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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:

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:

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.

Strategy

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 Wagga-Sydney-Brisbane-Townsville.

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 mix?

Here are some general principles I use in play.

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.


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John W. Shipman, john@nmt.edu
Last updated: 1999/09/06 07:45:30
URL: http://www.nmt.edu/~shipman/games/mayfair.html