is the new Empire Builder
game, based on the original 1980 design by Darwin Bromley & Bill Fawcett.
Playing Time: 45-60 minutes per player
The Empire Builder games keep iterating the same system, thus this review is largely based on similar reviews that I've written in the past--though the Game Components section describes some creative revamps that have occurred in the last year.
The Game Components
In 2008, Mayfair did a graphical redesign of their Empire Builder games. They still look largely the same, but there's been some additional use of color, all to the system's benefit. This is the first Empire Builder review that I've written for an edition using the new design.
Here's what you get in Martian Rails:
Board: Like most of the other crayon-rail games, this one has a board cut into six pieces that jigsaw together. This one shows the planet of Mars. It's neatly laid out in three sections which fit together to form a globe (minus the ice caps at either pole). As with othe recent Empire Builder boards, it's quite attractive thanks to good use of color and an attractive logo. Some of the new full-color art from the train cards also helps to make this map distinctive.
As with the other crayon rail games, the center of the board is a map filled with "mile posts", many of which represent clear terrain, but others of which depict other types of terrain (and in fact this may be the first map that is predominantly non-clear terrain, including lots of deserts, mountains, and forests). The mileposts are all arranged into a triangular grid used for drawing tracks.
The three sections of the map connect together across the equator. At different latitudes, "Wrap Letters" connect up the map into a (more or less) sphere.
Crayons: The crayons are, of course, used for drawing on the board. I had less problem with the wax content on these than the games of 3+ years ago, thanks I presume to them going over to "Crayola". In this set you actually get a full box of Crayola crayons, including a couple of colors you don't need (purple and brown).
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 show what you can carry around. Unlike previous load chips, these ones are all pre-printed, so there's no annoying stickering. Even better, they're printed in several different colors: orange, red, brown, green, purple, and black. The colors help to organize the chips into rational groups and make it much easier to find a chip when you're looking for one, as the colors are also used in other places (such as on the card and on the board, though I had troubles making out the difference between red and orange on the board). Just having the chips color coded probably saved us 15 minutes in the game--plus, they were much more attractive.
Cards: As usual, there are three kinds of cards--demands, events, and locomotives--all printed full-size on medium-heavy cardstock in full-color.
Getting the demand and event colors in full-color is mainly an aesthetic win, though as already noted the demand goods are now shown in color on the demand cards, which makes them easier to find. I wish some more design had been done to increase the utility of the cards, but oh well.
The locomotive cards show full-color Martian train designs. They're very attractive. They still have plain black & white spaces where you can place your loads.
Money: The money is paper-stock money in four colors and denominations. The design is fairly attractive for black and white art and the stock is sturdy. It's about what you'd want.
Rulebook: There are two full-color rulebooks: an 8-page set of rules for Empire Builder and a 16-page set of rules for Martian Rails. It's a good split and the rules seem pretty intuitive. There's an amazing amount of background detail in the Martian Rails book, including explanations for all sorts of made-up Martian goods (like replicants, airweeds, and neural jacks) and descriptions of every made-up city.
In general, Martian Rails deserves some kudos for its theming. It's a mishmash of all sorts of science-fiction and science-fantasy foolishness, so you'll find things influenced by Burroughs and lots more. The result is pretty delightful.
Overall, Martian Rails' components show off how Mayfair has revamped its Empire Builder series to good results over the last several years. The result is much more visually appealing and somewhat easier to play than earlier releases. Add that on to fun theming from Martian Rails itself, and this game earns a strong "4" out of "5" for Style.
The Game Play
As with other crayon railroad games, the object in Martian 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 Martian 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 on Mars.)
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, as does this game.
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 four steps, eventually up to moving 16 and carrying 3 goods. (This is all faster than is typical in Empire Builder, I think to the game's benefit.)
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. There generally are events that tax players, that cause players to lose loads, that make rivers (canals) flood, and that affect building or moving in certain areas--and indeed all of those can be found in Martian Rails.
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 of 6 in the case of Martian Rails).
The Martian Rails Map: A lot of the differentiation in these Empire Builder games comes from their individual
maps. Here, the map of Mars is unique for two reasons.
First, as already noted, it connects together to form an (approximate) sphere. The same thing was done in Lunar Rails, but with three different sections in Martian Rails linking together, it seems to work a bit better, and gives some fun opportunities for around-the-world rail lines (though no one quite made it all the way around the world in our game--perhaps if there had been a bonus!).
Second, also as previously noted, the map is largely filled with different sorts of terrain. After plain terrain ($1M), sand ($1M) might be the next most common (and not as bad as in other sets, because there's no event that wipes out all desert building). There are also a considerable number of mountains ($2M) and forest ($2M) and even a lot of alpine mountains ($5M)--usually denoting the edges of a crater surrounding a city. Unlike Lunar Rails, I didn't feel like this tough terrain really slowed the game down, perhaps because of the faster trains balancing things out.
There were also a number of canals in underground (+$0M), dry (+$1M), and wet (+$2M) variants.
Special Martian Rails Rules: There are no particular special rules for Martian Rails other than the simple rules for connecting together the wrap points.
Martian Rails Events: Besides the fairly standard event cards, there are a few event cards which give bonuses for deliveries of certain goods to certain locations (an innovation of recent Empire Builder games) and a few that make relatively permanent changes to the map (such as growing the ice caps or even removing a city due to terrorist attack). These events are more color than a big change to gameplay.
Relationships to Other Games
Martian Rails is the 11th 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),
a fantasy land (Iron Dragon),
India (Indian Rails), the Moon (Lunar Rails),
Russia (Russian Rails), and China (China Rails).
The Game Design
Overall, Martian Rails is a pretty average Empire Builder game. The biggest change in the game is in the map, and it feels pretty original and interesting thanks to its spherical nature and the abundance of different terrain. That doesn't change the core nature of the game, however.
Here's what I said was good about the original 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 11th iteration of the same core mechanic, I give Martian 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 a colorful variant that supports some out=of-the-world rail building; its greatest strength is the originality of a setting created from whole cloth--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, which is also what I said about the last few releases.