Empire Builder: Back to the Beginning
All gaming hobbyists can usually pinpoint their gateway game, that game which opened the doors for them into the wider world of board gaming. For many people. This is usually a game like Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride. While Risk was the game which gave me a taste for better board games, my gateway game is a game called Eurorails. I had never heard of the game until I sat down to play it but I fell in love with it instantly. I loved the strategic planning involved in both building your railways and planning your train deliveries around Europe. A wonderful game.
So after Eurorails, I began to explore more board games and eventually learned that Eurorails was not alone. It was in fact part of a series of ‘crayon rail’ games which were similar in style but different in location. And Eurorails was not the first of this series either; that distinction belonged to ca game called Empire Builder. Empire Builder was actually released ten years before Eurorails in 1980 and is set in the rugged lands of North America.
I debated with myself on whether to buy Eurorail’s predecessor since it seemed like almost the same game with a different map. Luckily that decision was made for me as some friends, knowing of my affinity to Eurorails, game it to me for my birthday. It was really neat playing a game which felt tried and true to me, but still felt different as we delved into the historic origins of one of my all-time favourite games. So how did it hold up?
Empire Builder and Eurorails are identical in gameplay other than the map itself which involves different route strategies. Otherwise though, its pretty similar. The game has two main parts; building railroads by connecting dots with a crayon and moving your train on thosee tracks to pick up and deliver goods around North America. You are given options of what goods to deliver where through route cards, which also denote the amount of money which the delivery will pay.
There are a lot of options here as you choose your routes. You can stick to doing a lot of smaller routes around the industrial Midwest and gets lots of small payoffs, or venture into the far reaches of British Columbia or southern Mexico to get those big pay-offs. The game can be long and sometimes the winner can be easily determined early, but often that isn’t the case. Its an exciting game which provides a lot of satisfaction from creating rail networks and scoring big deliveries.
This is where I can really compare Empire Builder to Eurorails since their major difference is the two different maps. The map of Empire Builder consists of Canada, USA and Mexico while Eurorails consists of almost the entire continent of Europe. When it comes down to it, Eurorails is a better game than Empire Builder because of the map. The Europe map has a few more features which make the game that much more interesting, such as the ferries to Britain and Scandinavia, the hard-to-cross barrier of the alps, and the peninsulas of Iberia and Spain which make feel like you are taking great leaps to venture onwards. Comparatively, Eurorails has one large barrier involving the Rocky Mountains which is more annoying than interesting, and other than the stretch into Mexico, there’s not a lot of variety in land area.
The commodities are different too, but this really doesn’t have much effect on my opinions of the games themselves. The different commodities simply reflect the different economies of the two places. The latest edition of Empire Builder has improved their components slightly by colour-coding their commodities and especially their event cards which look like newspapers articles now. But the heart of the game, the crayons and washable board surface, are still as classic as ever.
Playing Empire Builder is a great experience for me since it is a lot of fun delving back into my board gaming roots while building the foundations of North America and also experiencing the history behind one of my all-time favourite games. Empire Builder is a thirty-year old game which still has what it takes to provide a great gaming experience. It is the predecessor of the crayon rail series and any game that can spawn so many spin-offs, from Euorails to China rails to even Lunar Rails, must have something going for it.
Even though Empire Builder came first, my introduction to this series was its most notable sibling Eurorails. So which do I prefer? I must confess that Eurorails is still the better game. Despite their gameplay similarities, Eurorails simply has the better map which leads to the better pay-offs. Empire Builder’s lack of ferries and hindrance of having essential just a large slab of open land compared to Europe’s twists and turns causes it to fall behind slightly.
With that being said, it is still a nice change of pace to change up locations every now and again. Sometimes a new map is just what is needed to make an old favourite seem fresh again. I am glad I have Empire Builder in my collection for this reason. It compliments Eurorails nicely and also allows me to appreciate the history of one of my favourite games.