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Basic Empire Builder Type Game Strategy

by Louis Newman

Summer 1996/Vol 3, no 2

The Empire Builder Game System
The first time I saw Empire Builder, I watched a group of people drawing lines with crayons on a board covered ? there were no dice (hooray)! This turned out to be a very interesting and playable game system with many decisions to make each turn. Since that time, the system has expanded successfully and there now exist a series of games within the Empire Builder system family, but the strategy remains relatively similar for each game. Here are some basic decisions you will face in each game and advice on what to do.

Where to Build Track?
The first two construction turns will be critical to your later success. It is important to plan to turn in one or preferably two cards with a reasonable initial payoff. The rule-of-thumb is that the initial run should be about halfway across the board. The first build should be into a key city along the route of choice. The initial cards therefore determine the route for futue railbuilding. My preference is to build along the long axis of the map and start the initial buildin the middle of the board. This track will be sued the most and should be a direct path. Draw straight lines! The time you save later in the game will far exceed a few extra million spent now. Time is money!

Fast Freight or Super Freight?
YES to both and as soon as possible. The goal of the game is to get $250M; a good basic system costs about $120M; about $50M is needed for extensions and track use fees; and $40M for the fast freight and super freight. The total runs about $460M minus the $60M to start for $400M accumulated during the game. The payoffs are computed at a little less than $1M per milepost via the most direct route, but movement is wasted picking up loads and running the train over less direct routs. Consequently, the expectation is to earn $0.5M per milepost. A turn with a freight moving at nine mileposts per turn is worth $4.5M while a tunr with a fast freight at twelve mileposts is worth $6M. Multiple loads increase the value of a turn. If the average payoff is $20M, then there will be about 20 cards used during the game (for the total of $400M needed) and there will be less than 40 turns. A train should be upgraded when the next load can be delivered to its destination and provide at least $20M for further system expansion.

To Pay or NOT to Pay?

Should you pay for the use of another's track? Early in the play of the game, the decision is usually not to pay $4M for track use in order to accomplish the following objectives:
? Expand your system of track in a reasonable direction.
? Be prepared for a return trip to the same area.
? Get paid later by someone else using your line.
? Occupy one of the allowed tracks into a city
? Avoid providing funds for the competition to build track.
Later in play, it can become more desirable to pay one of the other system owners:
? Pick up or deliver a load for a large payoff when it is cheaper to pay than to build.
? Avoid building track to a city only visited once.
? Save time (time=money) by shortening the delivery path (use someone's straight line).
? Arrange to carry multiple loads to adjacent destinations.
? Only pay players that are behind in the game, that $4M could let someone else win.
? Visit a city locked out to you by other players' rail lines (editor note).

To Discard or NOT to Discard?
This is the most intriguing decision in the game since it can drastically change the situation. The factors to consider are the following (in order of importance):
? Where on the map is the train located? There are fewer places to go from a corner.
? What loads are required by the cards? These loads may not be readily available.
? How does the proposed train path fit into the track plan?
Don't build excessively.
? What cards have been used or are on the table? The cards youwant are in the deck.
?What type of freight train is operating? The extra load can be used profitably.
? What is the projected income per turn? Don't bother with one small payoff that is too far away.
? Can more than one load be conveniently delivered? Don't get into a corner cheaply.
After evaluating all these questions, my tendency is to discard a hand when two cards look unappetizing and their isn't worth the effort. Early in the game, a discard avoids unnecessary track building; later in the game, a new hand may allow an extremely profitable multiple load in the same direction; at the end of the game, tossing in the cards may be the only way to win or prevent someone else from winning. Miracles do happen, there is that great feeling when you draw the card for the commodity that you have on board to the city that you can get to in one turn. Editor's Note: There is some discussion in the playtest of India Rails to disallow this kind of speculation by forcing players to dump all loads when cards are turned in in this manner.

What Loads to Carry?
Always carry as many loads as possible as an event canr may cause the loss of one load. If you deliver all three loads to their destinations?Great! Otherwise, it is time to speculate by picking up a spare load. A new demand card may require a load already carried by your train so bring along a likely candidate. Also, loads on your train are not available to other players. A frequent ploy is to take all three tokens of a given type when visiting that out-of-the-way location. Pick up loads that you think might be useful to your opponents. For each of the games, have an idea of the recommended loads to carry on speculation for the direction that you are headed and the track plan that is available. A typical choice is a commodity that is only available wher the train is located and cannot be found on the other end of the board. Such loads have high payoffs.

What is the BEST Rail System?
There is no BEST rail system. The winning player has taken advantage of the cards and built the system that allows the delivery of the loads drawn with the minimum track expenditure. Statistically, the systems that run through the middle of the board efficiently are more likely to be successful. Experienced players often avoid building to isolated towns except when required to by the cards at the beginning of the game. The required stop and half-speed on the next for a ferry are generally discouraging especially for a game played with the fast rules (16 movement per turn). For each of the published games, there are preferred track patterns that are direct and of minimum cost. Generally, the ideal pattern connects the major cities with straight lines.

Editor's Comments: I have questions about how well this strategy works with Australian Rails where the best track may be circular around the board. Also, I would like to see the author's comments on how the optional rule of warehousing could affect what loads to carry. We always welcome comments and responses to articles published in the TGG.


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