Review of Rail Empires: Iron Dragon

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

June 9, 2004


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A nice computer adaptation of one of the most interesting and innovative Empire Builder games.

Shannon Appelcline has written 681 reviews (including 11 computer game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of Lunar Rails.

This review has been read 8305 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Rail Empires: Iron Dragon
Publisher: Eden Studios
Line: Empire Builder
Author: Martin Szinger, Nicholas Codignotto, M. Alexander Jurkat, Tom Wham, Darwin P. Bromley, Bill Fawcett
Category: Computer Game

Cost: $35.00
Year: 2000

SKU: EDN9000


Review of Rail Empires: Iron Dragon
Rail Empires: Iron Dragon is Eden Studio's computer adaptation of Iron Dragon, which is Mayfair Games' fantasy-based crayon rail game.

Players: 2-6
Playing Time: 1-3 hours
Difficulty: 4 (of 10)

This review is largely directed toward people who have already played some Empire Builder crayon rail game--not necessarily Iron Dragon. If you're unfamiliar with the series, you should probably read my Empire Builder review, though you actually don't need to have played any of the crayon rail games to enjoy Iron Dragon.

The Components

Iron Dragon comes as a download, which means there isn't much in the way of components, just bits floating down the ether.

Besides the actual game, you do get a PDF of the game rules, which is rather plainly laid out, but does a good job of summarizing all the information on how to play the game. There are also some nice reference charts scattered throughout the PDF file.

In addition, there are a FAQ and a strategy guide available at the support web site.

Graphics & UI

If you're not familiar with how the Empire Builder games work, you might want to hop down to the gameplay section first, as I talk a lot about demands, trains, mileposts, and other aspects of the Empire Builder games in the Graphics & UI section of this review.

Graphics: The landscape of Iron Dragon is depicted as a simple 2D map. This map depicts a variety of different terrains (forests, swamps, mountains, alpines, plains, oceans, rivers, cities, etc) in a simple, but non-repetitive manner. You'll also see mileposts symmetrically arranged upon the map; they define where you can build tracks. They're relatively obvious, but still don't detract from the beauty of the terrain maps.

There also some simple animations which show up when events occur. Flooding rivers, twisting hurricanos, exploding volcanos, and whatever else animate mainly to draw your attention to the event--and do a good job of that.

Long-time Empire Builders will also find that they can hit the "\" key to toggle to a traditional Empire Builder map view: a white map with blue oceans and each milepost marked with an individual icon for the terrain type. Compared to the nicely painted 2D map, this is honestly an eye-sore, and not any easier to use after your first 15 or 20 minutes of play.

Audio: The audio on the game is hilarious (in a good way). There are a number of sounds, including: an attention getter, a moving train, a going-into-debt sound, etc. Very few if any of them, are computer-generated. Instead, they're mostly human sounds: a person saying "beep beep", a person making a "chugga-chugga" sound, a person say "uh-oh", etc. There's also what sounds like a real deck of cards being shuffled whenever a deck is shuffled.

There's supposed to be music in the game too, but for some reason it doesn't play on my computer, so I have no idea what it's like.

User Interface: The most basic commands in Iron Dragon involve: building track, moving your train, and picking up and delivering goods. These are all done through simple interfaces.

Building and moving are both point-and-click. To build you just position your cursor over the space you want to build (between two mileposts) and a section of track appears marked with the cost. You click and track is built.

When moving you'll see a set of arrows running down your track, depicting your possible movements. You just click on an arrow to say "move to this space". This may be an intermediate space, such as a junction or a city, after which you'll move again, or it could be the arrow marking your furthest possible move in a turn. If you make a mistake for building or moving, you can just hit the "u"ndo button (until the end of your turn).

The map itself can also be manipulated by a click-and-drag (to move around) and by a right-click (to toggle between the normal map and the underworld).

Whenever you arrive in a town, a window pops up showing possible deliveries, goods you can drop, and goods you can pick up. You just click the appropriate button for goods you want to take or get rid of and continue on. Easy.

Across the top of the screen is a bar of info on the current player and other commands. The info is very useful, and includes things like: the current turn; how many major cities are connected; how much money is held (if known); what goods are being carried; what train is being used; and what foreman is being used. Watching this info when opponents take their turns is particularly instructive.

The commands across the top are, unfortunately, a bit harder to figure out and get used to. For example, there's an icon of three cards which you need to click on to view your current demands. There's also a set of semi-mysterious buttons labeled "U", "M", "B", "P", and "D" (that's "U"ndo, "M"ove, "B"uild, "P"itch [demand cards], and "D"one, as it happens). Finally, I can never quite keep straight a set of three different options menus: the systems menu, the map menu, and the info menu. Each of these has various system-level options on them, and they're just not distinct enough to get ingrained in my memory. Some mouseovers could have made all these options much easier to access, as could better, and more consistent icons or labels. I got used to everything important after a game or two, but it still feels a little clunky.

Player Helpers: The Empire Builder games have always struck me as sort of high-maintenance, with lots of work figuring out where goods & cities are, how much things cost to build, etc. I was really pleased to hear there was a computer version of Iron Dragon, because I hoped that it would include player helpers which greatly assisted in some of the more difficult lookup tasks. I was somewhat, though not entirely, satisfied.

In the Empire Builder games, every demand lists a desired good and a place to deliver that good to. This is one place where the player helpers really shine. You can click on the destination on the demand card, and it immediately jumps to that location on the main map. You can also click the desired good, and the map will cycle through all the potential sources.

As a mnemonic, it's also possible to select an individual demand from the three on a demand card, to mark that you'll be fulfilling that one (and you can do that once per demand card, for a total of three selected demands). Afterward the list of demands and destinations shows up on the main command screen that's always at the top of your display during your turn, listing the good, whether you have it on board or not, and the destination (personally, I wish it also listed whether you had track going into the destination, by saying if it were "connected").

The only other sort of player helper in Iron Dragon is the simple fact that you can undo movement and building within a turn, as I noted before. This is helpful because you can build out your $20M for a turn, realize that you don't have quite enough to do what you wanted, then back up.

Personally, I would have included some additional helpers, including: a tool that listed the minimum current cost to build between two locations (possibly with a toggle for directness); a tool to automatically build track between two locations, at either cheapest cost or most direct; a tool to list distance and building cost for each source/destination combination for a particular demand; and a tool to allow you to program in moves further than the end of your turn.

Still, what's here is a good start that does make the game easier to play.

Charts: Iron Dragon also has a ton of charts which list: all the possible trains; all the possible goods; all the possible demands; etc., and which players are holding which. Personally, I haven't found most of these charts that helpful, other than one which lists how close each of the players are to victory, but it's really nice that they're there, and different players will probably like different ones.

Overall, the Iron Dragon interface and graphics are attractive despite their simple "2D" appearance, especially when you compare them to the original Iron Dragon board. The most commonly used commands are also fairly intuitive. Despite some issues with the less commonly used buttons on the interface, which are clunky and non-intuitive, overall I like the way the game looks and works, and thus award it an above average "4" out of "5" for Style.

The Game Play

As with other crayon railroad games, the object in Iron Dragon is to build a network between the major cities on the board and to make lots of money through the pickup and delivery of goods.

The Basic Rules: Since Iron Dragon is ultimately derivative of Empire Builder, I've decided to just briefly summarize the main rules here. For more info, go take a look at the gameplay section of my Empire Builder review.

In short, all the crayon rail games are broken into two sections of gameplay: building and delivery.

Building. At the start of the game you have $60M (60 gold pieces as it happens, in Iron Dragon, but I've just used the common terminology throughout this review) to build track, and you're allowed to spend $20M a turn. Building track is just a matter of connecting mileposts on the board. Plain hexes cost $1M to connect to, the highest alpine mountains cost $5M, and everything else falls somewhere in between. At the start of the game you'll build up an initial network, and as the game proceeds you'll continue to connect additional cities. As many as 8 cities on most game maps are labeled as major cities, and you must connect to most of them to win.

You can also use building cash to upgrade your train. The original Empire Builder let you do big upgrades for $20M each; more recent releases including Lunar Rails and Iron Dragon instead allowed smaller upgrades at $10M each.

Delivery. You also have a train which you run on your tracks; it initially goes 10 mileposts a turn and can carry 2 goods; you can upgrade in several steps, eventually up to moving 16 and carrying 3 goods.

At any time you'll have three demand cards, each of which lists three demands, with each individual demand listing a good (which can be gotten at 1 or 3 places on the board), a destination, and a payout. Whenever you successfully pick up a good, and deliver it to a destination, you turn in the card and get the designated payout.

Mixed into the delivery deck are event cards, which most frequently make your life harder by slowing down trains, dumping goods, and doing other mean stuff in certain parts of the board.

Winning. Empire Builder games all tend to have the same winning conditions: $250M cash and a network connecting to most of the major cities (7 in the case of Iron Dragon).

Special Iron Dragon Rules: Iron Dragon has a number of differences from the standard Empire Builder game including: terrain; foremen; ships; and the underworld.

Terrain. Simply, the terrain in Iron Dragon is considerably more diverse than that of the standard Empire Builder games. You have: forest ($2M), jungles ($3M), mountains ($2M), alpines ($5M), rivers (+$1M), and inlets (+$3M). Some of these terrains have made it into other Empire Builder games at various times, but what's relevant here is: they're all on the board, and they're very common. Clear mileposts are in the minority, by far, in Iron Dragon.

Foremen. This is balanced by the inclusion of foremen. At any time you get one foreman, and there are ways to swap him out (from the discard pile for $1M, drawn from the deck for $1M, or selected from the deck for $5M). These foremen each have a speciality: the dwarves go through mountains for only $1M, the elves through forest for $1M, the catmen through jungles for $1M, the humans across rivers and inlets on the cheap, and the orcs and trolls have various advantages in the Underworld. There's even some nice strategy here, as you might toss your generally useful elf foreman to get a catman to build through lots of jungles, with the hope that you'll be able to recover your elf from the discard on the next turn.

Ships. Various spaces on the map are labelled as ports--some near small or medium cities, some at mileposts on major cities. By going to a port you can end your turn and draw a boat, which moves between 8 and 13 spaces and which costs between $1M and $3M for transit. This can allow you to easily and quickly hop from one port city to another along any of the coasts or across the large, central ocean. It's extremely useful for making money early in the game, and somewhat useful later on.

Underworld. I'll discuss this more when I talk about the map, but there is an underworld, which is connected to the main map by four tunnels. There are also special rules for the underworld: it costs $1M a turn whenever you build in the underworld and $1M a turn whenever you move through the underworld (both bribes, made to the orcs to get them under control).

The Iron Dragon Map: The Iron Dragon map appears to be very carefully constructed. It includes the western coast of the old (east) continent and all of the new (west) continent. There are two ways in which these continents are connected: through a series of islands in the north and through a magical bridge which connects a major city on each continent in the south.

The new world continent is also quite extensives. There are five more major cities here, approximately one each to the southeast, northeast, northwest, and southwest, then one in the middle. The terrain is challenging, but fun, with extreme mountains in the center and running toward the northwest, and another range running along the southwest coast. Finally, you have some jungles in the south, a desert in the southwest, and forests and hills all over.

There's also an underworld, which is a map that lies under part of the main map. It contains the eighth major city and has four entrances that lead back to the surface.

The overall result is an intricate and interesting board to build your network on. There are often loops the include the old world and the eastern half of the new world, possibly complete and possibly partial. Sometimes connections to the underworld are a simple spur, but sometimes they're used as a method to build between two surface locations, with the connections through the tunnels offering a way to avoid particularly nasty terrain on the suface.

It all seems very carefully designed, with the intent to provide really interesting and varied game play.

The problem with this type of map is, of course, that players don't know where locations are in a fantasy land. This has been partially resolved in Iron Dragon by arranging cities into kingdoms, with every city in the kingdom starting with the same letter. For example, all the old world cities start with an "O", the northeast of the new world has the "B" cities, and far west coast has "E" and "I". Within one game you'll probably have a rough idea of where everything is located.

The arrangement of the goods on the map is, likewise, very carefully managed. It's easy to remember, for example, that the old world has all the magical supplies (wands, spells, potions), that much of the meat is to the northeast of the new world (fish, cattle), that the gems tend toward the central mountains, the furs are found in the northwest, and that spices and much of the ivory comes from the southern jungles.

Finally, and not entirely related to the maps, the demand cards have been very well considered. For example, you take hops to the underworld, and then pick up beer. I've noticed a few other, similar demand/supply loops related to iron, steel, arms, and armor.

Iron Dragon Events: The events in Iron Dragon are the fairly standard mix that you'd expect to find in an Empire Builder game. They're all fantasy-themed, and you'll find cards that stop trains, dump loads, destroy tracks, etc. The most annoying ones tend to be the anti-railroad elven activists, who stop movement over forests, and the sandstorms, which destroy all track in the desert (and, in fact, because of the latter I tend to usually build under the desert, using the eastern and southern underworld tunnels).

Alternate Rules: The computer version of Iron Dragon has a very nice array of alternative rules that you can set when you play the game. These include: extra low-end and high-end trains (from 1-load to 4-load trains on the extremes, and both faster and slower than the normal ones); different victory conditions for cities and money; the ability to take out loans at 2x repayment; and more. I tend to turn on loans (which make the game a bit more enjoyable) and high-end trains (which speed things up at the end).

Ways to Play Iron Dragon

Iron Dragon has three methods for playing: AI, hot-seat, and online.

AIs: You can play by yourself with between 2 and 5 AIs. The first time I played the AI kicked my butt, and since then I've found them slightly lacking. They do OK, and it's fun to have someone competing for the best track locations, but they overall don't seem very efficient, even at their highest level, and that means that the best AI tends to be about $100M behind when I finish the game. I've also seen AIs get stuck with some regularity--unable to build because they ran out of money and got to the end of a track, or else because they got to a port and couldn't afford a boat. Because the Empire Builder games tend to be multiperson solitaire, and the building and shipping aspects are fun in and of themselves, I'm OK with AIs that don't seem very able to win, but it'd really bug me in a more competitive game.

The AIs are also slightly slow when making their decisions, but there's a nice indicator of how much thinking they have to do, and, honestly, they're much faster than human players. For a short game, you can play with 1 AI and be done in an hour; for a longer game, with more chaos and more chance for an AI to do well, you can play with 3 and be done within two hours or so. I don't have the patience to play with 4 or 5 AIs. Given that this is probably twice as fast as a comparable in-person Iron Dragon game, you can't complain about the AIs' speed too much.

Hot Seat: This simply means that a bunch of people can play at the same time using the same computer. Some folks might have fun using this option to play multiple colors; since information is so open, this isn't a real problem in Iron Dragon, though you can get confused on occasion as to which player has which demand. (I tried this out to see how it worked, and it was an interesting variant, though I did indeed get confused a couple of times.) However, I can't imagine why multiple real people would play hot seat, when they could sit down at a real table with a real board instead.

Online: The online setup is fairly typical, with a central server to connect to, which moderates connections. It's been empty the few times I've checked in, which is also fairly typical of online board games that don't have the backing of an online gaming community. I suspect that there's an AIM list or something which people use when they're looking for an online play, as the ranking system used for the online play seems to have players.

Relationships to Other Games

Iron Dragon (1996) was the sixth game in the series of games built using the same system as Empire Builder (1980). It's one of only two games built not using Earthly geography, the other being Lunar Rails (2003).

As far as I know Rail Empires: Iron Dragon is the only authorized computer game version of any of the Empire Builder games. A pity; I'd love to see others.

The Game Design

Empire Builder was, in its time, an innovative and interesting railroad game. Given that its spawned seven sequels, the continuing interest in the system is pretty obvious.

Here's some of the good things I've generally said about the Empire Builder design: great track building mechanism, good combination of track building & goods delivery, nice, hard decisions for cost vs. return, good control of randomness, and organic railways a nice reflection of reality.

Iron Dragon also adds a few more good elements, namely:

Increased Strategy: The ability to build disconnected sets of tracks, and move between them via ports, really adds a lot to this iteration of the system, giving you a lot more viable options and an interesting way to build up a track system. On top of that, the varied landscape and the foremen add yet another level of strategy to the game.

Nice Theming: The theming is top-notch, between the varied geography, the various racial foremen, and the goods distribution, which really seems to tell a story.

When I've talked about less desirable elements of the Empire Builder games, I've generally noted that they're too long, but this problem is largely alleviated by the computer game, which I'd say at least halves the time when playing with AIs, and still probably has a notable shortening effect for live play. I've also complained that it's possible to get stuck in Empire Builder games, but using the loan option in Iron Dragon can largely resolve that (if only the AIs were bright enough to take advantage of the loans). Finally, I've complained that the card drawing, placed as it is in the middle of rounds, can slow down the game a lot, but this is yet another place where the computer game helps out, by allowing you to quickly track good sources and destinations (though I wish a little more was done to aid this more, as noted above).

Overall, Iron Dragon improves the Empire Builder system, and this computer version manages to smooth out a lot of the remaining rough edges. The result is, I suspect, as good as the Empire Builder system can get, and I've thus awarded it a high "4" out of "5" for Substance.

Conclusion

I'm impressed by the core Iron Dragon game, although it still shows its age a little as a 25-year old game system. I'm also impressed by this computer adaptation. Even though I think the UI and AI could both do with some improvement, the game is generally pretty, the UI makes the system easier to play, and the AIs are at least there.

In short, this is a computer game which improves on the board game it's based upon; if you like the Empier Builder games, you should pick it up.

If you're interested in trying out Rail Empires: Iron Dragon, there's a free demo available at www.irondragon.org; if you like the demo, you can purchase a license through the Eden Studios online store, but note it's listed under "R", not "I".

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