Mechanic Monday – Crayon Rail System

Friday we looked at Empire Builder; a great classic from 1982 that brought the Crayon Rails mechanic into the mainstream. The mechanic is traced on BoardGameGeek back to 1973 with the game Railway Rivals. As of when I wrote this blog BGG has 80 games listed as using the Crayon Rail System; most of which, however, are additional maps for Railway Rivals or games in the Empire Builder series. The last decade, however, has shown potential promise, mostly in the indie communities, of this mechanic expanding.

So what is the Crayon Rails System? How does it work? In which ways does it influence themes or partnered mechanics? These are all questions that I imagine a variety of readers are asking simply due to the smaller scale of exposure Crayon Rails has in comparison to mechanics such as Deck building, Hand Management, and the like.

The Crayon Rails System is fairly straight forward and used similarly in most incarnations. Play takes place on a special coated board which enables players to write on it with crayons then clean it off after play. The prime variation comes in the board itself. The Mayfair games use dots across the map acting as mileposts which players build rail between in a connect the dots style. The dots vary in shape, size, and color to denote mountains, cities, and traditional terrain. Other games use a grid system with squares or hexes. Players can build along the grid lines or build from the center of the shapes made on the grid. The grid system acts much like the dot system just with additional lines already on the board.

The mechanic is fairly limited to route building and goods transport; thus being often partnered with trains. The Empire Builder line has thus made a hobby of adapting the game by altering the maps from the United States, to Europe, to anywhere else you could imagine. The mechanic has other facets, however, that can only be found in the indie gamespace. The mechanic has been played with in road building and city planning as well as ship navigation and air travel. The theme shines better with the rail based travel system, however, as physical track is an actual barrier other trains would have to seek ways around while in sea and air travel a player’s actions wouldn’t create the same physical barrier.

The mechanic of Crayon Rails plays well enough with others; most often hidden information, pick-up and deliver, and resource management. These mechanics work in the forms of secret contracts that a player is seeking to fulfill; though often games remove the secret aspect here and allow open revelation of missions, resources being gathered in one location and taken to another so as to fulfill these contracts, all while managing their cash on hand.

The most recent game on BGG shown using the mechanic is Empire Express, Mayfair’s most recent submission on the Empire Builder catalog. designer to play like Empire Builder in a fraction of the time. I still have high hopes for the future of the mechanic, however, the mechanic’s lack of previous experimentation means there are many facets yet to be revealed as well as partner mechanics waiting to be allied alongside the rails.

Have you played many games that use the Crayon Rail System? If so what were your thoughts? Let us know on social media! If this mechanic interests you I highly recommend checking out one of the games in the Empire Builder catalog; pick a country that interests you and chances are there is a game using the Empire Builder rules set near by.

One of the marvelous joys of the system is its educational possibilities; players can enjoy a game using the system on a map they are unfamiliar with and get a better sense of the counties geography as well as potential economy, if the game is designed with actual geographic and economic information.

Tomorrow we will delve a third and final time into the arena of the Train Rails/Empire Builder world as we look at my experience with British Rails and how it varies from it’s predecessor Empire Builder. Until then you can catch us on social media!
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