Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
December 2006

Sid Meir's Railroads!

There have been a ton of "Tycoon" and other simulation games that have come out over the last year, and while there have been a lot of great ones, there has also been a lot of crap hitting the shelves. Roller Coaster Tycoon? Great. The Sims? Fine. But Mall Tycoon? Airport Tycoon? Zoo Tycoon? Crap, crap, crap.

With such rubbish out there it is amazing that the genre even survives, let alone thrives! In any case, I'm not a huge one for simulation games by and large, but occasionally I'll find one that just snags me and keeps me hooked, and this month I have been well and thoroughly hooked by Sid Meier's latest release: Railroads! (And no, as much as I like the game, the exclamation point is not from my excitement, it's actually part of the title.)

Tracks through Time

It has been a while since ole Sid Meier produced an original game. Which is actually fine by me; he came up with a lot of fantastic titles in his earlier years and his sequels and remakes have by and large been a lot of fun.

Railroads! continues this trend and is actually a continuation (with a slightly changed direction) of the Railroad Tycoon series which he began in the '90s. Meier did the original Railroad Tycoon but left the project to the hands of PopTop software, who continued the series through RT2 and RT3. While both games had many fans, my experiences with them were brief and didn't really catch my interest.

Meier, with excellent timing, saw the success of these games and decided to go back to the railroad business. While the Railroad Tycoon games were getting increasingly complicated, Sid decided to pull back some of that complexity and add in a little more competition, a little more industry focus, and a lot more graphical polish. The end result is a product that actually got me hooked, unlike the previous games which I left in frustration after a little while.

All Aboard!

Simulation games, and tycoon games to a lesser extent, can be frustratingly hard to get comfortable with. Learning a new economy, new rules, and new strategies can be enough to turn off any casual gamer. With this in mind, games often swing too far in the other direction and feel they have to have some huge drawn-out tutorial that ends up taking many painful hours, and you aren't even having fun yet! Railroads! has a great tutorial and you'll be making money by the rails in no time! (Which is what the game is all about.)

After rushing through the tutorial and getting down the basics of laying tracks, setting up freight routes and establishing depots, I was ready to head off to the southwestern US where I would begin my railroading empire.

I began with just a little depot in San Diego, a couple miles of track leading nowhere, and $300,000 to my name. Oh yeah, and a few shares in my own company that I could sell off if I got really strapped for cash. I began by scoping out my surroundings and saw that just a little to my north was Los Angles, which had supplied and demanded passengers and mail, of which I had plenty in San Diego. With my 300 grand I laid down some track to connect our cities, and one depot and engine purchase later I was in the delivery business.

With just a short distance between my two cities and plenty of people moving back and forth I was soon turning a tidy profit and could begin looking to expand. While passengers and mail are great to start, the delivery payments for goods are far more than passenger prices (prices on goods vary throughout the game according to supply, demand, and news events) so I decided to look for something a little more profitable to move into. Luckily for me, near to Los Angles was the Blythe Oil Well, and with oil prices high it looked like a perfect opportunity to expand.

I laid down a second track leading out of Los Angeles (each city can have three parallel tracks through its depot) and hooked up to the well. Pretty soon the black gold was pumping, Los Angeles was refining, and I was raking in the cash. With Los Angeles producing manufactured goods from the oil now, I added some extra cargo boxes to my Los Angeles - San Diego express, and although the extra weight slowed the travel time of the trip a bit, the added income was well worth it.

Well, all was riding along great when one of my two competitors, Jay Gould (all of the computer controlled characters take the names of famous rail barons), decided to ruin my party and threw down a set of tracks leading from my Blythe Oil Well over to his city of Blythe. Now, I suppose I couldn't really call the Blythe well mine: in Railroads! you own the depots, trains, rails and refineries but never the cities or resource producers. But his move meant that my output from the well was effectively halved since there is only a limited amount coming out at a time.

There wasn't much I could do about Gould's pushing into my space, so I decided to expand further north where I found another well that could service Los Angeles' ever-growing oil needs. About this time the first patent went on the market, which diverted my attention for a little bit. Patents give technological advantages such as faster cars or cheaper rails, and go up for auction at random times throughout the game. Although they can get bid up to a fairly high price, to me they are always worth it. I bought out the patent for reduced rail costs and with that, I began some serious expansion.

Becoming a Rail Mogul

With cheaper rails and some serious oil money I was ready to begin expanding like crazy. The space to my east (eastern California and western Arizona) was controlled by Gould but the land to the north was wide open. I pushed northward, establishing a number of vineyards and farms to feed Los Angeles as well as the numerous small towns I was passing through. I also pushed a little southwest and hooked up to the Yuma Gold Mine to try and get in on the rapidly growing gold market.

With tons of new track laid and the number of trains I controlled steadily increasing, I had to turn a bit from expansion to refinement in order to maximize the profit I was getting from each load. In every city you can build up to three industries which refine raw goods such as grapes to wine or corn to food. Whichever player owns the refinery gets a 35% bonus from whatever goods of that type come into the city so owning a refinery can make a huge deal in how profitable you are. Also important in maximizing revenue is upgrading your depots. The lowest level of depots are very slow to load and unload, and with maintenance costs hitting every train you have on the rails, time is money.

Once industries were built up in all of the cities I was servicing (and even some of my opponents' hubs), the cash really started pouring in. I began to invest some of my money in buying stock in Jay Gould's company with plans to eventually make a hostile takeover. Each player has 10 shares of stock, of which they initially own three. As you become more profitable the values of your stocks grow, so buying stocks early on and selling later could give you the necessary cash to fund a key rail line. Be careful, though: lose too much of your stock and an opponent could buy you out, ending your game.

I wasn't the one on the receiving end of the buyout in this game, though - with my trains moving at maximum efficiency I was able to accumulate enough cash to take over Gould's lines. When you buy out a competitor, you have the choice of liquidating them and taking the cash or you can choose to merge with them and take over all of their rails and depots. In Gould's case, he had some well placed lines and a corner on the cattle trade so I decided to buy him out.

With my vast empire covering the whole of southern California as well as Las Vegas and Flagstaff, I could now make my move against Jim Fisk, my final competitor, who was stationed in Phoenix. His Arizona-centered operation was no match for my size and within a short while I bought him out and liquidated him, ending our southern U.S. scenario.

Rust in the Rails

When it comes down to it, Railroads! is a lot of fun. That being said, there are certainly some flaws in the game that keep it from being The Best Game Ever. The most annoying flaw to me is the randomness of the difficulty of the computer controlled characters. On the same difficulty level, the AI can range from being a pushover to being unbelievably crafty and ruthless. I'm not sure what it is that makes the difference, but by halfway through a game it was pretty easy to see if I would dominate or get dominated. So much for tight finishes.

Another gripe I had was the sometimes cryptic rail routing. While laying down track is amazingly easy and intuitive, there were a couple of times when I would mysteriously be unable to assign a route from A to B. I couldn't find any explanation in the manual or from the game, which left me just a bit peeved that my costly track was now useless.

A final complaint is the game's smoothness and performance. By default, "Auto Save" is enabled, which seems like a good idea at first because I did encounter one or two game-ending crashes. All is not as it seems, though, because every time the auto save begins, it slows the game down to a crawl and it can take minutes for the game to get back up to speed (at least in my case, your experience may vary). So, after turning off Auto Save, I noticed many fewer slow downs and I actually didn't get any more crashes either. Strange…

While the hardware requirements of Railroads! are pretty demanding, if your rig can handle it, turn up the details and enjoy the visual feast. The game really does look gorgeous and it is tons of fun to watch your trains scurry about and hear the great sounds of rail commerce.

Speaking of sounds, the music and effects are great. Though not too varied (cash register cha-chings, steam and bells for the most part), they are well timed and add a lot to the ambiance. Music is also very appropriate: early American ditties for the U.S. scenarios and appropriate melodies for the foreign levels.

All in all, Railroads! is great. While the number of single-player scenarios is limited, the replayability is high and the multiplayer options seem fun - though I haven't had a chance to give them a ride yet. This game is enjoyable for just about any audience so if your computer can handle it, I wholeheartedly recommend it!

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