1829 (South) was the first 18xx game, published back – it's hard to believe it was so long ago now – in 1974. 1829 is a very fine game, with the caveat that it takes, oh, about 12 hours to play. Especially problematic in light of the fact that it's only fun for maybe 6. But you know, there just weren't as many good games back then.
1825 tackled this problem by keeping the core game more or less intact, but chopping the huge 1829 up into much more manageable chunks. Two games (1829 and 1829 North) become 3 base games plus 3 regional expansions plus an expansion to lengthen the game plus at least half a dozen more mini-expansions adding various features from the original. Some additional rules streamlining and game balancing was done, and players were given significantly more flexibility, but 1829 at its core is clearly recognizable.
Playing the small 1825 games, though, you miss out on the scope of the bigger 1829, the long runs and open play. 1829 Mainline is an attempt to do an 18xx game that is both simple and short(er), and operates on a large geographical playing field, as well as bring us a game that is different enough from 1825 and 1829 to be worthwhile.
The first thing I noticed was the streamlining that eliminates the last few major 18xx features that non-regular players find troublesome. The main one is the phases of play (certain trains trigger rusting of other trains, changes in tiles available, changes in train holding limits, and colors of track available). Now you can just buy whatever is available, and upgrade track whenever you want. All good. There are also no longer restrictions on buying and selling stock; you can buy whatever is available and sell whatever you want. All of which is a relief.
The operations phase is mainly familiar to players of 1825 or 1830, with the only major rules change being that yellow tiles (basic track) can be put down in large batches, jumping ahead to the next city in one fell swoop as long as no drastic maneuvers are required. This is simple, but combined with the larger board it opens up a much richer tactical game than is typical in these games. No longer are entire geographical regions non-viable because of the plodding pace of tile laying. No longer is building bypasses necessarily an excruciating process of laying one time at a time over many turns. You now have a lot more flexibility in developing your runs, and with lots of cities and lots of companies, there is interesting competition for the best routes.
The major changes, though, are in the stock round.
For those unfamiliar with 18xx, stocks are bought and sold in rounds, where each round you can buy a single share. This tends to give everyone a crack at owning desirable companies, and also allows some to-and-fro as some players may sell to take advantage of an opportunity or defend their holdings from takeover, and others then scoop things up, with opportunities opening and closing as the round goes on.
It also means things can take a while, and can be uneven when some players are buying and selling heavily while others are watching (due to cash constraints, lack of interest, or greater or lesser foresight). 1829 Mainline tries to both simplify and speed this up. Instead of selling at any time, you can only sell the first time around the table. Instead of buying one stock at a time, each turn you just buy as many as you can afford.
Obviously, this shortcut wouldn't work with the basic 18xx system of having a large pool of stocks available to everyone at the same time. So instead there is a mixed system. Each player is dealt a hand of some number of stock cards (around 10) at the beginning of the game, which you can buy from freely. This is your private pool. Then there is a draw deck of stock cards; if you want, you can take a random draw from it and either buy it, or not (ending your turn if you don't, thus adding an interesting element of risk). And there is the discard pile of rejected stocks, which you can keep buying off the top of. To keep some motion going, your turn must end by flipping a card of the draw deck and not buying it.
I like all this in principle. It dramatically speeds up the stock rounds. It eliminates a couple fiddly rules about when you can't buy stocks you've already sold, rules which sometimes seem artificial and can hammer new players. And it adds a nice element of variance (because the stocks available for immediate purchase will vary each game), planning (working with the cards you've been dealt as well as judging when to keep reserves of cash to take advantage of opportunities since you can't freely sell) and uncertainty (the draw pile) which 18xx generally lacks. I'd be happy with it if it were not for two issues.
The first is how companies float. Like in 1856, your company can begin running as soon as two shares are sold. Also like 1856, your company gets money to its treasury only when people buy stock.
Here is the problem: your companies need a lot of cash to succeed in the long-term. Therefore, they need to sell shares. What if those shares aren't available, because they are buried in the draw/discard pile or because someone is sitting on them in his or her hand because he or she has other priorities? It's really tough to be sitting there in the middle game on a company starved for cash, but with 50% of the stock unavailable to purchase at any price. Also, companies that other players buy into early will tend to do much better than those with a single sponsor, as they have so much more money. This problem can crop up a bit in 1856, where good companies like the CPR, LPS, or Welland will get other players' cash, while second-tier companies won't, to their own detriment. At least in 1856, though, you have the ability to take out loans and "flip" your own stock to generate the cash you need. 1829 has no loans, your ability to flip stock is limited, and with the random availability of stock, who knows if it's even available to buy? It's possible to get behind the 8-ball here and not have a lot you can do about it.
The second problem combined with the above is simply one of length. We played with 3 very experienced 18xx players who didn't play slowly, and the game took 4.5 hours. On the scale of 18xx games, and with players new to the specific game, that doesn't sound too bad. But with the random allocation of shares, and the reduction in flexibility in the stock round, I think 1829 Mainline really wants to be 2.5 to 3 hours. Which, interestingly, is what it says on the box – and Mr. Tresham is usually pretty good about getting these estimates right, even when they are unpalatable; the numbers for 1829, 1853, 1825, and Revolution have been quite accurate, even erring in favor of being too generous, for me. But I have a hard time seeing my way clear to a 2.5 hour playing time on this one.
Which leads me to my last point. Somewhat unusual for a Francis Tresham game, the 1829 Mainline rules have a few problems. As a fan of 1825 I was able to work them through, but the cost to build on various terrain types (rivers and mountains) are nowhere to be found - we just used 1825 values. Also, it is possible, if unlikely, for a company to become completely unowned, and what happens in that case is not covered (as it is with the receivership rules in 1825). So it's possible that there is a rule missing here. If, for example, whatever cash is not paid out in dividends were to go to the company treasury, this might make a significant and possibly positive difference in the game.
At the end of the day I'm a bit on the fence about 1829 Mainline. Although I am unsure if it works quite right, I do like the new stock round rules and will give Mr. Tresham the benefit of the doubt until I've played some more. I like the large-scale tactical feel of the game, and I do think it's successful in giving us the opportunity to do some really interesting, long-distance route development. But I am concerned by the time it took us to play it. I don't mind losing a bit of control in the stock round in general, especially if it compresses the game a bit and because the game has opened up more flexible and interesting route-building options. But given that the semi-random allocation of stock does have a driving effect on the game, I worry that it's a bit too easy to suffer misfortune in the middle game and then have to play a game you are out of for too long.