27 February, 2009

Builders of Empire, Guzzlers of Tea

House Rules
First, the requisite soundtrack b which to send a load of, say, bauxite into Duluth, Montana, was the compilation album Pure Disco, or any of its sequels (i.e., Pure Disco 2, Pure Disco 3, et cetera). Other music could be selected, but only by universal consensus and only after the disco hits had played through in their entirety.

Second, when upgrading to a Super Freight, the swiftest and highest load-bearing train available, one had to offer up his or her humility, in addition to the large financial cost, by singing the Super Freight song. The song could be sung in any style; however, the lyrics were mandatory:
I'm a Super Freight, Super Freight
I'm Super Freight-ing
The basic melody established in the Rick James hit "Super Freak" was to be adhered to.

Third, first-timers and other non-regulars had to play as brown (the machine screw) or green (the petrified SweeTart). No old hand would be asked to give up his official token after earning it through so many Saturday nights playing with that filthy old piece of candy. It just wasn't done.

Official Rules
The game in question was Empire Builder, a unique strategy board game, which involved building railway lines and transporting various commodities across turn-of-the-last-century North America. Crayons were used to draw track onto the board, each player in a different color, which could be rubbed away with a little elbow grease at game's end. Cards were drawn to determine what possible loads a train might pick up and drop off. Accidents such as bridge collapses and blizzards kept things interesting. The first player to amass half a million dollars and link rail to at least five major cities won.

Paul picked it up — well, I've no idea where he found the game, actually. Knowing Paul, it could have come from a garage sale as likely as it could a dumpster. There was a closetful of interesting games at Paul's house no one had ever heard of: Junta, Assassin!, and the truly anarchic RPG Call of Cthulu were some I remember. Many were the evenings whiled away with him and his roommate, our mutual friend Brahm, figuring out the rules of each. Beginning in the summer of 1998, to head over to Paul and Brahm's little white rented house, often with another friend or two in tow, was a weekend institution. Those poor newbies! They had only heard legends of the game and usually came to play without a clue they were in for an epic five to seven hours of gaming.

The board snapped together like a six-piece jigsaw puzzle of the contiguous US. Assemled, it covered most of the sparkly Formica surface of Paul's retro teal dining table. While someone attended to the board, someone else would ready the music. One of the house's residents would be in the kitchen putting on a kettle for tea, which was the de facto Official Drink of Train Game. ("Train Game" being what Brahm, in his infinite capacity for ludicrous nicknames, had dubbed it. It was so stupid, it stuck.) Your beverage choices were: English Breakfast, Earl Gray, oolong, or orange pekoe. They came out of a case of individually packaged teabags, like the kind you'd find at a cheap hotel's continental breakfast bar. You could have milk and sugar, but to ask for a glass of water, a cup of coffee, or anything else might've gotten you thrown out. Surprisingly, no one ever did.

Far greater selection was to be had in your drinking vessel selection. Paul had a prodigious collection of coffee mugs, having migrated to and fro across the nation for his transitory job in the local news industry. Like consolation prizes won for a career bereft of stability, there were mugs from tiny TV outfits, charity events, radio stations, hospitals, novelty shops, truck stops, and practically any promotional message for which one could conceive of using a mug. Paul cherished them and, accordingly, always got first pick.

Once everthing was set up, the rules (official and un-) explained to any virgins present, off we went, thundering our loads of coal and cattle into the wee hours of the morning, hopped up on Bigelow and prodded by relentless disco beats. For my part, I may have even been known to get caught up in the moment, and singing along to an ABBA tune here and there.

As the year progressed and the weather turned cold, the games and music migrated into the kitchen. Paul's house had a comically ineffective gravity furnace that cost the GDP of a Third World country to run, so he relied instead on space heaters in the bedrooms and, when company was over, the oven to warm the kitchen. He draped blankets over doorways to corral the heat, and propped open the oven door, creating a cozy space that bore the added benefit of being very close to the water for a fresh cup. Bathroom breaks became a bit of an ordeal, forced as you were by the tea to make the icy trek through the dining room and across the frigid hall over and over, until the game finally ended. But the unforgettable camaraderie of those ritual games of railroad rivalry was worth a few chilly trips to the loo.