Empire Builder (board game)
|Setup time||5 minutes|
|Playing time||60–240 minutes|
|Skill(s) required||Resource Allocation|
Empire Builder is a railroad board game centered on the construction of railroad track, and then the delivery of goods along those railroad tracks. The original Empire Builder game is set in North America, but the line has expanded to include games set across the world, on the moon and even in a fantasy land. They are collectively called "the Empire Builder series".
The Empire Builder games are sometimes called Crayon Rails games because players mark their tracks on the board with wax crayons (or sometimes with markers or other items).
History and spin offs
Empire Builder was originally released in 1980 by Mayfair Games. It was quite successful, and is now in its sixth edition. In addition, the success of the original has resulted in the release of an entire Empire Builder series of games:
- Empire Builder (1980) is the original game set in North America. Originally this contained the United States and a sliver of southern Canada. The fourth edition of the game added Mexico (from North American Rails) and updated the demand cards as well as some of the geography.
- British Rails (1984) allows players to build track in England, Scotland, and Wales. It was originally released in a box similar to the original Empire Builder. It was later released as a tube game and in 2002 as a re-released 3rd boxed edition with updated demand cards.
- Eurorails (1990) is set in Europe. It has one of the largest maps in the series and introduced ferries to the game. Many players consider this the best of the series. Mayfair released the 4th edition in 2009.
- Agent of Change (1991), also known as West Virginia Rails, was published as a limited edition game to accompany the Huntington, WV Museum of Art's exhibition, "Agent of Change: The Railroad in West Virginia". This game has not been available for some time.
- Nippon Rails (1992) is set in Japan and was originally released in a 'tube' edition. Many players consider this the best game for two-players. For more players, the narrow, constrained, mountainous geography of the islands poses a challenge. A boxed 2nd edition was released in 2011.
- Uncle Happy's Train Game (1993) is a simplified version of Empire Builder for children. Instead of building a rail network, players are now connecting the States. This game is no longer available.
- North American Rails (1993?) was released as a tube game and added Mexico to the standard Empire Builder map. In addition, additional space in Canada was included which didn't impact play. This game was absorbed into fourth edition Empire Builder.
- Australian Rails (1994) was originally released in a tube edition. It was re-released in 2005 in a boxed edition with an updated set of demand cards.
- Iron Dragon (1996) is another fan favorite of the series. It features a design by Tom Wham in a fantasy world. In addition to having the largest map in the series, several new elements are introduced in this game: foremen, ships, the underground, additional terrain types, and more levels of engine upgrades. In 2004, at the Origins Game Fair, Tom Wham sold a self-published expansion to this game which updated the ships and trains. In addition, this expansion introduced mercenaries and allowed fighting among players. This game has also been produced as a computer game.
- India Rails (1999) introduced pilgrims as a method to obtain extra funds. It is considered by some to have the most balanced map.
- Lunar Rails (2003) is set in the future on the moon. The terrain and place names are accurate and based on current information. The game allows players to build on both sides of the moon using a wrap-around system. The terrain in this game is notoriously difficult due to the large number of mountain mileposts.
- Russian Rails (2004) is uniquely set in two eras, before and after the fall of Communism. The rules of the game change when the Fall of Communism card is drawn, reflecting the economics changes this event brought.
- China Rails (2006) introduced container ferries. There are several very long, profitable load delivery runs, but they risk interruption by the Party Congress event.
- Martian Rails (2009) was released in August 2009 at the World Boardgaming Convention. It is set on the Mars of Science Fiction stories created over more than a century. As what scientists knew about Mars changed, so did the stories. Martian Rails captures the spirit of those classic Science Fiction tales.
Sky Zone is an unofficial add-on created by William Ingram that can be used with any game in the Empire Builder series. It allows the player to drive their train onto a smaller map that "floats" over the board and has shifting entry and exit points. It is generally not available.
Most of the titles of the series are available in the Mayfair-authorized computer game named Empire Builder Pronto (formerly EB Player).
The gameplay in Empire Builder begins on a blank map of North America. A hexagonal grid of "mileposts" is printed on the map. Most of these points are clear, which are the cheapest to build across. However, mountains and other obstacles such as rivers can increase the cost of building.
Each player draws three demand cards, each of which lists three different commodities desired by three different cities and also lists a value for each. From this initial array of nine different demands a player begins to plot out an initial route which will let him pick up and deliver desired commodities. The game begins with each player spending two turns laying out initial track connecting up cities. He then places his train on one of the cities.
On a typical turn a player will move his train along his track, possibly picking up and delivering goods from cities. When he delivers a good required by a demand card he receives a cash payout and then draws a new demand. (Some of the cards in the draw stack feature events which can cause trouble for players.) After moving his train and possibly making deliveries, the player is able to build new track, up to $20 million worth per turn.
A player eventually wins the game by connecting together five of the six major cities on the map and getting $250 million.
Although there is some luck involved in Empire Builder and related games, depending on the cards that are drawn, the outcome is usually determined by the skill of the players. Players experienced with a particular board will have the advantage of knowing the busiest traffic routes and which cities are most valuable to connect to. Strategy consists of the careful balancing of several conflicting priorities:
- Maintain sufficient capital to build track to new cities when needed. This is less important later in the game when the player should already have a network capable of making most deliveries using existing track. It is usually advisable to always keep a small amount of cash on hand in case repairs are needed due to natural disasters.
- Build an efficient network of track. Especially later in the game, income is determined by how quickly the player can navigate the map. An ideal network covers the main traffic corridors with spurs linking to lesser used cities to be built as needed. Networks with awkward corners or that force the player to take indirect routes should be avoided. Isolated area at the edge of the board should also be avoided in general.
- Make the best use of, meaning earn as large a profit as possible in as short a time as possible, the contracts on hand. The winner is the player who can make a certain amount of cash the soonest.
- Upgrade engines. A faster engine means the ability to make deliveries faster so this is usually the higher priority. Additional capacity increases the ability to combine loads (see below) and offers better protection from derailments.
In the early part of the game players will generally spend most available cash to invest in track and engine upgrades. After a certain point, players will concentrate on taking profits in order to win the game, so building track will be restricted to repairs and building spurs required to make specific deliveries. In the early game cash is short and networks are undeveloped, so players will generally only make low to medium value deliveries. Late in the game players will generally prefer high value deliveries, though sometimes a lower value load is made in order to trade in a card with little promise. Renting track is usually advisable only in the later part of the game when a large profit can be made to offset the additional cost.
An important concept is that of combining loads. This consists of finding two or more loads whose sources are close to each other and whose destinations are close to each other so they can be combined into a single trip. Ideally, this halves the travel time taken per load. At the beginning of the game this is important for another reason in that less track must be built per load. In this case, loads may be combined in the sense that they cover similar routes even if they go in different directions. The idea of combining loads is especially important in the initial build since the player is not constrained to build on existing track. A good initial build combines two medium value loads to earn back the investment in track while providing a foundation to build an efficient network.
As an additional tactical consideration, players should pick up loads to fill unused slots when possible. This offers the player protection against derailments since the unneeded load can be dumped instead of a load needed for delivery. Additionally, the player may draw a serendipitous contract calling for the load to be delivered with little additional travel.