover, once all the original shares of companies contracted for in the initial bidding are issued, all shares in the remaining companies are simultaneously available. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that a player can be prevented from becoming a director of a company.

Dagger and Jones also suggest borrowing from other 18xx games eight broad gauge type-58 tiles (the broad curve with a small station) which are sorely missed in this game. (None are included in the tile mix!). Apparently Francis Tresham had a good reason for leaving these tiles out of his 1829 design, but those reasons have lost their validity in his 1853 design. Another Dagger/Jones variation includes adding 1M-trains--metre gauge trains that serve one station and any number of connected small towns. (In 1853, the type of train determines just how many large cities are counted for a revenue run, but any number of connected small towns can be included in the same run. In 1853, India is replete with these desirable small towns!) A new feature for game balance is that companies that are lagging behind in stock value may advance two, three, or even four spaces on the stock value chart if dividends exceed current share price by 20%, 30%, or 40% respectively. (Note that in his 1825 game, Francis Tresham included this two-to-four space jump on the market as part of the normal rules.)  In Rail Gamer #7 another alternative suggests using a more realistic stock value chart and also allowing a company to own up to three of its own shares. In the online version of "Retuning 1853", Stuart dagger has simplified and improved the suggestions he has for the more realistic stock market chart.  

My gaming circle was at first disappointed with 1853 because it appeared to favor the players who became directors of the two or three companies that start with the highest par values. We have experienced the frustration of both not being able to gain a directorship because of being bested in the bidding at game start and then, due to the rigid order in which shares of later companies had to be bought, being unable to buy stock at the right time and in the right quantity so as to become a director. "Retuning 1853" was so successful in improving the game that I now consider it no less challenging and enjoyable than our other 18xx favorites. By restoring the game balance and increasing the excitement level, Stuart Dagger and Steve Jones have enabled the many unique features of Francis Tresham's 1853 game to become an integral part of an enjoyable gaming experience of railroading in India.

1853 is copyright 1989 by Hartland Trefoil Ltd. for its game of railway building in Imperial India. 1829 is copyright 1974 and 1981 by Hartland Trefoil Ltd. for its respective railroad games on Southern and Northern England. Hartland Trefoil was purchased in December 1997 by Microprose Software, which in turn was purchased by Hasbro Inc., in August 1998.

1830 is copyright 1986 by the Avalon Hill Game Company, which was purchased by Hasbro Inc., in August 1998.

Rail Gamer, The Magazine for Train Gaming Enthusiasts, was formerly published quarterly by David Metheny, Editor, P.O. Box 98242, Brentwood, PA 15227. 

Copyright, October 1998,  2007 and 2008 by Lou Jerkich.  May be reproduced in any form without permission if no changes are made.

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