Review of China Rails

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

September 19, 2007

by: Shannon Appelcline

Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)

The newest Empire Builder game introduces a neat new map and features the same old game play.

Shannon Appelcline has written 688 reviews, with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.84 The reviewer's previous review was of Uptown.

This review has been read 6388 times.

Product Summary
Name: China Rails
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Line: Empire Builder
Author: Michael Dreiling
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $40.00
Year: 2007

SKU: 4504
ISBN: 1-56905-128-3

Review of China Rails
China Rails (2004) is the brand newest Empire Builder (1980) game, designed by Michael Dreiling, based on the original design by Darwin P. Bromley and Bill Fawcett.

Players: 2-6
Playing Time: 3-5 hours

This review is based partially on my older Empire Builder reviews, since they all share the same system.

The Components

China 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 entirity of China, plus the independent republic of Taiwan. As with othe recent Empire Builder boards, it's quite attractive thanks to good use of color and an attractive logo.

    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 (including lots of mountains on this map). They're all arranged into a triangular grid used for drawing tracks. There also are a few notable sea links depicted on the board for ferries and for Taiwan container movement.

    Crayons: The crayons are, of course, used for drawing on the board. I had less problem with the wax content on these than other recent games, hopefully meaning they've changed crayon suppliers. However, as usual the yellow crayon is pretty much invisible.

    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 icon stickers on, as usual. As with other recent Empire Builder games, the load names are printed on the chips too, a real boon. We have many old favorites (cattle, coal, wood, etc.) and a few new loads as well (jade, porcelain, soybeans, etc.) 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.

    The train cards 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. It's also on slightly better paper stock than I recall from earlier Empire Builder games.

    Rulebook: The rulebook is 16 pages, printed in black & white. It seemed fairly intuitive to read. There 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 (and which I always do when I play a new Empire Builder game).

    Overall, China Rails contains mostly what I'd expect in a crayon-rail game. However, as with other recent Empire Builder games, there's been a real obvious effort to make the fairly plain boards and other components look as attractive as possible. I'd still dearly like to see a card design which would make it easier to pick out where loads came from and went to without additional reference, but that's my only real complaint about the current components. As such I've given it a high "3" out of "5" for Style. There are surely other games that are more beautiful, but not games that have to face the limitation of a crayon-drawing game.

    The Game Play

    As with other crayon railroad games, the object in China 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 China 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 a scant 4 in China, plus the island of Taiwan which is also a required connection.)

    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 one or more places on the board), a destination, and a payout. Whenever you successfully pick up a good, then 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. Most of the events in China Rails are pretty standard, though there are a couple of unique events of note, as discussed below.

    Winning. Empire Builder games all tend to have the same winning conditions: $250M cash and a network connecting to most of the major cities (all 5 of 5 in the case of China Rails).

    The China Rails Map: A lot of the differentiation in these Empire Builder games comes from their individual maps. Here, the map of China is pretty unique. All of the major cities are clustered toward the south-east of the map, and they're pretty easy to connect up. If you decide to go out into the wilds of the north and the west, it's solely to deliver goods.

    There's also quite a bit of terrain in China. Mountains ($2M) and alpines ($5M) cover a lot of the southwest. There are also several deserts, where the tracks can be lost due to a sandstorm as well as some dried rivers and lakes, which are initially cheaper than rivers or lakes to cross, but can get more expensive when the rainy season comes.

    Special China Rails Rules: Beyond the map changes, China Rails is a pretty standard Empire Builder game with just a few changes:

    The Dalian Ferry. This is a ferry which allows a short cut around a bay. It uses the increasingly standard ferry rules: 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.

    Taiwan. This is an island off the corner of China which has a few different cities on it, each of which has demands and goods. It works sort of like the ferry. You can build a container link for either $4M or $8M at one of four locations. This is required for victory. Then whenever you end a turn at a container link on the next turn you may either deliver to or pickup goods from Taiwan.

    China Rails Events: The event cards of China Rules are pretty pedestrian with a bit of color. There's for example a Party Congress (which requires a delivery to a major city) and a few celebrations (which give bonuses for some deliveries and prohibit others). Unlike the other recent Empire Builder game, Russian Rails, the events don't make much difference to game play.

    Relationships to Other Games

    China Rails is the 10th 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), the Moon (Lunar Rails), and Russia (Russian Rails).

    The Game Design

    Overall, China Rails is a pretty average Empire Builder game. The biggest change in the game is in the map, and the designer did a great job of making it feel really different, requiring some unique decisions about when to build and when to just sit tight and use what you got. That does introduce some integral changes to the gameplay, but no more than, say, Australian Rails which uses a map to create gameplay where a lot of building and shipment occurs along an East-West corridor. In other words, China Rails is generally a classic Empire Builder game.

    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. As the 10th iteration of the same core mechanic, I give China Rails an average "3" out of "5" for Substance. If you play or collect the Empire Builder series, it's a fine new entrant.


    The newest release in the Empire Builder line is largely more of the same. It offers a nice new map which supports some different building strategy--since most of the major cities are clumped together--but beyond that it's pretty much an Empire Builder game. If you like the series and want more variety, you'll want this, and you'll know what you're getting.

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