Monday, April 23, 2012

Dungeons & Railroads

Although I do not share my father’s passion for all things associated with railroads (he has a collection of timetables), his love has managed to rub off on me at least a little bit. My table top play time over the years has been equally divided between RPGs, miniature war-games and board games. Of the latter, one of my favorites is the Empire Builder line of railroad games by Mayfair.

One of my oldest daughter’s favorite ways of spending time with her dad is playing board games with me. Although her favorite is Settlers of Catan, recently she indulged me by requesting that we play Empire Builder a couple of times.

For those of you who are not familiar with the game, Empire Builder is about building railroads in order to deliver various goods to various cities. Each player gets three demand cards, which have three potential deliveries and how much they pay. The goods are available only in certain cities, so each player spends money to build tracks connecting cities that have goods to cities that need those goods. The first player to $250 million while connecting the major cities on the map wins.

A game in process looks like this:

It occurred to me while playing with my daughter that there is a similarity between this game in process and the large scale map from D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth:

I love mini-games that help inform game and setting design. My favorite part of Traveller is the character creation mini-game — especially the expanded versions for military, scout and merchant careers. I find the process that GDW went through to produce the Traveller 2300 setting to be fascinating (I only wish they would let me play so I could produce my own version of the universe). Of course, I adore How to Host a Dungeon.

Therefore I began to wonder if it weren’t possible to create a large scale underground map ala Descent into the Depths of the Earth using a game of Empire Builder. Assign a classic underground race to each color (Black = Drow, Blue = Svirfneblin, Green = Kuo-Toa, etc.); re-skin the various goods found in the game with appropriate fantasy stylings (cars = giant striders, tourists = slaves, cotton = spider silk, etc.); and then play the game.

The race that wins become the dominate race of the underworld, with pecking order depending how the game ends. Railroads become underground passages. Cities become encounter areas, with major cities being major dungeons. The goods represent what encounter areas have in abundance. The various colored railroads determine who controls these encounter areas and which ones are in dispute.

Using the game pictured above, here is a large scale map of the depths one might come up with (note, I did rotate the map 90°):

Though this might seem a bit sparse (it is only part way through a whole game), there is still a lot of implied information here.

For example, this provides some semblance of an under-earth economy. Goods are being traded or raided for. Therefore, when a party of adventurers clears out a particular encounter area, whatever goods that area produced is going to become scarce. The whole system and map will have an organic reason for adjusting to the presence of the adventurers. Does another faction try to reclaim what the adventurers have cleared out? Does the shortage heat up conflict in the underworld? Who benefits from this conflict?

In the end, it is a fun way to create a living, breathing underworld that will have enough basic information about it to really make it sing when adventurers come to play.


  1. Awesome. I think looking to how boardgames abstract out different systems is exactly the way to go for new D&D goodness. And something as complex as trade, if you can simplify it for the busy DM, can make all our worlds seem more alive and complicated with less work on our part. I don't see why this wouldn't work for the overworld too. Great stuff, thanks.

  2. Mayfair came out with a fantasy game in that series, Iron Dragon.

    1. Yes, I know; however, it is lower on my priority list than their sci-fi version for Mars. Unfortnuately, my gaming budget is very small and there are other games that have even higher priority than these. One makes due with what one has...

    2. I've played Iron Dragon, and it's not great. Each player gets a fantasy race, which builds cheaply though one terrain (woods for elves etc.) There is typically much less contention than in, say, Eurorails because the players are more separated from one another. Also, your strategy is generally obvious based on your racial ability.

      The map has an underworld area, but it's rather small and would not likely get developed in any interesting way.

  3. Very cool. I like Empire Builder.

    Gary Gygax gave Empire Builder a good review, "a game for those who enjoy contests which are short on rule reading long on playing enjoyment... the best boardgame to come out in a long time."

    I recall hearing or reading somewhere that it was played at early conventions, gencon I guess (?), I'm not sure that's true or not.

    1. I know that when I was going to my local con in the 90s there were Empire Builder tournaments and the folks that introduced me to the game would go to cons specifically to play...

  4. Railroad games always had a devoted audience at GenCon when I was going; I imagine they still do. They never interested me all that much, but this is a very creative use.

  5. Railroad games are still heavily supported at Origins. I've never played one, but I've been entertaining the idea of trying my hand at it for several years.

    I really like your ideas for adapting it to the subterranean economy.

  6. I find the process that GDW went through to produce the Traveller 2300 setting to be fascinating (I only wish they would let me play so I could produce my own version of the universe)

    I knew that I had a copy of those rules, called The Game, once. I have no recollection of where I found them, but they are probably possible to find if you search a bit.

    You could probably produce your own version of the universe.