You are not quite sure what it is you are looking at. A man dressed in stained and ragged overalls strokes the nose of a dragon(!?) that has been chained down to a sturdy steel rail-car bed, stocks and manacles resembling traditional locomotive features are, here, inexplicably used as part of a yoke, firmly fixing the creature in place. The man notices you and turns his attention away from the bechained-yet-content dragon and strides over to you.
“She’s a real beaut, iddn’t she?” he asks, gesturing at the train behind him with the dragon-laden ‘locomotive’ at the front. "We just traded out ol’ Smokey to upgrade to this here Iron Dragon and, let me tell you, it was worth every Wizard Buck."
This week at my regular game group marked the first time we gathered after losing one of our members, the siren song of Longmont, CO seducing him from hundreds of miles away. Okay, it was probably Boulder, CO but who can afford to live there? As we gathered this past Tuesday we were noticeably fewer: only two of us of the former three regular members; back down to what we were before that third member moved here from Colorado a little less than 2 years ago.
I’ve posted a couple of times before about how I’ve recently become infatuated with the Empire Builder series of Crayon-Rail games. This week, I had brought down from my shelf Iron Dragon, the 2017 reprint that represents the last of the Mayfair Games editions of the series and, quite possibly, the last ever as Asmodee has not indicated in the slightest an intention to keep that particular brand alive. There were other options available; even my guest had brought some titles he was keen to get to the table. My guest, who is also my neighbor, is, along with his partner, a huge Crayon-Rail fan and, as I was showing him the 2017 reprint of Iron Dragon to contrast it against his own original(?) edition and we had assembled the map and pulled out the cards and the load tokens, I looked at him and asked, “Should we just play this?” We had not yet even discussed any of the other games that either of us had selected and, despite that, he said, “Of course!”
If you aren’t familiar with Crayon-Rail games, you should feel ashamed (I know I do, thinking back to how only recently I discovered them and how rare they’ve become even in the month or so since I first played Nippon Rails). But, to summarize, each player takes a pawn that represents their train (just the one train… that seems about right for a railroad empire…) and a matching dry-erase crayon. And then, taking turns players do
two three things:
- (Optional) Operate their railroad
1a. Move his or her train a number of spaces equal to the Movement stat of their train
1b. Load goods from the city or (if using optional rules) goods left laying about on the board
1c. Unload goods to complete a Demand card or (if using optional rules) leave something laying on the side of the track
- (Mandatory) Complain about how awful his or her options are and how expensive everything is
- (Optional) Spend money
3a. Upgrade locomotive, either by increasing Movement or increase freight Capacity
3b. Play connect-the-dots on the board, building track and, usually, extending his or her network of connected cities.
Iron Dragon is unique in that it’s the only game in the series that is based on a fantastical world filled with fictional places and things (such as Dragons, Spells, and Potions). I mean, unless you are one of those people who thinks that Martian Rails (the celestial source for Blue Beer and BOTH Red Martians and Green Martians) and Lunar Rails (a strange yet very real location that contains such odd things as Alien Artifacts, Robots, and Scientists) are “fictional” places.
Iron Dragon has a wonderfully large map that includes magically-connected cities, an underground realm that is home to Trolls and maybe Orcs? Or maybe Orcs just run the place. My opponent and I decided on some variants and house-rules before beginning, namely:
- Bank Loans (nobody needed them)
- Field Warehousing (which we never utilized)
- Public Demand: discarded Demand cards get put into a public pool for your opponents to complete
- Accelerated Start
- Starting money: $70 (Wizard Bucks)
- 3 initial build-only turns
- 5 Demand cards which, after the 3 initial build-turns, we would discard down to 3 which would form the initial Public Demand Market
My opponent (let’s call him B) started with drastically different geographic areas in mind and, as such, didn’t cross paths (literally!) until about half-way through the game. Right at the beginning, I took advantage of the magically linked cities of Wikkedde and Ozu-Zarkh, specializing in Wands and Potions early on. B started his adventures in the Underground and leveraged the Sailing mechanic to reduce his initial out-lay on track. B continued a nautical-heavy strategy throughout the game, whereas I slowly but surely scribed a huge loop across the entire eastern-half of the map and, from there, branched out both to the southwest and also across the northern mountains. With just the two players, it was quite easy to cheaply swap out the Foremen cards (that give you different discounts when building, depending on the Foreman and the environment), and throughout most of the game I had a Dwarf acting as my right-hand man for all of my railroad construction projects. B swapped back and forth, having started as an Orc so as to begin cheaply in the Underground, but afterwards alternating between Catman and Elf (never realizing that the Wee Folk would have made his nautical operations significantly easier).
I’d say the biggest disappointment that I had with the game was the lack of Event cards that came up; we only had one come out of the deck and it affected a part of the world neither of us were in at the time. I think mostly due to a couple of factors, I won by a fair bit; the final score was (me) with 274 to (B’s) 178; firstly, B started in the Underground but never returned to take advantage of that track and second, B relied heavily on sailing to complete his Demands and, as such, had less infrastructure throughout the game. Towards the end of the game, however, B began building towards the Dragon capital Nordkassel and, if he had made it there, likely would have blasted ahead; it’s expensive to build the route but, once you have it, Dragon demands are extremely lucrative.
A thunderous screech pierces the air as the manacled dragon is prodded to action by the conductor. Heavy blasts of warm breath explode from the dragon’s nostrils as it spreads its wings. A single deafening beat of its wings is enough to lurch the train forward from its stand-still; the dragon raises its wings again and with its second flap, the train already threatens to strand the man if he doesn’t hurry. "Oh, well, off to the next stop. If you’re ever in the market for some spells, wands or even cows give us a holler," he says as he scrambles to not be left behind.