There's one in every gaming group: a Tweaking Tom. Just when you've played a game enough to get comfortable with it, Tom wants to change things, introduce new elements, tweak the rules. Perhaps that's you. But, even if it's not, you will likely enjoy at least a few of the following variants for Mayfair's popular series of "connect-the-dots, crayon" train games which include Empire Builder, Eurorails, British Rails, Australia Rails, Nippon Rails and Iron Dragon.
Some of the variants described in this article were invented by the train gaming group in which I participate. Others were gleaned from Internet Web site and newsgroup articles. I have collected and arranged them by category for easy reading and comparison.
Loaded Train = Slow Train - Subtract one from the allowed movement of your train for each load it is carrying. For example, an empty speed 9 train moves 9, but slows to 8 when carrying one load, 7 with 2 loads.
Empty Train = Fast Train - Alternatively, add one to the allowed movement of your train for each of its empty load slots.
Speed Limit - In the real world, trains move more slowly when inside cities. Simulate this by counting two for each city dot, including those within the red zone of a major city.
Express Ferries - Any trip that involves a ferry is a poor one because the delivery payments do not take into account the delays imposed by the ferries (see my article "Eurorails: loads and cities that help you win" in the July/August/September 1997 Rail Gamer). So, eliminate the ferry delay. Instead, do not stop and do not move at half rate next turn. Instead, divide the cost of the ferry by 2, and use that value as the number of mid-ocean movement dots.
Express Ferry Fee - Upon each ferry crossing, allow the player to decide whether he wants to use the normal ferry (standard rules) or the express ferry (as described above). Charge $1 if he chooses the express ferry (paid to the bank).
Friendly Start - At the start of the game deal an extra demand card to each player. Before building any track, each player discards one card of his choosing. This helps balance the game by reducing the luck associated with the initial set of cards.
Auctions - Note: this is an incomplete idea (I have not tried it, but it sounds promising). To start the game, give each player $10 more than usual. Don't deal out any demand cards. Instead, flip over the top card and allow players to bid for it; the highest bidder gets the card and his payment goes to the bank. Repeat the process until all players have at least 3 cards; no player may have more than 5 cards. When a player makes a delivery, auction another card only if (after the delivery) he has less than 3 cards. Now, perhaps someone can think of a simple way to handle cards on which no one bids...
Scandinavian Connection - On the Eurorails map, people rarely visit Scandinavia. Encourage more visits by starting the game with a "state-run" railroad that connects Kobenhavn, Oslo and Stockholm already built (use a neutral crayon color). All players can travel along this railroad for free for the entire match. This same technique can be employed on any of the maps to increase the accessibility of otherwise rarely visited areas.
Major Cities $5 - The rules allow you to build out of any major city at any time, even if your track does not already reach that city. Unfortunately, in Eurorails, this allows people to easily build out of Madrid to snarf up Valencia and/or Sevilla when the first demand for Oranges appears. Discourage this by charging $5 whether you build into OR out of a major city not already served. Exception: during the first turn of the game, charge only $1 for the first build out.
Overpasses - Charge $1 extra (paid to bank) for an overpass whenever your track crosses that of another player.
Random Floods - Once a flood event card is played that destroys bridges that span a particular river, everyone knows it is safe to build across that river for the remainder of the game. That's unrealistic. So, create either a table or a group of chits for all the rivers on the map (there's no need to limit it to just those rivers on the flood event cards). Then, during play, when any one of the flood event cards appears, randomly decide which river floods by choosing from the table or chits. This allows a particular river to flood more than once a game.
Full Speed Ahead - Everyone starts with a top-of-the-line locomotive. This reduces the duration of the game by a fair amount.
Build First - Whenever a players picks up a new card, one of the first things he does is study which cities and loads are accessible, and whether he wants to build track. This decision- making process slows down the game. To speed things up, when a load is dropped for payment, delay the receipt of a replacement card until the end of the turn. Furthermore, build all track before the movement portion of a turn, rather than after. This lets each player plan what he wants to do while the other players are taking their turn.
Full Deck - For a longer game, as well as one that better tests the efficiency of your track network, play until the deck of demand cards is exhausted. The winner is the player who meets all normal victory conditions (cash, major city connections, etc.) and has the most cash.
Randomize Card Numbers - The standard rules specify that the circus can be used only for cards with numbers ending in 0. However, after you've played this way for some time, the cards that make good circus deliveries become too predictable. So, at the start of the game, randomly pick a number to act as the final digit. To do this easily, simply draw a card at random and use the last digit of its card number.
Double the Fun - Don't use just 0 as the circus card, use 5 also. Or, pick two random numbers as described above.
Deliver Anywhere - Do you find it too limiting that circus deliveries are restricted to the city with the lowest payoff on the demand card? Relax that rule and allow delivery to any city on the card. Keep the payoff at $20.
Extra Load - Allow an extra load on the train (i.e. one more than its normal limit), provided all loads are different goods. This tends to reduce hoarding as players instead carry extra goods in hope of a future serendipitous delivery.
Warehousing Ain't Free - Warehousing is fun, except for the part about counting how many turns a load has been stored. Ditch the turn counting, and instead allow permanent warehousing in exchange for a $1 "service charge" paid to the bank upon initial storage. Of course, an opponent can still raid your warehouse.
Bonus Load Type - After our group has played one particular map several times, it becomes clear which loads and which cities are the most valuable. Thereafter, everyone tends to favor the same cities and loads. To help keep things fresh, at the start of the game, randomly pick a load, and make that the "bonus" load. When any player delivers that type of load at any time during the entire game, he gets a $20 bonus over and above the normal payment.
Bonus City - Similar to Bonus Load Type described above, except randomly pick a city, and award a bonus for any deliveries to that city.
Scandinavian Bonus - On the Eurorails map, encourage visits to Scandinavian cities by offering a bonus over the normal delivery payment. This can either be fixed (perhaps $20) or a percentage of the normal payment.
Those are just some of the variants possible with these games. I've seen many more, including ways to connect and play on two different maps (such as EuroRails and Australia Rails) simultaneously, something called "public-locking rules" in which players compete to make deliveries on a given card, and even a variant to allow gambling within the game. You can find these via most Web seach engines. Happy tweaking!
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(Article originally published in Rail Gamer magazine.)