An Illustrated History
Around 1970, an errant shot in a ping pong match between R.S. Erickson and T.F. Erickson, Jr. landed the ball upon a game prototype that had been gathering dust. R.S. had been tinkering with a board game derived from Pirate and Traveller. That serendipitous shot triggered development of the board game we know as Rail Baron.
We can only surmise that the designers demonstrated their game to the industry in the hopes of finding a publisher. At that time, there existed but two board games with a train theme: Dispatcher (1961) and B&O/C&O (1969) distributed by the Avalon Hill Game Company. The publishing/entertainment industry is notoriously reluctant to invest in unestablished areas/themes, consequently with so few train games in existance, apparently no one wanted to take a chance on the Ericksons' design.
So the Ericksons decided to publish the game on their own, and released it as "BOXCARS" in 1974. In the pre-desktop publishing era, this was no small feat, and family members were recruited to assist with tasks: T.F.'s mother redrew railroad heralds by hand.
It was billed as "The Informative NEW travel game of OLD-time railroading."
Though the slogan was awkward, for a first-time effort, the components of the
resulting boardgame were surprisingly refined and professional.
The single-piece board unfolded to reveal a map of the United States on which routes of 28 historic railroads were traced. The image at right shows a portion of the map.
It is easy to see the similarities to what would become Rail Baron. The edge of the board is encircled with heralds/logos of assorted RRs... but, strangely, none of these RRs are used during game play. A 1950s era Rand-McNally map of US railroads was encircled by heralds; perhaps it was the inspiration for this design.
The rules of BOXCARS vary from those of Rail Baron in several ways. For example, BOXCARS has no restriction in the reuse of routes: this allows players to circle along the same track as long as desired. BOXCARS also allows a player to trade, sell or auction a RR at any time during the game. Furthermore, BOXCARS lacks the Express and Superchief locomotive upgrades that Rail Baron contains. These rules made for a long, slow game with lots of player elimination, elements disliked by players and which are not required in the superior Rail Baron game.
To choose destinations, BOXCARS employs a spinner, shown at left (click the image to enlarge it). The spinner consists of a cardboard square and a clear plastic circle; you spin the circle and see where the pointer ends up. Destination probability is proportional to the width of the "slice of pie" allocated to that destination. For example, it is easy to see that Atlanta is more likely a destination than Louisville. Unfortunately, the spinner does not work well because it tends to build up static electricity and can stop on the line between two choices. When creating Rail Baron, AH converted this spinner to a dice-driven lookup chart that, for the most part, preserves these original destination probabilities.
Here are the components of the game:
Before long, the Ericksons' game caught the attention of The Avalon Hill Game Company (AH), the publisher of the only other two railroading board games available at the time. The original designers turned over all BOXCARS rights to AH and were obligated to quickly disperse the remaining copies of their game. It is estimated that there were only 1000 copies of BOXCARS ever printed.
AH scaled down the game's physical size to match the "bookshelf" style of many of its other titles, and released it as Rail Baron in 1977. Shown here is the first edition box which is recognizable by the single, large picture on its cover.
To play RB, you move your token (train) along the RRs of your choice toward a destination city which you have been assigned. Upon arriving, you collect a payment, and may make a purchase. You can purchase one RR, or upgrade your train's locomotive (to a faster model).
If your train moves along a RR owned by an opponent, you must pay that
person a track use fee. Therefore, the main challenge of the game is to
purchase RRs that 1) connect into a network that gives you access to
most of the important destination cities, and 2) prevent your opponents
from doing likewise. To win, you must accumulate $200,000 then return
to your home (starting) city.
During play, when you purchase a RR, you are given the deed to that property.
The image at left shows one of the deeds that comes with AH's
board game. The image also shows a custom replacement deed that
includes a map to illustrate the area served by the RR
(more information about replacement parts).
To help speed up the game, AH developer Richard Hamblen modified the BOXCARS rules to include an option to upgrade your locomotive. Each player starts the game with a Standard locomotive. It lets you roll 2D6 (two six-sided dice) to determine how far your train moves that turn. If you roll 12, you can also roll a bonus 1D6. Instead of purchasing a RR, you can upgrade your locomotive. The Express ($4,000) lets you roll/move the bonus die if you roll any doubles during your normal turn. The Superchief ($40,000) lets you roll/move the bonus die every turn.
The average distance moved per turn is: Standard: 7.1, Express: 7.6, and Superchief 10.5. Knowing the best time in the game to upgrade is a skill learned by experience.
Trivia: Avalon Hill, shown here along the B&O railroad, is where AH founder Charles S. Roberts began the game company.
RB turned out to be one of Avalon Hill's most popular board games, and grew to be the company's 9th best selling title of all time (bested only by other classics like Acquire and Diplomacy).
A revised (i.e. second) edition was released sometime about 1982. The second edition box has multiple pictures on the cover (as depicted here), and some dots along the NorthEast corridor were changed on the map. It is likely the last printing of this edition occurred sometime in the 1980s.
Spurred by AH's success, other publishers began to release board games with a railroad theme. One of the best is Empire Builder, an obvious RB relative, published by Mayfair Games.
In Empire Builder you move your train along routes on a USA map in order to collect payments. Unlike Rail Baron, you spend money actually building track, through mountains and over rivers, with a trusty crayon rather than buying existing RRs. As in Rail Baron, you can upgrade your train to a faster model. If you use someone else's route, you must pay them. The first person to reach $250,000 wins, but there is no exciting "declaration and race home" feature.
Empire Builder was the first in a series of such games. Mayfair has released other very similar games that play on maps of the British Isles, Europe, Australia, Japan and India. There is also a computer version.
Rail Baron's Aide
RB has been likened to Monopoly plus Pirate and Traveler (railopoly?), and there are some similarities: purchasing properties, trying to get certain groups, monopolizing an area, collecting money from opponents, etc. However, the game has more depth than Monopoly: finding the best route for your train can be a challenge; you must choose what to purchase next (not just the property you happened to land upon); there are many different winning strategies (good network, lock out opponents, etc.). RB is also far less dependent of random factors (luck) than is Monopoly.
It was a search to discover the best network of RRs that in the mid-1980s drew Paul Van Bloem to write "Rail Baron's Aide" (RBA) for the Macintosh with help from Steve Okonski. RBA assisted with in-game duties (rolling dice, randomizing destinations, etc.) and helped players select RRs to purchase. Furthermore, it could analyze each player's network and report how many cities the player accessed, and how many he controlled (monopolized). RBA was never released to the public.
Many other people created similar RB-assistant-type programs, but no one had managed to create a program that would actually play the game. By today's standards, the typical desktop computers of the mid-1980s were underpowered and had limited graphics capabilities. A competent "Artificially Intelligent" railroad baron was still years away.
In 1991, Avalon Hill initiated "Avaloncon", an annual convention of players of its board games. The focus was on tournaments in each AH game, rather than on sales and other commercial events. This gamer-friendly atmosphere attracted players from around the world, thus granting the victor in each tournament bragging rights as a "world champion". Within a few years, about 1000 people were making the pilgrimage to the Baltimore area for the convention.
Chuck Foster was the Rail Baron champion at the first Avaloncon. In subsequent years, Chuck served as GameMaster for the tournament, and earned commendations as one of the best Avaloncon GMs. Under his watch, the tournament grew to 100 participants in 1998.
Avaloncon has evolved into the present day World Boardgaming Championships. Pictured: 2001 WBC Rail Baron Finalists from a field of 56. From left to right: Mark McCandless, Eyal Mozes, Steve Okonski, Stan Buck, Chuck Foster, Inger Henning
With desktop computers becoming more powerful in the 1990s, Steve Okonski began work on RB Player (RBP) for Windows. RBP not only acts as a board game assistant, but also has "Artificial Intelligence" that plays the game vs. humans. RBP also enables play on alternate game maps.
In 1997, Steve contacted Avalon Hill and demonstrated the RBP prototype to them. They opted to not publish the game. Steve did not know that at the time, the AH game division was being shopped around by its parent corporation, Monarch-Avalon, and thus was not actively putting efforts into new games.
Fortunately, Steve was able to secure permission from Avalon Hill to distribute the computer version. The result is the program and alternate game maps you can find at the Rail Baron Fanatics site.
At right is 4517 Harford Road in Baltimore, the now shuttered offices/warehouse of The Avalon Hill Game Company. In 1998, AH was purchased by Hasbro Interactive for $6 million.
Initial speculation was that Hasbro purchased AH to obtain its board game designs for the purposes of converting some of them into computer form. So far Hasbro has released updated versions of Acquire, Diplomacy and some other titles, plus has indicated it will republish additional titles in the coming years.
In a surprise move in 2000, Hasbro sold computer version rights to Infogrames, a French company closely associated with Atari. In 2005 Infogrames sold back the digital rights of games to Hasbro. This has further muddied the waters as to if and when we will see commercial computer versions of various Avalon Hill boardgames.
The first version of the RB Player shareware was a hit, but users clamored for Web support. Such a feature would allow people with Internet access anywhere in the world to play the game together.
With help from many beta testers, ICI added Web support to RBP and released it as part of version 2 early in the year 2000. Thanks to this feature, friends and family members that used to play the board game but who are now separated by distance are enjoying the game once again. As many as 6 people at once have connected from various parts of the world to participate in a match.
2002 and beyond
The board game was discontinued, the supply of new copies from Avalon Hill / Hasbro was exhausted back in the 1990s, and marketing ceased. Now that over a decade has passed, memory of the out-of-print board game is largely supported by the computer version; used copies of the old board game in excellent condition often sell for over $100 on eBay.
With Hasbro abandoning most AH titles, Rail Baron® now lives via ICI's computer game and new board games as seen at RailGameFans.com. The game's popularity with would-be railroad barons put it near the top of any publisher's list. Indeed, with project spearheading by ICI, a rejuvinated original edition containing many of ICI's improvements has been brought to light.
Further research has revealed that BOXCARS may have been inspired by a Parker Brothers game named "Across the Continent" which dates back to 1899. The original version of ATC employed railroads, but later the game was reissued in a form that depicted automobiles.
Does the arrangement of dots on the ATC map look familiar? It should, because as for RB, the dots and connections are based on the routes of actual US railroads. (ATC picture courtesy boardgamegeek).
The similarities don't end there. To play ATC, participants move their trains/cars to a series destinations chosen at random. Dice rolls determine how far they move. If doubles are rolled, the player gets a bonus roll. The winning player is the first to make a trip from one coast to the other, and then back home. And, no two players may have the same starting city! That explains where RB got its "no two players may have the same home city" rule, a rule which made sense in ATC but is rather pointless in RB.
Of course, RB contains many additional elements, such as RR purchasing, route choices to minimize payments to other players, auctions, the rover play, etc. But, it seems like a good bet that RB's roots date back to the 1800s! The game we still love to play has been enjoyed in one form or another for parts of three centuries, a claim few other board games can make.
There's more game information at the Rail Baron Fanatics site
Content on all pages at this Web site, and in the downloadable files, is © Copyright 1987, 1998, 2001, 2013 by Intersystem Concepts, Inc.
Rail Baron is an internationally registered trademark of Intersystem Concepts, Inc.
BOXCARS is a Trademark of T.F. Erickson. Other trademarks are the property of their respective holders.
Content on all pages at this Web site, and in the downloadable files, is © Copyright 1987, 1998, 2001, 2013 by Intersystem Concepts, Inc. Rail Baron is an internationally registered trademark of Intersystem Concepts, Inc. BOXCARS is a Trademark of T.F. Erickson. Other trademarks are the property of their respective holders.