Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

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All change!' on Britain's railways | The National Archives


This is a “blog post” pretending to be an onside report covering a possible railway investment game or megagame. I ran a session in October that I dimly remember. As I recall there was some scepticism over the need for such a game. We recognised that there were enough shenanigans and sharp practice involved to make the subject interesting. 

18XX games are a family of games about investing in and building railways all around the world in the 19th century. Typically the XX is a significant date in the history of the railways of the host country. Brass is two hit games about making money in the industrial revolution in Lancashire or the Black Country.

History of the ”Genre”

About 30 years ago when I started playing megagames I also started playing 18xx railway games, primarily one called 1830.  This is set in the USA and allowed the sort of dubious business practices that were common in the early development of railroads. I read around the subject a bit then and found it stimulating and interesting. This made me want to combine my two new gaming interests. I did not get very far. Essentially 1830 involves ripping off unsuspecting investors. It is not ideal if either anonymous mechanisms or other players fill this role in a megagame. The investors need some medium in which to play a game that is not just being sucker, or they need to be part of the train game or both.  

Back in 2019 I started playing 18xx games regularly again and late in the year I went to John Mizon’s Sugar and Sedition megagame in Bristol.  I followed this with a visit to the SS Great Britain and the Isambard Kingdom Brunel Museum. The museum had a lot of exhibits relating to the Great Western Railway for which Brunel was the chief engineer. Some of these focused on the organisation and resources needed to get a railway built. These ones really rekindled my interest in setting up a game of financial shenanigans and engineering in the period. 

The Historical Proposition

  One exhibit considered how a railway required a whole bunch of different people coordinating to get the enterprise going. This coming together and negotiating what role everyone would fill is where the game gets its megagame characteristics. 

At the time the Railways were massive undertakings and required substantially more capital than other endeavours like canals had.

Every company had to be founded

 by an Act of Parliament which would confirm its powers and authorise its ability to raise capital. The powers included where they could run and included the compulsory purchase of land.

The exhibit pointed out that a Railway would need people with the following attributes:-

Engineer (Surveyor) to survey the route.

Contractors to build the track.

Engineer (Mechanical) to develop locomotives and rolling stock.

People with Capital to pay for it all, including some up front to cover promotion. 

Friendly MPs to get the bill introduced into parliament.

Lobbyists and publicists to attract investors, marshal local support and help the bill through parliament.

Agreeable land owners along the route to ensure that the route had some place to go.

Certain individuals might have several of these attributes. It was noted that it was probably best that the Surveyor was not the same person as the contractor, though this did not stop it happening.  


The company would have a prospectus produced by promoters of the railway.

On top of this a company was expected to have the following laid out in its prospectus which would be reviewed by a standing committee:-

A surveyed route.

The amount of capital required to build the route, carefully calculated.

Some amount of subscribed capital – this varied over time from all of it to just 10%.

Estimated revenues it could earn (!)

The attitude of land owners along the route to the development (For, Against or Neuter).

They also required that the promoters announce their intentions to people and authorities along the route by sticking bills and in the local press etc. and would take the views of these people into consideration. 

The acts of parliament empowered the railways to make compulsory land purchases. They did not however specify a price for these transactions. 

The powers granted were very specific and would not allow for example building other routes or incidental enterprises like running hotels at the terminuses. They might also specify fixed rates for the transport of (some) goods.

The Standing Committee

The standing committee review might include interviews with the surveyor or other promoters. If the prospectus passes, the bill can go before parliament.

There was goodwill towards railway construction and no political party had strong opinions about them one way or the other. People felt that is represented progress. This meant that bills would usually pass. However as railways developed competing interests would try to delay or even stop one another’s bills.

In game terms this whole organisational scheme is the sort of combined enterprise that you can’t do in a small game. A game can give players the various abilities and assets listed above and come together to form companies without being slotted into teams. It is also purely economic which has not really been addressed in other games. 

Making a Game of it

Possible historical examples for railways would include industrialists who were mining coal and who want cheaper transport rates to get their products to the markets, or probably to ports that lead to markets. This mirrors the way the first railways developed historically if very locally. More interesting might be something like the Liverpool and Manchester Railway which was developed to serve the harbours and factories of those two cities and succeeded beyond expectations adding huge amounts of passenger traffic to its business.

Anyway while I am not really sure how this might work in an all day game I do think there is enough in the subject to give some entertainment trying to get trains running.  The plague has alerted me to the possibility of doing something on a small scale with maybe a turn at a time.

So my current objective is to make a game for maybe 20 players. These would all slot into the various roles above with a view to forming a few railway companies in a smallish, probably fictional, or at least fictionalised, region of Britain. The parliamentary cycle would indicate annual turns but I would fudge it to 2 year turns to allow for faster growth, which is generally needed in a game. 

Short Term

My plan in the short term is to make up some rules for surveying, and consequently building routes, simple rules for generating revenue and a map. Then to try this out with a handful of people to see if it works and is at all fun. Scaling up I think I would try to play one turn at a time. This takes pressure off trying to occupy the characters who are more about setting things up than about doing stuff. Obviously in a full on all day game they would need to have something to do but online for a short period they only need a little. 

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