High Society is played with a special deck of cards. Most of the cards represent luxuries you bid on; some represent fortunes or misfortunes (which you also bid on). The winner is the person with the most valuable luxuries (after you eliminate the player with the least money). Before we started playing, we discussed whether there had to be a winner. We concluded that the only way the game could end without a winner was if everybody had the same amount of money, but that was unlikely.
There are some interesting strategic aspects to the game. Aside from the ordinary risks of bidding up one item only to have someone else get another, more valuable item more cheaply (after your cash is depleted), you can't be too aggressive in bidding -- or you'll end up with the least amount of money. Furthermore, the game ends when the fourth "multiplier" card (multiply the value of all luxuries by 2 or 1/2) is drawn -- so you don't know in advance when the game will be over. There's a review of the game here. (By the way, I recommend that reviewer's other reviews, if you're interested in reading well-written game reviews.)
You've probably guessed the punch line -- after much frenzied bidding, the game ended, and we each were left with $25 million dollars. So nobody won.
I had played Ivanhoe before and enjoyed it. The goal of Ivanhoe is to win a certain number of different types (or colors) of "jousts". You draw cards, which have different point values on them, and you can "spend" the cards to try to win a tournament. Whoever spends the most points wins the tournament. There are lots of complicating factors here -- you can only spend cards of the same color of the tournament (except for "supporter" cards, which are colorless), there are "action" cards which can, among other things, change the color of the tournament, etc. The colors actually represent different kinds of weapons, but we never really referred to them by the weapons themselves.
It turns out that "Empire Builder" is the name of an actual train, too. Huh. It's also the name for a train board game, which is what we played when Ben and George showed up.
Empire Builder has a map of North America with various cities labeled. You connect the cities with tracks, represented by colored crayon markings. I assume the crayon wipes off after the game; I didn't stick around to find out. You spend money to build track, which you use to pick up and deliver goods, which make you money, which you use to build more track. The winner is the first to connect six of the seven "major" cities and accumulate $250 million.
We spent most of the game connecting the cities. Only in the last hour or so were people focused on collecting the $250 million. I ended up with $206, good for third place, but I felt like it was close enough that I hadn't seriously misestimated how to play the game. It was a lot of fun connecting up the different cities, and the map-drawing gave the game a different and interesting feel.
It turns out there are other versions of this game with other settings. To give a few examples, India Rails has "special rules regarding pilgrims," Lunar Rails takes place on the moon (I don't entirely see the point), and the forthcoming Russian Rails "begins in the post WWII era, with players drawing rail lines and delivering loads wary of the inevitable fall of the Soviet Union."
Those might be fun, although I'm also intrigued by Ticket to Ride, not in the same series of games. After the 8 hours we spent playing Empire Builder, the 1-2 hour playing time might be a nice change of pace.