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Throwback Thursday: Empire Builder

Posted Thursday, 21-May-2015

Contributed by Andrew Knighton

Train games have a reputation for seriousness and maturity.  Empire Builder proves that they can also include mechanics that are novel and fun.  After all, what could be less mature than playing with wax crayons?


Connecting a Continent

Named after the continent-crossing North American railway line, Empire Builder is in many ways a classic railway game.  As in 1829 and 1830, players build railway lines across a map in search of profit.

But while it may be a venerable classic like the 18xx games, Empire Builder follows the more straightforward business model of games like Trains and its expansion set Trains: Rising Sun.  Victory comes through building up and running a company, not trading in its stocks and share.  This is business as progress, not venture capitalism.


Empire Builder
Empire Builder with all of the game pieces.

Each turn, players are given the chance to ship goods along their railway lines.  The profit from these goods funds expansion of their railway network.  With expansion comes profit and eventually victory.


The Satisfaction of Success

Many economic development games end just as the players’ systems are starting to work.  In Race for the Galaxy, players following an economic strategy have just long enough to see the gears start spinning before the game is over.  By then, the person with the best system is racing ahead and it’s time to stop.


Empire Builder
Empire Builder


In Empire Builder you get the satisfaction of watching your system in action.  You have to run your railways to fund your railways, and so get the satisfaction of both building and running your business as tracks criss-cross the United States.


And Then There Are The Crayons

Empire Builder is a well-executed example of the train game genre, but that doesn’t automatically make it stand out, or explain how it has remained popular since its original release in 1982.  What makes Empire Builder distinctive is a simple thing – wax crayons.

Empire Builder Crayons
Empire Builder Crayons

In most train games, tracks are represented by tiles laid on the board.  That’s satisfying, especially if they’re nice tiles, but it’s also become ordinary.  In Empire Builder, tracks are drawn onto the board using wax crayons… and that’s fun in itself.

It might sound like a trivial thing, but it gets to the root of what games are about.  After all, novelty is one of the big appeals of board games — the chance to be and do things you couldn’t in ordinary life.  Why else do we game if not to retain some of the playfulness we all had as children.

Blank Empire Builder Board
Blank Empire Builder Board

So yes, the crayons are a small thing in determining how well the game works, but they add a lot of pleasure to the experience. And isn’t that what games are all about?


Published by BoardGamePrices.com

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