The April 19, 2004 game of Empire Builder. Could it really have been as awful as it seems in memory? A night when time slowed to a crawl, when recriminations filled the air. A night when the game was pronounced "never to be played again" upon its conclusion.
It was Ed's choice; I had gotten out a few games I wanted to try: El Grande, Wyatt Earp, Napoleon, and also a couple of Sid Sackson books (A Gamut of Games, Beyond Competition.) And then, as an afterthought, I laid out Empire Builder as well. What was I thinking? I suppose it was that Ben and I had enjoyed playing it with two, it might be good to give Ed a second crack at it, and it wouldn't take so long with three now that we'd all played it.
Why did Ed select it? Accounts vary. Ed insists he was lobbied to pick the game, but neither Ben nor I remember it that way. Regardless, finger-pointing went on in earnest after the game had been dragging on for a while.
When I played EB last and won, Ben observed that there was a fair amount of luck in the game. I of course harrumphed to myself, knowing inside that I won only because of my rapidly accumulating skill. In last night's EB game, though, I suddenly became convinced, in my highly objective thoroughly-defeated state, that luck determines all.
From the get-go, I seemed cursed. The three cards I was dealt in the beginning were all essentially unplayable -- big payoffs to distant western destinations or from western sources, that I dared not go into at the game's beginning so as not to be marooned. I traded in my cards and started a move behind.
My next cards were only slightly better, and I was stuck building more track than I wanted, having no small or moderately-sized payoffs to play for. Ben, meanwhile, was able to build a nice little grid in the east, making a series of efficient little deliveries.
Ed got into trouble from the beginning again. He ran out of money, begged for help, and we agreed on a "mercy loan" to him -- not long into the game, it was clear that Ben and I would be competing, with Ed far behind.
Soon we found ourselves with a problem; what is game etiquette for a demoralized player? Ed got very far behind, pronounced himself unable to grasp the essential problem of Empire Builder, was turning his cards time after time, and looked generally miserable. We coaxed him into continuing, promising to play rapidly, a promise I kept but Ben seemed unable to.
Around the halfway point, I felt that I had had miserable cards but had fought my way back to a decent position. I wasn't even with Ben, and my rail lines were inefficiently laid out, but I was in the game, and was feeling confident that with an equal chance, I could make up for lost ground.
Towards the end of the game, though, my luck turned sour again. This time I started getting exclusively cards for teeny payoffs in the northeast, where I didn't have track at all. Ben and I both having passed the $100M point, it seemed crazy to waste time building track and traveling into a new section of the board just to get payoffs of $4M to $7M. I felt I had to take my chances on drawing better cards, and making use of my east-west connection from San Francisco across the country.
Meanwhile, Ben was moving slower than molasses. We pleaded with him, we taunted him, we tried to shame him, but nothing could make him move faster. The game was quickly becoming non-competitive, but Ben was absorbed in his myriad of choices. The game lasted somewhere between 2.5 and 3 hours, and I swear, two of those were Ben's turns. Ed had almost nothing to do on his, and I was so impatient on mine that I was moving as quickly as I could without much regard for how well I was playing.
I needed a stroke of luck near game's end to stay competitive, and I didn't get it. Ben was around $174M, I was at $152M, and I was sitting on the west coast, dealing with influxes of cards promising only tiny payoffs in the northeast. Surely something could come up that would enable me to use sugar or fruit from San Francisco. But after multiple exchanges and lost moves, nothing did.
We played out the string, watching Ben plot his last moves over a seemingly endless expanse of time.
By the end of the game, Ed was instructing us to "shoot him" before he was allowed to play another game of EB, whereas I was similarly irritated that my fortunes in the game could go from so high last time, to so low this time, and to be stuck with the consequences of that, watching someone else play for hours.
I don't think EB will be hitting the table again for a while!
It sounds to me like Ed was simply interested in sabotaging the game since he wasn't winning. I've been in groups which had a player or two like this, and eventually we just quit inviting them. I don't think there's a game in existence which can't be ruined by a player saboteur. Perhaps you might consider restarting the whole game (once!) if a player ends up really out of competition early-on.
Bad card draws are part of the game, and everyone gets them occasionally. From your writeup, it sounds like your network was too skimpy and you may have been trying to win by delivering nothing but fruit and sugar. There's really only one "stinker" card in the deck--payoffs of $4M, $7M, and $10M--but the game is designed such that ALL loads are unprofitable if you aren't able to use significant amounts of existing track in making a delivery. I suspect that you didn't build into New York, which is a mistake because Empire Builder is (loosely) organized on the actual U.S. economic model, and a lot of loads initiate or terminate in the northeast. When I play, if I skip a major city it's usually either Seattle or Atlanta and occasionally Los Angeles--never New York, Chicago, or Kansas City.