I’ve never been one for trainspotting. You wouldn’t catch me gasping at the real-life Mallard, or loitering atop a railway bridge, dungarees up to my nipples, notebook in hand. But I’ll be damned if I can’t help but be fascinated by the systems and networks that propel them from town to town, or even across entire continents. Railway Empire taps into that, much like Railroad Tycoon before it, presenting a twee miniaturised version of transport bliss; a world where trains never run late, prices are reasonable, and there isn’t that one selfish tosser who always sits by the aisle and blocks a perfectly good window seat.
Anyway, I’ll stop being grouchy for a moment and get back to the matter at hand. The last train-based game I played was Train Valley, which served up an altogether different cocktail of delights that was all puzzle solving and time management. Railway Empire, on the hand, is much more traditional tycoon fare. Gaming Minds Studios has you laying down rail networks, connecting cities, micromanaging goods and just generally trying to keep things ticking over. The complexity comes from the scale of the operation, rather than any individual element.
The core tenets of Railway Empire hinge on track layouts and train management. Laying tracks has arguably never been more of a joy that in Railway Empire. It’s quick, simple, and precise. Sidetracks that can run parallel can be constructed with ease. It never feels like the construction systems are pushing you back, it’s all there to make things as intuitive as possible.
Less intuitive is the signaling system. It took me several aborted attempts at the first level to really get this down, and even now in more complex stages, it can prove a head-scratching experience. As it probably should be, when you’ve got dozens of trains zig-zagging across the country which need to avoid one another. Signals can be placed that act as temporary stopping points for trains, allowing them to wait for another to pass, or to force a one-way system along a particular route. Getting two trains to pass one another is relatively simple; build a side-track parallel to the current track and place a signal at the exit of each track. Whichever train gets their first will wait for the other to pass before heading back onto the single track. Get three or four tracks and several trains running on the system and you begin to get an idea of where things can get messy.
In a nice nod to fans who want a more relaxing journey, Railway Empires comes with casual and realistic options. On casual, there’s no need for signaling as trains will just run through each without collision detection, while on realistic you’ll need to set up side tracks and signals to keep the wheels turning. Unless you’re really struggling then it’s difficult for me to recommend casual as it takes away such a core part of Railway Empire’s gameplay, but it’s nice to have the choice.
Additional wrinkles are provided through the competitive aspect. Rival train operators will try to muscle in on your business, and you can even send saboteurs to go and steal plans or disrupt train routes. If you feel like they’re getting the upper hand you can even invest in shares in rival companies, profiting when they profit and investing back into your own business.
Railway Empire spans both the 19th and 20th centuries, accounting for the expansion of the rail networks across the United States with the eventual goal of linking the East and West coasts. There are some vaguely historical goings on in the campaign, although it seems largely fictitious for the most part. A large number of these cities didn’t even exist in 1840, for one. It’s split up into five distinct chapters, each playable on a different land mass and taking anywhere from one to three hours, depending on how accomplished you are. In my instance, several failures meant starting over again, although each subsequent attempt is more streamlined as you’re better prepared for what’s to come. It’s a fairly compact then, serving mainly as a primer to the main meat of the game. Which is just as well, because the story it attempts to convey is flat-out dull, a barrier in the way to some furious track laying.
Outside of the campaign, there is a sandbox that allows the player to set parameters and number of AI opponents, although sadly it’s limited to individual regions rather than a huge map of the United States. There’s also about a dozen unique scenarios that present specific challenges, each varying in difficulty. All said and done there’s probably a good 20-30 hours of tailored content here, on top of the sandbox mode.
My single biggest gripe though is how the information so sorely needed to run a train company is poorly conveyed. It’s like running a business with a gigantic spreadsheet of data, only you can only see the data for the specific row of data you've clicked on. All of the trains are represented in a scrollable list on the left-hand side of the screen, but in order to see where any one train is going it needs to be clicked on and the route examined. Want to look at another train? You’ll have to back out to the top menu and dive back in. There’s no way that I can find of comparing train routes, examining overlaps, or getting a sense of the bigger picture aside from tracking the movement of specific goods.
It makes an intuitive game totally counter-intuitive, and once Railway Empires begins layering in AI opponents, tricky bonus objectives, and potentially 100+ trains, it all too quickly descends into chaos. Those first few minutes of any scenario are absolute bliss though. Just a handful of trains and it’s easy to comprehend where everything’s heading and what for, it’s just a shame that the design of the menus isn’t built to handle the scale of the game.
Another misstep becomes apparent before you can even play your first game. Railway Empire’s menus aren’t overly glamorous, and nor is its presentation. The campaign map layout calls to mind cheap high-and-seek games from Steam rather than a rigorous management sim. Sometimes it’s just a bit too 90’s for its own good.
I’m a bit caught in two minds about Railway Empire because there’s a lot to love and yet a couple of bizarre oversights that really drag it down. It taps into that exact same joy of Railroad Tycoon, laying down tracks and tinkering with businesses, creating a well-oiled network of trains zooming passengers and cargo about. When it works it’s just sublime; like a little toy set come to life, but the more complex the rail networks become, the more Railway Empire’s failings become apparent.
Complaining seems a little churlish though, as it’s things that can be easily fixed with a few patches. The core of the game is sound, it just needs to be more upfront with the player about what it’s doing. It’s really frustrating for me because I keep booting it up and I keep playing it, but eventually tangled web of systems gets the better of me and I’ve got to close it in a rage. It pains me because with the easily identified issues to the interface this is a game which would comfortably clamber up to 8.5, perhaps even 9 out of 10. Who knows, a few patches down the line, maybe Railway Empire will get there. After all, no train arrives quite on time.