The first thing you face when you type “poker chips” into your search engine is the vast number of styles and prices. It can be difficult to decide what type of poker chip to buy — which is the “best”? Can I justify spending 40¢ per chip when I can get a set of five hundred (with a case!) from Target for $30 or less? The answer is: “It depends.” However, it pays to educate yourself about what’s really available, and what you need to think about when buying a set for 18xx specifically. Color, denomination, material, and handling are all important aspects of chip selection, but what you want for poker, the game for which most chips are designed, isn’t always the same as what you want for board gaming generally or 18xx specifically.
The good news is that, by in large, you can break your choice down into four broad categories or “grades” of poker chip. In point of fact, I think about chips in six grades, but two of those you can dismiss right away. On the low end, you don’t want junk plastic, and on the high end, few people can afford custom-ordered casino chips. It’s the sweet spot in the middle you should be aiming for. The cheap chips from Target will certainly serve you well, and if you’re tight on cash, go for it! — there’s nothing really wrong with those chips. However, if you are reading this page, I’m guessing you’re looking to step up from the basic options — or you’re at least curious to know what you’re missing out on. Let me see if I can help.
|0||Radial||Irrelevant||2 g||Junk! Toss ’em.|
|1||Dice||5–10¢||11.5 g||Budget-friendly, but slippery.|
|1||Diamond||7–10¢||9 g||High-friction; no edge spots.|
|2||NexGen||15–20¢||9 g||A step up, but still slippery.|
|2||Claysmith||15¢||13.5 g||Lovely design, but heavy.|
|3||Ceramic||39–62¢||9 g||Bold designs; over-priced.|
|4||Milano||32¢||9 g||Excellent chip; muted colors.|
|4||Majestic||39¢||9 g||Nice, yet surprisingly smooth.|
|5||CPC||Nutso||9 g||Superb! Don’t buy them.|
* Prices are listed on an average per chip basis for a set of three hundred, not including a case.
Grade 0: Junk Plastic
The first thing we can get out of the way are the really cheap plastic chips you can typically buy at the supermarket. These are the ones that are very thin with grooved, interlocking edges. You might see them marketed as “Radial” chips. They look cheap, feel cheap, and sound cheap. At least in the U.S., they are usually made by Bicycle, the same company that makes nearly all our playing cards. And that’s not a knock against Bicycle by the way! A couple decades or more back, these chips were your only affordable option, and they certainly get the job done for your weekly Five Card Draw, shoot-the-breeze with your friends, poker night. You’ll see them in old movies, and they are what they are. However, for serious play where you need to accurately and quickly make change and count a stack from across the table, these are junk. Don’t buy them. You might as well use paper money.
Grade 1: Good Plastic
The first serviceable category are chips that, like Grade 0, are made from plastic; however, now we’re talking thick plastic, typically with a metal disk in the middle to give the chip heft. These are also, and misleadingly, marketed as “clay composite” poker chips. Rest assured, they aren’t clay, but they do begin to simulate the high quality casino-grade poker chip, which is perhaps why so many manufacturers are quick to apply the “clay” moniker. These chips come in two generally-available varieties.
First, you have the type of chips that have become ubiquitous: the “Dice” or sometimes “Striped Dice” chips that are sold everywhere from Target and Amazon to specialty poker supply shops. Typically, they are plain, super-smooth ABS plastic in bright colors. They may have dice, or cards, or crowns, or stripes around the edges, but they’re all dice chips in the end. These are serviceable chips that are cheap and readily available in almost any color you like. You can even order sets online from companies that will (for a fee) foil-stamp the chips with your initials or custom denominations. The main advantage to buying dice chips is the sheer variety available at a reasonable price. If you buy them new, we’re talking 5–10¢ per chip. If you shop for used sets, you can get them for a song. If you don’t believe me, check eBay! There are loads available at bargain prices.
And yet there is one overriding drawback to dice chips. The most damning mark against them is that they are incredibly slippery.† Stack them up on your company charter and even a nudge will send the entire pile sliding across the table. Try to pick up a horizontal stack from a chip tray and the chips in the middle are likely to slip from your grasp, making a mess of whatever lies below. You may have heard the term “chip handling” and thought it referred to fancy tricks performed by professional poker players, but even the basics of chip handling (like moving chips around the table) matter — and slipperiness is a beast when it comes to board games. Do you really want to see the tiles on your 1830 map scatter under the force of a few errant chips? Probably not, and especially if you’re two hours into the game.
† I should take a moment to mention that there is another sub-variety of dice chips that avoid some, but not all, of the slipperiness problems. However, you have to know what you’re looking for because these chips don’t often go by a separate name. I sometimes see them marketed as “Suited Chips,” and I most often see them included in the “premium” mass-market sets by Cardinal. They are certainly not premium chips, but they nonetheless might be worth keeping an eye out for if you’re on a budget. You can usually tell them apart because they have a softer matte surface compared with the hard, shiny finish of a typical dice chip. The surface provides a slight grip that somewhat improves feel and handling. Just don’t expect miracles. These are bargain-basement chips and the quality control is often worse than normal dice chips.
The second type of Grade 1 plastic chips go by the name “Diamond” or “Super Diamond.” Like dice chips, Super Diamonds are cheap. You can find them online for about 7–10¢ a chip, and I've seen them used for even less. You may be wondering, if these chips are so cheap, why am I talking about them? The answer: they’re actually quite good! Like dice chips, they come in a wide variety of colors. The type of plastic used to make the chips, combined with the fine crosshatch pattern on each chip’s face, make for a surprisingly high-friction surface — which in turn means you don’t run into any of the slipperiness issues you do with dice chips. They don’t have a metal slug in them like the dice chips, so they’re lighter weight. While some people consider their weight a disadvantage, the chips aren’t so light as to feel cheap even if they are. Plus, the lighter weight and high-friction texture actually make them easier to handle overall when compared with dice chips. While you probably won’t find a retailer nowadays capable of foil-stamping the chips, if you’re willing to make do with (or prefer) chips without labeling, Super Diamonds may be the way to go.
As you might suspect, however, the chip is not without a couple drawbacks. First, because the chips are so cheap, the manufacturing process doesn’t appear to involve a lot of quality control measures. Especially if you’re ordering chips in lighter colors like white, pink, etc., you may find your chips arrive dirty. Sometimes you can wipe away the dirt no problem, but other times it’s dirt that worked its way into the mold and is therefore baked into the plastic. On the other hand, given the price, you might order some extras and simply throw away any dirt-ridden chips without much regret or hassle.
The second problem is potentially more serious, and it has to do with the fact that Super Diamonds are all a single color. If you’re into minimalism like I am, you might appreciate that simplicity; however, what you give up are edge spots. Edge spots are those lines of contrasting color that run around (you guessed it) the edge of a poker chip. While you may not think they’re a big deal, they serve an important function. Let me show you. Take a look at the following two photos with Super Diamonds on the left and typical dice chips on the right.
To my eye, the Super Diamonds look great! — but are they as functional at the table as the dice chips on the righthand side? In a word, no, and it all has to do with those edge spots. If you had to, I bet you could quickly count up the number of chips in each of the three front-most stacks of dice chips. But I also bet you couldn’t easily perform the same feat with the Super Diamond chips on the left. The edge spots provide some much needed contrast and help your eye to distinguish between individual chips when stacked. That can be invaluable as a time-saver (you don’t have to ask your opponent how much cash he’s holding) as well as a way to keep your plans secret (if you ask Amber how much money she has, she’ll know you’re up to something!), and so the spots are worth considering.
None of this means you should necessarily pass up Super Diamond chips, but you have to ask yourself what type of game you like to play. For example, how often do you and your friends check in with each other about cash holdings? How much is it going to bother you if you can’t precisely calculate the value of a chip stack at a glance? If you play a more casual game where no one is counting dollars out to the last chip, maybe you don’t care about edge spots, in which case, Super Diamonds could be the chips for you. If you do care — well, the lack of spots is going to grate on you, and so I’d suggest you keep looking.
Grade 2: Premium Plastic
For more money (15–20¢ per chip), you often get better materials, better manufacturing, and more aesthetically-pleasing graphic design. On the other hand, manufacturers sometimes dazzle you with attractive designs while failing to deliver performance better than a standard dice chip. Welcome to the world of mid-range poker chips. It’s a wide and varied field that can at first seem overwhelming and littered with overpriced chips. However, if you know what to look for, you can find some great chips that are worth the extra cash. A little effort combined with knowledge about what to avoid, and you can find a chip that is both attractive and functional.
First, it pays to know the real advantage to spending more for a mid-range chip. What you should get for your money is (1) better chip handling, which comes through better plastics and/or texturing; (2) higher quality manufacturing processes that ensure the chip you receive is free from some of the defects plaguing lower quality chips; and (3) a more attractive design that doesn’t look like your typical generic poker chip. Ideally, you get all three of the listed upgrades, but, as with anything costing more money, there are plenty of chip manufacturers that skimp in one of the three areas. Let me just get this out of the way: don’t buy Monte Carlo chips. They may look pretty with their reflective foil labels and flashy edge spots, but they are in reality only slightly better than your standard dice chips. Yes, the edge spots are different, and you may find them attractive, but those spots disguise the fact that Monte Carlo chips (and their many lookalikes) suffer from all the same slipperiness issues of your regular old bargain chips. If you’re paying more, I think you should get more than looks.‡ I want to see improved handling as well, and the Monte Carlo chips do not deliver.
‡ Personally, I think the foil design looks better in website photography than in person. When I received my Monte Carlo chips, I was quite disappointed with their appearance (gaudy!). Opinions differ, but I went so far as to pay for return shipping to get rid of them. And for poker chips, the extra weight does not make shipping cheap, let me tell you!
Rather than make further generalizations, let me point you instead to a couple chips in this category that I do like, and that really are worth the extra money. First, you might take a look at NexGen chips, specifically the “Pro Classic” series. These are made out of plastic, but the formulation or manufacturing process must be different because they certainly don’t feel like dice chips. The weight, material, and mold combine for a pleasant feel in the hand. More than the specific plastic used, the manufacturing process is high quality. The chips are squared off around the edges, which means a stack of chips doesn’t wobble, and individual chips feel like they were made with care. The graphic design is also pleasant, with tricolor edge spots that evoke classic casino designs. You can purchase them without or with denomination labels. Even better, the labels are low-key, eschewing the typical casino theme (a rarity!), which I find more appealing than, say, Monte Carlo chips.
So much for the positives. What are my concerns? While I like the understated nature of the labels, overall, I find the label design a bit ho-hum, not to mention low contrast on many of the denominations. (Why would they put black lettering on a grey field?) NexGens aren’t going to win any awards for beauty even if they’re perfectly serviceable in an old-school sort of way. My other complaint concerning design is about those edge spots, which are too wide. If you take a look at a stack, you’ll notice the colors all start to bleed into each other. Where does the chip color end and the edge spot begin? Is the $100 chip black or pink? Like an optical illusion, my eyes don’t quite know where to focus. I’m sure with experience this concern would subside, but it’s something else to keep in mind when shopping for chips.
Finally, we come to the biggest drawback. I’ve heard NexGen chips described as “soft” and even slightly “rubbery,” but I think that feel is an illusion better attributed to the high quality manufacturing process. Do not be misled by such descriptions in the hopes of finding a high-friction chip. In truth, NexGens are quite slick. Part of their apparent advantage, similar to Super Diamonds, comes from the texturing around the surface-edge of each chip. Put a stack together and you would think this texturing should help keep everything together in a tight bundle that is easy to handle without the constant threat of slippage. In practice, this isn’t the case. I can knock a stack over with little more than a nudge. We’re not talking about chips as slippery as dice chips, but it’s a little too close for my tastes for use in 18xx games, and enough to give me pause about fully endorsing the chips unless you really dig the classic casino design or value a clean-cut chip made with attention to quality injection-molding techniques. If I were purchasing mid-range chips for a poker game, I think I’d be more enthusiastic.
Next, we come to some of my personal favorites: the mid-range line from Claysmith Gaming (available in five different designs, including, for example, Desert Heat and The Mint). While Claysmith’s website is in a sorry state of disrepair, you can still find their chips at a number of online retailers. Like the NexGen chips, Claysmith chips are plastic, but a type of plastic that feels softer and better made than that used in lower-end chips. What I really like about Claysmith Chips, however, is the attention to design details. The manufacturing process employs custom molds that allow for unique edge spots that don’t dominate the side of the chip. Likewise, the molds offer interesting patterns like the gear (or square wave) design around the example $5 chip from Claysmith’s “The Mint” line. These aesthetic details matter to me, but perhaps they don’t matter to you. That’s fine. What I’m trying to illustrate is that Grade 2 chips have a lot more to offer if you’re willing search for the companies going the extra mile. You get more for your money, and that’s worth a bit of extra research time. In other words, don’t settle for chips that look and feel like overpriced dice chips. Hunt around until you find something you’re happy with. Otherwise, you might as well spend less money.
Claysmith chips aren’t perfect, mind you. The injection-molding process isn’t as sharp as that used by NexGen. Likewise, the Claysmith chips are still plastic, and while the edge designs are attractive, they don’t offer the same gripping power as a full-blown crosshatch pattern. That said, I personally own a set of The Mint chips, and I can attest to their handling ability. They’re not as good as some, but they’re better than most. The square wave design offers just enough texture to keep everything together, and the plastic is soft enough to assist. Instead, the biggest drawback is the chip’s weight. Like many plastic chips, Claysmith’s line contains metal slugs. Yet they’re among some of the heaviest chips I’ve handled, weighing in at about 13.5 grams per chip. Compare that with the average dice chip at 11.5 grams. NexGen and Super Diamond chips are even less at 9 grams. You want your chips to have some heft, but 13.5 grams may be too much. At the table, they’re fine. The weight helps keep each stack in place (with authority!), and makes up for some of the chip’s slipperiness. However, transporting them to your game day can put some strain on your backpack straps (not to mention your shoulders). When you take 13.5 grams multiplied by three hundred or so chips, plus the weight of a case, it can really add up. Finally, if you’re used to a casino chip (9 grams), the Claysmith chips will always feel clunky.
Grade 3: So-Called Ceramic
What we have here is a bit of an odd duck in my progression of poker chips. I’m calling these Grade 3 chips, which implies they’re better than Grade 2. In terms of design possibilities, I think that’s probably true. Aside from a wide variety of stock designs, you can customize your set. There are a number of companies that will allow you to design your set of ceramic chips from top to bottom, and for not too much more than it would cost for stock chips. If you want something completely original, ceramics may be the way to go. They are also highly durable, including a lack of cheap stickers that can fall off over time. However, for all this, ceramic chips cost more than Grade 2 chips, and even more than some Grade 4 chips. That all means I don’t recommend any chips at this grade unless your personality lends itself towards the types of bold designs possible with ceramic chips. There are better options for the money.
To begin, “ceramic” chips are not made of hardened clay, despite the moniker. Are you surprised? At this point, I’m convinced that chip manufacturers have a pavlovian need to say “clay” or a fancy synonym for “clay” whenever talking about their product. But no, ceramic chips, are made of a type of plastic or resin that sort of sounds like ceramic when shuffled in a stack (it actually reminds me of Bakelite if you’re familiar with that material). The major difference between ceramic chips and nearly everything else I’m talking about here is that, with a ceramic, the design is embedded directly on the underlying chip material via dye sublimation (i.e., baked on with a heated press) from edge to edge and even on the side of the chip. In this way, you can order fully-customizable sets with a design that wraps all the way around each chip. Something to keep in mind, however, is that you cannot order blank ceramic chips. That means you’ll probably be “stuck” with denominated chips, and that you won’t be able to order up custom labels after the fact if you decide you want something other than the stock denominations. Instead, you’ll need to plan ahead and either accept the limitations of a commonly available set or pay some extra money for a fully customized set.
There are a few other drawbacks worth noting, some of which come down to personal preference, and some of which have to do with chip handling. First, to my eye, the design of most stock ceramic chips look over-the-top and kitschy. They’re too clean and a little too bold. While it’s possible to design a ceramic chip to look like whatever you want, the complete freedom enjoyed by designers in this space leads them to go a bit crazy. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, but I like my poker chips to look a little more muted, and a little less loud than the designs available now through most manufacturers. But I’m not everyone, and maybe you like, for example, the whimsical design of the Tiki King chips shown to the right.
On a similar note, because the design of ceramic chips is baked directly onto the material, there is no variance in feel from edge to edge. While some hybrid ceramic chips are coming to market, for the most part, there are no indentations, molding, or other interesting features to give the chips more than a uniform texture in the hand. You get nothing but smoothness all the way around. Perhaps that sounds appealing to you, or perhaps not, but it’s something to be aware of that isn’t immediately obvious when reading about the chips online.
Next, ceramic chips are surprisingly slippery for the price point. This is another example of poker chip priorities. While I value chip handling and a high friction surface, many poker players do not. Ceramic chips generally trade looks for slipperiness, and that’s something you’ll have to make a decision about for yourself. If you do decide to purchase ceramic chips, order a sample set. What friction these chips enjoy comes from the specific type of surface they’re given during manufacturing. Also worth noting, while many manufacturers use a textured surface to aid with grip, I’ve heard reports that these surfaces can wear down to a smooth surface over time (purportedly a big problem with chips like Nile Clubs). I have no personal experience with wear, however, so take that latter point with a grain of salt. Even if they do wear down over time, you’ll probably get plenty of quality use out of the chips before it happens.
You do, however, want to be careful because price doesn’t always correspond with a higher friction surface. To reiterate, when you pay for ceramic chips, what you’re getting for your money is high quality design and manufacturing. That’s great if you want a good-looking poker chip, but less great if you prioritize chip handling. If you do investigate the space, what you’re ideally looking for is a chip with a pebbled matte surface that resists wear. The Tiki King chips are well done in this regard, but you pay a premium. The Tiki Kings are still smooth, but it’s more of a buttery smoothness than a slick smoothness. And despite the smoothness, the Tiki Kings feel great in the hand. The Nile Club chips, by comparison, are significantly cheaper and yet have a higher inter-chip friction when brand new. What’s odd is the Nile Club chips have little to no texturing that I can detect with my bear hands! They don’t feel as nice overall even if they more reliably resist slippage. On the other hand, the fit and finish of the Nile Clubs chips doesn’t measure up against that of the Tiki Kings (lower resolution graphics, misaligned edge spots). Again, you can see the ceramic manufactueres prioritizing (and charging more) for design considerations that don’t always align with the qualities valued by most 18xx players. Across the price range, ceramic chips come with a variety of labels, textured surfaces, and graphics, and you can’t always tell from the advertising literature what you’ll be getting. You’ll have to order a set and see for yourself.
Finally, we have to talk about price, which is really all over the map, and in my opinion always higher than they’re worth unless you want to design a chip from the ground up yourself. By way of example, the cheapest ceramic chips run 39¢ per chip (e.g., Nile Club), which puts them in the same price range as Grade 4 China clay chips (see below). On the high end, you can pay upwards of 62¢ for Tiki Kings (and more if you want to customize them). At those prices, you’re starting to approach casino level Grade 5 chips, which is really quite expensive for what you’re getting. And the truth is, I just don’t think ceramic chips are worth the money for an 18xx player unless you’re really in love with a particular design. On the low end, you’d be better served by China clay chips. On the high end, well, just don’t do it! Save your money and buy another 18xx title.
Grade 4: China Clay
And now we come to the sweet spot for most serious 18xx players, especially those with a little extra cash to spend. What you gain when you spend a little more (now were’re up to the 30–50¢ range) is compression-molded clay chips — and this time I actually mean “clay,” even if they’re certainly mixed with other materials to enhance durability and add a bit of weight. These aren’t casino-quality chips, but they come closest without getting into astronomical prices. They are manufactured in China at mass production levels, but the feel, handling, and molding are all higher quality than what you find at the lower grades. What’s more, nowadays you can find these chips in a wide variety of styles, both labeled (if you like denominations) and unlabeled (if you prefer a plain or customizable surface). If you can afford these chips, they’re worth it. However, be aware they’re also more fragile than plastic chips, which means you might need to buy a few extras up front or else be prepared to pay for replacements down the road (assuming the model you choose is still available for sale).
As with Grade 2, it’s probably best if I simply point you towards a couple specific chips that I like. You’ll certainly find additional examples while shopping. The most important thing to look for is a design you like along with some literature that satisfies you the chips are indeed made from compression-molded clay. You don’t want to find yourself in the awkward position, for example, of buying three hundred chips only to find out the marketing material was misleading and you actually have plastic chips. In this price range, at the very least, you probably want to order a few sample sets before committing to a major investment. For something like $10, you can order a handful of chips. Seeing them in person is important. What looks good on a website doesn’t always carry through when you see the colors in person or hold the chips in your hand. I know I changed my mind about at least two different sets of poker chips after handling them in person. I bet you will too.
First, I want to talk about Milano chips, which are manufactured by Claysmith Gaming (the same company that makes the Grade 2 plastic chips discussed above). You can pick them up for about 32¢ a chip. While that’s certainly expensive compared with the other chips mentioned above, when you stop and do the math, it’s actually not that bad. The average 18xx player won’t need more than three hundred chips to play most games. That means you can pick up a set of Milanos for about $100 plus the cost of a case and/or some poker chip trays. When we regularly spend $100–200 on a single 18xx title from All-Aboard Games, a set of Milanos suddenly starts to look pretty reasonable. Perhaps keep in mind you’ll use your chips with all your 18xx games, which is a better return on investment than most individual titles in your collection.
And these are great chips. Straight from the factory they have a thin layer of chalky film that disappears as you use them. What’s left is a chip that is reminiscent of that same chalky sensation but without the residue, and that feel is what sets these chips apart. The clay is softer than plastic with a high enough material friction to give them a great feel in the hand. These things grip each other, so you don’t have to worry about a stack slipping away from you. They also look great, with all the same design flourishes in molding and edge spots you can expect from Claysmith. I’m not a huge fan of the labels (a bit boring, and I don’t like casino themes for 18xx games), but it’s reserved enough that I’m not offended (and you can always order blanks if you prefer). My only hesitation is a matter of personal preference. Probably due to the material, the colors of Milano chips are more muted than anything else in the Claysmith line. Everything takes on a faded look that you may or may not like. To my eye, it’s a bit too muted, but honestly they look better in person than in photographs, so this is a rather minor complaint. Overall, I like these chips and recommend them.
Moving right along, my next recommendation is the Majestic line of poker chips, available from Apache Poker Chips. Many 18xx (and poker) players talk about them, and I can’t help but include them here. From a materials point of view, they’re very similar to the Milanos. However, the chips have a suprisingly plastic slickness to them, which results in a lower amount of fricton than I’d expect from a China Clay chip. It’s not terrible, but I’d highly recommend ordering samples of these and any other China Clays you’re considering before making a final decision. You may find the feel less than stellar.
Nonetheless, we’re still talking about a chip that is very simlar to others in the same category. The big difference is going to come in terms of style. Here I see two advantages to the Majestics. First, the colors are brighter, or perhaps bolder. This goes to my preferences, but I like my colors, even pastel colors, to be vibrant, and the Majestics beat out the Milanos in this regard. The one exception is the blue chip normally associated with $10 in the labeled set. The website photos do not accurately represent the color you’ll perceive in person, which is washed out, almost faded, and absolutely disappointing. I don’t know what happened with the blue, but the Majestics miss the mark. Luckily, the rest of the line is much better. Second, and this is something I go back and forth on, but I like the edge spots on the Majestics better than those on the Milanos. Don’t get me wrong, I give full points to the Milanos for an interesting trapezoidal design. It’s unique! But depending on the day you ask me, I find them distracting. The triangle and stick design is, to me, the better design — I think, maybe.
On the other hand, there are aspects of the design I don’t like. The labels are terrible. The fake casino logo dominates the field and muscles out the most functional aspect of the design: the denomination. If I were to purchase Majestics, I’d have to order blank chips. Furthermore, the mold is nice, but not as nice as that on the Milanos. The fine line around the edge is a classy touch, but I find the stamped crowns generic compared with the continuous stitch pattern on the Milanos. Finally, I’m not sure I like the color progression on the edge spots, despite my preference for the triangle and stick design overall. Again, all personal preference, but my larger point here is that, at this price point, make sure you like the details about the chips you’re purchasing. You’re going to have them for a while, so sweat the details and make sure you like what you’re paying for.
That last point brings me to the price of the Majestics: they’re 6–7¢ more per chip than the Milanos. For three hundred chips, that’s a price difference of $96 for the Milanos versus $111 for the Majestics. Maybe that $15 doesn’t matter to you; maybe it does. One thing to keep in mind no matter what chips you buy is whether you’ll be purchasing blank chips, and then whether you’ll be ordering custom labels. As I said, I’m not a fan of the Majestic labels. If I wanted to label the Majestics with a custom design, I’d have to increase the cost of the chips by the price of new labels (which can be substantial depending on the service; see below). That extra cost on top of the additional expense per chip might be enough to sway my choice if I decided I could live with the labels on the Milanos.
Grade 5: Classic Poker Chips, Paulson, & Other Insane Choices
If you want the highest quality possible, and you’re willing to spend $1–2 per chip, then I’m guessing you aren’t even reading this article. And even if you are, buy a cheaper set first, figure out what you like, and only then after a couple years of use consider buying a custom high-end set of chips. You won’t know what you like until you’ve developed a sense of what’s available.
If you ever do purchase a set from a casino supplier, enjoy your fancy chips! I can say, without sarcasm, they are indeed superb. However, for normal people that don’t have the requisite dough, look elsewhere and don’t even worry about what you’re supposedly missing out on. You’ll be fine.§ Affordable poker chips, especially China clays, have come so far in the past decade that it’s better to let any burgeoning poker chip obsession subside while you keep your focus on playing 18xx.
§ On the other hand, you should definitely play with the online chip designer by Classic Poker Chips (formerly ASM) and dream about being a high roller. It’s a lot of fun!
To Label or Not to Label
Depending on who you talk to, the answer to whether labels are a must or a blight is going to be different. What’s more, within the 18xx community, many people take a strong stance one way or the other. On the other hand, the arguments in favor of both sides aren’t that complicated. What it really comes down to, as in most things related to poker chips, is personal preference — both of yourself and your primary group. Or at least it would be that simple if you ignore cost. There’s no way around it, if you want poker chips with 18xx appropriate labels, you’ll have to pay more money — either for one of the few sets that come with $20 chips, or more likely for custom labels. Luckily, if you stick to the basic colors and especially if you choose a cheaper grade of poker chip, the additional cost of quality labels isn’t so great that it should heavily sway your decision one way or the other. We’re talking something in the range of an extra $30–40 for top of the line (see below), and there are cheaper options if you’re a DIY sort of person. Instead, let’s put money aside for the time being and talk about the benefits and drawbacks to labeled poker chips apart from price.
The simplest and most flexible option is to forgo labels altogether and order your favorite chips in blank, non-denominated form. You can order the precise color combination you like in whatever quantities you prefer and that’s it! You’re done. There is no choice to be made about colors, no hassle trying to design matching labels, and no long evening spent affixing stickers to your new chips. Plus, unlike custom labeled chips, if you ever need replacements, you don’t have to worry about ordering additional labels, which in turn means you gain flexibility down the road. So why doesn’t every player go with unlabeled chips? Actually, in an ideal world, I’d probably use unlabeled chips myself, but there are drawbacks.
First, there is a learning curve with unlabeled chips, which is only made more complicated if you play with a group that likes to use lots of different colors and denominations. While I recommend using as few colors as necessary, any group with any set is going to have to learn the color progression, which can be surprisingly difficult for some people. You’re likely to hear the following incessantly during your first few games: “Are the blue chips $1 or $10? How much are the yellow chips worth? Wait, is the black $100? I can’t remember.” The learning curve is annoying enough, but made even worse if you need to introduce a new player later on, or if you’re stuck with that one guy who can’t seem to internalize the values no matter how many times he asks. Labeled chips reduce all of these problems to zero. There won’t be any questions because the values will always be emblazoned on both sides of each chip.
Of course there are ways to mitigate the learning curve. You can make a reference chart for new players. Some players like to use a series of notecards, each with the value of a chip printed on the front. They take a sample chip and place it atop the corresponding card. These methods work, but they’re sub-optimal and slow the game down. A better solution, and one insisted upon by many 18xx players with unlabeled chips, is to adopt the standard Vegas colors. This ensures consistency from game to game, and helps ease the learning curve for those players familiar with standard poker chip colors. Yet even then, many gamers don’t know poker, and couldn’t tell you the standard value of a red chip compared to a green chip. And all of this assumes that Vegas is the best standard to adopt in the first place.* What I’m getting at is that there’s no end-run around the learning curve. You’ll have to accommodate your players while they internalize the system.
* Within Las Vegas, colors vary from casino to casino, so you have to wonder how much of a “standard” it really is. Different casinos use both white and light blue for $1 chips, and all sorts of colors (including grey and orange) for $20 chips. In other cities like Chicago and Atlantic City, the color progression is different than Vegas and mandated by law, not just preference. For example, let’s say you have a player used to gambling in Atlantic City. New Jersey gaming regulations specify a yellow $20 chip compared with the grey commonly used in West-coast 18xx circles. In that case, your grey chips are going to slow down the Atlantic City player.
The second drawback, related to the first, is that you’re sort of stuck with the standard Vegas color scheme for your poker chips. Sure you could go off book and use all manner of wild colors to represent 1s, 5s, etc., and if you never plan to play 18xx with anyone but your small group, that may work for you. However, I wouldn’t make that bet. When it comes time to play with another established group of players, you want to make sure you’re speaking the same language, and that means using the same standardized set of colors as everyone else. If you want to buck the trend, labeled chips largely do away with the problem because there won’t ever be a question as to what each chip represents, even amongst established gamers.
Despite these drawbacks, there is another big factor running in favor of unlabeled chips, and that has to do with speed of use and ease of recognition. Let’s say you work your way through the learning curve, as does the rest of your group. In fact, you get really used to the color of your poker chips. There are no labels on the chips, but instead a nice big field of solid color. Those chips will become second nature to you and your group. You’ll be able to glance at them and instantly tell what each chip is worth with the same ease as reading words on a page. For just this reason, some players report that labels serve as a distraction once you get used to unlabeled chips. First, instead of a plain field of bold color, a label mucks up your sightline, forcing you to spot the color of the chip around its edges. If the label is poorly designed, the problem is exacerbated. For example, the labels on both Milanos and Majestics are monotone grey and black respectively across the entire chip line, regardless of denomination. Instead of a range of colors, everything can start to look grey or black at a glance (or so the argument goes). Second, when some people see text, they automatically read it. So instead of having an easy instinctual feel for what each chip is worth, labeled chips force them to read the face every time. I can understand how that might be annoying over a long gaming session.
Perhaps I’m overstating the value of familiarity, but a set of chips in consistent, standardized, and absolutely clear colors isn’t something at which you should easily scoff — and doubly so if every chip set you use, even across different groups, is more or less the same.
On the flip side, you have labeled chips, which as you may have gleaned are my personal preference. The arguments in favor of labeled chips are the counterpoints to those in favor of unlabeled chips. What you lose in flexibility and ease in purchasing, you make up for in reducing the learning curve to zero. New and old players can sit down to game together and not worry about chip values. All the focus can be placed on 18xx. And let’s face it, that’s plenty! Likewise, labeled chips free you from the standard Vegas color progression, which can be a boon when trying to create a set with maximum contrast across the range of denominations preferable in 18xx games. On top of that, well-made labels can enhance the overall appearance of, and add some personality to the chips. I discuss all of these advantages elsewhere in this article.
It used to be that chips came unlabeled in three colors: white, red, blue. Because they were unlabeled, you were free to attach any value you liked to each chip. However, convention held that white was the lowest and blue was the highest (hence the term, “blue chip stock”). Every once in a while you might need a fourth color, higher than blue, and that color would often be yellow, but there was no universal standard. Fast forward to the poker craze in the early 2000s and suddenly everyone wanted to play at home like they played in Las Vegas. That meant that poker chips needed to look like casino chips and follow the same color conventions as Vegas.
The problem with Vegas poker chips, however, is that there is no single standard set of color conventions. In addition to white you can find many examples of casinos using light blue and even grey for $1 chips. $5 chips are almost always red, and $25 chips are almost always green. There seems to be general agreement about $100 and $500 chips as black and purple respectively. But what about $20 chips? Truth be told, $20 chips in Vegas are unicorns. You rarely if ever see them, and if you do, you’re probably sitting at a baccarat table or in a poker room. In a recent survey of currently open casinos using the online database of the Museum of Gaming History, I was only able to find a handful of legitimate $20 chips, and the colors varied wildly. Amongst your options: yellow, gold, peach, orange, green, red, grey, and even a sort of confetti multi-color. I can’t say that any color dominated over the rest (maybe yellow, but even then, so few casinos in Vegas use $20 chips, there isn’t much point in claiming a victor). In other words, when it comes to $20 chips in Vegas, if they exist, there is no standard.
When purchasing online, however, there is a strong trend to follow the most common Vegas colors. Nowadays your standard set of labeled poker chips available for purchase offers a selection of white $1 chips, red 5s, dark blue 10s, green 25s, light blue 50s, black 100s, and purple 500s. No 20s. Frankly, this is not ideal. Most importantly for 18xx, $25 chips are awkward. Yet if you decide you really want $20 chips, you will will need to (1) find a manufacturer that offers them (not easy), or (2) skip labels altogether and use a blank but fully customized set (less user-friendly). And if you go for option number one, what color should you make those $20 chips if there is no standard?
So first of all, are the $20 chips really an improvement? — In a word, yes. For sure. Many payouts in 18xx games come in multiples of ten and twenty. A $25 chip tends to get in the way. For example, think about the cost to lay track in 1846: $20 is the default, and then it tends to progress upwards to $40, 60, etc. When I was using $25 chips, I found that adding $10 chips to the mix was a huge improvement. But I then found people would avoid the $25 chips in favor of stacks of 10s. That in turn led me to want $50 chips to close the gap between $10 and $100. If I had continued down that path, I probably would have removed the 25s altogether and landed on a progression like this: $1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500. To be honest, I think it would have worked just fine. The only possible problem is that you have a dark blue and a light blue chip in the same set, which leads to potential confusion when counting stacks from across the table. On the other hand, advantages include easy customization and availability (i.e., simplicity). But of course I’ve never been known to keep things simple…
As is, my curiosity got the better of me: I really wanted $20 chips. Everyone on the 18xx forums on BGG was singing their praises, and I saw an opportunity for a project. I got in touch with Chris over at GearLabels.com and inquired about him designing me a $20 replacement label. It was a time-consuming process, but stress-free. All told, it was $35 with shipping for two hundred labels — enough for one hundred chips front and back. That’s more than I needed, but I wanted back-ups. Of course I also had to purchase blank yellow chips (normally associated with $1,000 chips in the stock set of Mint chips by Claysmith, which I knew I wouldn’t need). I ordered them from a supplier on Amazon.
I chose yellow chips for my $20 chips, and while using yellow for 20s is gaining a small amount of momentum amongst 18xx players, it’s hardly standard. There are some who prefer green because of its established association with nearby $25 chips. Many others insist that grey is the only proper color.* Still others have begun experimenting with light blue when grey is unavailable. Proponents of grey and light blue especially express concern that white and yellow can look similar under poor lighting, leading to confusion at the table and thus slowing down the game. But that of course depends greatly on the particular lighting and the particular shade of yellow (this is purportedly a problem with the Majestics). For me, green is too strongly associated with $25, and I find that a grey chip is boring and (ironically) low-contrast. The light blue is just a stand-in for grey, so it’s a non-starter. Yellow is the standard color for $20 in Illinois casinos (where I’m from), not to mention Atlantic City, so I was happy to use it. Plus, with my own Claysmith chips, the yellow is more of a mustard, and so avoids any of the lighting issues mentioned above. I’m happy with them, and the contrast is good. If you really want to get crazy and go for maximum contrast, you could additionally substitute a light blue for your $1 chips — but that seems like overkill for what should be a simple process. I mean, seriously, who would be crazy enough to do that?
* Some vocal 18xx groups advocate for a standardized color scheme based, for the most part, on the colors used in Vegas casinos. That said, for a variety of historical reasons, including some now suspect claims circulating around the web about “standards” in Vegas, they settled on grey for the $20 chip. And you know what? — grey works just fine! Putting aside my personal preferences against grey, some sort of standard is a good idea to encourage inter-group harmony. On the other hand, few poker chip lines come with a decent grey chip save the PGI and Great Wall China Clay lines, so finding a substitute is often necessary.
So I contacted Chris again about custom $1 labels for my newly acquired blank blue chips, this time using the light blue normally associated with the $50 chips. Once again, he came through, and I now have a half custom, half off-the-shelf set of Claysmith “The Mint” chips in exactly the denominations and colors I prefer. Contrast is excellent. The labels look great. And although I more than blew through the savings associated with buying a cheaper grade of poker chip, that savings allowed me to afford custom labels — so in a way it worked out. After all, I still prefer the label design of “The Mint” chips over anything else on the market today.
I’ll also note that using blue and yellow for $1 and $20 respectively is not an outlandish or even controversial choice except in a few 18xx circles. For example, you can now buy fully-labeled chips based around the same color progression if you’re willing to pay a little extra (e.g., take a look at the “Championship Poker Series”). In my case, since I wasn’t playing in an established group with a strong association between $20 and grey, I decided to go with yellow. However, I encourage you to check with your group before following my lead. If your group insists on using white for $1 and grey for $20 chips, it may be best to swim with the current and adopt the group’s convention. I don’t personally have a problem using different sets with different colors, but many do. And why would you spend all your money on an expensive set of poker chips only to see it shoved in the corner unused because you “got creative” with your color choices? Just something to keep in mind.
Once you decide how much you want to spend, you’ll need to decide how many chips to order and how many different denominations to use. Many players purchasing their first set of poker chips try to parallel the distribution of paper money included with, for example, 1830. That would require $1s, 5s, 10s, 20s, 50s, 100s, and 500s, and all in relatively small quantities. Rather than recreate this distribution, however, it’s wiser to step back and decide on your ideal. Free from the constraints of mass-produced paper money, there is a better route.
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate a simpler distribution with as few colors as possible. There are groups who love lots of different denominations (even going so far to include odd denominations like $2). They argue that a wide range of options makes for efficient payouts. For example, they ask: Why hand over four $1 chips when you can simply use two $2 chips? They have a point, I suppose, but there are serious drawbacks to a rack full of so many different chips. Fewer colors simplifies things because players don’t have to think about all the various ways to make a payout. With fewer chips, there is only one way to make most payouts, and so you don’t have to spend any mental energy deciding which way would be most efficient or preferable — just make the payout. A simpler distribution also makes counting chips across the table easier. Trying to differentiate seven colors is a lot more difficult than, say, four, especially when the chips are in mixed stacks. With a greater number of denominations, you’ll either need to enforce neat stacks or resort to asking everyone how much money they have (thereby telegraphing your move, not to mention slowing play). No thank you. I prefer to use as many colors as needed, but no more. Specifically, I recommend the following if you want to limit yourself to three hundred chips. I also assume you have to order in multiples of twenty-five chips (a standard limitation):
* Not your “standard” Las Vegas colors, but see above.
From the set above, you can make a bank of $12,000, which will cover you in all 18xx games from three-player 1846 (small bank) through 1830 (large bank), following my recommendations for developing a general 18xx bank (based on the recommendations of BGG user J.C. Lawrenece, aka “clearclaw”). Incidentally, if you limit yourself to small-bank games, then you don’t even need $500 chips. Instead, you might consider ordering seventy five black $100 chips, which will cover you all the way up to banks of $9,000.† That said, I still prefer to have some $500 chips on hand, both for larger bank games and also as value holders towards the end of any game. You won’t use them often, and so they won’t unnecessarily complicate your spread, but they’re convenient to have around when the need arises.
† If you’d like to play around with custom banks on a per game basis, I created a small web app to help with the math. I find it works well for most small to medium games, but the distribution may get a bit wonky around edge cases (e.g., games with huge banks and/or a large number of variable companies). Still, even for outliers, the app offers a decent starting point. Note that the app only works with the five denominations listed above. Sorry!
On the other hand, perhaps you really want labeled chips, but you don’t want to hassle with custom labels. You could search for a line of chips that follows my suggested color progression, but your options are limited. Branching out means you’ll need to stick with standard colors, even eschewing the $20 chip that I love so much. In that case, you could substitute white $1 chips for the blue ones I recommend and green $25 chips for the yellow $20 chips. That would make for a perfectly serviceable set of chips, and it’s what many players start out with. However, I prefer another route, as follows:
As you can see, the color progression isn’t great. From blue → light blue → black → purple, that’s a very dark band of similar colors. The two blues being right next to each other doesn’t help. Labeled chips are a must, which should mitigate most of the potential problems with color. You’ll also want to make sure you purchase a set with vibrant chip colors that are as easy to differentiate as possible. For example, if one of the blues is closer to cyan and the other is a deep navy (but not too close to black!), that will go a long way towards accurately telling the two chips apart. But pay attention to the particular shade of purple as well. Ideally, you want something that is more fuchsia than true purple to make sure it doesn’t blend in with the black or dark blue chips.
For your effort, you gain a steady progression of upper-level values in multiples of ten. I feel strongly enough about the $25 chips being more hassle than boon that I think it’s worth putting up with the potential color differentiation problems.
When it comes to playing 18xx, an article like this can make is sound as if assembling the perfect set of poker chips is crucial to a quality experience. However, it’s important to remember that 18xx itself is the same no matter if you’re playing with an off-the-shelf set of cheap chips from Target or a fully customized set of China Clays from Apache Poker Chips. The choices I made, and the resulting recommendations expressed above come from a continuing process of learning and tinkering. It’s an opinionated article, but convincing you to make the same choices is not my goal. Instead, I hope I’ve given you a framework for understanding the choices you need to make so that you can make them with confidence. Whether it’s an austere set of unlabeled China Clays or a flashy set of custom-labeled plastic chips, you have a right to know what’s available. What matters is that you find a set of chips within your budget that increases speed and accuracy of gameplay, and that you and your fellow players find aesthetically pleasing. You’ll never find the perfect set of chips, but the quest for an enjoyable set is a journey worth pursuing.
In forming my opinions and mining the net for information on poker chips, I read a lot and watched a lot of review videos. In truth, I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who know much more than I do about poker chips and 18xx. What follows is a brief sampling of some of these resources, many of which dive deeper into specific aspects of the topic than I do here.
- Home Poker Tourney tutorial on chip types
- The similar yet different Home Poker Games tutorial on chip types
- Hobbyphilic’s YouTube Channel about Poker Chip Reviews
- There is a huge thread (currently at thirty-four pages) on BoardGameGeek covering all manner of poker chip discussion, especially as related to 18xx games, and dating back years.
- J.C. Lawrence is an opinionated connoisseur of 18xx and poker chips. His user profile on BGG and posts in the above-mentioned thread are sources of invaluable guidance.