It's not easy for me to explain the pleasure I get from playing Sid Meier's second incarnation of Railroads! without sounding like the kind of person who sits at train stations on cold weekend mornings with a hot flask and a notepad. But the thing that differentiates this game from other rail simulation/strategy games is that it feels more like a child's toy than anything else.
The strategic elements only go so deep, having been stripped down to concentrate on fast-paced business rivalries and building up your empire. The focus is on creating an efficient, profitable business without sacrificing too much of your cash or shares in the process, but never ventures far into the realms of micro-management and train nerdery. And believe me, when you first connect up two cities in the beginning of a game you'll get an instant feeling of gratification, watching the little thing puffing backwards and forwards, loading and unloading, transporting its cargo across the map and you'll realise that this one line will eventually lead to an entire cross-country network of bustling freighters and switching signals, of booming cities and… now I'm beginning to sound like an anorak.
But it is truly interesting to watch. The land deforms like soft clay to accommodate your track as you lay it down as simply as clicking where you want it to begin and where it should end. The route finder will do the rest, excavating hills or cutting through the larger ones with tunnels and constructing magnificent bridges over waterways. It leaves you to worry about battling the competition and not the interface.
The game is split into various campaigns across America, carrying through from the first steam-driven locomotives to the speedier modern age. It's a history lesson for sure, but its subtlety is remarkable. As your business grows and time moves on, you'll notice that cities have changed depending on your interactions with them. They'll expand and evolve, the wooden shacks will be replaced with concrete skyscrapers and new technology will arrive to quicken your transportation of goods. Cities will swell and you'll have moved from steam to electric-powered in a couple of hours, but it's almost seamless. Throughout this transformation you'll wonder how the land used to look in the past, when you laid that first piece of track and how on Earth you've come so far.
At its heart, Railroads! is a simple management sim. Your primary objective is to destroy all competing rail tycoons via the transportation of goods and people. Various places on the map provide certain resources such as meat or wheat or trees and, if you manage to link these up to a city where the relevant industry is present, you'll begin to make some profit from the goods. Processing trees at a paper factory for example, will give that settlement a sustainable quantity of paper, which you can then turn into newspapers if you build the right factory or transport it to somewhere with a printing house.
When you're not fighting with your opponents for resources on the map, you'll be fighting them in the auction houses, bidding for new rail patents or industries. Couple these basic mechanics with the usual Meier™ victory conditions and you've got enough on your plate to make for a very busy meal.
So, ultimately, Railroads! is a weekend waster which should suck you in after just a few minutes of tutorial. It's best described as an arcade Railroad Tycoon and shouldn't be criticised for not being anything more. It's certainly not a stupid game, with enough underhand tactics and tricks you can employ to swing the game in your favour, but the strategic elements may be too simplistic for some and the game does tend to become a bit of a slog once you've amassed enough of a yearly turnover to demolish your opponents. But for those who have always wanted a model railway in their attic but never fancied admitting it to their partner/friends/parents it's one to have a look at.
You can pick the demo up here and the full game for under a fiver on Amazon.