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Empire Builder and the Modern Train Game

Nate Straight

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Around the World in 80s Days

The year is 1980 and our hobby [at least on the continent I am writing from] consists largely of the sprawling wargames of SPI and The Avalon Hill Game Co, the mostly abstract and parlor style bookshelf line from 3M, a healthy smattering of negotiation classics like Junta or Machiavelli or Dune or Cosmic Encounter, and the first big wave of fantasy titles such as Magic Realm or Titan or of course Dungeons & Dragons. A faint rumbling of a "chugga chugga" or a "wheeeesh" can be heard from such titles as Railway Rivals, Boxcars / Rail Baron, 1829, or even Dispatcher. It wouldn't be until later into the 80s with the reimplementation of Railway Rivals as Dampfross and development of 1829 into 1830 that these titles would really gain popularity and influence.

Beyond that, none of these early train-themed games bear much resemblance to what we think of today as a "train game" [not even the seminal 1829, although 1830 does; the difference, I think, is in the very restrictive way in which 1829 introduces both new companies and new track into play]. Railway Rivals / Dampfross is more akin to Streetcar: A connection game followed by a race game. Rail Baron / Boxcars is more akin to Merchant of Venus: A roll-and-move game of buying infrastructure and making deliveries; sounds about right, and MoV is this close to being a train game, but Rail Baron not only has pre-set tracks but limited delivery contract / route options. Dispatcher is a minutia-laden game more akin to the logistics in a wargame.

From gallery of NateStraight

Chugga Chugga Choo Choo

So if all of those games aren't exactly "train games", what exactly is a "train game"? And why does anyone care? Similar questions are currently being fielded by Jason Begy in his dissertation on train games for Concordia University. I'm not going to attempt to go into nearly as much detail in my research as what Jason is likely to end up with, but I want to share a bit of the story of Empire Builder and its important place in hobby gaming. Along the way, I hope to place it as a transition point from these earliest train games to something recognizable as "the modern train game", and obviously to describe a fair bit of what that term means. So let's begin at the beginning: What is a train game? Well, we'll get to that later. First, let's answer something easier:

What is a train?

The train is one of the more revolutionary inventions in history, and was a critical part of the various industrial revolutions that took place throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Being able to produce widgets more effectively and efficiently [through the use of steam power, better machinery, increased understanding of materials and their properties, etc] is one thing, but to make widgets you need "stuff". You need lots of fuel to burn to power the machines. You need lots of raw materials to put into the machines. You need a way to transport the widgets to people who want to buy them. The efficiency of your economic engine is limited and defined by the amount of "stuff" you can move in and out, and the speed at which you can do it.

Trains had [have] a number of obvious advantages over other methods of moving "stuff" between producers, suppliers, and consumers: They were [for the time] faster than any other method of transport, and dramatically so [the Transcontinental Railroad in the US cut the travel time from the East to the West Coast from a matter of months down to 4-5 days]. They were [and still are] able to carry dramatically more payload than any other method of land transport. They require relatively little manpower and are relatively fuel efficient [especially when considering the tonnage of freight it is able to move]. Add it all up, and a train can carry more goods at distances further removed for a cost much lower than nearly any other mode of transport.

There is, of course, one piece of the equation which we are missing. Trains only run on track. Even though trains are fast and both fuel and cost efficient, train tracks are much less so. It took about 6-7 years to build the Transcontinental Railroad, and that was after decades of debate over where exactly it should go and who exactly should build it. The construction employed well into the tens of thousands of laborers. The total cost for the project was something around $100M in 1870 USD. That's just the main route. Every spur to stretch anywhere else in California but the Bay area, in the West but central Nevada and central Utah, and in the East but the Great Plains was yet another very expensive and time-consuming prospect.

This is the primary limitation on the effectiveness of trains. The infrastructure to support rail transport is expensive and slow to build, and increasingly so as it becomes less geographically centralized. For this reason, rail transport is most well suited to bulk transport between large centers of economic activity. Short runs and small loads are best left to other modes of transport. In the early history of rail transport [when UPS trucks and 18-wheelers were not a "thing"], much of this break-out traffic was handled by private local and regional railroads which connected smaller towns back to the major public transportation hubs. This was not generally very profitable, and inevitably these companies [and their track] were bought out by the larger railroads.

From gallery of NateStraight

* A train moves "stuff" for the purpose of facilitating economic activity, and is an incredibly efficient and rapid means of economic transport.

* A railroad is an incredibly expensive and difficult bit of infrastructure, and is a limiting factor on the effectiveness of transport by train.

These, to me, are the defining elements of "trains" and the defining tensions involved in their deployment which a "train game" must capture.

There must be economic activity or growth which is furthered by the use of the trains or railroads in the game. There must be a tension between the "easy money" efficiency of running a train and the "hard labor" difficulty of building [or running] a railroad. There must be significant topological or geographic tradeoffs involved in the planning of rail connections or delivery routes. Niceties such as technological progression and industrial activity are welcome, but not essential. Side issues such as stock ownership and financial chicanery are an integral part of what "train game" means to many gamers, but this is mostly because these mechanisms in their full force just happen to have been applied to "train games" proper nearly to the exclusion of any other genre.

Enter Empire Builder.

Board Game: Empire Builder

First edition copy, photo credit Donald Dimitroff

The Little Engine that Could

Industry stalwart Mayfair Games has been around much longer than has its signature title Catan. The company was founded in the early 80s for the purpose of publishing Empire Builder, an unassuming looking game co-designed by company founder Darwin Bromley [the other designer was Bill Fawcett]. Since then, the game has seen five revised editions, and over a dozen spin-offs in the "crayon rail" series. Its basic mechanisms for network expansion were copied directly in Funkenschlag [Power Grid's predecessor]. As a standard-bearer for network-building games in general and for Mayfair Games' entrepreneurial adventures as one of both the early "German game" importers and the early "train game" publishers, Empire Builder is a linchpin in the hobby.

If you have never played or researched Empire Builder, a brief overview is probably in order. The essence of the game is pretty simple: Take a natural resource map [with the cute little icons all over] for a country, overlay it with a hex grid made up of dots [the hex centers], then have players connect the dots [literally] with a grease pencil to indicate where they have built their tracks. The players use these tracks to run a train token back and forth between connected cities delivering various natural resources and industrial goods between their origin city and a randomly determined [through a contract card draw deck] destination, with payouts based on the distance between the cities involved. Repeat 'til someone has a sufficiently large network and sufficiently high cash assets.

From gallery of NateStraight

This has a kind of intuitive common sense to it which I've written about before. The maps make sense. The kind of economic activity makes sense. The method of building track by drawing out the way you want to connect various cities makes sense. The means in which you make money by delivering goods from a fixed supply to a larger and variable set of demanders makes sense. Because of this, and best of all, even though it is simple it still feels like a real live red blooded train game [I'm looking at you, Ticket to Ride] and it captures the essential elements of the genre: Building track is expensive and takes a long time, but your train can zip back and forth across what track you've built pretty quickly; and there are real opportunity costs in how you plan both your network and deliveries.

The game also has one of the best early examples of what is now a pretty bog standard trope in train gaming [though 18xx largely eschews it]: Your income derived from economic activity during the game is for the large part of the game plowed right back into continuing the cycle of economic growth through more and more infrastructure [track]. It accomplishes this by forcing you to connect a certain number of larger cities, but more importantly by limiting how efficiently your wealth can grow if your network is not large enough to handle the vagaries of the random contract draw or to leverage the longer more valuable payouts. You simply will never reach the required total cash-on-hand victory condition without expending about as much [or more] cash over the course of the game to expand your network.

Like many modern economic engine games, there is a fairly well-defined tipping point when the focus of your game will shift from building the infrastructure / engine to churning out points with it. Along with Crude: The Oil Game, Outpost and Civilization, it's one of the earlier and more important examples of this basic game structure. Additionally, while it is not the first pickup and deliver game with players "carrying" goods on some kind of transport across the board to earn points [for one other easy example, see Alaska from a year earlier], it is definitely the earliest of any real impact and is pretty damn close to the archetype for that mechanism, what with movement points and carrying capacity and demand cards to fulfill. Merchant of Venus, Roads & Boats, Serenissima, and all of the other pu&d progenitors owe a large debt to Empire Builder.

More specifically, Empire Builder solidified a central element of pickup and deliver gameplay that has become part of the vast majority of games [especially train-themed games] which use the mechanism and which [importantly] is absent from all of the previous train-themed games mentioned in the intro: The idea that any given demand can be sourced from multiple supply locations, and [conversely] that any given supply can potentially be used to fulfill demands in multiple different locations. In prior games that had inklings of pu&d, delivery contracts were of the sort "go to that place, then come back to this other place". In Empire Builder, it is "Newcastle needs coal", but there are multiple places to get coal, and if you're not connected to any you'll have to decide which one works best with other potential deliveries.

That idea comes back in full force, of course, in Age of Steam and its family tree [parents and children]. While there are no trains which move around the board and demand is determined by the board topology itself and not a random contract draw, the essential tension remains of linking up a network various potential supply sources to various possible matching demands in such a way as to efficiently take advantage of as many as possible of the produced goods when they present themselves to be supplied to fulfill demands. If there is any other game series which is quintessentially the "modern train game", it is the AoS family, and while the supply/demand system is not a direct port in any sense, it is hard to imagine its having developed in the way it did without the earlier [possibly mediated] influence of Empire Builder.

I am less convinced / certain of it [i.e., would love counter-examples], but I am fairly sure that Empire Builder also represents one of the earliest instances of the concept [divorced from any physical pick-up-and-deliver action] of collecting a good[s] and using it to match up to a randomly drawn "contract" in order to gain a payout. This, of course, has developed through a little bit of mechanical accretion [turning in more than one good at a time in order to receive the payouts for the contracts in question] into a building block as basic to modern gaming as is worker placement or shifting turn order: set collection [esp. toward "contracts"]. Despite being abused and having become one of the most obvious design choices when you need to convert "doing stuff" into points, it is a fundamental design tool.

Board Game Publisher: Mayfair Games

Mayfair booth at Origins 2007, photo credit Todd Eaton

It's Hard to Stop a Train

Empire Builder paved the way for Mayfair to become one of the most successful hobby publishers ["publisher marks" at least, as it hasn't been continuously owned/operated as the self-same company]. Importantly for the topic of this post, it also cemented them as one of the foremost publishers of train games. In addition to all of the Empire Builder spin-offs, Mayfair was responsible for the importing from Hartland Trefoil of two of the earlier 18xx titles [1835 and 1853], for the sprawling economic epic that is Silverton, for two independently / in-house developed 18xx games [1856: Railroading in Upper Canada from 1856 and 1870: Railroading across the Trans Mississippi from 1870], for a number of train-themed card games [Express, Freight Train, Station Master], and eventually [after a few corporate reorganizations] the functional [if not perfect] long-awaited reprint of the classic 1830: Railways & Robber Barons.

Add to that a number of Martin Wallace economic titles [Automobile, Aeroplanes, and of course Steam] and dozens of games licensed from KOSMOS [Catan, duh], and they are for all of their price-fixing and generally uninspired art and production direction a force for good in the hobby. In large part, no doubt, because of the head start which Empire Builder serendipitously gave them. What would Mayfair have been like without Empire Builder's success? What would your gaming life have been like without Mayfair's landing of Catan? They're not a Lookout Games [well, actually...] or an alea or a Hans im Glück that dominate the BGG hotness with new flashy releases every year from the most popular designers, but they remain a hobby standby seemingly in large part on the backs of tried and true designs like Empire Builder and Catan.

From gallery of NateStraight

There's Room for Many a' More

I'll wrap up by trying to connect the breadcrumbs I've scattered throughout, primarily as it pertains to this thing I've called the "modern train game". It's a theme and a setting that seems to fascinate gamers regardless of their general gaming preferences. Titles like Rolling Freight, Snowdonia, Russian Railroads pop up every Essen and score high on the buzz lists / hotness tracker. Are these train games? Does it matter? Well, in all likelihood, no... but that would make this a waste of a blog post. I think it does matter that we define "train game" to mean something more than just "it has pictures of trains on the box", because there are implicit and conditioned things that are expected of something purporting to be a "train game". I'm going to toss in my two cents on what these are, without answering silly "Is ____ a train game?" questions.

Does a train game require a map? Surprisingly perhaps, I don't think so, but I do think it requires some kind of implied distance structure or other topology [which does not have to be geographical / physical; it could well be an abstract "network"]. I can imagine a free-form action-cost-as-distance game structure such as Container's being used in a game that is otherwise a train game. I can imagine some kind of "card adjacency" [not physical, but card-power / -value related] mechanism utilizing ranks and suits to denote distances traveled. And I can imagine a way to build an infrastructure that interacts with these systems without having "physical presence".

Does a train game require trains? Again, maybe a little less surprising, my answer is no. The basic concepts of very expensive or time-consuming infrastructure leading to very efficient growth all in the framework of a production / supply-and-demand economy are manifest clearly in actual trains and railroads, but also in various other settings. I consider the board play of Guatemala Café and Hacienda to be in many ways like (I wouldn't go so far as to say either is) a train game. Nearer to the Platonic ideal, Medieval Merchant and Power Grid seem very nearly to be train games. Then there's Samarkand which is also close. Merchant of Venus has at least one foot in the door.

Does a train game require network-building? Yes, or at the very least network modification [MoV's factories and spaceports, for instance, though again it's an edge-case example]. This is why at least some kind of distance structure or implied topology is necessary. Connectivity [and the building thereof] is central to what it means to have a "train" or a railroad. It is not merely a source of income [as in, say, Railroad Barons], but a source of mobility. That concept of mobility and connectedness and its impact on economic activity and growth is a sine qua non of train gaming, and a differentiating factor from mere economic engine games or mere financial simulations.

Does a train game require goods / pickup-and-deliver? No, although it does require some kind of implicit "from here to there" economic activity that is dependent on the connectivity just mentioned [for example, 18xx's counting of train routes which must pass through a station and then can "reach" to a number of connected cities of various economic value]. So, Martin Wallace's quip in the rulebook to First Train to Nuremberg that "with all good train games, there comes a time when you actually have to move things" is I think a little unfair [*wink*]. There are many ways to simulate economic activity and the "movement" of goods back and forth which do not require any movement.

Does a train game require stock-holding? No. Just no.

So, there you have it. For me, the modern train game is something at the intersection of network-building and economic-engine [to put it simply]. More than that, it is about the tension between hard-to-put-together and iteratively-expanded infrastructure [of uniform materials, so no combo-building super-power card-games here; rails and ties, there's your winning combo] and the rapid growth which it can facilitate. Because the infrastructure is expensive, it cannot reach everywhere in the game and significant opportunity-cost style decisions must be considered in the making of connections. The game pace needs to be long enough for the durability of the infrastructure to be felt [we are not merely blazing trails; a railroad is a permanent landscape fixture] and its use should be a large part of the game.

It also helps if the graphic design was done in MS Paint.
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