Railway Empire just might constitute the perfect “dad game”. This highly detailed sim is easy to learn but hard to master, and it allows some flexibility in terms of just how deep you want to dive into its mechanics. You can, theoretically, play Railway Empire and succeed while only delving into the upper layer of its mechanics, however naturally you’ll get a lot more entertainment out of it once you know your way around everything it has to offer. Whether you just want to put together a few train tracks or maintain a highly complex network of stations and rail lines while turning a profit and researching new technologies, this game will accommodate you.
This is what you'll be looking at for the majority of the game
Playing Railway Empire at first doesn’t feel unlike building model tracks for small trains in the living room, hence the “dad game” moniker. This game is played mostly from a top-down viewpoint across a fairly detailed landscape of a region of 1800’s USA. Taking visual cues from various strategy games, everything you see is a symbolic abstraction, assisted with easily recognizable icons and outlines. Contextually, landscape information and topographical lines appear as well, which are important when building tracks. Distilled to its basics, the gameplay of Railway Empire consists of building stations near cities and businesses, then connecting these stations with tracks and rail lines. As the complexity of your network increases, you’ll need to deal with conflicts such as multiple trains running on a single track, managing the directions of lines and meeting the product demands of cities.
Building stations, tracks, maintenance buildings and buying locomotives all costs cold hard cash, and you can earn funds for expansion by transporting goods across the country. Cities almost always produce one or more kinds of goods, however you won’t be able to maintain a strong economy with the cities alone, as oftentimes their demands will include goods produced at rural businesses, such as meat, cattle, or corn. This is when you’ll need to expand your rail lines into webs of smaller interconnected stations. The sources of goods are fairly realistically placed, so corn will be found on fields whereas minerals in mountainous areas. Since geographical attributes affect the price of building tracks - bridges and tunnels will cost extra - you’ll need to make economic decisions and consider whether investments are worth it in the long run.
In this sense Railway Empire succeeds in simulating not only the job of a rail line designer or logistics chief, but the function of an entire railway company - at the end of the day, you need to turn a profit. To keep things running smoothly, you also need to plan your rail lines carefully, building supply towers at regular intervals and expanding lines with more parallel tracks if multiple trains run that way, complete with directional signals. The controls of the game aren’t the most intuitive, nor are the tutorials, so figuring this out with no prior experience is a tad tricky at first. This isn’t helped by the fact that the clickboxes are so tiny that you need to zoom in completely to make sure you’re not messing up your system by placing a signal on the wrong track, while at the same time the vast distances across the map require you to be zoomed out completely to see everything going on. Tracks and signals are particularly finicky in this sense.
The game features an extensive research tree
Beyond actually building and managing your train tracks and lines, there is a research aspect to the game as well, allowing you to develop new buildings, track times, and most importantly, new locomotives for the use of your railways. Some buildings have mere stat differences from existing ones, while others open up entirely new functionality. In terms of locomotives, the practical differences aren’t too great, and they’re there for more of a collectible purpose aimed at train enthusiasts. That said, the dev team really did their homework, as not only are the models of the trains ridiculously detailed, but their descriptions are also in-depth. As someone with no previous interest in locomotives, I’ve learned more from this game than ever before.
Tracking your progress in Railway Empire is pretty simple - just look at whether the amount of your money is going up or down. While this is an easy reference to seeing whether things are fine or less than, it doesn’t provide an in-depth look at why . For that, you have your quarterly reports. In-game time passes constantly, paused only when constructing things (depending on mode) and as the months tick by, you’ll periodically get a fairly detailed quarterly report. Though it will be mostly gibberish during your first hour playing Railway Empire, eventually it will become a useful tool for troubleshooting. Occasionally the game also tosses up a humorously written faux-newspaper, referencing progress alongside joke-articles. It’s certainly a nice touch.
The graphics aren't groundbreaking, but this is a pretty game
Speaking of nice touches, there is a (rather well hidden) fun little feature which allows you to view your trains as they’re chugging along from a special cinematic camera, affixed by default to one side of the locomotive’s front. While it doesn’t do anything for gameplay, it is a cute way to feel more attached to your creations, and might serve as motivation to build tracks along more scenic routes, even if it costs more.
Railway Empire will get a full release on 26th January, priced at £39.99.
Railway Empire isn’t, and doesn’t try to be, a gateway sim. Even though it “allows” you to play without necessarily immersing yourself deep into its mechanics, it is still a complex game that doesn’t do tutorials all too well. There is a lot to get a hang of, and the standard opacity of the genre is present here. At the end of the day, Railway Empire is a technically and visually competent game with surprising depth and considerable attention to detail that is bound to become the preferred time-sink for all enthusiasts of the genre - however, if you’re not into these kinds of simulators from the get-go (like yours truly), it isn’t going to be the game that will convert you.
You can inspect the various locomotives from any angle
Most Anticipated Feature
Watching your trains from the cinematic camera while they travel across a curved bridge in a large valley is quite stunning.