Reviewed by Greg. J. Schloesser
EMPIRE EXPRESS (Mayfair Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 60-90 minutes; $30)
[Reviewing a crayon rail game is a bit of a challenge, as all of the games in the series use very similar mechanisms. Usually, there are only minor rules changes, with the major difference being the geographical setting. As such, most of the description of the game’s mechanisms will read the same from review to review. The emphasis will be on the differences in the particular game under consideration. With that in mind, much of the following description of Empire Express is lifted from my reviews of previous crayon rail games.]
Perhaps the most pronounced complaint against games in the “crayon rails” genre is their length. Most of the games in the series – starting with Empire Builder and there are probably a dozen or more – tend to take about an hour per player to complete. Thus, when playing with four players, games tend to last four hours or so. For crayon rails aficionados, that duration is acceptable. For most others, however, it is simply too long, and the games tend to wear out their welcome after the first couple of hours.
Well, Mayfair Games has heard the complaints and have acted upon them. The result is Empire Express, a streamlined crayon rails game designed by Larry Roznai that reduces the required play time dramatically, whittling it down to about an hour and a half. Now a group can enjoy a crayon rails game without having to commit an entire gaming session to complete it. So what was done to condense the game into this short time frame?
Before I answer that question, a brief description of the crayon rails system is in order. Basically, each player is building rail lines across the map, with the goal being to link various cities with a rail network so that goods can be shipped between connected cities. Players receive payoffs for these deliveries, so developing direct routes and efficiently using these routes in your deliveries is the key to success in the game.
Rail lines are actually drawn onto the map with grease crayons, which are included in the game, or dry-erase markers, which are not supplied. Experience has proven that those crayons just don’t work properly and are often difficult to see, so we have defaulted to using the dry eraser markers. These, too, have their problems, but seem to work better than the crayons and are easier to wipe-off once the game is completed.
The map in Empire Express depicts the northeastern quadrant of the United States. Superimposed over the map is a grid of points (known as “mileposts”), and rail lines will be drawn to make connections between these mileposts. The cost of a connection depends upon the type of terrain being built to and, in this version, can vary from one-to-three million dollars.
Depending upon which version is being played (Basic or Expanded), players each receive a locomotive, $50 million in currency, and three Demand cards to begin the game. In the Basic version, players begin with three specific demand cards and their initial routes are already marked on the map. Thus, they will not construct track to begin the game. However, players do not begin with any cash, so making early deliveries is extremely important. In the Expanded version, players begin the game with $50 million and are randomly dealt three demand cards. Two initial rounds of constructing track are conducted before the regular sequence of play is followed. The idea is to construct track to make the pick-up and delivery of the goods depicted on your demand cards possible. Players may initially begin their track from any major city.
On a turn, a player may move a number of spaces (milepost to milepost), not to exceed the limit of his locomotive, which is twelve spaces. Unlike other crayon rails games, locomotives cannot be upgraded during the course of the game. This certainly simplifies matters, helping speed things along at a faster pace.
Once a player completes his movement, he may then construct up to $20 million of additional track. Of course, this is restricted by the amount of money a player possesses, which is in limited supply in the early stages of the game. The idea here is to build routes to the cities wherein you need to pick up and deliver the goods listed on your Demand cards. Each Demand card lists three cities, the type of good they are demanding and the payoff for successfully delivering that good. Each city on the board depicts the type of good that can be secured at that location. There is no cost to pick-up the goods, and players are free to jettison unneeded goods in any city. As I’ve stated in previous reviews, I’m not particularly fond of this aspect of the game, as there is little, if any, drawback in speculating by picking up unneeded goods, hoping to acquire a demand card that will list that good. We now play with a house-rule wherein goods can only be jettisoned in cities that either produce or require that good. This certainly makes for a tougher game, and eliminates the speculation involved in grabbing any good, hoping to draw a demand card that will prove useful. That being said, Empire Express is an introductory game, so I have played it with the rules as written in order to make matters easier to grasp for those new to the system.
When building routes, short, direct routes are beneficial, as commodities can be delivered quickly for a fast payoff. There are no bonuses for constructing the most track or benefits for taking the scenic route. Since the only way to earn money in the game is by making deliveries, it pays to get the goods to their destination as quickly as possible. However, many goods are produced in the east and are demanded in the west, and vice versa. These require lengthy journeys, but usually result in much higher payoffs.
A player may use another player’s track as opposed to constructing it himself, but this is not always a good idea. Riding another player’s rails is not free: it costs $4 million each turn you ride an opponent’s rail lines. This is occasionally cost effective, but usually only if you can get through a track section in one turn. Sometimes it is completely necessary to use another player’s lines as the smaller cities only allow a limited number of players to build connections to them.
The ultimate objective of the Basic game is to amass a treasury of at least $150 million. At that point, after all players have conducted an equal number of turns, the player with the greatest wealth is victorious. The Expanded version adds an additional requirement of having to connect to all four major cities: Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Again, these requirements significantly shorten the game’s duration, as most games in the series require a player to amass wealth of at least $250 million and connect to five of the six major cities. When playing with multiple players, the majority of the tracks are completed about 2/3 of the way into the game and the final 1/3 is occupied by swiftly racing along these tracks delivering goods. Thus, the player who has constructed the tightest line system and has carefully managed his Demand cards will be richly rewarded.
When a delivery is successfully made, that Demand card is discarded and a new one immediately drawn. The new card often requires the player to adjust his plans in order to take into account the delivery opportunities the new card offers. To shake things up a bit, the deck of Demand cards contains numerous event cards that are generally minor annoyances, but there is one that is actually beneficial. Most of these cause some delays in movement or force players to discard a commodity. The cards contain a bit of flavor text, which helps inject a bit of theme into the proceedings.
So back to my original question: what was done to condense the game into a much shorter time frame? Here is an overview of the major changes in Empire Express:
* Pre-printed starting routes (basic version)
* Pre-determined starting Demand cards (basic version)
* More compact map
* Only a few different terrain types
* Only one type of locomotive with a speed of twelve
* Smaller number of event cards
* Less money required for victory
* No major city connections required (basic version)
All of these changes have helped slice-off several hours of playing time, a much welcomed addition for those disenchanted with the long playing time of most games in the series.
At its heart, Empire Rails can accurately be described as Empire Builder light. It contains most of the main features of its parent, but in a more condensed fashion. It is still essentially a “multi-player solitaire” affair. Each player is basically doing his own thing with very little, if any, interaction or interference from his fellow players. It almost doesn’t matter what your opponents are doing or what goods they are attempting to deliver. There is precious little you can do about it anyway. Each player is simply trying to play his own game, optimizing his routes, massaging his Demand cards and making swift, efficient deliveries. Short of constructing rails aggressively so as to block players from connecting to smaller cities, there is little players can do to interfere with the progress of their opponents. I much prefer games that have a higher degree of interaction amongst the players and wherein there are concrete steps that can be taken to interfere with the plans of my opponents. That being said, this “multi-player solitaire” aspect is far less objectionable in Empire Express due to the drastically reduced playing time.
Empire Express seems to accomplish what it was clearly designed to do: shorten the length of the game in order to offer players a faster, more streamlined version that can be played in a fraction of the time as other games in the series. This should also help introduce more people to the genre, as folks who would normally have shied-away from the series due to their duration might now be enticed to give the game a try.
There is a caveat, however, for fans of the system. This new streamlined and condensed version is rather flavorless and devoid of much atmosphere. It will likely feel rather bland and generic to those accustomed to other games in the series. So, unless you are seeking a version to introduce new and perhaps reluctant players to the series, you probably do not need to add this version to your collection. On the other hand, if you are hoping to attract new players to the series, this may just be the perfect vehicle with which to accomplish that goal. – – Greg J. Schloesser
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