(2004) is the brand newest Empire Builder
(1980) game, designed by Jodi Soares, based on the original design by Darwin P. Bromley and Bill Fawcett.
Playing Time: 3-5 hours
Difficulty: 4 (of 10)
This review is based partially on my older Empire Builder reviews, since they all share the same system.
Russian Rails comes with the standard components that you'd expect in a crayon rails game:
- 1 puzzle-cut board
- 6 crayons
- 6 pawns
- 100 load chips
- 131 demand cards
- 25 event cards
- 12 locomotive cards
- 1 pack of money
- 1 rulebook
Board: Like most of the other crayon-rail games, this one has a board cut into six pieces that jigsaw together. This one depicts the European portion of the Soviet Union (most everyone who played was disappointed that the other half of the U.S.S.R. was neglected). This is one of the prettiest Empire Builder boards that Mayfair has produced, with decorative red borders and light blue oceans giving the map color and life.
As with the other crayon rail games, the center of the board is a map filled with "mile posts", most of which are clear, but others of which depict other types of terrain. They're all arranged into a triangular grid used for drawing tracks. Overlaid on the map, number of national borders show how Russia splits apart following the fall of Communism, and are used in the latter part of the game.
Crayons: The crayons are, of course, used for drawing on the board. As with other recent Empire Builder games, the crayons didn't work as well as we would have liked; they smudge more than draw, probably because the wax to pigment ratio is too high. Nonetheless, we stuck it out, and were able to use them throughout the game, though we sometimes had to darken our tracks after drawing them in. (Others have suggested China Markers, or just crayons from older sets as better drawing implements.)
It's worth noting that the yellow crayon isn't usable, an issue since early EB days only made worse with the newest crayon formulations.
Pawns: Plastic pawns in the six player colors (red, blue, black, yellow, green, brown) that look nothing like locomotives.
Load Chips: The load chips are plastic poker chips that you stick icons on, as usual. This time around the name of each load is printed on the sticker, which is nice. We have many old favorites (cattle, coal, uranium, etc.), some of which have been relabeled (e.g., the wine is now vodka) and a few new loads as well (caviar, potatoes, tractors). The icons are generally intuitive and easy to use.
Cards: The three types of cards (demand, event, loco) are fairly identical to cards in other crayon rail games: all full-size cards on medium cardstock printed grayscale. Both demand cards and event cards remain obvious as to their purposes, but don't make use of geographic iconography which could have made them easier to use. Many of the event cards in this set are unique because they list two different events, with the appropriate one based on the current era of Russian history; the icons used to separate these (the USSR & Russian Republic flags) make them easy to tell apart.
The trains come in three types, and are double-sided; the artwork is unfortunately very stark black & white that didn't reproduce very well.
Money: The money is paper-stock money in four colors and denominations. Plain but utilitarian.
Rulebook: The rulebook is 16 pages, printed in black & white. It seemed fairly intuitive to read, which hasn't necessarily been my reaction to crayon-rail rulebooks in the past. There's are several lists of cities and available loads in the middle, which are set up so that you can cut them out to produce four quick reference sheets, which is nice.
Overall, Russian Rails contains mostly what I'd expect in a crayon-rail game, though the graphical design of both the box and game board are higher than usual (for which one may apparently thank the talented Drew Perkett); I'd love to see the same artist do the design of future rail games. The fact that these newer EB games don't have as good of crayons as the original bugs me, but I nonetheless award Russian Rails a high "3" out of "5" for Style: very good graphical work for a game design that's implicitly plain due to the blank slate required by crayons; it would probably have eked in a "4" without the crayon wax/pigment issues.
The Game Play
As with other crayon railroad games, the object in Russian Rails 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 Russian Rails 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 divided into two sections of gameplay: building and delivery.
Building. At the start of the game you have $60M 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, as you must connect to most of them to win. (There are only 6 in Russia: Kiev, Kuybyshev, Novosibirsk, Tashkent, Leningrad, and Moscow.)
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. This game is back to the singular $20M upgrades.
Delivery. You also have a train which you run on your tracks; it initially goes 9 mileposts a turn and can carry 2 goods; you can upgrade in two steps, eventually up to moving 12 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. As discussed below, Russian Rails has some entirely unique event cards.
Winning. Empire Builder games all tend to have the same winning conditions: $250M cash and a network connecting to most of the major cities (5 out of 6 in the case of Russian Rails).
Special Russian Rails Rules: Russian Rails is a fairly standard Empire Builder game with only two notable new rules: the Caspian Ferry and the Fall of Communism.
The Caspian Ferry. Down in the southeast of the map is the Caspian Sea, and that has two ferry ports, one to the southwest and one to the east. You can connect to the ferry port for +$8M (only 2 players max), after which you can build out of the other ferry port. If you're moving a train you must stop at the ferry, and then the next turn you can start on the other side, but at half speed for that turn. Overall, the ferry saves you considerable cost, because you'd have to otherwise build through or around marshlands ($3M/space), and also a tiny bit of time.
The Fall of Communism. The game starts out in the communist era of the USSR, but at some point a "Fall of Communism" event card is drawn, and the modern era of Russia begins. This has three results:
- All double event cards are immediately discarded (more on them in a second).
- Each player loses 20% of their cash due to Ruble devaluation.
- The Republics all break away from Russia.
As was previously noted, there are a number of independent republics marked on the board, along the outskirts of Russia; after the Fall of Communism, whenever you leave a republic to enter Russia you must pay $2M. This is made worse by the fact that the game actively encourages you to build back and forth across those borders due to placement of valuable towns just inside Russia.
The Russian Rails Map: The biggest unique element of the game board has to do with those Republic borders. Beyond that, the game seems to have clusters of cities along the south and east sides of the map, with big empty spaces inland; about what you'd expect to see in Russia. The map isn't too difficult; most of it is broad open spaces, with some marshland ($3M) around the Caspian Sea, and mountains ($2M) and alpines ($5M) in a number of clumps as is geographically appropriate.
The Russian Rails map also suffers from a common problem shared with most of the more exotic crayon rail games. None of the place names nor the goods locations are that intuitive, and thus a lot of time is spent trying to figure out what's where. (Heck, in Russian Rails we couldn't even pronounce some of the names). Also, as with many of the other Empire Builder games, by the end of the game we knew some of the place names, and the locations for some of the more obvious goods (like fish). Some system to make the demands cards more intuitive could have really helped with this sort of thing, and the need is really shown on a foreign landscape like Russia. (Alternatively a half-dozen games or so would probably resolve the issue.)
Russian Rails Events: One of the highlights of Russian Rails is the wonderfully colorful events in the game. As with most other games there are plenty of flooding rivers and derailments which make life harder. However, there also a unique class of generally beneficial events: the double events.
Double Events. Many of the event cards have two events listed on them: one if it was drawn during the communist era, one if it was drawn after the fall. Most of these events are special demands which can be completed by whomever gets there first. Many of them also required more than one good to be delivered, something I haven't seen in previous Empire Builder games. So, we had to deliver Machinery, Steel, and Armor to Kaliningrad to build the Berlin Wall and we had to deliver Machinery and Oil to Baykonur to launch Sputnik. As I said, the color was great.
Relationships to Other Games
Russian Rails is the 9th game in Mayfair's series of crayon rail games. Previous games covered: North America (Empire Builder), England (British Rails), Japan (Nippon Rails), Australia (Australian Rails), Europe (EuroRails), a fantasy land (Iron Dragon), India (Indian Rails), and the Moon (Lunar Rails).
The Game Design
Although the rules changes for Russian Rails are pretty small, they do add some nice things to the game, including:
Great Color: The color embedded in the event cards is terrific, including such things as the aforementioned construction of the Berlin Wall and launching of Sputnik. The balkanization that occurs following the fall of communism also adds more color (and amusing annoyance) to the game.
Good Tension: The fall of communism is a nice constant threat that makes you concerned about both your current money stash and what double events you might be working on that could go away in a minute's time.
Beyond that, Russian Rails works pretty much like the other Empire Builder games.
Here's what I said was good about Empire Builder: great track building mechanism (original in its time), good combination of elements (integrating track building and goods delivery), good cost balance (measuring the cost to build track vs. the reward of a delivery), good control of randomness (through the multiple demands on cards), and organic railways nice reflection of reality (meaning they go all over the place).
Here's what I didn't like about Empire Builder: too long, possible to get stuck (though nowadays I pretty much just suggest allowing up to $20M in loans, which must be paid back double, an alternative rule from some other EB games), and card drawing badly placed (just as with the original, you draw your cards, then spend forever matching locations up while everyone watches).
I gave the original game a "4" for Substance, but part of that reflected its originality. Russian Rails' new mechanisms are nice and location-appropriate, but as the 9th iteration of this core mechanic there isn't much originality anymore; nonetheless, I still give Russian Rails a high "3" out of "5" for Substance; it's one of the better Empire Builder games that I've played.
The newest release in the Empire Builder line is well-designed and has a lot of nice theme. There's not a lot original here, but nonetheless this is one of the more interesting releases in the Empire Builder line and it should appeal to new players and old players alike.