Favorite Fridays – Empire Builder

Iempire builder love trains and by proxy I love train games; some of the time. Not all train games are created equal, and while I have not player all train games in existence I have my favorites, one of which is Empire Builder.

Released: 1982
Designer: Darwin Bromley and Bill Fawcett
Plays: 2-6
EPT: 180 minutes

Using the Crayon Rails System players spread their locomotive dominance across North America attempting to move goods and passengers across Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The first player to end their turn with 6 of the 7 major cities connected to one continuous railroad while holding 250 million in cash is declared the winner.

Before play begins each player is given a colored pawn, a crayon of a matching color, a train with a speed of 9 and a capacity of 2, 3 demand/mission cards, and 50 million in cash. If any of the dealt cards are event cards they are discarded and a new card is dealt. The player who has the highest possible payout on their cards is the first player.

Game play takes place in 2 phases; operation and building. During the operation phase a player can move their pawn along their track, load and unload goods, and collect pay for jobs completed. Players can also move along another players track, with the player’s permission; the rules claim this comes with a fee of 4 million dollars per turn spent on the track, I recommend leaving that open for negotiation. After a player has completed their operating phase they move on to building. On each building phase a player can spend up to 20 million on laying new track and improving their locomotive; the game begins with a pre-operation phase which lasts two rounds in which players only have a building phase. Players also have the option of skipping these phases and discarding their hand of all uncompleted demand cards and drawing 3 new cards; any events resolve when drawn and are then replaced with new cards so a player will always end a turn spent this way with three new development cards. Events can include flooding which may take out rails, weather conditions making travel difficult, or shifts in the marketplace.

When building track players must be able to afford the line and building it must not push them over their 20 million per turn limit. The cost of a track equals to location to which they are building + any terrain fees; building to a normal milepost (dot) costs 1 million, while building to a mountain costs 2 million, a small city 3 million, a medium city 3 million, and a major city 5 million. In addition to these fees a player must pay an extra 2 million when building across a river or lake channel. To build a player can start a rail from a major city or they can build off a milepost from which their train is connected. Additional limits apply to building into and out of cities such as; a player can only build 2 rails out of major cities on a turn, only 3 players can build into medium cities and only 2 players can build into small cities, players cannot build track if doing so would disallow another player from building into a city they have not yet reached (preventing players from cutting each other off of major cities).

Players get money by completing the missions on their demand cards; they can do one mission per card with each card having 3 missions to choose from. The cards show a city and what that city wants; they must then travel to a city that produces that good so as to move the good to the location on the card. A player’s train can only hold good chits equal to its storage capacity. Starting trains can only carry 2 goods while upgraded trains can carry 3; to upgrade, however, costs the player 20 million. From the starting train (speed 9, capacity 2) a player can upgrade to (speed 9, capacity 3) or (speed 12, capacity 2), after which the player can again upgrade to (speed 12, capacity 3). Every time the pawn moves from one milepost to the next it costs one of the trains speed; thus allowing a player to move 9 or 12 miles per turn dependent upon their train. If at any point a player wants to drop a load they are carrying without completing a card quest they can do so at any city and receive no payoff, the chit then being returned to the bank. If a player drops the load off at the city on the card the player also receives money equal to the amount promised on the card.

When I first played Empire Builder the map wasn’t North America and the name wasn’t Empire Builder, rather the maps was Australia and the game was Australian Rails, but that’s a review for another day. After having played Australian Rails a few times the owner took out his copy of Empire Builder, informing us that it was what AR was based upon; changing only the map and a few other minor details. The game is in fact quite adaptable with versions now for Russia, Great Britain, and even Mars, just to name a few.

When at last I played Empire Builder I was familiar enough with the system that it was quite simple to adapt to the game. The maps are very simplistic and yet carry all the information one needs to play. The crayons draw on and wipe off cleanly; though I have heard if not removed once the game is complete it can become harder to remove over time. What I like about this game the most, however, is the way it forces tough decisions to be made. Knowing that rivers could flood or sand storms hit the deserts makes building in those areas risky and yet potentially profitable. There is also an element of decisions when it comes to using another players track vs expanding your own.

After a few plays my play group created some house rules that I recommend; the first is to make all trades negotiable in relation to sharing track; maybe I am pressed for cash and I will let another player use my rail for only 3 instead of 4 million; or maybe I see he needs my track for a big drop off; all I ask is for half the delivery fee upon completion. Enabling this bartering system opens the game up greatly to new strategies and abilities. We also enable good transfer; in which a player can drop a good off at a medium city and let it sit for a couple days before it returns to the box enabling another player to pick up the good on hold; this can be done so as to form a trade between players.

The game has some other intricacies that I did not mention in the rules for the sake of time and space; one of which I will highlight now is direction locking. The game forces players to continue in one direction until they reach a city; after all a train can’t just turn about at the drop of a hat they must go through a station or series of switches. This adds a good element of strategy into the game in that players must plan ahead. I have found that this aids in the games pace as there is a decent amount of downtime between turns; if that time is spent planning your next route, however, there is no time lost and the AP players are not nearly as detrimental to a game’s pace.

The game’s components could be upgraded to small train pieces over pawns and the art shows the year it was first made; but its clever use of mechanics and depth of strategy make up for that well enough. The game is also arguable educational in that it teaches geography much better than my old school books did; the largest pitfall the game faces is the estimated play time of 3 hours which can turn off any gamers that are not big fans of train games or just don’t like long endeavors.

As it plays I give Empire Builder a good 7.5 out of 10
Visuals – 1.5 // 2
Skill/Luck – .75 // 1
Pacing – 1.25 // 2
Theme/Immersion – 1.5 // 2
Mechanics – .75 // 1
Fun Factor 1.75 // 2

Come back Monday when look at the mechanic of Crayon Rails that is used in Empire Builder! Until then you can find us on social media;
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