Empire Builder Strategy
(Based on the US/Canada map I have – concepts can be applied to North American Rails or other versions)
Empire Builder is a connection and logistics game where players use crayons to draw their railroad track on the board to connect North American cities. This enables them to pick up specified goods at their production cities and drop the goods off at cities that demand them. In addition, expanding the rail network is crucial to connecting enough of the major cities on the board to meet the winning conditions.
Each railroad baron begins the game with an allotment of money, three delivery cards and no track. Each delivery card shows three cities which desire specific commodities and the prices those cities will pay for them. The map shows in which cities the commodities can be acquired. This means each player has nine combinations of connecting two cities that will provide them with more money. When they successfully deliver a good, they are paid the amount shown on the card and turn that card in for a replacement card which has three new delivery possibilities on it. Thus only one delivery can be made among the three potential deliveries on each card. Without sufficient money, players will be dead on their track and unable to continue to expand and connect more cities to deliver more goods in an increasing network.
There are distinct strategies and tactics in Empire Builder which will vary widely based on the level of experience of the player. Strategies will guide overall expansion on the board while tactics involve route drawing, train movement, and use of delivery cards. The key point to remember is that winning Empire Builder is NOT about the largest rail system, the most cities connected, or even the greatest dollars in goods delivered. It is about connecting the required major cities and achieving $250 million in the fewest turns possible. Efficient track and delivery is king!
Let’s break that down a little further. There are two sides to achieving the $250 million needed to win; the Revenue side and the Cost side. Most new players focus on delivering and accumulating as much revenue as possible. Their primary initial concern on the cost side is during the early game to make sure there is sufficient money to continue expansion and make the next delivery possible. But in the final analysis, the person wins who meets two strategic sets of criteria. First, the final rail network has a total cost which includes train upgrades and money given to opponents for track use. This total cost is subtracted from total revenue including money received from opponents using your track. Looked at this way, overspending to build a magnificent network drives up total revenue needed. The winner will be the player who balances building the cheapest network that enables good revenue generation. The second strategic criteria is efficient movement of a player’s train. Building a cheap network is fine, but if it causes many additional turns of movement, during which no money is spent, but revenue is not gained either, the player still falls behind. Balancing these two factors generates a winner who reaches the victory conditions in the fewest possible turns.
Overall Strategy – Know Your Goals
While a new player who makes tactical decisions based on current cards may have a small chance to win if the right cards come up in the right order, there are a large number of key achievements which almost every player will have to accomplish on route to a victory. Making tactical decisions which incorporate the accomplishment of these elements is key. Following are a list of some of these important ‘stations’ on the Empire Builder track to victory:
- Everyone needs five of the six major cities to win. The way the board is structured, the city left out (though having all six may be fine) is most likely to be a west coast city or New York. Kansas City and Chicago will almost always be part of the mix. Atlanta will typically be one of the five. For Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York, the first player or two to connect to them has a decidedly cheaper and more direct path.
- Understand the goods areas and groupings. There are many examples where this is crucial such as East vs West: goods available only on the east coast delivered to the west coast, and vice versa, are the big money winners when you combine two or more deliveries at once. Tobacco in the east and Sugar from the west are good examples.
- Know which cards don’t fit the rail system you have constructed. Don’t plan to the cards, plan to your rail system. Just because a card has attractive deliveries on it, does not make it useful to you. Stretching the rail system to incorporate a single delivery is typically not profitable. There will always be give and take, but generally use deliveries that generate the most dollars within the constraints of your current, or very near term track configuration. “Sitting” on a delivery card reduces the potential valuable loads you may find by one third, which puts you at an enormous disadvantage to your opponents. If you have two useless cards and a third that is trivial or lengthy to pickup and deliver, pitch on your next turn. Don’t be afraid to pitch twice in a row if necessary. Three to four pitches in a game will still leave a great chance for victory.
- Get there first in track building, don’t get closed out of a key small or medium city, don’t take the expensive route through mountains and rivers if it can be avoided. The main player interaction in Empire Builder is through laying track in best locations and forcing your opponents to take more costly, less efficient routes. But this should be balanced against the current need to generate money to finance growth for the next deliveries.
- Make sure you are not traveling long distances just to pick up a good that you will then travel long distances to drop off. This may enable scoring of big deliveries, but if you divide the revenue generated by the number of turns of travel to generate it, it is actually inefficient.
- Upgrade train speed as early as it is feasible without making track building impossible. Every three turns earlier than an opponent that you upgrade gives you one “free” turn that your opponents missed.
- Plan delivery around more than one card at a time, preferably carrying multiple goods along the same stretch of track on route to delivery. There are numerous “mid-board” goods such as corn, swine, wheat, oats, etc that work well in combination with longer haul goods for the purposes of matching and delivering on a couple delivery cards simultaneously.
Efficient Track Building-
- Think of the continent as a network that you will have to completely span. The most effective way to do this involves only one long route completely across the country with spokes off it to areas of the board/specific cities. This primary route should not divert back and forth through every city along the way as cross-country movement becomes torturously long. A ‘Y’ configuration with Kansas City as the hub and one route west and two eastward to Atlanta and New York is often strong.
- Build straight track early, even if it costs one million more dollars particularly if it is part of one of your key east/west or north/south lines that you will be traversing frequently during the game. Never jink your track out and back to avoid one mountain, it actually costs more and also takes longer to move across.
- Never build INTO a major city if it is avoidable, always build OUT. This saves big money and since your track can always start from any major city, unconnected to the rest of your rail system, never pay to build into a major unless you must. Since this will likely have you connecting your track in the middle, always have that connection occur on a clear milepost, this avoids drawing your track into the same mountain milepost twice.
- Don’t build across rivers early if avoidable. For example, Chicago can be used to cross a river rather than building track across it. In addition, if you will not be crossing a given river for a while, save the money and build track across it the turn before you need it (But don’t forget to build the track the turn before you need it or you will cost yourself a turn). Know which rivers have flooded already. Except in the rare game (usually more than four players), the delivery card deck will not cycle twice and most rivers will only flood once per game. Once a river system has flooded, it is safe to build track across it without fear of a flood washing out your bridge.
- If you have a few extra dollars early in the game, spend a little, NOT a lot, preserving cheap routes that are almost necessities to winning, even if they do not support current delivery needs. This is a tricky balance as you do not want to run out of money to build the links you need to finance your next deliveries. Nonetheless, there are a couple spots where this is most crucial. Coming out of NY through Buffalo, being among the first to connect Kansas City to Atlanta, connecting straight from the east side of OKC to Chicago, and being first on the south, north, or middle routes from the west coast eastward are all examples of this. In any game, these specific ones may not fit your overall strategy, but some routes will and if you have the money, take advantage and make your opponents pay for those more mountainous routes.
- Carry an extra load across the country “just in case” you get to deliver it when you make another delivery and get a new card (or in case you need a hedge against cargo loss due to derailment) assuming you have the cargo space.
- When you deliver a load at a city, you must immediately turn in the card and pick up a new one which may have a negative event (derailment). As a result, if you are delivering two goods to the same city, or to very close cities, deliver the much larger revenue commodity first so as not to lose it to a derailment. Immediately upon receiving your delivery card replacement, pick up whatever good that city has as a ‘just in case’ before continuing movement.
- Be aware of where your train stops. Particularly on a turn before a pitch. Stopping in a city enables you to go either direction at the beginning of your next movement, rather than continuing down the current direction, on the turn after the pitch. It also gives instant access to the goods in that city if you are lucky enough to draw a card that matches.
- Stay below $50 early in the game. You should be expanding toward your rail network goals and upgraded train quickly enough that money should rarely be sitting around early in the game. It also enables you to avoid being taxed if the taxation event occurs, saving some money.
- If the tobacco delivery to Los Angeles delivery card has been discarded (By being delivered, by being on the same delivery card as another delivery, or by discard), it reduces the potential value of tobacco as one of the big ticket deliveries for the game. Having a loose sense (without getting into memorization) of which big ticket deliveries for which commodities have disappeared may inform whether you want to go to the trouble of connecting to support a given delivery; knowing whether it will provide potential added profits further into the game.
– The more players in the game, the more important any strategy/tactic becomes surrounding access to major cities and major goods supply regions.
– Having a track to a specific city be 7 spaces rather than six may provide a mild advantage if opponents need in/out of that city on your track.. it makes them expend two turns on your track rather than one. Of course, this may also drive them to a second opponent’s track or not to do the delivery at all.. so this one should be used cautiously.
– Know the types of event cards that may occur, and you will know what problems can ensue and mitigate potential bad affects in advance.
Overall, Empire Builder is a marvelous game that presents tough decisions on when to build track and what goods to deliver. It is great for individuals who like connection and logistic games and has solid strategic depth and endless replayability.
All sound advice. I'll throw in my 2 cents; while the "faster" train is always worth upgrading to as soon as possible, the "bigger" train is rarely worth purchasing at all. Putting together triple deliveries, without wasting turns or building unneeded track, is pretty tough to do, and you probably need to put together a couple of good triple deliveries to make the "big" train worth the $20.
I generally only go for the "big" train if it's early in the game, I've already purchased the "fast" train, and I see the opportunity for a good triple delivery (with the hope that with I'll stumble into another one later in the game).
I agree with the general non-usefulness of the heavy freight in Empire Builder. There will be specific circumstances which may justify it, but on average they do not come up that often. Of course, this is for Empire Builder only. Some of the other Rail games in the series, particularly Iron Dragon, make heavy freight a more attractive options.
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A great primer! I would like to differ on the value of a super freight. Yes, for actual delivery, it is rarely useful, but it has several other benefits:
It might save a turn here or there by allowing the most efficient pick up of goods instead of the pickup that uses only two slots. For example, you're heading west with one good for the far west, a good to drop in KC, and need tourists from Chicago: you could drop in KC, go back to Chicago, and then continue west--but that costs 10 movement.
It protects against derailments by allowing you to carry a "safety load".
It allows you to carry a speculation load, such as sugar from the west, tobacco from the east, coffee from the Mexico etc.
It may reduce tax burden.
While these individually do not justify the $20 million, I believe they do in combination.
I have to disagree with the 3 capacity train strategy you presented. I've found that it's beneficial to have it as early as possible. As a load buffer to derailments, as an opportunity load carrier and with warehousing in play, a means of controlling the availability of valuable loads.
It's been mentioned indirectly a few times but the base game contract deck is important to get familiar with. You need to know the frequency and value of the loads in the game deck. This has a very strong effect on the outcome of the game.
You have to "go with the flow" of the contracts. Or, if you don't like them, you need to spend a turn and dump them. I played the computer game a lot in the past and noticed that the AI made a numerical assessment of the contract set it had and if a threshold value was not met, it dumped. The end result being it dumped them a lot more than I was. Once I adopted a more proactive contract hand dump strategy, I started winning more games.