/ Shipman's Home Sweet Homepage
/ Site map
Introduction to Mayfair's ``Empire Builder'' games
[This article is adapted from a posting I put up on
rec.games.board a few years back.]
My opponents and I have often discussed why the Mayfair
"crayon" train games, such as Empire Builder, hold such
fascination after hundreds and hundreds of games. Here are the
things that fascinate me:
- The startup problem. There are virtually no cards that
will get you a profit where you have no line, so it is vital to
build a line that services multiple contracts. But make it too
special-purpose and you will handicap yourself for the rest of
- The building problem. The shortest route and the cheapest
route are often very different. How exactly do you trade off
time and money? Some games you could have won if you had just a
few more movement points. Other games you fall a buck or two
short. When do you build through a city, and not around it, if
you aren't currently holding a contract for it? When is it
justified to build a shortcut? All these questions depend
intimately on the contract mix, the victory conditions, and
how close you are to winning.
- The routing problem. How do you order your pickups and
deliveries so as to maximize the cash flow? We prefer the
optional two-train rule, where each player starts with one
freight and one fast freight, and four cards. (Because bad
starts are so devastating, I even have a house rule that you are
dealt six cards initially but must discard two immediately
before the first build, continuing the game with four.) Having
two trains makes the routing problem even nastier.
- The upgrade problem. The $20 upgrade fee is steep,
and many is the time that I have done it a bit too early and
later gotten stuck for cash flow. But adding 1/3 to your
movement allowance is a strong advantage. In the two-train
game, we seldom see a super freight, but I'd say that if one
player upgrades the freight to a fast freight significantly
sooner than the other, it's a good bet that that player is
on the way to a win.
- The hand management problem. Which choice do you use on
each card? Those contracts for 40 million and up are so
attractive, but often you can make more per movement point paying
one under 10. Also, once you have committed to one choice, even
to the point of building some line, when do you change your mind?
How bad do your cards have to get before you waste a whole turn
drawing a new hand? It doesn't take long to learn to play well
with good cards. The true test of a good player is what you do
when you have one or two very attractive contracts but the rest
is useless. This is exacerbated by the two-train game, because
you don't want to have one of your trains sitting idle.
I've been playing this system since Empire Builder came out in
the early 80s; they're my favorite boardgames. (I have played
only two-player games.) Here is my personal ranking of the
boards, from best to worst:
- India Rails
- Empire Builder (5th ed.)
- Australian Rails
- Empire Builder (4th ed.)
- British Rails
- Nippon Rails
The reason I rate Nippon Rails and British Rails
lower is that they both have certain strategic corridors,
possession of which makes life difficult for the other player.
In NR, it's the Fukuoka-Hiroshima corridor. In BR,
it is usually vital to secure the Manchester-Lancaster corridor north to
the cheap terrain near Carlisle. In either game, the second
build costs a lot more and is necessary to fulfill the victory
conditions. Even with these problems, though, I still play these
games and find them fun and fascinating, and grabbing the
critical corridor by no means guarantees a win.
I rate Eurorails and India Rails at the top
because they do not have the "corridor" syndrome. One game
you'll stomp rump in Eurorails with a Ruhr-Zurich-Milano
backbone, another game you'll win with Madrid-Berlin or
London-Wien. (Scandinavia seems pretty peripheral, though, and Iberia
is a loss unless you have huge combinations from there.)
The other games in the series seem to lead to more lopsided
results. I think this is because there are more big contracts,
and the siren call of those big cards can put you way over---or
leave you way short when the other player goes over.
In Australian Rails, how do you handle the connection of
the major cities of the southeast? Sometimes a "star" topology
seems to work, where you put a hub somewhere around Broken Hill
or Bourke or even Charleville and radiate spokes to Brisbane,
Sydney and Melbourne from there. But I think a "ring" topology
works better, with one line from the west going to Wagga
In general I prefer a star topography. For example, in the
old EB, I
almost always start with the same four of the six major cities
(LA, KC, Chicago, and NYC), but the choice of Seattle or Atlanta
as the fifth major depends on the cards on hand. I prefer a line
shaped like ">-<". I build a single backbone from Salt Lake to
about St. Louis, then connect LA and NYC, then branch to either
the northwest or Atlanta---or both if I have the cards for it.
Building twice across the Great Plains is a cost I can seldom
amortize, and given the prevalence of big contracts to
California, I dislike the Canadian Pacific or Canadian National
routes. Similarly, the OKC-Santa Fe-Phoenix route, although
cheaper than the Denver route, is just too far from too many
contracts for me.
I realize that initial builds are dictated by the cards, but the
question is, what is best in the long run for the typical card
Here are some general principles I use in play.
- Stay flexible. Whenever possible, build your backbones
in more central locations and use a star topography.
- Optimize total dollars per turn. One opponent of mine did
some statistical analysis of a pile of score sheets and estimated
the winner typically produced about 5 million per train per turn
- Be conservative in your startup, picking cards that
combine well even if they are near the edge of the map, but
preferring more centrally located combinations unless the
peripheral option generates significantly more cash flow. Still,
though, prefer a poor payer that builds a strong backbone to a
lengthy, fragile, staged plan that leads to a big payer.
- Know the contract mix. I have worked up play aids
cross-referencing all the contracts, sorted by load, payoff, and
destination. This really helps you decide whether to build
through a city or not, and what speculative loads to pick up. To
be fair, of course, these must be available to all players.
- Don't bunch up your trains. If you're about to
pay a contract on the east coast with one train, it's
nice if the other train is somewhere in the west, so you
can pick up that sugar double to Detroit and Chicago.
- Keep your trains loaded. The optimum situation is where
each train is carrying two paying loads all the time. Not so
good to deadhead a train all the way across the US and then bring
one load back, even if it's a huge payoff. It might be better to
be working on three poor loads than one big one.
- Don't be afraid to discard your whole hand. If you are
looking at a long period of substandard revenue, look at the
position of your trains, the loads they are carrying,
the configuration of your line, and your cash on hand.
If the trains are not bunched up near one end of the line,
and they are carrying some loads that are potentially valuable
in the region where they're sitting, and you have enough cash
to cover short branchline builds if they are necessary, you
should probably discard.
As for Empire Builder, how do Canadians feel about its design?
My local opponents and I all agree that, except perhaps for the
corridor through Toronto and the occasional Vancouver branch
line, building to Canada in this game is seldom a win.
See also: Shipman's games page
John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 1999/09/06 07:45:30