Flawed but fun.

Railway Empire review by Rick Moscatello-railsplash-png

It’s been a while since I’ve played a good railroad simulator, a genre first created (like many genres) by Sid Meier, with Railroad Tycoon. These types of games are based around building up railroads, massive business enterprises which span tens of thousands of square miles of territory, territory that can’t be efficiently shared with competitors—it’s really tough to have multiple railroads service even a large city and not have their tracks conflict.

The golden era of railroads was the 19th century, the most important century (so far) in human civilization. In 1801, traveling a thousand miles over land involved great risk and took many months…you were lucky to survive the trip with more than the clothes on your back and a single wagon. By 1899, railroads not only made a 3,000 mile trip a simple matter of a sitting on a train for a week or two, you could transport tons of goods or raw materials such a distance quickly and safely. Such a change revolutionized industry like never before (or since), and entire towns and communities could quickly form…provided they were close to a rail line.

Railway Empire review by Rick Moscatello-railgraph-jpg
The graphics are consistently sweet.

Railway Empire covers the prime years of railroading—1830 to 1930, and the base game focuses on North America. Yes, the game has been out quite some time, but it initially released with so many flaws, and regular updates have changed/improved the game so dramatically, that a review of a game released over a year ago is merited.

You start out with a pile of money and a relatively open world. After first picking a character to suit your play style (or forced on you by the campaign), you generally will build a small station, and link it to the nearest city—passenger lines are your main source of income initially, but soon freight will be your biggest concern.

Now, you can staff your trains with a conductors and such; these guys add a small bonus to the train, but it isn’t critical, most of your trains won’t have “official” staff. Similarly, you can employ staff in your “home office” to improve your entire company’s operations; you mostly hire each guy once (if that often) and forget about them after that…this part is clearly stitched on to the game.

When you build a track, you just get a single line, which can only support a single train. If you double the track (often for less than double the price), you can support many more trains. So, you’re almost always going to double track, and this is where the first trainwreck of the game occurs.

Railway Empire review by Rick Moscatello-railstracks-jpg
You'll be laying lots of track...

The old Sid Meier game let you double-track with a single click—if you’re going to do it every time, a way to do it quickly is a good idea. Railway Empire forces you to make many clicks to get that double track just right, and then you have to set up signals, being sure to tell the trains which way to go and where to stop. Granted, it’s vastly improved from the original release, but it’s still pretty tedious and even a very short, straight, double track between two stations with nothing else going on takes around 20 clicks to set up…one mistake and the whole line shuts down until you fix it.

The whole track/signaling thing might be a matter of taste. Granted, this game handles it more realistically then previous games, and after many hours of practice you’ll master the tricks of the tracks used by the railroad builders of yore…but the game also supports you building “spaghetti” tracks haphazardly connecting things however you want. The current beta has some significant overhauls planned, so this might be less messy soon.

Eventually, you’ll get into industry. The local brewery needs grain, for example, so you can set up a line bringing in grain. As you support the city, the city grows, and demands many more goods while allowing a few more industries. It’s very hard to support a city, as the goods required quickly outstrip your ability to pump trains into the city; eventually your tracks will be clogged with trains lining up to slowly crawl their way into the city.

Of course, you can buy the industry (you almost always will), and expand it to create more goods, but that also leads to more demand of raw materials. Goods vary from the basic meat, beer, and wood, to, at the highest end, cars. For some reason, resources are fixed on the map, and not randomized. In many cases you’ll end up transporting goods far beyond what the game is designed for, and trains will break down from “lack of maintenance” simply transporting, say, the only source of coal to a city near the only source of iron (the only way you can make steel). I really wish the resources were randomized so that this wasn’t always a problem, or at least the resources were a bit more reasonably placed (seriously, fruit is a resource, but there are no fruit resources in Florida…).

The whole resource model will probably get overhauled at some point. As it is, you really can’t support cities without massive traffic jams, and the higher end resources just aren’t worth the trouble. You need a huge city to even get a demand for cars, but to make them you’d have to give up a precious industry slot for steel, and another slot for gasoline…both of no use to most cities. And a single city can’t really consume cars as fast as you can make them, so you’d need several huge cities, but you can’t ship to several cities because of the log jams.

That’s fine, though, the game is perfectly playable if you just focus on beer, meat, and corn.

Railway Empire review by Rick Moscatello-railtech-jpg
Fun the first time through, at least.

There’s also a tech tree, although it still needs some refinement. Most locomotives will never be used, and outside of the locos, you’ll always pick the same things in the same order (most of it is just a few percent improvement here or there anyway).

Railway Empire review by Rick Moscatello-railmiss-jpg
I built a direct line in 1835....there just aren't enough passengers to complete that last goal.

There are campaigns (as well as DLC) which are fun to play, and a “Free Mode” with random missions—likewise fun, although the missions in the free mode are sometimes impossible. One time I had to ship a certain amount of oil before oil was even available, but usually impossible missions involve transporting an amount of freight or number of passengers far beyond the scale of the game.

Despite the many issues, Railway Empire totally delivers on the fun, and considering how extensively the game has changed since release, and the changes planned for the future, perhaps someday it’ll be the perfect railroad game. Until then, it still delivers a hefty cargo of amusement, worthy of the (on sale) price tag.

Overall Rating: 86