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The three of us were sitting around the dining room table enjoying our Sunday lunch and the subject of trains came up. My son Timothy turned 3 years old in September, so there usually isn't a pretext to talk about topics like trains, dinosaurs, or animals. There doesn't need to be one either.
We were planning an afternoon trip to The Last Square, the nearest FLGS to our house. Though recently the store has focused more on hobby materials and minis, and less on board games, it's been friendly to me in the past and remains a great place to visit with Timmy on a Sunday afternoon. They have no regular Sunday events and thus plenty of table space, and a nice set of Thomas trains available for kids to play with. Also the store closes at 5:00 on Sundays so I have an ironclad reason why we must leave - significant when one is trying to extract a preschooler from someplace fun.
So games were on his mind, and so were trains, and then he asked the fateful question.
"Are there train games?"
I had trouble containing my smile. We own a half-dozen 18xx titles, six Empire Builder Rail Games games, Railways of the World plus the Mexico expansion, and two versions of Ticket to Ride. Yeah kid, there are train games.
So I explained that there are lots of train games, but that most of them were for big kids (wait, you are a big kid! I mean ten-year-olds and twelve-year-olds) and grownups. Then came a wry comment from my wife's side of the table:
"You can mod anything."
I think this is not strictly true. If anyone figures out an 1841 mod appropriate for small children, let me know.
But still this set thoughts in motion - assuming a radical rules redesign, what train game currently in my collection would be appropriate for Timmy?
I decided on Empire Builder. Connecting dots is fun for all ages, right? He's starting to learn geography, and can identify the states of Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois on a US map. He also knows roughly where California, New York, and Texas are. He's very good with numbers up to 30 so counting was not going to be a problem. Here was my idea for a preschooler-appropriate game using the Empire Builder components:
Empire Builder variant wrote:
Setup: Each player gets a crayon and a train card. (The train card doesn't really have a game function, it's just fun to look at.)
Each player has 20 turns. We use a d20 to track which turn it is. On your turn:
1. Roll a d6.
2. Connect a number of dots equal to the number you rolled. Each dot costs one move regardless of whether it is a plains dot, a city, or a solid black mountain triangle and regardless of any rivers in the way.
3. If you connect to a new city and that city has commodity symbols near it, take one of each from the supply and put it on your train. Commodities are component-limited; a player who tries to collect a commodity no longer in the supply does not receive that commodity. A train may hold any number of commodities.
At the end of 20 turns, whoever has the most chips wins.
So when the time came, we packed some snacks, I loaded the trunk with Empire Builder and a couple games actually designed for his age group, and we set off. After a short session at the Thomas table to get in a train game mood, we got started with our Empire Builder mod.
I decided I would go first. Usually I let Timmy go first but I wanted to show him what a turn looked like in this new game. So I rolled a 5 and scanned the board. For the first couple months we played games, he didn't really care about winning and losing, but now he's much more invested in the outcome and really wants to be the winner. I want to set up situations where he will win most of the time, but sometimes he will lose - he needs to learn how to lose gracefully too. So with this in mind I decided I'd start from Dallas and head west, hoping to hold down my point count enough to give him the first win easily before putting a bit more pressure on in future plays.
Timmy chose the blue crayon and rolled 2 for money, so I told him he could connect two dots and because it was the first turn he could start from anywhere on the board. He pointed to New York. He's familiar with New York because his aunt, uncle, and cousin live in Queens. Smart kid, I thought, there are a lot of cities in that region which are very close together.
I got another 5 and drew five more links to about the Texas-New Mexico border, but then made the critical mistake of telling Timmy I was trying to get to California. California is an exotic place in his mind. It's all the way in the west, and that's interesting, and whenever his friends go there they have to take a plane and they're gone for a whole week or even more. Like a fortune-seeker of a bygone era, there was no way my son was going to resist the allure of California.
"I want to go to California too."
"Okay, roll the die."
Timmy rolled a 2. He used his first move to connect to Philadelphia. Then with his second move, he drew a long, winding blue line in the general direction of Florida, being extremely careful not to touch any dots. Then he turned west and eventually stopped his line at a big hexagonal major city on the west coast. Los Angeles.
"I made it to California. And you didn't!"
After the obligatory triple-take, I decided not to bother strictly enforcing dot-to-dot connectivity rules for this game. We'll try that again some other time. We kept taking turns and at the end he ended up having collected 16 chips to my 11. Was it an actual game? Not exactly. But he wants to play more train games, so a big success from that perspective.
Some day a dozen years from now, he may totally wreck my position in a game of 1830. After I finish cursing I will remember that first "train game," and if I'm not careful I just might let a tear escape from my eye.