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. Continue reading

New to Me: Summer, 2012

Here’s my newest quarterly listing of games I’ve played recently that I’d never played before. As usual, this list tends to focus on brand-new games, but on occasion the odd older game shows up that I just hadn’t tried out before. This time around there was a little glut of games in the 2007-2008 range.

I’m happy to have seen a couple of terrific releases (Village and Small World: Realms) which made the Summer a great time to be gaming. Sadly, there were also two total failures in D-Day Dice and (very belatedly) World War 5.

Everything is arranged in approximate ranking of personal like, from most to least.

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Computerized Board Games: Six Mini-Reviews

For me this has been a great Winter, with the release of two computerized board games, Ticket to Ride from Days of Wonder and Puerto Rico from Eagle Games. Don’t get me wrong: I love tabletop games. That’s clearlythe proper way to play These Games of Ours, because you get the joy of the physical components and real interactions with real people.

Sometimes, however, I prefer a solitaire experience, and for this I look hopefully toward PC conversions. And, I’m not talking about games that allow good online play. That might be a nice add-on, but if I want to kick a game out in 5-30 minutes I don’t want to have to deal with someone else’s slowness, and if I’m feeling tired or grumpy, I don’t want there to be any expectation that I’m going to actually talk to someone else. So I look hopefully not just toward PC conversions, but toward PC conversions with good AIs that can really give me a challenge.

Over the last couple of years I’ve played slews of these games in web-based forms, but the best are inevitably those that I can download from a professional site or purchase on a CD, and I’ve decided to offer an overview of those today. You’ll find them listed below, from my favorite to my least favorite, with some comments about what makes them good … and what doesn’t.

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Redesigning Empire Builder, Part Two

Empire BuilderLast 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. If you haven’t read it yet, go do so, 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.

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Redesigning Empire Builder, Part One

I like the Empire Builder series of crayon railroad games. Something about their freeform nature — where you start with a blank slate and slowly fill in that canvas — appeals to my right brain and makes me think that I’m really creating something. Beyond that the games have a neat puzzle-like feel to them, where at any time you’re juggling a set of three demand cards, each with three demands, and trying to figure out how to best and most efficiently serve them. Creativity & puzzles together define some of my favorite game design elements.

As a result the Empire Builder series of games is, perhaps, the only games that I played in college that I still play today. DuneDragon PassHacker, and others now largely gather dust, but I play a couple of tabletop games of Empire Builder (or one of the variants) every year, and I play the Iron Dragon computer game with much more frequency than that (albeit with frequent swearing at the slow and dumb AI).

Unfortunately Empire Builder is dated. The original game was released in 1980 and though there have been a lot of neat new maps, events, and terrain types since then there have been very few changes to the basic game. As a result, the game is too long and doesn’t make good enough use of its components. It’s also too solitaire and it’s got some rough corners that any modern developer would probably smooth right out. Unfortunately, Mayfair doesn’t seem too inclined to change the game. And who can blame them? Based on the continual flow of Empire Builder variants I have to imagine that the games remain good sellers, and that’s something that you don’t mess with.

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