Monday, January 7, 2013

Empire Builder Game Review

Since I started this blog I've wanted to give a negative review. Not because I'm a bad person (I am), or because I really want to tear something apart (I do), but because I wanted to show a range of scores in my early posts. Every game I've posted about so far might not be my favorite game, but each game is something that I'm happy to play in just about any instance. Unlike IGN's videogame ratings* or grades in my Master's program**, I wanted there to be a noticeable value when I say a game deserves a '5' in a category, or that I consider a '4' to be an entire level above a '3'. Giving a negative review shows that I don't just chronically review games in the '3' or '4' category, but that there are games that I like and that I don't like.

Of course, there is a large selection bias in reviewing games. I know that I'm not generally into longer war games (though I have been challenging this belief recently) so I avoid them. When I spend the time to play a new game, I'm already saying "There's something about this game that I think I will like." Therefore, it's harder to find games that I don't like than games that I do, and ultimately, different games are for different people. That's what this post is about.
(* Joke explanation: IGN is often derided as giving bad games a score of 9.0 and good games a score of 9.5, making a 100 point scale into a 10 point goal)
(** Joke explanation: Turns out a 60 is an A-)
Empire Builder hides under many names, as Empire Builder is more of a game franchise than a single game itself. Empire Builder is often referred to as [Location] Rails: Euro Rails, Martian Rails, Australia Rails, etc. My parents and my sister all love Empire Builder. In case it wasn't clear by my lead-in, I hate it. Another thing to know about Empire Builder is that it's older than I am, according to Boardgamegeek, the game came out in 1980.

The goal of Empire Builder is to make money and to build a rail network Empire. You win the game by having a predetermined amount of cash and connecting the majority of the major cities on whatever map you are playing (classic Empire Builder uses North America in case you don't recognize The Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore in the picture above). Empire Builder boards are composed of a bajillion dots on waxy material. The waxy board allows the players to draw their rails with crayons, and after game end, erase those railways for the next play-through (crayons included in the game, but paper towels are not).
All the boards use the same black dots on white background format
At the beginning of the game you receive 4 load cards (from which you will choose 3), each with 3 options of what good to deliver to what location. 
Australian Rails load card
It's important to note that you will only use ONE of these three delivery options and then the card goes away, to be replaced by a new random card. You pick up the various goods in cities all over the board (you are given a reference chart to determine where that city is), and the farther that resource is from the destination city, the more money it is worth. During your turn you move your train a fixed number of spaces (that you can increase by pimping your ride) and then may spend up to 20$ million to extend your railroad. It is more expensive to build over mountains and rivers, so building in specific areas first can yield a cost advantage.You may spend your turn discarding all your load cards and drawing a new random set. It is important to note that inside the load deck there are random cards that will screw players based on their location on the board. For instance, flooding on the Mississippi will destroy your rails and cause anyone in the area to miss a turn (and since you have to repair your rails, it can often amount to missing two turns).

FUN: 1 - I flippin' hate this game. It gets a '1' over a '0' because every few years I forgot how bored I get playing this game and agree to play. The first ten minutes is fun, and the remaining 2 hours and 50 minutes is pretty much pure tedium to me. In general, I am wary of train games. By construction, train empires require a lot of initial investment in order to play out in the long run. What this means is that a certain point in many of these games you can look and be like "I fucked up. It's game over for me" but you have to sit there for another ninety minutes waiting to die. Now I will say there is a group of people that really, really, really enjoys these games. Empire Builder might be my mom's favorite class of games, but for me, it's a bitter experience every time.

STRATEGY: 3 - I give this rating with a very perplexed face. 
First result on Google for 'perplexed face'
I personally feel there is little strategy, but the same people perform well in this game pretty consistently so I'm inclined to say it's a skill-based game. In the initial stage of the game, you have to assess your cards and decide where you are going to build. That part of the game is pretty brain intensive and fun as you are trying to figure out how you can efficiently connect a network to pick up your first few paydays. After, you pray that every new card you get is a load you can deliver or connect to and that you don't randomly get delayed because you were in the wrong city at the wrong time (completely out of your control). You might even completely sack out (sack - short for lucksack; to have a sack full of luck means to have a lot of luck) and draw the card that delivers Bauxite to Perth for 65 million and you happen to have Bauxite that you were carrying on board! (You can do this because you don't pay for resources in the game, you just pick them up willy nilly as long as you have room) Knowing when to discard your hand and draw a new one is definitely an experience-based aspect of the game, but it's a feel bad mechanic that most people who aren't familiar with the distribution of cards would avoid (spending a turn discarding just feels like losing). In fact, I have heard of strategies where you pick up a remote resource and then dig for locations to deliver it to. That makes sense to me, but is that fun?

SOCIAL: 0 - You aren't getting away with this one Empire Builder. In the game you can take your opponent's rails and pay them to do so, but that doesn't mean there is interaction in this game. I played this game over break with my family and paid next to no attention to what they were doing and why there were doing it and still won (by some miracle; this is a game I often lose due to lack of experience with efficient rail set-ups). An anecdote of the game to show how it is the easiest game to disengage with in the world:
I read a book between turns. There was a point in the game where I was making a pair of deliveries across the board so I just counted out what spaces I would end up every following turn and marked it on the map. For half an hour, I would look up at the board for 3 seconds when it was my turn, and then pass the turn to my sister. I'm not exaggerating. I timed it. For a score and ten minutes I stuck a thumb up my butt and went to la-la land. Sure, I could have normal conversations with other players when it isn't their turn, but my point is that as a 3-hour game, interaction is limited to "sucks that you got stuck crossing the Ohio River". Or in my case, "Does this play even make any sense at all?"

FLAVOR: 2 - The flavor of this game is alright - you are connecting cities with railroads and delivering goods. Everything about that makes fine sense to me. You can spend money to upgrade your trains, and the initial investment of building your trains and railroads is outweighed by the long-term benefits. However, there are some things that are pretty empty flavor-wise. For instance, it's unlikely that they would call Jim from the Great Northern and say "Jim, I have a job for you. You can deliver Wine to Cincinnati, Cattle to Jacksonville, or Iron to Las Vegas. Subsequently, we will pay you 13, 27, or 14 million dollars. The choice is yours." Additionally, when you pass through a city, you can pick up any good they offer for free. Cause why not? We have too much beer in this city anyway, feel free to grab some and carry it around the world for the next few weeks until you find a buyer.

MISCELLANEOUS: 2 - The game board is kinda ugly, but there is a definite appeal to drawing on things with crayons. In fact, as a child, my desire to draw with crayons on the board was my first experience with this game.

Parting Thoughts on Strategy: Uh, well I suck at this game. Count out everything at the beginning to see if you can actually get to the places you want to get (building railroads is expensive!). Always stock your train full of materials because some of the nasty effects make you lose one of your goods. Unless you have delivery chains, longer runs tend to be better than shorter ones.

Best of luck delivering!


  1. I just wanted to point out that this is a variation that was used at the BPA for a quicker game during the first heats- we've taken this rule on for the same reason....

    At the beginning of the game you receive 4 load cards (from which you will choose 3), each with 3 options of what good to deliver to what location.

    1. Oh, did not know that! Thanks, momma. <3

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