EMPIRE BUILDER - Reviewed by Mike

Category/Format: Business/Boardgame

We played this recently after an absence of probably 3 years and I was reminded of what a good railway game it is, but the only drawback is the length of time it takes to play. We were nowhere near the victory target after 3 hours and it appears to be a 5-hour game. Setting a smaller monetary target could be an answer but that wouldn't reward the best network builder, which rather defeats the object.

The game is played on a 4-piece interlocking laminated board on which is depicted a map of the USA and Southern Canada. A series of major and minor cities are identified, as well as relief features such as rivers and mountains.

In common with other railway games such as Railway Rivals the players use wax crayons to build their lines on which to run their train in an attempt to gain the most revenue. There is a set-up phase where each players gets 2 distinct building turns to establish the initial network and thereafter a regular turn consists of each player running their train for 9 spaces and then, at their discretion, spending a maximum of $20 million on further building.

The game is driven by a large pack of cards on which are printed either Demand Cards for 3 separate loads for particular commodities in a particular city or an Event card, which usually is unpleasant and affects all players, depending upon the position that their trains occupy at the time. Some of the latter either prevent you from delivering or picking up in certain defined areas(such as the Atlantic Coast) or make trains move at half speed for a turn.

Each player always has 3 Demand Cards in front of him, giving a choice of 9 loads to deliver but only ONE load can be delivered from a card. This means that the players have to consider which of the loads provides the best profit margin. In the early stages players have a Freight Train which can only transport 2 loads at a time and move 9 spaces. In the building phase a player may opt not to extend track but to make a one-off payment of $20 million to upgrade to a Fast Freight which moves 12 spaces a turn. Subsequent builds enable the player to upgrade once more (at $20 million) to a Super Freight, which permits 3 loads to be transported at once and move 12 spaces each turn.

The rules provide a useful reference chart of which commodities are available in which city but I photocopied this to ensure that every player had one, as it's difficult to plan without one. To illustrate a round of play let's consider the following example : -

You look at your cards and, amongst others, you have Boston paying $19 million for Oil, Chicago wants Tourists and Detroit wants Fruit. The Fruit is avalable from the West Coast cities but that's a big build to get it and then to haul it to Detroit and probably not worth it until later in the game when your network is more extensive.

So you decide to build from Atlanta to Houston to get some Oil on board and subsequently build up from Atlanta towards Boston, via Birmingham( to get Iron later), Philidelphia( to get Imports later on) and New York( to get some Tourists). When you arrive in Boston and get the loot for your Oil you turn in the Demand Card and take a new one, hoping it's not an Event Card that prevents you from leaving the area. It's Imports for Kansas City, that's lucky, we can pick up Tourists in New York on one card, Pick up Imports in Philidelphia on another card and then build from Philidelhia to Chicago and then towards Kansas City. This will give us 2 quick payoffs and we'll hope for some good cards which utilise our circular network in the South-East

The financial ceiling of $20 million on each build phase means that you have to be prudent with your money. You need regular profitable demands to build up a healthy bank balance to go for the long haul contracts later on. Also you only have one train at your disposal so if it is New York its not worth looking at picking up commodities on the Pacific seaboard, it's too far to travel to get them. If the 3 Demand cards in front of you do not provide attactive options you can, as an alternative to a normal turn, trade in all 3 for 3 new ones. This is quite useful and enables players to overcome a poor distribution.

We found turns went very quickly and there was very little downtime and we were amazed how quickly the 3 hours passed. It was unfortunate that one player just HAD to leave at a particular time to pick up his wife, as the game was building up to an exciting climax !. The networks were extensive and loads were being delivered with regularity. Personally I had 2 loads on board worth $58 million which would have put me in the lead within the next 10 minutes but we all agreed to call it an honourable draw and declare it an evening well spent.

Empire Builder was published by Mayfair Games in 1984 so it will not be readily available in the shops. But if you see it on any lists of games for sale or through the Internet sites then its well worth an enquiry. Just be sure you allow enough time to play it !

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