Thursday, November 03, 2005

Redesigning Empire Builder, Part Two

Last month I began a discussion of Mayfair's Empire Builder game with the thesis that it's a solid game with a lot of appeal, but that its 25-year old design is rough around the edges, and that there's thus a lot of room for improvement. Unlike my regular column, that one was published on a Monday, so if you haven't read it yet, feel free to go browse Redesigning Empire Builder, Part One. I'll wait.

Last time I concentrated entirely on the graphical design of the game, showing how gameplay could be considerably improved with just some work on the demand cards. This time I want to wander through a few of the other design elements. The point? As much as anything to look at how much game design has improved in the last 25 years, and also to highlight some of the factors that a game designer should probably be watching out for.

As I see it, Empire Builder currently has a lot of room for improvement, with these problems being biggest:
  • Long Game Time
  • Long Downtimes
  • High Calculation Requirement
  • Low Player Interaction
Before I get into those, however, I should probably offer a brief reminder of how the Empire Builder games work. They're crayon-rail games, which means that you pay money to lay track that you draw on the board with wax-based crayons. You then move your train along those tracks to fulfill "demand" cards, which show a desired good and a destination it should go to. There are three demands on each card, of which you fulfill just one, and you have three demand cards in your hand at any time.

And with that, let's get underway ...

Reducing Game Time

To a certain extent, game time is a personal preference. However, I think that a game that can play in an evening is usually a better design than a game that can't, and the Empire Builder games tend to straddle that line. By using fast rules, maintaining a smaller number of players, and pushing I can get an Empire Builder game done in just under 4 hours. Given that my game nights usually start at between 6.30 and 7.15, and adding in a bit of time for early evening socialization, that means an Empire Builder game tends to run until at least 11p. That's a pretty hard sell for a lot of people.

On a more analytical level, I think you can measure a game's appropriate length by its amount of game variability. If a game changes a lot as you play, even better if it has some very distinct phases within the game, then it's OK for it to be longer, while if the gameplay remains largely the same, I think it has to be shorter to prevent boredom. Empire Builder does change a fair bit, as early on it's largely about scrabbling for pennies, through the middle game it's mostly about expanding your network, and in the endgame it's usually about hauling freight. That's a fair amount of differentiation as you play. However, I also do feel that at least the endgame of Empire Builder (the freight hauling) gets too repetitive for the length, and so at least that part is too long.

So, by my personal scale Empire Builder needs to be shortened, and by my analytical measure at least the third phase of the game should. The question is, how do you do so?

Time in Empire Builder is spent in two main actions. First, there's the analysis, as you figure out what to take where and as you count out shortest paths on the board. These analytical issues are also the bases of my complaints about "long downtimes" and "high calculation requirements", and so I'll address them more completely there. (They're also corrected to some extent by the graphic design I offered up in my last article.) Second, there's the raw time spent hauling freight around and increasing your monetary supplies, and it's these areas where I suspect that you could really shave off minutes or even hours.

The Empire Builder rules themselves usually contain a variant for faster trains, which speed up all movement by about 25%. The "9" trains move "12" and the "12" trains move "16". I've used these during my last couple of games, and they speed the game with pretty much no down side. I think that even faster might be better, perhaps "18" and "24" move trains, double the initial rate. However, the more you change from the original values, the more opportunity you have to mess up the gestalt of the game.

You could theoretically throw off your game quite a bit if you get your trains moving faster than you can build track (a max of 20 spaces a turn in clear territory), but you're actually doing sustained building right in front of your train pretty rarely, so going just a little bit over (18/24) probably isn't that big of a deal. Likewise you don't want to cram too many decisions into a turn as that goes straight back into downtime issues, but given the distance between things on the board, even with substantially faster trains, you're still unlikely to make more delivery per turn (and I'm going to talk next about how to reduce that particular downtime issue anyway).

The other fix to speed up Empire Builder is equally obvious. As I said, the one point where the game really feels like it starts to drag is in the endgame, where you've connected up all your required cities, and are just trying to accrue the required $250M. There's a pretty obvious answer to that: reduce the amount of money required. I'd need a lot of playtesting to figure out the correct stop point, but I'd go with $150M as a first stab in the dark. That reduces the final phase of the game by a full 40%, but still keeps the bar high enough that you can really see someone heading toward it (not that there's currently any way to stop people).

Reducing Downtime

Closely tied to game length is the problem of downtime. It can take a long time between your turns. This is largely due to two factors: the first is the problem of getting a new demand card, and then needing to lookup all those new supply and destination cities, and figuring out what your new plans should be. The second is the fact that drawing new rails takes quite a bit of time, as you have to count out up to 20 different spaces.

The cause of the lookup problem is the phase placement of when you draw your new demand cards. You do it right in the middle of the turn, and thus you get a bunch of new information that you have to read and assess before you do anything else. This is almost universally a bad design in any board or card game; games shouldn't require a draw at the start or middle of your turn unless the cards drawn are so simple that their use is obvious.

There's two potential ways to change this draw. The first is to say that demand cards aren't drawn until the end of your turn. The second is to say that your turn ends as soon as you make a delivery. Each possibility has some disadvantages. If you don't draw until the end of your turn then you have the possibility to make a very bad move, such as moving one space off of a town, then learning that you had a delivery for it. On the other hand ending your turn whenever you make a delivery can punish particularly efficient play, such as if you'd manage to group together two deliveries for the same location.

Ultimately, I like the first possibility better because it gives players a choice. Inexperienced players might mess themselves up, but experienced players now get to balance options: do they take the other portion or their movement, or do they sit waiting for a very lucky draw? I think that press-your-luck choices like this often make for interesting gameplay (as long as they're obvious enough to the players).

Reducing Calculations

The second downtime issue of adding up to 20 tracks each turn dovetails straight into the issue of high calculations. A lot of time is always spent counting out spaces on the board and drawing crayon rails over them.

I've seen an on-the-net variant for this, where groups explicitly split play into two sections, transport and railbuilding. They then have two turn markers going around the table, one for the current trainmover and one for the current trackbuilder. The one marker is never allowed to lap the other, and thus players always get the two phases of their turn in the correct order, but the slowness of trackbuilding spaces itself out while players consistently push through train movement.

Ultimately I think that this solution is solid, but also very inelegant. It'll probably scare off most less serious players and it doesn't really address the problem.

The problem, ultimately, is that counting up to twenty of anything is going to take a long time. Imagine if your favorite tactical game gave you 20 Action Points to spend a turn. If you already cringe at the downtime of a Tikal or a Dungeon Twister, this idea will probably make you grand mal. The APs of Empire Builder are very constrained, but nonetheless, you still do have to make up to 20 decisions, and that's going to take some time.

Reducing the amount of track that a player can build in a turn doesn't really solve the problem, because you're ultimately going to have to build that same sum of track over a game, and this just spreads it out.

Instead, to reduce the calculation of Empire Builder, I'm fairly convinced that the board should be less granular. If there were half as many mileposts on the board, and thus cities were effectively twice as close, I'm fairly close that this would double the speed of track-building, perhaps more because it's easier for players to keep "10" in their head than "20".

In fact, combining this with my original idea about speeding up the locomotives you'll see that you don't actually need to double their rates: instead you keep their speeds the same on a board that's been halved in size.

Unfortunately, unlike my other suggestions in this article, you can't just adopt this idea. Mayfair would need to do in a second edition variant of their games. Which I suppose leaves us with one main method for reducing calculations: the two-token turn system that I outlined above.

Ah well.

Increasing Interactivity

And that brings us to the final issue with Empire Builder: interactivity. As it stands, Empire Builder is really a race game, with the only interaction being who gets to the victory condition ($150M or $250M or whatever) first. This in turn contributes to issues of downtime, because it feels like longer between your turns when your opponents' actions don't have any real effect on you. Thus figuring out how to increase interactivity can also go back and further improve the issue of downtime.

The top answer I've seen for increasing interactivity on the 'net is "shared demands", which presumably means that some or all demand cards are kept in common on the table, and are completed by whomever manages to do them first. I can see this making the game very frustrating, if you keep losing demands as other people finish the cards, but I'm sure there are some ways to do it right (e.g., letting a player claim a demand card once he has the appropriate load on board). I leave others who have actually tried this game variant to offer more comments on it. Instead I'm going to explore some new possibilities.

There's many types of possible social interaction. Some of the ones that I've identified to date include direct competition, resource competition, economic competition, trading, and auctions. You don't want to try and include all of these, in all likelihood, but a sprinkling could make you care more about the other players' turns.

First, I think the idea of doing something with the demand cards is a good one. Rather than introducing chaos by letting anyone grab them at any time, I'd instead introduce order by auctioning them. Take my previous idea of players not taking demand cards until the end of the turn, and expand it to instead only offer them at the end of a round of play. At this point auction off a number of demand cards equal to at least half the number of players and at most the number of demand cards needed to refill everyone's hand to full.

Do these auctions one at a time, not revealing any future cards to prevent analysis & downtime issues. Do them as simple closed fist auctions, but skew the results. The winner of an auction is the player who bid the most money and doesn't have a full hand of demand cards unless none of the winners are missing any cards, in which case the absolute highest bidder wins. I think this tweak is just enough to keep the auction interesting, and also makes sure that there isn't a simple rich-gets-richer mentality.

If you win a card and already have 3 demand cards, you immediately discard one, which also offers a new way to keep the game fresh and interesting.

Second, I'd introduce a trade phase. Let players exchange money, demand cards, and binding promises of goods (more of that in a second). You may have to put a timer on this--an egg timer might do.

I think the above two changes would do a lot to make you feel like you were playing with other people, but still don't address the problem of other peoples' turns being boring, so one more change is needed.

Third, allow players to exchange goods on the physical board. Allow drop-offs at any juncture point where one players' tracks meet another. The goods can just sit there (possibly with a timer of two of your turns to prevent stagnation: flip the good on the first turn, discard it on the second) Thus as part of a deal arranged in the trade phase, you could have a player bring you a good that you can then use yourself, probably in exchange for a payment of some money.

You'd need one other simple rules change to allow this: let trains turn around at any juncture points, so that you can just build a branch off to an opponents' track, grab a good, then return home with your booty.

Of all the changes I suggest in this article, these are on the ones I'm the least confident of, because they add such a new dimension to the game. They could introduce downtime, collusion, or other problems all their own, and thus would need to be tested, but I think that additional dimension would add a lot to the game.


I really should have called these articles Redeveloping Empire Builder. As I wrote in my first blog entry here, there's a big difference between designing & developing a game; at this point I feel like Empire Builder could use a 21st century redevelopment that could improve the game a lot.

Somes changes are easy to implement:
  • Double train speeds
  • Drop victory to $150M
  • Move demand card draw to the end of a turn
Some of the changes I suggest can really only be done by Mayfair themselves:
  • Redesign the demand cards
  • Halve distances on the board (instead of those double speed trains)
Finally some are open-ended enough that they'd need pretty extensive testing:
  • Introduce auction for demand cards (instead of just moving draws to the end of the turn)
  • Introduce a trading phase
  • Allow storage & exchange of goods on the track
If you're a fan of Empire Builder, I encourage you to try some of these "improvements" out, and report back how well they worked.


Anonymous said...

I'd point to the auction system in Auf Achse, another older pick-up-and-deliver game. It doesn't have any hand size restriction, but just paying some value for the load will introduce the interaction. It might also lengthen the game, as net payoffs will be smaller per delivery.

There is also a "public locking" variant, which can be found here:

Rob Cannon said...

I have an idea that occured to me while reading this article. Instead of counting out hexes, how about purchasing rail lines as links? Any time a rail line cross (either at a city or in the middle of nowhere) is generates a new link. Engines can travel a certain number of links during their turn.

You would have to pay a price for each link created. Links that cross a mountain or a river would cost more.

This does change the game a bit in that freight moves slower in the more congested areas (but then does this not simulate reality?) And it does introduce a new strategy of cutting other peoples links (but that would cost you money for each link you need to do that, so maybe it's not a problem).

I've not put a lot of thought into the matter, but it does seem like it would really shorten the game.

Anonymous said...

Instead of redesigning the maps to have half the dots, how about draw track in straight two dot segments. You'd have to allow single and/or bent two dot segments to hit towns. The cost could either be the second dot or the average of the two or the higher of the two. This isn't quite as nice as halving the dots, but I still think that you'd see some improvement.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I don't think most of your fixes (at least the simple ones) speed the game up all that much.

First, faster trains. Generally, the "moving trains" portion of the game should take very little time; all of the hard thinking is when you draw a new ticket, and to a lesser extent when you build track. I suppose if you have players who can't remember what they're doing from turn to turn, these players might benefit from longer turns, but with experienced players, faster trains shouldn't speed the game up at all. Seems strange, but it's true.

Dropping the victory from $250 to $150 is interesting, but I think probably won't have much effect either. You already have to build up your network, you already have to join the "big" cities. Once you've done those, gaining an extra $100 doesn't take long at all.

The demand card draw is definitely the best idea to reduce the time of the game, but it seems like that change would make the long-route deliveries even more important, because "short" deliveries would cause more lost time. What we do is to have a house rule where you can draw your next demand card as soon as you are one turn away from delivering a good, with the caveat that you must commit to the delivery to pick up the card. Thus you can do all of your hard thinking while the other players are moving their trains around. This doesn't always work, for instance if you make multiple deliveries in one turn, but it does cut down on the downtime noticeably.

Your "open-ended" improvements sound interesting, as more interaction would be an interesting change. But I also suspect they would make the game quite a bit longer...


Shannon Appelcline said...

My generally experience has been that speeding the trains up just by the small amounts suggested in the rulebook shaves 30-60 minutes off the game. Train movement may not take that long, but what you're also doing is reducing the total number of turns that each player has, and that has a notable psychological impact and saves a lot of figuring and refiguring that does occur.

Shaving $100 million off the total probably saves 4-5 rounds of play, and I'm pretty sure that's another 30 minutes.

I'd consider an hour off the game for little work pretty good.

I suspect you're right that many of the social things I suggest would increase game length, and that mainly goes back to the complexity of those demand cards. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Reducing the number of mileposts (i.e. shortening the distances between cities) by half severely reduces the number of good paths on most maps. It might have the perverse effect of causing more "think time," more counting out and taking back rail. It would transform the game into a resource grab where the resource was routes.

Phillip said...

I'm a grad student thinking about developing an online to help students remember United States capitals.

I'm inspired by Empire builder and am thinking about writing a game where you have to go from Carson City to Lincoln.

Phillip Senn

Anonymous said...

We do the following to speed play:

Rail Building at start of turn.

Card drawing at end of turn.

First Engine Upgrade is free and automatic.

$200,000 to win game.

Our games take from 2 to 3 hours.

gfm said...

Hey I liked your article.. I recently redesigned Empire Builder myself, check it out: A variation on British Rails

gfm said...

Hey I liked your article.. I recently redesigned Empire Builder myself, check it out: A variation on British Rails

gfm said...

Hey I liked your article.. I recently redesigned Empire Builder myself, check it out: A variation on British Rails

gfm said...

Hey I liked your article.. I recently redesigned Empire Builder myself, check it out: A variation on British Rails