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Subject: Thoughts on Empire Builder & Russian Rails rss

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Shannon Appelcline
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Last night we playtested Russian Rails, the newest Empire Builder game.

For those of you unfamiliar with EB, it's a train system where you draw in train tracks across a map with crayons, and then use those tracks to move goods around. The goal is to meet "demands" listed on cards, which show goods required for certain destinations with payoffs.

EB games are always a challenge because they're so darned long. 4-6 hours on average, unless you have few & very experienced players. I like the games, but they're very hard to fit in during an evening, and I'm even had problems on the occasional Saturday play. Beyond that some people start to get fidgety during play, because it can be a while between their turns. (Myself, I tend to lose myself in the beauty of the expanding rail networks--everyone's, not just mine--but other people wander, read, whatever; it's an issue of any game with potential high downtime.)

Last night we played with a time limit and with faster trains to speed things up. By the time we ended (following the end of the round after 10.45pm), we were close enough to the end that it felt OK to me (I think I had ~$135M rubles of the $250M that would have been the final goal, which means we would have finished up in another 30 or 45 minutes), however putting a time limit on a game always makes the last rounds feel awkward: in this case you have to decide, do you spend money building or not, when it could go to waste if people go to slow. As it was, I would have made another $25M if the game had run a couple of minutes faster. (I still won, so no sour grapes there.)

As much as I like the game system (and dislike the time requirements), playing EB games always reminds me of the problems of the system. The top one is, of course, that it's too long; hours could easily have been shaved off the game just by changing the game requiretments and how building and movement worked (e.g., lower requirements to win, faster trains, and less spaces on the board).

However, I'm always struck by the games low usability too. You pick up a demand card, and it lists three demands on it, of which you should try and make one. Each demand lists a destination city and a good required. You then have to search through the map for all the destinations and all the possible sources and puzzle out what would work best. (They don't even show map coords on the cards, which would have been easy!) Me, I would have made sure the cards each had little maps showing possible sources and destinations, and that probably would have shaved another 30-60 minutes off the game, let alone made its play more enjoyable.

I'm sure that any other number of changes could have improved the elegance and strategy of the game too. Randomly picking up and dumping undesired loads of goods on the ground: never elegant.

However, the EB series of games continues to do well, as is made obvious by the fact that this is the 9th or so release. That's nice on the one hand because they're interesting games, but it's also a shame because it means that no one will ever have the incentive to go through the system and make all the, sometimes obvious, changes that would improve the game dramatically.

The price of success.
 
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Valdir Jorge
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I hate this type of game
Hi Shannon!

I just hate these railroad games! See my review of British Rails: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/54453
 
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Eric Jome
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Hmm... odd. Crayon rails, as most people call the system used in Empire Builder, never struck me as being a particularly long game. We typically finish Empire Builder in less than 2 hours and the "heavyweights" like Eurorails and Iron Dragon only range up to 3 or 3.5 hours.

If you insist on playing in strict turn order, then the games can be long. For example, if you insist that a player complete their turn entirely before the next play takes their turn, the game can be achingly long. Instead of sitting on your hands while the phasing player is re-reading their delivery cards for the 14th time, try just taking your turn.

We frequently play in a "hurried up" fashion. Moving trains is one game. Building rails is another game. Turns in one game do not wait for turns in the other game. When someone wants to make a delivery, we wait for turns to synchronize. This frequently finds someone finishing their build turn just in time to move their train again.
 
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Jake Di Toro
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Faster Trains
You said you used faster trains. Does this mean you just started with faster trains, or did the set come with the traditional 9/12 trains and you used the 10/12/14/16 set from Iron Dragon?

That set of trains is somehting that I'd consider an improvement for any of the games in the series to make a faster game.
 
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Shannon Appelcline
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We used the variant in the rule that suggested trains be 12/16 rather than 9/12. We used the same cards. (Most of the games list this variant.)
 
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Snooze Fest
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Play faster!
I don't remember these games taking that long, even with the basic rules. But, I played a few games recently that were much more fun: we imposed a 1 minute time limit on each person's turn; if they sold goods and got a new card to look at, they got an additional minute. Also, you can often let the next player start their turn before the current player has completely finished. Playing with these modifications was a lot of fun ... much more than the basic rules.
 
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Michael Holmquist
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How long????
My game group has played a lot of these games. They take 2 to 3.5 hours. The exception would be Lunar rails because of how expensive it is to build (it takes longer to build up cash). I played in the tournament at the WBC and the games only took 2.5 hours. I do admit that there is a learning curve to figuring out the system, but if everyone understands it, going to different maps does not take much additional time. I am looking forward to trying Russian Rails.
 
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Amy O'Neal
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I like all the crayon rails... We usually play where the moving turn is the end, and if someone builds, they can do it during the next person's turn... It really speeds things up a lot... I am really looking forward to getting Russian Rails.
 
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Stven Carlberg
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We figure about one hour per player in the game, and frankly I've played a lot more of these solitaire, just running two different "players" and seeing how they do against each other, than I have with other actual players. Fortunately they do make very nice two-player games, and occasionally I have played them with three or even four players, but never more.

This a game design from a bygone era, when it was figured that people would wait patiently for their turn to come back around as the natural price of playing a more complex game. I put on my "old-fashioned take your time" hat when I play these with others since I don't really care much for the accelerated starts, faster trains, skipping ahead in turns while the last player figures out his build, etc., which some players like to implement to speed the game up. I'm willing to wait for it to happen. In fact, sometimes we've played to *higher* totals than given in the rulebook for the sake of being able to run some trains on your network once you've got it built.

I can't believe the game would work very well without the three loads per card thing. (Gotta have choices to make, or why would you need players?) Making it easier to locate the cities would be okay with me, though. I mean, I know we're supposed to be learning geography, but a little more help wouldn't hurt.
 
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