Make tracks and deliver the goods to become a powerful adversary and businessperson in a reincarnation of the classic game, Sid Meier's Railroads! Much like the original, this edition of Sid Meier's Railroads! features the challenge of creating a railroad empire by making something out of nothing during a time period that begins in the early days of steam engines and runs to the modern trains of the 1970s. You begin by selecting one of ten maps in places like England, Germany, and the United States, and then customizing a scenario. Lay tracks to connect cities in the most efficient manner possible, and set stations down in areas that will get the most use. With tracks and stations come the need for trains, and the game offers 30 selections that include the 0-4-0 Planet and the 4-6-6-4 Challenger.
Your main profit maker in the beginning is the transportation of people and mail, but as time goes on and 30 different types of industries sprout up, you can choose to haul over 20 goods to their destinations in factories, markets, lumber mills, and more. During all this growth you should keep an eye on your competitors and the market, to make sure your stock price doesn't drop low enough to become purchasable by rivals. However, keep in mind that when opposing players lose stock value, you can buy them out and inherit their tracks, stations, trains, and industries as well. As your empire grows, the need to split your tracks will arise, and if you don't want delays caused by waiting trains, you should make this a common practice. The winner is the transport baron with the most stock at the end of the game. Multiplayer action is available over a LAN or through the Internet, in the form of cooperative or competitive play.
The first thing that needs to be said regarding Sid Meier's Railroads! is that this game is not Railroad Tycoon IV. Despite the subject matter and surface similarities in gameplay, Sid Meier's Railroads! is aimed at a very different audience. Rather than the deep, complicated economic and business simulation Railroad Tycoon fans might expect, Firaxis' new game is a light, breezy simulation aimed squarely at more casual gamers and those who just enjoy playing with virtual model trains. In this, the game succeeds. Gamers who come in looking for a simple, enjoyable strategy game with a fun multiplayer component won't be disappointed,
As the name would imply, the point of Railroads! is to create a business empire by laying tracks across vast expanses of virgin wilderness and run iron horses back and forth between cities. Players get paid for delivering passengers and mail cars, of course, but the real money comes from laying down spur lines and delivering one of the dozen or so commodities (such as coal, steel, or food) from producers to consumers. It's basic supply-and-demand and while the economic model in Railroads! is pretty simple, it's just deep and dynamic enough to be fun.
This low learning curve is easily Railroads!' greatest strength. The entire game seems to be built around user friendliness, starting with the game's user interface. The UI is built around eight easily identifiable buttons that open up simple screens that easily communicate a remarkable amount of information about the health of the player's empire. The biggest problem in the interface is the lack of an "undo" button. Its absence is a mystery and a bit of an annoyance considering how much effort went into the rest of the UI. Sections of track can be deleted and a portion of the construction price reimbursed, but that's not really a substitute.
Fortunately, this isn't as much of a concern as it might be because of the ease of laying out tracks. Putting down track is as easy as a player clicking on the section of existing track where they want to start and dragging it to where they want to end. The game itself does a pretty good job of laying out the track in between, pushing tunnels through hills and building bridges where necessary. The game can get bit confused if a curve is too sharp or the track extremely long, but the interface includes controls that let the player adjust things like track elevation and laying down shorter pieces of track usually solves the problem.
The game also automates much of the detailed drudgery of running the railroad. The idea of improving train stations is almost completely eliminated (the only improvement available is to increase its size). Instead the idea of purchasing industries, getting patents and buying and selling stock takes on increased importance. Surprisingly, this actually enhances rather than subtracts from the strategic depth of the game -- especially in multiplayer. Some of the most enjoyable experiences I had playing Railroads! were the frenzied bidding wars with the AI to purchase city industries and temporary exclusives on patents. Often these wars meant the difference between transportation mogul-dom and a new career dancing for change on the tourist pier and are a more-than-adequate exchange for the minutia of putting a sand tower and a restaurant at every little whistle stop.
Unfortunately, the game's casual focus is also its biggest weakness. Creating proper routes is pretty easy on an individual basis, but tends to get frustrating as more trains are added into the network. First, the trains have pretty poor pathing and scheduling routines. Nobody in Railroads! seems to have invented those big rotating turntables that can turn a train around (I know they exist, they were in the Railroad Tycoon games!). As a result, trains only seem to be able to be routed one way along a given section of track. This leads to some pretty weird and complex track layouts. The map itself also seems pretty small and the cities too close together for all the track that a railroad empire that does more than merely shuffle passengers and mail back and forth would need. I've triple-tracked giant sections of ground in this game and still ended up building hugely expensive elevated lines because that wasn't enough to handle the traffic.
It's also way too easy to "win." The game comes with a number of different scenarios ranging from the southwestern United States to England to Germany to some purely speculative landscapes built around high buttes and a huge lake. These scenarios come complete with a number of interesting and enjoyable goals (such as "connect Las Vegas and Flagstaff"). They're not connected into any sort of an overarching campaign or story, though, nor are they particularly difficult, even for the casual crowd the game is aimed at. Players really have to work to go out of business and if the real railroad tycoons were as laid back as the computer AI that challenges the player in this game, the Golden Spike would have been driven in some time around 1989.
Fortunately, "easy to win" isn't much of a problem in multiplayer, and that's where this game really shines. The game's multiplayer lobby is bare bones but adequate and while it sometimes took some time to get into a multiplayer game, once I did I never had a problem with a dropped connection. There was definitely some graphic stutter that could be attributed to lag, but the game is pretty slow paced and as such, the stutter really didn't affect gameplay. The best thing about multiplayer, though, is other players. Anyone who doesn't think "business is war" hasn't found themselves at the wrong end of a vicious bidding war for a power plant in Munich. In fact, I haven't had this much fun in a commodity auction since the glory days of M.U.L.E. and people who haven't experienced it would be surprised at just how nasty bridge placement can be.
In the end, what a player gets out of Sid Meier's Railroads! is dependent on the mindset he or she brings to the experience. Hard-core economic simulation players looking for the next spreadsheet to conquer are likely to be disappointed by the game's easy style and shallow economy. Multiplayer fans or just those looking for the model train set they always dreamed of as a kid will definitely get a kick out of Sid Meier's Railroads!.
People who downloaded Sid Meier's Railroads! have also downloaded:
Sid Meier's Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon 3, Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, Railroad Tycoon 2: Platinum, Sid Meier's Civilization IV, Sid Meier's Antietam!, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier's Civilization 3
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