Railway Empire

Railway Empire

Written by Dave Gamble on 1/11/2018 for PC  
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It is a hallmark of contemporaneous modern society, it seems, for the beneficiaries of the massive trials and tribulations our forebears suffered through to tame wild continents and provide modern conveniences, both in technology and form of government, to utterly ignore those blessings. In some cases, disregard for those sacrifices goes beyond benign ingratitude to outright protest. While the latter is widely noted, the former goes on and on without notice or comment.

Consider, for a moment, the incredible vastness of North America. Sure, you can leave New York City at 9:00 am local and arrive in Los Angeles not only on the same day, but closer than not to the same local time that it was in New York when you left. In other words, the vast majority of Americans have very little concept of the scope and scale of this country. Even the relative handful that have traversed this continent on the ground have no real clue as to the difficulty the same endeavor would have faced just a century and a half ago. In those early days, the roads to the expanses of the west were anything but. Roads as we know them simply did not exist in the way we understand them today. Dirt trails were akin to our superhighways; if there was no path, travelers had to contend with vast acres of forest. Once the trees thinned out, they were faced with uncrossable rivers and unclimbable mountains. As you might expect, interstate commerce was nearly nonexistent other than what could be moved on rivers and canals.

Then came the modern, life-altering invention of the railroad. Invented in England but soon adopted in America, the railroad easily proved its superiority over horse, ox, and mule power. Farmers could now get their products to market far, far more quickly and easily. As the railroads expanded, cities were formed and joined together in commerce. Hubs were formed in major cities, and/or major cities grew out of nothing wherever a confluence of rails created a self-sustaining mass of railroad traffic large enough to attract settlers. Given the huge boon the railroads were to just about every inhabitant of the continent (excluding the indigenous natives, but let’s not go there) and the incredible improvements for industry and logistics, it is not surprising that there were vast sums of money to be made from building railroads.

There was so much money to be had that many railroad companies quickly sprang up, often regionally. With that many participants in a lucrative market and a still fairly incurious federal government practicing the now lost art of laissez faire, it was only a matter of time before acquisitions, mergers, and downright theft started the slow consolidation of small, regional lines to interconnected trans-continental empires. That in turn led to massive wealth in the hands of a relatively small collection of railroad barons, most of whom seemingly had no curbs on their appetites for more money, more prestige, and more power. The only thing that didn’t get smaller was their thirst to beat the other guy. Sabotage, direct competition, development of more modern and competitive technology - all this and more became the stuff of industrial legend.

This is not entirely forgotten these days, although I would say that “mostly forgotten” would be accurate. For the few that remember, and any others that may be interested, if not exactly intrigued, we have Railway Empire.

Developed by Gaming Minds Studios, previously best known for their Patrician IV Dynasty and Grand Ages: Medieval series, both of which also have to do with acquiring and keeping vast tracts of geography, Railway Empire allows you to attempt to become a successful railroad magnate. I do not use the word “attempt” lightly as this was a cutthroat market where winners were separated from losers very starkly. With very little oversight and huge demand for their services, the rush to develop and interconnect railways was often as violent and corrupt as prohibition-era gangsters and the ensuing narcotics epidemic. Railway Empire attempts to capture the challenges and potential profits that faced those industrialists and visionaries.

As such, Railway Empire has quite a bit of depth and breadth. It is important to note that Railway is not a train game per se. It could just as easily be Canal Empire, or Oil Empire, or just about any other industry that birthed the nation we live in today. While there are certainly trains in the game, you are not the engineer. You aren’t the stationmaster. You aren’t even the conductor. On the contrary, from your perch in an opulent office somewhere back east, you may never even see a mile of the track you and your minions are sweating (and often dying) to put in place to carry your locomotives. For you, it isn’t a question of raising enough steam to get your under-powered locomotive up the next incline, it’s a question of raising enough capital to build a tunnel through a mountain to connect towns that may only be a few dozen miles apart as the crow flies, but hundreds of miles away via roads/paths that circumvent the harsh topology.

Nor are you making your plans in a competitive vacuum. Where there is opportunity for vast wealth, there is a large crowd working towards the same goal. The west was big, very big, but not big enough for everybody that wanted to get rich by building railroads. Railroads need to connect towns, and during the early days of the west, there weren’t that many of them. Competition could be, and often was, fierce. Mergers and acquisitions were common, and not always salutary for all involved. There were also external factors to consider. For example, what would your railroad carry? These weren’t charities, after all - they had to have paying freight to survive. Not all freight has equal value, though. You wouldn’t build a railway to import snowballs to Juneau, right? The most successful railroads were those that had a steady supply of high-demand products to deliver when and where they were needed. As such, it was not enough to know all about how to build a railway line - the true industrialist was keenly aware of market forces and trends in all of the industries in any given area of interest.

At this point you should be starting to realize how much detail there is when it comes to building a successful railroad company. All of the complex research that goes into deciding where, when, and how to build a new line is just the beginning. Once a potential route has been identified, the hard part begins. Acquiring land rights and easements, building infrastructure like stations, repair facilities, waystations to provide the water necessary to make steam, finding alternative routes when natural obstructions block the way - all of that and more went into the actual building of the tracks. Employees needed to be hired, fired, and managed, equipment had to be maintained, and advances in technology had to be won with investments in research or the licensing of the results of others’ research when they made their own advancements.

I found all of these things and more during our preview of Railway Empire. With this notable level of complexity, one could surmise that the learning curve involved would be as steep as the climb westward out of Denver. And one would be right! There is a lot to this game, but you don’t have to learn it all at once. In fact, you can get by with ignoring a large chunk of it should you choose to because there are any number of ways to play.

I started with the Campaign mode as it is the one that behaves the most like a tutorial.

Campaigns vary by geographical region and era. The first campaign is set in the 1863, 33 years after the first public railway in the United States, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), opened with 23 miles of track. In this first campaign, you are building the Union Pacific railroad that will bridge the gap the Great Plains area between eastern lines and the west coast lines. You are given a set of tasks and a years-long schedule of deadlines for each. Starting in Omaha, you are tasked with creating a set of railroad lines that will eventually stretch as far as Cheyenne, Wyoming. The first short length of track runs from Omaha to Norfolk. The narrator will guide you through each step as you go, but it is here I have to add a helpful note: the tutorial can be a bit hard to follow at times. As an aside, I found that I learned quite a bit more by watching the first couple of YouTube videos put together by someone calling himself Skye Storme.

Building a new line starts with building a station in each town or settlement that will have a stop on the line. There are three sizes of station that can be built. They are inventively tagged as Small train station, a train station, or Large train station. The most defining difference between them is the number of platforms (read: rail lines) they have: one line for small, four lines for large, and two for the one in the middle. A one-platform station will not support a great deal of growth, so they are typically used as the rural stations placed near farms and ranches. They will be almost entirely focused on moving materials from the rural areas to the cities. The four platform stations are for big cities that will tie together with other big cities with express lines. The middle-sized station fits somewhere in between.

Once the stations are in place, the needs of the trains themselves need to be addressed. This involves expanding some of the stations with maintenance barns for the locomotives and the addition of some strategically placed supply towers to keep them fueled with combustibles and water. Absent either of these, your trains will run slower and slower until they just stop. A stopped train is not a profitable train, so it's important to pay attention to attention to support logistics.

You can build the maintenance barn right away, but you won’t buy and install the supply towers until the rail has been set in place. Laying rail can be easy, and laying rail can be difficult. It all comes down to the terrain your rail needs to traverse. The easy way is to simply click on each of the station platforms to be connected by rail. The game will then lay out a fairly efficient path. The more difficult rails are the ones that cause the proposed creation of expensive bridges and/or tunnels. When working with a budget, which you almost always will be, you cannot afford to be sloppy with the routing of rails; tunnels and bridges are often unavoidable, but because they are the most expensive thing in the whole operation, you must minimize them. This is accomplished by grabbing a piece of track with your cursor and dragging the line into a shape that will completely eradicate the need for the expensive construction. It isn’t always possible to get rid of all of the pricey parts, but it’s usually possible to make major reductions in development costs.

Once the rails are laid out the way you want them, you have to remember to click on the dollar sign icon to have them built. Building time for all of this is instant - no years and years of construction time to endure. Finally, just when you think you’re done, you have to define the actual rail line. That’s very easy. You just click on each station that you want your train to stop at. You can also determine the types of goods it will carry, up to and including more lucrative things like people and mail. With that done, all you have to do is buy a locomotive and assign it to the line. Pretty soon thereafter, a train will start running on the line and, if all went well with your market analysis, dollars will start to flow in.

Your job doesn’t end there. If you used ‘Normal’ mode, you also have the problem of trains coming face-to-face on a track once you start adding more lines. To solve for this, either start in Easy mode, or start building side rails that will allow opposite-direction trains to get past each other. Side tracks are pretty easy to build, but they do add a little cost for the rails. The stop/go signals used to ensure the side rail actually gets used are free.

That is what you will learn as you go from Omaha to Norfolk in the first campaign. It is not all that you need to know, but much of that will be addressed in the following campaigns, including the introduction of AI competitors.

A second way to play once you have the basics down is Scenario Mode. Scenarios start in much the same way as the Campaigns: you get an assigned budget, a starting city, and an assigned number of competitors. You are still offered the decision of whether you want to spend a lot of time on the busywork of building side rails or just want to take the Easy path of just laying a single rail that allows trains to just pass through each other. Hint: the game is just as hard to win on Easy as it is in Normal, if my experience is anything to judge by. It’s pretty much a Sheldon vs. Howard decision. You also get an assigned list of tasks to complete. You can complete them in any order you want, but logistically it’s very likely that they will be done in the order presented with a few exceptions.

Free mode is very similar to Scenario mode. The most discernible difference is that you get to choose your budget from a list of two or three options, you get to pick your starting city, and you can elect to have 0 to 3 competitors.

Finally, there is Sandbox mode, wherein you have infinite budget and no competitors. You just pick your starting city and get busy building. In this mode, there is no winning or losing. There is no financial component at all, in fact, so you can’t tell if you’re making good business decisions or not. Frankly, the only use I can see for this mode is to practice construction techniques in a consequence-free environment.

This is the easy stuff. The devil is, as they say, in the details, and there are a lot of them. Hiring staff, defending against competitors, hiring saboteurs to make life difficult for the competitor that you hate the most, researching trains and ancillary equipment to gain an edge, determining ever-changing needs and demands from your customers, buying local businesses, creating businesses that will contribute towards your lines success, poring over financial performance graphs and charts, paying attention to how your competitors are doing, buying and selling in the stock market, leveraging bank loans to finance risky development - it’s all there. It’s up to you as to how much of it you include in your play. Or don’t.

It’s a wide open frontier, and it’s yours for the taking, if you’re up to the challenge.

Are you?

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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