Article

18 Things About TraXX Four!

Justin loves train games, but a train game convention…was that a step too far? Join him for his coverage of the 18xx convention TraXX, which recently wrapped up in Denver, Colorado.

There was a point, maybe a year ago, when I was really digging into the 18xx category. I started to wonder, between the other large conventions that I hit (such as Gen Con and SPIEL), whether anyone had started a series of shows based solely on train games. Surely, SOMEBODY thought doing a three- or four-day convention where folks only played tile-laying, route-building, revenue-generating train games that last between 3-10 hours would be a good idea.

Right?

Enter TraXX. Technically, TraXX is both a convention series and a collective of folks in the Denver area who love the niche category of 18xx games, enough that they have created a newsletter, a print-and-play series of games, fully published games (18India, now in circulation via GMT Games), and the TraXX conventions.

Even though this past May’s event was labeled “TraXX Four”, there have been six TraXX events—four main conventions (which began in 2019) and two other events, known as TraXX Re-Railer and TraXX Caboose.

Yes, I get the irony—gamers who love math-heavy economic games should know how to count to six. But, here we are!

Once I found TraXX, I tracked its movements (you see what I did there) and decided at the last minute to come to the 2024 event. That decision was made easier because I found a $72 direct flight on Frontier, and I only came for the final two days of the show.

How was it? For a convention about supposedly boring, dry train games, TraXX was a pretty good time. Let’s toss around some random thoughts—18 feels like the right number—regarding the experience!

75% of Team TraXX was willing to pose for a shot on the last day of the show! (Everyone else has better train game shirts than me…for now)

The Polar Opposite of SPIEL

Regular readers know that I typically rep Meeple Mountain at larger tabletop conventions. I prefer going to big shows with big crowds, featuring the hottest game releases, ideally in international locations.

So, imagine my surprise when I heard that TraXX was sold out…because all 60 tickets were gone.

Not 200,000, not 25,000, not even a thousand like TantrumCon earlier this year. Sixty. Six-zero. In the scheme of my world, TraXX will easily be the smallest convention I hit all year.

And I loved the small size. This meant that TraXX organizers Tony Fryer, Michael Carter, John Harres and Nick Neylon were everywhere to be seen. (Chris Whitpan struck me as one of the organizers, too; he led the art design for 18India as well as the back covers of the Mainline magazine series these guys run.)

Tony joked at the end of the event that I was one of only four people he did not know before the show began. This level of intimacy really shined through because the conversation was easy all weekend long. Lots of players seemed to have a little history with each other, and TraXX clearly has “regulars.”

It’s a Little More Diverse Than I Expected

My main fear with going to a train game con was pretty straightforward. I get a little nervous being the “only” in social situations—the only man at International Women’s Day events, the only meat lover at a vegan farmer’s market, the only Black guy at a board game convention.

I’m happy to report that TraXX was a little more diverse than I expected. A sprinkle of color. A couple women who count themselves as regular train gamers. The age diversity really struck me—there were people in their 30s and people that were much older than that. (In one case, a player recounted an 18xx group he had in the Chicagoland area made up of seniors—”I think there are five people in the group…oh, wait, I think ____ passed away last year, so it’s a little smaller now.”)

Through some of the connections I made at TraXX, I’m hoping to attend some of the smaller regional conventions with other players who love the 18xx system. I’m sure there are 18xx’ers of all shades floating around, and it’s my hope that I can bring more types of folks into the fold because the games are so good.

System18 (prototype, All Aboard Games)

System18 Works Quite Well

I had the chance to do a two-player game of System18, a prototype designed by Scott Peterson (who was also in attendance at the event) and coming sooner or later from All Aboard Games. (I own a copy of 18MS and 18PNW, also from AAG. Scott’s focus on a handsome table presence really shines with those games.)

System18 has that Age of Steam vibe, in terms of variety—an 18xx system, with multiple small maps and ways to play, packaged in a way that allows for lower player counts (two, maybe three, tops at four) to engage in a short 18xx experience. We did a map that was clearly based on 1830: Railways and Robber Barons, right down to the companies included and the way the small map was presented.

I liked it, if anything, because it plays fast. I did a prototype play, so I’m hoping this will come to crowdfunding in the months ahead. System18 leans hard into what I’m seeing from other publishers—an assumption that no one has any time any more. (This is just my guess; Scott did not infer this during my brief conversation with him about the game.) 18xx games are famously difficult to table on a weeknight, so System18 has a chance to become that for me when production copies enter the world.

A lot of train games were played over the weekend

Train Gamers Start Early

Maybe it’s a stereotype, but it’s clear that older gamers like to kick things off early.

On the Saturday morning of the event, all 10 or so tables were full of folks setting up games that would take us through the morning. I’m pretty sure most conventions would struggle to get gaming going at 8 AM, but there we were, at breakfast by 7:30 so that we could fuel up for the day ahead.

Thanks to a large whiteboard in the center of the conference room, players could sign up for games or indicate an interest in something new. I was more impressed with the BGG Con-style pickup games that took place throughout the event. I never had to wait more than 15 minutes to find players who were between games and looking for a player to fill a slot. (Most 18xx games play best at higher player counts, so generally you want to max it out where you can.)

One surprise with the early start—Saturday kicked off with games at 8 AM, but I got into a game of 18Korea around 10 PM that required a teach. You could go late if you are down!

1888-N (Lonny Games)

One Half of Splotter

Interesting moment for me Friday night—Jeroen Doumen, one half of the Splotter Spellen design duo responsible for games such as Food Chain Magnate, Indonesia, and Horseless Carriage, was sitting at the table next to me.

“Did you know that Jeroen likes train games?” someone asked me. I did not, but it’s clear that Jeroen is more than just an 18xx fan…he’s a superfan. Every minute of my two days in town, right up until the event ended on Sunday afternoon, Jeroen was at a table playing a train game.

I never sat with Jeroen for a play, but we exchanged pleasantries when we met on Saturday. Nice guy. Given the complexity of Splotter productions, it’s safe to say that Jeroen was right at home with other strategy gamers!

What’s up, Ian?

Seven Hours is a Long Time

TraXX folks like to bring prototypes of games in development, and I love the game 1861: Railways of the Russian Empire. So, it was a no-brainer when I saw that Ian D. Wilson, the prolific 18xx designer who is also credited with 1861 as well as 1867: Railways of Canada and 1858: The Railways of Iberia, was personally leading a demo of his newest game, 18BF.

18BF shares a lot of the bones of 1861, with minors, mergers, and a big map. In fact, this map was so big I couldn’t see the payout rates of some of the cities from my position at the table. I love the way London is used on the map, with entry/exit points but no through routes. 18BF also has “supermajors”, when majors combine near the end of the game, which plays into the game’s name of the Big Four. (This was apparently a thing in the UK back in the day.)

Fun game. I prefer 1861, in part because I love the early game in 1861. Also, I prefer 1861 because you can play it in about four hours…and 18BF—yes, this was a teaching game, but still—took us a little over seven hours to play.

Believe it or not, that wasn’t even close to the longest game played by others during the weekend. Games of 18USA were taking most of the day for a couple tables, and titles like 1822 can also take quite a while to wrap up. (One game of 1822PNW appeared to take about 10 hours. As with 1822, auctions are a huge part of that system, and auctions take a while.) If you are gonna dive into this part of the hobby, have time my friends!!

18BF (prototype, Lonny Games)

Tony Loves Costco

A note on the big board highlighted the lunch plans for Saturday afternoon: lunch was being brought in by the TraXX team.

I asked Tony for a preview. “You ever had the hot dogs at Costco?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “My family does pizza and hot dogs and the bags of those Himalayan pink sea salt chips all the time.”

Tony smiled. “Well, good news—that’s lunch.” The food showed up, and 60 hungry train gamers went to town on that chow. Most people just want a little low-brow grub between games. TraXX did grub on the cheap in a quality way that everyone enjoyed. (You are right—I’m not taking into account people that don’t like pizza and hot dogs and the Kirkland Signature Krinkle Cut Kettle Chips with Himalayan Salt, because I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t love at least one of those three things.)

18USA (All Aboard Games)

Bankruptcy is Celebrated

Someone blew on or pushed an item that made a very distinct, high-pitched “choo choo” sound, like a whistle stop. I looked over at the table where this took place, then asked somebody what that was all about.

“Bankruptcy,” he said. “If you go bankrupt, you gotta go over and toot the whistle.”

TraXX folks know how to have a good time, and everyone knows that a wrong move or two is going to lead to bankruptcy at some point during an 18xx game. Sometimes, bankruptcy ends the game; in others, that just means you’ve been Monopoly’ed out of the game while play continues. I just love that this is tracked with a loud whistle and celebrated with applause from everyone in the room.

3D-printed station token holders? Obviously

Derek Yeung is My Man

Upon arrival Friday night, I got to the hotel around 9:30 just hoping to grab my badge so that I could start Saturday with some games. When I walked in, I was greeted by Derek Yeung, who I would describe as a gaming ambassador, someone who just loves to game through and through. (He also works gaming events as a volunteer, so keep a look out for him at BGG Con too.)

Derek gave me the lay of the TraXX land, including the big board where players tracked every game played as well as the schedule and silly awards, like the most bankruptcies and the number of times players pulled a “Richard Track” move by laying track in a way that completely hosed another player. He also offered to play a quick 18xx game with me (System18, noted above), which I didn’t even think was possible after people had been playing games for the last 12 hours!

Derek, like me, attended the University of Virginia, so bonus points there too. Derek was emblematic of the other people I met at TraXX—very welcoming, willing to teach you anything you wanted to play, and equally as willing to take your legs out from under you by buying all the 3 trains and the first 4 train to rust your 2s. (Thanks again, pal.)

Railways of the Lost Atlas (2024, Asterisk Games)

Railways of the Lost Atlas

A full review of this is coming soon, but it is worth noting now: Railways of the Lost Atlas is almost certainly going to land in my top five games of the year. (I’m already a backer, so I will play my production copy in a few weeks before publishing my final review.)

Railways of the Lost Atlas, or ROTLA, is an 18xx game that turns some of the 18xx system’s conventions on its head. There is no formal map—the board is made up of tri-hex tiles that are randomly drawn from a supply and built into a map that takes on all kinds of shapes. The minor companies are basically privates that can later be merged into a corporation, with the ability to buy a “leadoff train” BEFORE its first operating turn, meaning that it operates after its initial track lay.

ROTLA plays in either four or six rounds, meaning that I was able to do a three-player game in about 90 minutes and a four-player game in about 2.5 hours (that was my learning game). The minor railroad powers are fantastic, and when merged into a major, the charters create a cool visual as players manage their major corporation. Loads of variants are included right out of the box, so ROTLA strikes me as a system that could probably grow forever.

I played ROTLA twice, and the train gamers who I talked to about the game had incredible things to say about the game, often unsolicited. For the 1600 or so backers of the ROTLA crowdfunding campaign, I think you are going to be happy with the final product, particularly as a game that could support both 18xx fans, strategy tabletop gamers, and even those who have been scared away by train games in the past.

Some of these games are print-and-plays in white 3-ring binders!

Train Game Publishers Don’t Have Ian O’Toole Money

The TraXX library was quite extensive; I didn’t do a final count, but 60-80 games were present on the shelves.

Here’s what was not present—fancy cover art on any of those 18xx game boxes. Seriously, train games publishers need to think about what visually attracts people to a game, and in what I believe to be the golden age of board game production, 18xx games seem to be nowhere near a place of creating visually exciting box and board art. There is almost no flair on any of it, which might be why many people think of these games as so dry.

Games like 1861/1867 and Shikoku 1889—both recently reprinted with handsome new editions via Grand Trunk Games—really stood out on the library shelves because the box art is gorgeous. Even second editions like 1846: The Race for the Midwest from GMT stand out as a great-looking edition of a classic game. But some of these other boxes, man…you might mistake an empty sleeve of 8.5 x 11” paper for a 18xx game, because that’s how vanilla some of these productions are.

The Root Guys

Late on Saturday night, I went over to the Himalayan Salt chips table. Nearby, a guy was taking a copy of the area control wargame Root out of his satchel.

We exchanged a look. “You know, I’m not sure that’s a train game,” I offered.

“You’re right,” the guy said. “But, there IS route building, and we love Root, and we’ve played a lot of train games this week.”

So, that happened.

Cooking with gas

Cube Rail Games? The Answer is No

TraXX is mostly an 18xx convention, but there are 18xx-adjacent games that definitely should be there, such as City of the Big Shoulders, Union Stockyards, Acquire, Imperial Steam, the Brass games, or any game that combines a market, laying track, resources, route building, and/or stock splits.

But here was the biggest surprise of the weekend, at least to me as a rookie: there were zero “cube rails” games on the shelf. This includes games such as the “Iron Rails” series (which includes Iberian Gauge, which I think is a perfect game), Chicago Express/Wabash Cannonball, Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and many others. Also, Age of Steam or its friendlier cousin, Railways of the World, were nowhere to be seen. (And, to your next question—no, Ticket to Ride appears to be one of those dirty words at TraXX…”I said I’ll play a train game” is a reaction I could imagine hearing if you tried to suggest TTR to an 18xx player.)

I didn’t ask why there were zero cube rails games—and look, you don’t name your convention TraXX unless you REALLY love them trains—but when I come back next year, I’m definitely going to bring a couple of sort-of 18xx games that fit the category of 18xx-adjacent. And probably Iberian Gauge.

More toys: this tool is used to suction cardboard tiles to take them off a map, or rotate them till you find your preferred taste. Train gamers!!

Train Game Shorthand

“I’m gonna run my 5 train, but I guess I have to go through that dit too…10 bucks?”

“Have you played 1817? No? That might make you ‘short bait’ to other players.”

“I’m gonna flip a share of B&O.”

“I guess we’re gonna ‘grow up.’”

“I love maps where players can get tokened out.”

“You gonna run for full? Half? Hold?”

Most of my 18xx games in Chicago are with people that play a lot of Euros, so they don’t speak 18xx. It was wild trying to capture as much of the train game shorthand as possible. None of it is terribly difficult to pick up, and by the end of the day Sunday I found myself speaking a little 18xx myself. Still—18xx is another world, and some people have been speaking that language for 40 years (FORTY YEARS!!!). As I embark on year two, I have a long way to go!

The $25 Chips vs. the $20 Chips

For my first play of Railways of the Lost Atlas, a guy brought his personal set of poker chips to the table and we began to hand out starting capital. Then, I saw it—this guy’s set of chips didn’t have $20 chips. Instead, he uses $25 chips for his 18xx games. (For the denomination that maybe gets the most movement in a train game, there are intense debates on the interwebs regarding which is easier to math out in your head when paying revenues.)

A friendly argument ensued. Train gamers are a particular bunch, and their poker chip denominations were no exception. Some people like having both $1 and $2 chips in their arsenal, while others feel that $1 chips are all they need for low denominations. Some people badly desire having large-font denomination numbers on their chips, while others were fine with a color coding system that was admittedly consistent during the weekend (white chips are a buck, reds are $5, greens were $20, blues were $50, etc.).

The guy who used the $25 chips liked using that to math out payments in $25 increments more than the $20s. But it was fascinating to watch the two sides of that debate play out. (Was there a debate about the type of poker chip cores, too? The best places to buy chips? The size of the font on the chips? I don’t play poker, so this is the most I have ever talked about poker chips in a single weekend. One guy had a poker chip case that looked like a handgun case, but it was maybe three times as deep, making it look like a poker chip lunchbox. Everyone wanted one.)

Boring private power, this is not (18Korea, Artnpiece Games)

18Korea: 18xx on Steroids

I had the chance to play 18Korea, a game released in 2021 but that has become nearly impossible to find on the secondhand market because no one wants to pay to import a copy of the game from foreign markets.

But I just might look into it. 18Korea was described many ways during the convention, but I think the most accurate description might be this: an 18xx party game. The privates are drafted before play begins, and all the powers have that sassy Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan approach, where all the privates break the game.

Three of these powers are drafted by each player, then other wacky stuff happens during the game. Bankruptcy seems a little easier here. Half the map implodes during phase four, leaving all the North Korean companies destroyed and out of play.

At one point, Ian D. Wilson (the designer we discussed earlier who gave us 1861: Railways of the Russian Empire) strolled over, saw that we were playing 18Korea, and stopped for a moment.

“Ian, what do you think of 18Korea?” we asked. He shook his head. It’s clear that the gameplay is so bananas that strategy game designers look at 18Korea as being a bit ridiculous.

But as an end-of-the-night laughathon with train gamers? A great time. I’m excited to see how I feel about this one after more plays.

Where did I leave my Priority Deal token?

That Old Calculator of Yours? Don’t Throw It Away

You know that old Texas Instruments scientific calculator you used “back in the day”? You might want to bring that to your next train game convention.

Sure—like most people under the age of 50, your mobile is now both your calculator and almost anything else you used to carry separately, like a camera or a phone or your credit card or your alarm clock. But when you are playing a train game and your cell phone konks out on you, or you want to do a lot of math, I think I’m going to sling a calculator for next year’s TraXX.

Some of the train gamers I met were in their 60s and 70s. You know they had their calculators because they know what’s up. Looking forward to being a man of a certain age eventually, but calculators will help me catch up!!

1846: The Race for the Midwest (GMT Games)

Tony and Aimee—They Play Games EVERY DAY

The Meeple Mountain team recently had a discussion about the frequency with which we all play games. Some play games once a week, if at all. Others play five times a week. I met a couple, Tony and Aimee, that play board games—often, 18xx games!!—every single day.

Can you imagine playing physical, “in real life” board games every day? Some readers probably don’t have to imagine. Others, like me, play games almost every day now, and look forward to vacations where I don’t think about gaming at all.

But these two folks? They love gaming. They love two-player 18xx experiences, something I usually avoid because I like these games better at max player count. They clearly love each other, because I could see that being the end of my marriage, particularly if one player won more often than the other.


So, that was TraXX Four. A great time, with great people, in a very intimate setting. I’m going to have to up my 18xx skills a bit for a future visit; I got smoked in a game of 1888-N, finished in respectable positions during other games, and won the game of 18Korea. I learned a lot, but the most important lesson? I need to go to more “playcons”, conventions that focus more on playing games than hitting meetings (see: BGG Con, Origins, PAX Unplugged, Dice Tower West, Geekway to the West, etc.).

In the meantime, I’m gonna get back on 18xx.games and continue to learn. Thanks to the TraXX team for letting a relatively rookie take time to dive a bit too deep!

About the author

Justin Bell

Love my family, love games, love food, love naps. If you're in Chicago, let's meet up and roll some dice!

3 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Hey Justin, this is shazzner, we played Railways of the Lost Atlas and 1888-N, it was great meeting you and playing some games. Hope to see you at the next TraXX!

    • Hey man! Thanks for the note, great to meet you in Denver and looking forward to getting smoked by you and the others at future shows. Great to learn so many new games too. TraXX is a great event!

Subscribe to Meeple Mountain!

Crowdfunding Roundup

Crowdfunding Roundup header

Resources for Board Gamers

Board Game Categories