Another in my long list of favorite games, Empire Builder (Mayfair Games, 1980) is in its 4th edition. I have not played the game in its Empire Builder form, oddly enough, because I own and have played the original version – North American Rails. There is very little difference in game play, but the original came in a tube with a rolled-up, laminated map, as opposed to the six interlocking boards that comprise the more current editions. I also own the tube versions of Nippon Rails and British Rails, and there are at least 4 others out there.
Whatever version you get your hands on, however, Empire Builder is an absolutely great game if you like a lot of planning and a solidly realistic experience. The game consists of a map of North America (Canada/US/Mexico) divided into a series of regularly spaced “mileposts,” crayons with which to build railroads, “load chips” that represent the materials being shipped, 3 types of cards, and money. Players are basically competing to build a rail system across the continent with which to pick up and deliver loads, in order to earn a payout. The first player to $250 million wins.
Players begin the game in the city of their choice (decided by their initial goals, to be discussed shortly); on every turn they will have a budget of $20 million to build rails from one milepost to the next. Many mileposts are simply black dots, and cost $1 million to build into – but others are more expensive. To build into a mountain milepost (black triangles on the map) costs $2 million, into a small or medium-sized city (red dots and squares) costs $3 million, into a major city costs $5 million, and over a river adds $2 million.
The demand cards are a key element in Empire Builder (see example below). Each player has three demand cards, each of which lists a destination city, a demand for a particular load, and the payout for that load. In order to acquire a given payout, a player must use their train to pick up the load from one of a few cities where it is available (there is a very handy list of these cities, and they are shown on the map as well), and deliver it via their own rail system to the city that demands it. The loads and payouts vary quite a bit, but in general the farther a city is from the load it is requesting, the higher they payout. For example, the card below shows that Los Angeles will pay $31 million for tourists, but in the game the only place to pick up tourists is Chicago or New York City – which would cost about $50 million to build in the first place. Note that it would take a lot less rail to pick up cars in Detroit and deliver them to Cincinnatti, but the payout is correspondingly lower.
At the beginning of each turn a player has the option of moving his or her train as far along the rails they have created as they deem appropriate. Each player starts the game with a regular train, which can carry two loads and move 9 mileposts each turn, but during the game any player may, at their own discretion, spend their $20 million budget on a trian upgrade instead of building rails. The upgrades include increased speed (from 9 to 12 mileposts per turn) and increased capacity (from two to three loads), and, after one upgrade is completed, the second may also be purchased for a “Super Freight” train that moves 12 and carries 3 loads.
The initial building is critical to the game because a player only has $50 million to start with, and must use it to build a rail system that will allow them to fulfill a demand that will in turn earn them enough money to continue to build rails and earn payouts. This early dynamic makes for a slow build up, as players are establishing a continental rail system, mostly driven by the suite of demand cards they draw (this is the only random element in the game). But once a player has built an east-west or north-south corridor, they are able to work on multiple, more lucrative demands without having to pay for much more in the way of rails. This helps determine which demands they are able to accomplish on any given card. They can also eventually afford the train upgrades.
In order to win the game a player must have connected his or her railway to at least 6 of the 7 major cities, which prevents someone from simply building a strong regional railway and repeatedly using it. There are a few other features which make the game more interesting. One is that there are event cards. Once a load is dropped off in a city and the payout is taken, a new card is drawn. An event card might turn up instead of a demand card, and it is to be accomplished immediately. Events range from natural disasters to rail-workers strikes, and have localized events that will affect every player in that vicinity. For example, a tornado might prevent any building or moving within 8 mileposts of Oklahoma City, or a wildcat strike may prevent any activity at all within 4 mileposts of the east coast.
One further feature is a building limit into cities. All players have to have access to each major city, so one player is not allowed to build rails into every hub of a major city to prevent access. Small and medium cities, however, do have a limit, so it can be important for a player to extend a rail line into such a city in order to claim it for the future. A player does have the option of using another player’s rail lines, but for every portion of a turn they are on that other player’s lines, they must pay that player $4 million – not usually a great way to spend one’s money, but usually unavoidable.
Empire Builder is a long game that builds up slowly but always ends up as a race to the finish. If you enjoy map games, plotting courses, and spatial organization in general, you will like this game. I find it perfect for a rainy afternoon with 3-5 people, but there is also a solitaire version of the rules available online. I recommend it for anyone who likes involved strategy games, any rail enthusiast, or anyone else who has a planner alter-ego dying to get out.