Railway Empire is a management simulator based on the nineteenth century growth of the railroads in North America. Historically this was a massive undertaking that involved thousands of workers from all around the world - certainly a fertile ground for a complex and engaging game.
The bread and butter of Railway Empire involves building railway networks and connecting together trading cities. These are laid out across detailed topographical maps of the United States soon after it took on the map appearance we are familiar with today. Limiting this growth is the need to manage your finances. While it is hard to to bankrupt yourself, it is easy to run out of investment money and watch as your rivals dominate. On the console, all of your gameplay options are accessed by a very functional right trigger radial menu. Bringing up the very basic building menu, you can drop a small railway station at each end of the route and then connect it using the rail tool. If you set up a railway line between New York and Baltimore, and add one locomotive, clothing will flow from Baltimore to New York and passengers will flow in the other direction. This is all very automated until you have learnt enough about the game to influence your train’s behaviour. By default, the trains choose their own rail routes, what to transport, and when to do it. This lacks any depth and without gaining a knowledge of the deeper game it is nearly impossible to achieve the higher ratings in the campaign menu.
Complexity and depth are not in short supply. The game has a deep research system that follows the path of train development technology from 1830 to 1910. By investing in inventors and university construction you can boost the rate at which you achieve innovation points. Each technology has very real benefits to your financial health. For instance, covered or box freight cars is one of the basic unlocks and adds 10% to your freight transport revenue across your entire network. On the surface, this is a deep simulator masquerading as a point to point clicker sim. You can control a resource and control its supply to multiple cities. Going up against deep AI system is intense but it is undermined by the fact that it clearly cheats. It doesn't have to play by the same rules. In the company finance section you can buy and sell shares in commodities, in your rivals, or issue bonds. Follow a few menus in and you can see the consumption of any commodity in any one of your cities or its population growth as a graph. Just playing the markets can be enough to raise the money needed to dominate your competitors and buy them out. Warehouses, parallel signalling, and selective cargo routines can make a system very complicated indeed.
Railway Empire’s campaign is divided chronologically and geographically, and follows the epic construction of the real life Transcontinental railway. Each chapter sets you timed objective to match the progress of the historic railway. I should say that it is a simulator first and it does move historical events around to suit the gameplay. Starting out on the flat great plains in a very tame tutorial area, it challenges you to connect rural towns and businesses to the railway network. Working your way up from the simplicity of two stations, one track, and one train to more sophisticated networks takes work and trips to YouTube. The game’s tutorial does a very bad job of explaining the game. For the first few hours I had no clue what any of the icons mean in any menu until I discovered that left trigger activates the game’s PC mouse pointer complete with toolkits. Even the included game manual lacks in clarity what it has in depth. Signalling is a crucial concept and it took significant trial and error to figure out even after the tutorial.
The social history of the great American project to tame the West and extend a railway from coast to coast is touched upon but it is clearly not the point of the game. The railway companies were heavily involved in the economic growth of the cities they connected and the city management is akin to what you would find in a Total War game. However, everything is backed by a heavy dose of stats so you always know where you stand. I remember wanting to export timber from a city where I had just built a sawmill but consumption in the city was bigger than the output of the sawmill. I upgraded the sawmill at significant cost but that only highlighted the fact that I had a shortage of the raw material wood. Scanning around my rail network, I found a source of wood but one of my competitors was already hauling most of its output away on their trains. My only option was to buy the lumbar yard at considerable extra cost and expand its output so that I could supply my timber yards. What would have been simple earlier in that game just cost me more half a million dollars to fix.
Railway Empire is an amazing management simulator and on console a head above any other strategy game. The controls translate well and even if you dislike trains, as a strategy fan this game is for you.