Transport yourself to the rail era
In Empire Builder, you are a wealthy rail baron poised to build a great rail network across North America, and make your fortune moving goods from one part of the continent to another. Empire Builder is the flagship of Mayfair's so-called 'crayon' railway games, and spawned many sequels (notably Eurorails and Iron Dragon) and a second edition of itself (which is supposed to be significantly better than the first edition).
The board shows North America from Mexico to southern Canada, covered with a hexagonally-repeating grid of dots - called mileposts - each of which represents the terrain at that point, be it flat or mountainous. There are also cities in three different sizes. Many of the cities produce resources such as wheat or cars or fish; there are about thirty different products, and each is available from certain cities.
Naturally, the cities that don't have certain resources are going to want them, and they will pay money to whoever gets the product to them. For items that have to be carted a long way, the reward is very great indeed. It is your job to make these deliveries with your single train.
A deck of demand cards dictates which cities are in need of which product at any time; players each keep three such cards at all times. The demand cards also state what payout is given once the required resource is delivered. With your initial $50 million, you need to build enough rail to be able to take your train to a city producing a resource, and drop the resource at the city requiring it. Track is built by drawing on the coated map board with the supplied crayons (it wipes off beautifully with a tissue). Building tracks over rivers or through mountains is more costly than over flat ground, so be sure to watch your money. Once you've built the track, you move your single train along the track to pick up the goods, then along the track some more to drop them off at the city that needs them. This will in turn earn you more money, which you can use to build more rail to fulfil other demands, such as the new card that replaced the demand you just fulfilled.
And so the game goes, moving and building, until one player has accumulated more than $250 million and connected all but one of the major cities together by track, at which point the game is over. Along the way you can upgrade your train - which at first can only carry two loads and move nine mileposts per turn - for speed or extra capacity, and later for the other so that after two upgrades your train can carry three loads at twelve mileposts per turn.
Some of the cards in the demand card deck are event cards, which usually spell disaster for someone, such as causing floods in certain rivers (wiping out bridges over them) or rail strikes; occasionally one will reveal a bonus for special deliveries. This adds a little uncertainty to the game and means that you can't plan perfectly. It's always best to keep a little money in case a flood strands you without enough cash to rebuild an essential washed-away bridge.
Empire Builder really starts to move at quite a pace once players have built a fair bit of rail, since it's then down to moving the trains and collecting or unloading goods. A two-player game takes about two hours, proportionately longer with more players. There isn't a great deal of player interaction in Empire Builder, unless you count the ability to rent other players' tracks or vying for the best path for a track through the mountains. Instead it becomes quite a free-for-all as each player tries to land payoffs for demands as fast as possible. The demands range from single-figures for carrying, say, fish to New York, to a massive $55 million for bringing coffee to Seattle (we call this demand card the Starbucks card). Although the game tends to be on the long side, I have never found it to be boring.
Empire Builder is one of the simpler rail-building games out there in terms of resource-management and planning. Still, connecting that last spike on your transcontinental route will really make you feel like a pioneer. And if you like Empire Builder, there are plenty more games just like it.