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All Aboard the Crayon Rail Express - Empire Express Review

Jason Moslander
United States
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Originally posted at

I have never had much of an interest in train games beyond Ticket to Ride. This is mostly because of the time investment--2-4 hours of economic building, just does not appeal to me. I know some gamers love it, but the gamers that I play with (ahem Mrs Games with Two) probably wouldn't go for it, and it would sit idle on my shelf. We usually have a game time limit that is around the 2 hour mark after the littles go to bed.ter littles go to bed). Also, the theme of building a train network in the 19th century is not something that appeals to me. That being said, I have wanted to at least try one of these train games once, just to see if it would be something that I would enjoy. Maybe I have been judging a game by it's cover, rules, and length. Maybe it's time for me to step out and try something new. When I received a review copy of a crayon rail game, my first thought was, "Oh great. A 4 hour train game. When am I going to have time to play this? How am I going to talk Mrs. GWT into playing?" Then, I started looking at the box....

Empire Express plays in 60-90 minutes, and is a crayon rail game in the Empire Builder series by Mayfair Games. There is no designer listed for this game, but Darwin Bromley and Bill Fawcett designed the first Empire Builder in 1980, so we can give them some credit for this version. The game uses route building and pick-up and deliver mechanics. The game play is easy to learn and teach with a rule book of about 8 pages. These rules contain a simple and advanced version of the game, which is great for new players. The goal of the game is to be the first player to make $150 million dollars and reach the four major cities (you don't have to reach the four cities in the simple version). You do this buy delivering goods to different cities via train routes that you have established. These routes are made via a crayon that is used to draw track on the map. Don't worry the track wipes off with a dry rag and can be ready to play another game in seconds.

Game Play
Empire Express has three basic rounds to each turn: build track, move your train, and discard and add cards to your hand. During the track building phase, you use your crayon to connect one segment to another. This is done on the game board which is a map of the Northeastern United States from Chicago to Maine down to Tennessee and South Carolina. The map consists of dots and triangles as well as major and minor cities. Connecting each dot costs a fee based on it's characteristics (i.e. to build on a triangle represents mountainous regions and cost more to build). The same goes for cities. After players lay their new track, they can move their train. This is usually done to pick up and deliver goods, based on the cards in your hand. For example, you may have a card that says to deliver tires to Chicago, and therefore, you will need to go to a location that produces tires, pick them up, and deliver them to Chicago. Upon arrival, you will receive a payout, and use this money to buy more track. You will also being saving this cash as having $150 million dollars is one of the victory conditions. After moving your train players can discard cards they do not like and pick up new ones up to a hand limit of three. Play continues in this fashion until a player has collected $150 million dollars and has reached track to all four major cities (note: the second goal does not need to be achieved in the beginners version of the game).

I have not played any of the other Empire Builder games, but it is my understanding that there are some major differences in this "express" version. First, you can have pre-laid track. This is an option for the beginner game, but is not necessary for the advanced rules. There are also three pre-set cards that players receive when playing the beginner version. These are all cards that contains goods and delivery locations on your pre-set track. Another difference is that you cannot upgrade your train. You are limited to only carrying two goods at a time. Finally, the cards only have two possible routes instead of three on them. There is also a map on the cards showing the possible locations of the goods needed. These are the changes that I am aware of, I am sure there are more, but as I said I have not played the other games and I am not familiar with the rules. All my knowledge is coming second hand. So, don't shoot the messenger if I messed something up.

I found the components for Empire Express to be good. First, I have to say that Mayfair got the box insert right on this one. It holds everything great. This has been lacking in the last few Mayfair games that I have received, and I am glad that they heard the complaints and made a change. There is a place for all the paper money, and each good has a slot to be placed in. It makes banking a breeze during game play. Everything has a place and makes the game run very efficiently. The game board works though it is very plain, but I understand this is the style of the series. The board wipes off the crayon marks great with a dry towel--no scrubbing or solutions needed. This makes cleaning the game easy. The train pieces and paper money are not anything to write home about, but it is some of the better paper money that I have seen in a game. It's of a thicker stock and feels a bit more durable. The tokens for goods are nice cardboard and easy to read. The price is right too with an MSRP of $30. You cannot complain about that. For what you get, it's an excellent value.

I am glad that I finally had an opportunity to try an Empire Builder game, however, I do not think it's my cup of tea. The game mechanics work great and the game flows well. Turns are quick and the rules are easy to understand, yet the theme of building track to move goods from one place to another just was not my style. It just felt boring to me. I love trains as much as the next guy, but there was no excitement, and the ending was anti-climatic. My gaming partner just said, "I think I have enough money to win." So, we counted his funds and he was at about $160 million which was about $100 million more than I had collected. I don't know if I am just missing something, but I felt like I was missing the fun factor. The game feels like work to me. Figure out the most efficient route, which cards pay out the most money in the shortest time, Is it better to use my existing routes, build new ones, or use my opponents track? All of these are interesting and difficult decisions, but it just didn't hit the spot for me. Like I said, the game works and does what it's supposed to do, and if you like train economic games, you are going to enjoy this one. If you are fan of the Empire Builder series, you will probably find this to be a worthy addition to your train-game collection. It is a beginner version for the series, however, it's a great introduction for new players, or if you want the Empire Builder experience in about half the time. I don't think it gives you the full experience, from what I have heard, but it will help you get your fix.

How is it with Two?
This is an excellent two-player game. I have heard many a folk say that they only play crayon rails with two players. This one could work with three, but I wouldn't play with anymore than that Although the turns move quickly, they can lag when players are trying to find their best and most efficient routes. I also know a good number of people that play this one with their wives. I believe Ryan Strum of the How to Play Podcast, plays crayon rails exclusively with his wife. This one is not Mrs. Games with Two's style. However, I can see how the non-conflicting nature of the game has an appeal, especially for significant other gaming.

Overall, Empire Express is a good game--not a great game. It's not one that I am going to be requesting to play on regular basis. If I am in the right mood, I may suggest this game, and if someone wants to play it with me I would be more than glad to play. I am glad there are people who enjoy train games and crayon rails games, but in the end, my preconceived notions proved to be correct, and crayon rails are just not for me.

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