Designer Diary Part 1: Fantasy Rails

The history of Empyreal: Spells and Steam is long and complicated.


I suppose its deepest roots are in a game I have never played but had heard of, Iron Dragon, which is a crayon rails game set in a fantasy world. I wondered for years why no other train games were set in a fantasy universe. It seems like an easy way to open up the gameplay beyond connecting Point A to Point B and delivering some cubes. Once magic is thrown into the mix, you are no longer constrained by the physical world that limits other train games.

But Iron Dragon didn't do much with this premise—it was a largely pasted-on theme and not very different than the other crayon rail games. Also, it carried over the random events system which caused me to avoid the crayon rails system in general.

A train game system I do enjoy, though, is Martin Wallace's Steam family of games. It's a series with solid mechanics, but none of those games hit my table frequently because the experience never changed much from game to game. Still, when I wanted something to scratch the train game itch, they were the best option.

Fast forward several years. I got addicted to Terra Mystica shortly after its release. It remains one of my favorite games, and I was particularly intrigued by the terrain-manipulation elements. It provided the last piece to my original concept for Fantasy Rails: the prototype that would eventually end up as Empyreal: Spells and Steam. Rest assured, Fantasy Rails was always a placeholder name, but it definitely communicated to publishers what they were dealing with as far as my prototype, so it was useful in that respect.

 The OG Map - How things have changed!

The OG Map - How things have changed!

These three ingredients—the fantasy setting of Iron Dragon, the mechanics from Steam, and the terrain manipulation from Terra Mystica—made up the template for the original Fantasy Rails prototype. It was a game of pick-up and deliver in a fantasy world of various terrains, and I used that setting to its fullest. I developed 8 different terrains, player powers, and magic schools, each with thematic connections between them.

Stone spells and abilities helped you build Stations in cities which allowed you to deliver, Forest helped you build track, Ice gave you extra actions, Fire let you blow up opponent's networks(!), Water gave you extra mana, Poison destroyed the land and created obstacles for opponents, Light gave you new spells, and Darkness performed various utilities. 

 The very first protoype...using some familiar icons as placeholders XD

The very first protoype...using some familiar icons as placeholders XD

If you’re familiar with Empyreal’s six terrains and spell types, you can recognize some parallels here. It was still a very different game than what Empyreal ended up as years of development later, but we’ll explore that more in the next article!
— Trey Chambers, Lead Designer