From Rubik’s Cubes to Railroad Magnates: The Birth of 18XX Games

Published Dec 19, 2023

Toby Mao 18xx Game
Toby Mao 18xx Game
Toby Mao 18xx Game

Hi! Can you tell us who you are and about your game?

Hey there! I’m Tobias Mao, but you can call me Toby. I created 18xx.games—a place where you can play online iterations of the old 18XX board games and even some new ones created by fellow players and enthusiasts! I’m based around California and I’m a data engineer by trade, and I used to work for several well-known companies like Airbnb, Scribd and Netflix. But I’m proud to say that I’ve now co-founded a company while being able to continue my passion and hobby of gaming through 18xx.games.

18xx.games is as it sounds. You play 18XX games in it. 18XX games are a series of railroad-building board games based on the original system devised by Francis Tresham. The games are played with a stock market system, and while different versions of it exist, especially in my web app, the way to win is to get as rich as you can! It’s like… a more in-depth and competitive version of Monopoly that you can play synchronous or asynchronous, depending on your preferences.

Why did you create your game?

I love board games. It’s one of my main hobbies, and my wife and I play board games a lot. I have a board game group every Tuesday, and I love old types of games. But if you had to ask me what’s my favorite game, it would have to be “Rolling Stock”. So I created 18xx.games for two main reasons: one is that I love board games and two is because I like programming, and programming is another main hobby of mine. But before 18xx.games was created, I made several other games beforehand.

What inspired you to go through with 18XX-type of games?

I started playing 18XX around 2014 or 2015. Back then it was pretty niche, so my friend who I met through board gaming showed me this hardcore train economic game that had a print-and-play copy. The mystique of it attracted me really. I played it, and there was a lot of math, calculation… it was a really complex and heavy game, and it attracted me and I ended up diving into the deep end.

From that point on, I started collecting the various titles and so, like 1830 and the others. One thing that really stood out to me was that even if it was a very enjoyable game, it was still a very niche genre. They were hard to find, and even if you did, they were most likely a secondhand copy of it that cost like 200 dollars. So I wanted to make a way for people to get introduced to this wonderful game genre despite the high barrier of entry.

What were the games you created before 18xx.games?

The first game I made was mistery.io, and it was inspired by a board game called “Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective”. It’s a very old game, and it was basically a puzzle-solving mystery game. It revolved around reading stories, going to different areas, looking for clues and stuff like that. So I thought it’d be cool to make a game where people would write stories of their own and create their own mystery. But I later realized that making stories was very hard and people were not going to do that for you. So after a couple of years, I shut down that website.

After that, I made Codenames online, which I think I was the first to do so at that time. But I’m a big believer in rights and stuff like that, so I reached out to Vlaada Chvátil, the creator of the original Codenames board game to ask if I could. But he said no because they were working on an online version of it themselves, which came out around five to ten years later.

I would then create rollingstock.net, which is a really hardcore economic card game. It was mildly successful, and then when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I decided to make 18xx.games! And now, 18xx.games has Rolling Stock in it, so I took down rollingstock.net after that.

Was it difficult to break into the industry with the presence of other board game creators?

They were actually super supportive of me! Rolling Stock and 18XX-type games are in a very niche genre, so there’s not much money in it and the people who make these games are very passionate. The designer of Rolling Stock, in particular, is a programmer himself and he believes in open source. He was very excited that someone out there wanted to make his game online, even!

For 18xx.games, there are a lot of different titles with different designers. So for every iteration I make I get written permission from the original designers beforehand. And up to this day, I think I’ve only been rejected by one designer who was very adamant about trademarks and ownership. Aside from him, everyone else’s games are available online in 18xx.games.

What’s your opinion on the monetization of games?

I think there’s nothing wrong with it, per se. But with 18XX-type of games, I don’t think it’s worth the hassle considering its market size. So for me, the most important to create a platform that allows new people to discover the genre of 18XX board games and grow the hobby itself. And putting a paywall in front of that experience or trying to make money off of it would detract from that. Moreover, monetizing 18xx.games would greatly complicate the system… which I don’t have the time for.

Though it’s also worth noting that 18xx.games has a Patreon, and it was due to the community asking how they can contribute to the game they enjoy playing. The donations are very helpful in maintaining the infrastructure and sending out the tons of emails for the site and games.

Did playing the games online feel different or off for you?

Like I said, two of my main hobbies are playing board games and programming. So for me, programming board games in itself was fun! But when it comes to playing board games personally, I really love the tactile feel of doing activities and the social aspect of playing. I also like that it’s limited in time; everyone gathers for a couple of hours for game night or maybe even the whole day and after that, you’re done.

But when you’re playing online, especially in asynchronous sessions, you have the possibility of thinking about the game whole day and you’ll have to micro-optimize every single move and it consumes you. So if you’re like me and you end up playing Rolling Stock and think about so many possibilities for three days then get blown up by a really good play…

I ended up thinking that it was such a waste of time so… yeah, never playing online again if I can help it.

Can you tell us more about the significance of the Rubik’s Cube in your life?

Sure! I took a shine to solving Rubik’s Cube when I was young, and in 2003, during summer camp, my residential assistant taught me how to play and solve it. I immediately got hooked on it and when I got home, I also taught my brother Tyson how to do it. I used to be a world record holder back in 2006 for speed-solving a 3x3x3 cube in ten seconds, but that was a long time ago and I don’t do it much anymore.

It might be hard to believe that I started in 2003 and three years later, I’m a world record holder. The thing is, Rubik’s Cube is something you can get good at pretty fast. Especially now that there are a lot more resources to learn from compared to my time, many can become skilled really really fast. And it’s a common myth that you have to be smart to get good at Rubik’s Cube—that’s not true at all! You just have to practice, learn good finger dexterity and most importantly, enjoy it.

While I’m not actively competing as a pro anymore, it’s still a very big part of my life. I even met my wife through Rubik’s Cube, so it’s definitely a special thing to me.

Is it true that you worked with Will Smith?

Yup. Back around 2006, they were making a movie called “The Pursuit of Happiness”, and it was about the true story of Chris Gardner—the character that Will Smith plays—. He was a homeless guy who was down on his luck and became a successful stock broker. So they wanted to insert the Rubik’s Cube to show that Will Smith’s character was really smart, so they contacted some Rubik’s Cube clubs. 

They wound up contacting the Caltech Rubik’s Cube club, which my brother Tyson was the head of, and the movie was being shot in San Francisco. So my older brother, being a college student, and I, being a high school student who was available, ended up teaching Will Smith. Will Smith didn’t want a double doing it, so he wanted to learn it himself. I taught him and I had to come to the set several times to do it. I was actually in the taxi cab behind him during the shooting to make sure he did it correctly… and yeah, that’s how I ended up teaching Will Smith how to Rubik’s Cube!

Is there a game you’ve been playing recently?

I’ve actually been playing a lot of Riichi Mahjong online lately, and since I have a bad experience with asynchronous games, I like that its average game time is around 20 minutes or so. But really, I don’t play computer games nowadays, but I still do play Dance Dance Revolution. However, I play the Stamina variant, which requires you to be a lot more efficient with your moves, and it gives me another good way to work out besides my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu sessions.

What advice would you like to give to budding game developers?

There are several things that I owe my success to, and here are the things that I’d like to share:

1. Enjoy what you do

This might be one of the most common tips you’ll hear, but it really does make a difference when you’re truly engaged and passionate about what you do. As I said earlier, I like programming. It’s one of my main hobbies. And because of my interest in it, I ended up excelling in the positions I held. Just like the saying: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day”, to me, when I program, it doesn’t feel like work to me.

2. Learn programming

It wasn’t a problem for me to become skilled at programming because I liked it. But for people who truly want to create a game of their own, they need to be able to program to a certain level. It’s a must. If you want your vision to come true, you have to want it, and programming is the key to achieving the results you need.

3. Get better at what you do

For me, if I found something that I truly liked, like Rubik’s Cube and programming, I tended to stick to it and wanted to excel in it. Because the better you become at something, the better you’ll feel about yourself and what you’ve accomplished. And in game development, the happiness you get from creating what you have in mind shines through and resonates with the people who’ll play your game.

What’s the future for you right now?

I already have something in mind to build, but I just don’t have the time for it. There’s this board game called Sidereal Confluence. It’s very similar to the trading and economy games that I love, but in space and with alien races with powers and stuff. I love the board game, and I think it’ll be a programming challenge for me to build an online version of that because there’s a crucial real-time aspect to it.

Sadly, there are two things stopping me from making it. The original designers rejected the idea and I simply don’t have time for it right now. So right now, my life and near future involve me working in our company, spending time with my family and meeting up with my board game group every Tuesday from 7 to 10 to play. 

As for 18xx.games, I still do code reviews in there from time to time, but I’m mostly out of it and it’s running well with its dedicated player base that also has its fair share of programmers. I actually ended up hiring one of my current teammates through 18xx.games!

Where can we learn more about you and your game?

I encourage everyone who likes board games to try out the 18XX game series right here at 18xx.games, both experienced and new players who are interested!

If you want to reach out to me, I’m available through the 18XX Slack channel. And if you’re in the data space and have business inquiries, come join the Tobiko Data Slack channel!

Have a game to sell?

Let’s find out if we play well together.