Anatomy of a Genre: Train Games, Part Two — Pickup and Delivery

Last week I started a multipart series on train games. In that article, I suggested that train games are usually built around three mechanics: all train games have connection mechanics, while some train games add on pickup-and-delivery mechanics and others add on stock holding mechanics.

This week I’m going to focus on the second main mechanic found in train games: pickup-and-delivery. I believe that train games using this mechanic are (in general) somewhat more complex than plain connections games … but don’t tend to be as difficult as stock holding games, which I’ll be talking about next week.

Pickup and Delivery

The cool thing about train games (and connections games of all sorts) is that once you have track you can do something with it. This is what gives rise to the second sort of train game, where you pickup goods and then deliver them using your existing network of rails.

Lunar Rails

Lunar Rails (Empire Builder)

There are two classics in the pickup-and-delivery train game genre: the crayon rail games starting with Empire Builder (1980) and the huge mass of related Martin Wallace games that center on Age of Steam (2002). Each of them does its pickup and its delivery in slightly different ways.

In Empire Builder — and the many, many related train games, of which my favorite is Iron Dragon (1994), thanks to its easy-to-find cities and its secondary underground map — there’s almost no contention for pickup-and-delivery. Contracts are privately held, and though goods aren’t unlimited in supply, it’s rare that a player can’t get a good if he wants it. As a result, the game becomes purely one of efficiency rather than competition: the player who is able to most effectively build out his rail line and to best balance multiple demands is the one who wins.



In Age of Steam — and the many related train games, of which my favorite is Steam (2009), thanks to its simpler and faster play — there’s instead huge amounts of contention. That’s because the goods are extremely limited. Players may even deliver goods for lesser rewards to keep opponents from earning higher amounts! Though efficiency remains important, staying just a step ahead of opponents can win or lose you the game.

The world of pickup-and-delivery train games is actually quite a bit bigger than the landscape defined by these two game series. For example, I think there’s an argument that Settlers of America: Trails to Rails (2010) fits in. You build track (road), you build trains on that track, then you deliver your goods to other cities via your trains. The interesting thing is that Settlers of America is still largely a game of resource management; it shows that the train gameplay can be melded with other sorts of games and still be very recognizable.

Connections Questions

Looking at the general questions that we raised when talking about connection games, we find that the answers for most of those questions are the same:

1.) How are connections built?

On the Underground

On the Underground

Because pickup-and-delivery games tend to be more complex, you won’t find many games in the category where you automatically build track every round. Instead, more complex resource-oriented building mechanics are common.

There are, of course, exceptions — such as On the Underground (2006) where you tend to build four tracks a turn.

2.) Where are connections built?

Any means for building track would work fine in a pickup-and-delivery game. As it happens, Empire Builder uses a loose grid, Age of Steam uses tiles, and On the Underground uses a constrained grid.

3.) What resources are used to build connections?

Almost all pickup-and-delivery games tend to use money for building tracks — probably because money can also be linked to the purchase and sale of goods. This tends to create a larger economy with a high degree of granularity. Because you now have inflows and outflows, you can also use money for other stuff — like upgrading trains in Empire Builder, bribing officials, or whatever else might be needed to make the game more interesting.

With that said, the resources for building connections and the rewards received for pickup-and-delivery don’t necessarily need to be the same things.

4.) How do connections score points?

 You certainly could let players score some points in a pickup-and-delivery game for their track. In fact, Age of Steam does this by offering a third of a point for each tile of track. However, the majority of points should probably come from the main emphasis of the game: the pickup and the delivery.

Pickup-and-Delivery Questions

A few new questions  can help to precisely define how the pickup-and-delivery aspect of the game works.

5. How are demands (for goods) made?

The oldest game that I’ve been discussing, Empire Builder, has demands that are unique in two ways. First, they’re private: only a single player can accomplish the demand. Second, the demands aren’t intrinsically linked with the board: a player instead gets a card telling him what needs to be delivered to where.

Canal Mania

Canal Mania

Most modern games instead have public demands that are encoded in the board. This encoding has often been managed by coloring cities on the board. Thus in Age of Steam players are trying to move goods to color-matched cities while in Canal Mania (2006) players are instead moving goods through as many cities as they can without hitting the same colored city twice.

The most interesting result of public demands that are encoded in the board is something we’ve already seen: serious contention.

On the Underground has perhaps the most unusual demands of any train game: there’s a single passenger that’s constantly being moved across all the tracks. At any time he has four destinations in mind and he chooses one based on the ease of getting there (requiring less walking and fewer lines; I always say he’s a lazy American while explaining the game). Thus On the Underground features a dynamic demand that can be modified based on what the players do!

6. Where do goods come from?

Almost every pickup and delivery game places goods at set space on the board. In Empire Builder those goods are limited only by the components, but most modern games instead place limited amounts of goods in individual spaces on the board.

Those limited goods just increase the contentiousness of the games!

7. How are goods transported?

By train, natch!

Last Train to Wensleydale

Last Train to Wensleydale

More seriously: the classic model originated with Empire Builder is to place the goods on trains which have limited space. Last Train to Wensleydale (2009) uses the same core idea, though it’s implementation is quite different.

The question of how often you have to buy that cargo space is related. In Empire Builder you upgrade your train every once in a while at great cost, while in Last Train to Wensleydale you frequently have to buy new rains to carry stuff.

Age of Steam and Canal Mania show the other major option: you move goods abstractly along your tracks be spending actions — or in special move-goods phase. There are no actual trains to place goods on and there’s no real concerns about total cargo capacity.

When considering either type of goods delivery a design also has to decide whether a player can use another player’s track. Most complex pickup-and-delivery games say “yes”, at a cost; it’s another bit of interesting interactivity between the players. However, there are often limits as to how much foreign track a player can use, and where that track can be in the delivery path.

8. How does delivery score points?

The classic answer is that goods delivery results in money payments, which may (or may not) also be victory points. This is what you’ll see in Empire Builder.

Martin Wallace instead likes to imagine deliveries affecting a company’s profit and loss. This is an interesting abstraction because it implies that deliveries are an ongoing thing that will continue to improve a company’s bottom line. This theming is found in Age of Steam and Last Train to Wensleydale — but it ultimately amounts to a different sort of money.

Settlers of America: Trails to Rails cuts out the middleman; you effectively get victory points when you deliver goods, as you need to deliver all of your goods to win the game. Canal Mania is more direct in stating that you earn VPs.

Not Necessarily a Train Game (II) — Pickup & Delivery



Though pickup-and-delivery is an important game element in train games, there are plenty of pickup-and-delivery games that aren’t about trains (either thematically or mechanically). Among the many notable entrants in this not-a-train-game category are Serenissima (1996, 2012), Caribbean (2004), Hansa (2004), Perry Rhodan (2007), and Tahiti (2012).

I think these non-train pickup-and-delivery games have three elements that clearly distinguish them from train games:

  1. There’s no building of track or any other infrastructure for movement.
  2. Different players don’t have different movement capabilities based on their personal infrastructure.
  3. Movement is quite wide open, rather than being constrained.

Some of these games might only meet two of these three criteria (such as Hansa having pretty constrained movement), but I think that’s enough to clearly show how train games and these other pickup-and-delivery games are different.


So that’s my look at pickup-and-delivery games in a nutshell: they’re all about moving goods along those connections you made, but in a number of very different ways. As before, I’m interested in your feedback!

I’ll be back next week with my third look at train games, covering the stock holding category (and a few other topics_.

On the Underground picture is  by Toshiyuki Hashitani (moonblogger at BGG); it is drawn from this original and is used under the Creative CommonsCanal Mania picture is also by Toshiyuki Hashitani (moonblogger at BGG); it is drawn from this original and is used under the Creative Commons. Last Train to Wensleydale picture is by Bruce Murphy (thepackrat at BGG); it is drawn from this original and is used with his permission.

14 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Genre: Train Games, Part Two — Pickup and Delivery

  1. Wouldn’t you consider that earning revenue as you move trains around on the map could also be considered as some sort of “virtual” pickup and delivery? This is the way 18xx games work; in this case, the nodes between connections provide you revenue, though there is no actual “pickup and delivery” (in the 18xx games I know, at least).

    • I think that at some point you have to say that an abstraction is just too abstract. The delivery of goods in Empire Builder? Sure. The immediate movement of goods in Age of Steam? Probably. But abstract scoring of points like in 18XX and abstract scoring of goods like in Steel Driver starts to push things a bit too far. But it sounds like a good topic for the next article!

      • I agree with your idea here, but disagree with both examples!In these games, you build a network and then move cubes — which often earns you income. The amount of income is basically proportional to how good a network you built: the more cities you connect, the greater your income. 18xx games completely fit that model, only you skip the part where you actually move cubes. But to me, at least, that level of abstraction is not too abstract.

        As for the Steel Driver example: it’s even less abstracted than 18xx games. The main difference betwee Age of Steam style goods movement and Steel Driver is just a matter of timing. In SD, you spend the bulk of the game building your network. Then, at the end, you are basically doing _all_ your goods deliveries. True, you don’t have specific destinations. But the effect is very much as if you did.

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  5. I really like Railways of the World and the whole Empire Builder series (Iron Dragon and Lunar are really good), but Steam never did it for me. I played with a guy who built a circular track and won the game with that and changing the colors of other player’s key cities. It just seemed pretty lame for that to be a functional strategy.

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