by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Once bitten, twice shy
“Damnit” I mumbled to myself after I failed to acquire a brewery, and even in an auction that I triggered myself. Three million dollars in cash, an opening bid of just over one million and my competitor walked away with the price for a cool four million. “I will stop underestimating their cash”, I vied.
Railway Empire doesn’t set the player up for a lot of regrets such as these, but the ones that it does serve up usually matter enough to make it hurt a little. Come to think of it, few “tycoon” games do this particularly well, if at all. Besides losing a business to a competitor, the one regret that really stands out is not getting to a city quickly enough to plop a station before someone else does. Connecting cities is all that you are focusing on during the early stages of the game as, once a second station has been placed, the city won’t allow a third. If you think that this means the first few hours of Railway Empire are a race against time, you would be right. You are carving out the very foundation of your empire and you’d best be quick about it.
The opening hours may be frantic but that doesn’t mean that you can rest on your laurels once all towns are connected. Your competitors are coming for you, gobbling up your company stocks and neutral businesses as soon as they can. There’s a constant pressure to grow. Auctions in which factories, farms or mines are put up for sale and sold at sometimes atrocious prices can be either a thrilling moment of acquisition or sobering reminders that you need to keep the pace.
And there’s quite a bit to keep track off too. Once set up, your trains pretty much take care of their own wellbeing. Cities, however, do not. For them to grow, the needs of the population have to be satisfied. Grain, corn, meat and beer are some of the starter goods you will need to provide, liquor and furniture are up next and so on. None of these goods are complex to acquire or manufacture. The complexity lies in getting a diverse range of goods to every city on the map, and in beating the competition to it. I often found myself focusing on one region of the map and, after a while, zoom out to see where to go next, only to find another region fully developed by an AI player.
So there’s a surprising amount of action in this train game. Initially there was a bit too much action, to the point that there was no time to do anything beyond plopping stations and laying new tracks. This made it difficult to enjoy other areas of the game but the developers listened to player feedback. Now we have a pause function that triggers when you lay tracks or place buildings. This bodes well for future additions and changes to the game.
And while I’m on the topic of track laying - this works magnificently well - possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Connecting tracks with stations, creating crossings, doubling up tracks - it’s a dream to work with. That same level of care is found in other areas of the game. Handy little info bubbles show up in key locations on the map to explain concepts like signals and crossings. An especially nifty button shows you the flow of goods between towns and rural industries. Click it and arrows will show you exactly which towns are being supplied, and from where. Yet the best feature - by far - is the ability to click on any track and get a list of trains that are using it. It’s great for figuring out if you should add more trains to a specific route, or even if your trains are taking the route you want them to. If they are not you can edit their route in more detail by selecting the platform they should use at a station, and which types of goods they should pick up at what quantity.
More steam required
There’s so much to love about Railway Empire that it is easy to overlook its weaker aspects. Competitors are frugal to a fault. They will always try and use stations and tracks that are already available, even if it makes much more sense to build something new. Don’t get me wrong, they’re capable builders but it could be smarter. AI players also use the “simple” rail network setting that allows multiple trains to use the same track without any signals. Between the two, the AI is a bit limited in their ability to optimize their operations.
Transport Tycoon fans will surely remember epic struggles with the AI over goods provided by a particular mine or factory. There’s no such thing here, or at least not palpable. You can wage war on AI players by duplicating their routes and you will be able to make a dent in their income, but the rail networks become congested too quickly for you to run enough trains on a route to push the enemy route into the red. What you can do, however, is buy their shares and merge the two companies. This works fairly well, but it can be a bit hard to find the newly acquired stations and tracks after the merger. Everything you acquired has your colour blue. I hope one day a developer paints these assets a different tinge of blue to make them easy to recognize and consolidate. Remember, you read that idea here first!
The speed at which Railway Empire progresses is similar to that of 2003’s Sid Meier’s Railroads! and that moves it decidedly outside of the realm of rail transport simulation titles such as Transport Fever and Railroad Tycoon. I was a bit afraid at first that this would hamper my enjoyment but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a tremendous amount of fun and sinking 80 hours into the game has left me far from bored. I keep going back for more and I find new strategies to up my game with every playthrough. For an action oriented rail game that was never meant to cater to my train tycoon simulator itch, that’s a deviously masterful trick.
Track laying is a dream, lots of polish.
Other than establishing a presence, there’s not much you can do to compete.