Railway Empire is without a doubt, one of the finest economic simulations focusing solely railroads and “Iron Horses”. I refer to steam locomotives, naturally. They are the true stars of this title which does all within its power, to accommodate both subgenre veterans and especially, newer players. Traditionally, such games had a steep learning curve whose tutorials could barely scratch the proverbial surface of the gameplay. I shouldn’t be surprised about our current case, considering that Railway Empire has been developed by Gaming Minds Studios (of Patrician IV fame) and published by Kalypso Media Digital, the true streamliners of certain economic sim series which marked my childhood.
Franchises such as Tropico, Port Royale or the aforementioned Patrician, have shaped my tastes and interests in strategy which doesn’t have to lean towards violence all the time. Simulations focusing on trade, branches of the industry or peaceful exploration, are still worthy subgenres which deserve the same attention as warfare-focused strategic titles. That being said, a Dungeons or Sudden Strike game can sate even the need for a more brutal form of chess. Strategy can cater to a vast array of preferences and moods, so it’s no surprise that it has remained my overall favorite gaming genre even after almost two decades of PC gaming.
Steam-powered locomotives play center-stage within Railway Empire. There are indeed more than 40 models spanning a century of US railroad history (1830-1930), yet less than half are powered by petroleum mixed with coal and a single locomotive is using diesel along with electricity. From the 1832 Atlantic “Grasshopper” hailing from Baltimore, to the 1937 EMD E-unit also belonging to the “Baltimore and Ohio Railroad” company. There are several historic railway companies present in this game, whose campaign features five chapters across 80% of the territory within the United States of America. The first chapter which also serves as the main tutorial, presents us the tremendous efforts undertaken by Union Pacific in finalizing the Transcontinental Railroad which could finally link the West Coast, to the rest of the rail network. The song below came to mind, even if its topic is focusing on state-spanning postwar highways instead of railroads.
As you probably guessed by now, Railway Empire is all about the American rail infrastructure and the many brave souls which helped develop it, along the careful plans of a selected few businessmen and visionaries. From the East Coast, to the North, Deep South, Midwest and finally West Coast. By playing the campaign, you will meet some of the historical figures which helped shape the US railroad network, taking it from a handful of lines which connected several urban centers, to a nationwide infrastructure that revolutionized transportation in the 19th Century. Yes, “iron horses” would finally render horse-drawn carriages, obsolete. You will still see them within cities and towns, since automobiles will only replace short-distance travel through the 1920s and onwards. But for the purpose of our true story, trains were already replacing carriages as an efficient means of mass transportation, along with various goods that helped develop the communities which consumed them.
Of course, the British contribution to the very invention of sustainable railwork, is rightfully mentioned. The Industrial Revolution changed far more than just travel, afterall. The tech tree within Railway Empire contains constant innovations from both sides of the Atlantic “pond”. Most of the locomotives which are unlocked through the same technological advancement menu, are US made and designed though. I have to say that focusing on a single continent instead of multiple nations across the globe, is allowing far more historical accuracy and even a proper storyline. The Railroad Tycoon series was such an example of a Jack of all trades. Master of none, obviously. Train Fever was so out of touch, that US scenarios had to added at a later date, by free DLC. Didn’t those developers see Westerns by any chance? The American role in the further development of railworks should not be forgotten. Long before Henry Ford’s Dream, came Philip Evan Thomas. The Father of American Railways.
The graphics engine which represents the visual driving force behind Railway Empire, is proprietary to Gaming Minds Studios. Custom built to meet even the more pretentious demands I might have. Full 4K support with adequately scaled fonts and UI assets. Never saw even a single frame rate drop, nevermind any glitches or crashes to desktop. A smooth formula which only lacks one key ingredient, in order to transform a great recipe into a truly epic one. Where is my option to temporarily hide the HUD and User Interface, Gaming Minds? You offer a beautiful simulation, just waiting to be immortalized through screenshots, but the only HUD-less images I saw of Railway Empire, are the official ones from the game’s Steam Store page. This has to be remedied ASAP.
I know that the dev team is releasing new updates on a steady basis. Customizable HUD has to be a priority though. Transport Fever (a decent, but obviously not railroad-focused game) allows its players this crucial option, even if it involves a key shortcut and debug mode. In this gaming day and age, all titles should either feature a minimal HUD or at least offer the option to hide it with the press of a button. I couldn’t ignore the “Ride Along” mode which allows players to see the first person perspective from within the locomotive’s exterior. Yeah, exploring the interiors and even the wagons, would have been an excellent addition. Perhaps in the sequel. Fingers crossed!
An excellent sound selection, from the narrator and competitor voice acting, to the period appropriate soundtrack that sets the right mood every time I boot up Railway Empire. And being able to activate a locomotive’s whistle on demand, is a nice little touch that is sure to please train enthusiasts. It’s an acquired taste, I know. Not all the way there, but I can surely appreciate marvelous feats of engineering without having to fully understand all their technical intricacies.
If the Campaign mode won’t float your boat, in spite of their total absence from this game, you can rest assured. Gaming Minds Studios has not one, but two Sandbox modes. One is called just like that, while Free mode is rapidly becoming my second favorite after the storyline itself. Ironically, Free mode is not as “free” as Sandbox which features an unlimited budget and no competitors. Where’s the fun in that? Competition will always be the sole guarantor of progress, in all fields and regards. Having to fiddle with a budget, juggle with AI opponents and constantly plan new routes while keeping an eye out for business opportunities, are the decisive elements which make Railway Empire a truly competent economic simulation.
The tech tree is also dividing that aforementioned century of US railworks into five eras. They each span 20 years and sadly, we can’t advance past the 1910-1930 era, even if you may technically play the game for as long as you wish. No further incentive by new locomotive or wagon designs. I imagine that a Railway Empire 2 might pick up from the Interwar period and take us to present day. Perhaps even bullet trains in spite of their historic absence from US soil. One can only hope, right? All the train models present already in-game, feature the right amount of trivia and detail. Such attention couldn’t go unnoticed and I’m pleased that the developer offers small bits of information for each and every single small tech advancement that you shall research. They all streamline the simulated industry overall. Further proof of high quality, comes in the form of the optional realism which fully understands the fact that not all players want sheer complexity.
I may prefer sidetracks and signals, but some might wish for a non-stop influx of trains that don’t abide to railroad rules or even the laws of physics. If you want a more arcade experience, Railway Empire shall cater to that need without any compromises. A few toggled options and your playthrough will be a easy as never before, in the countless similar simulations I played over the years. Steam Workshop support allows the Scenario section from the Main Menu, to showcase even skilled level creations from players willing to “fill in the blanks” on the base game’s missing towns, cities or even states. Personally, I’d like to see an entire map of early 20th Century USA, where I can truly design that Transcontinental Railway from one Coast to the other. I’m aware that 19th Century integration at that scale, would be impossible since the Western US borders were getting redrawn on a yearly basis.
Now, I want to discuss about the management side of the whole affair. You will eventually unlock the option to hire skilled employees to supervise the day-to-day activities of each train with efficiency. Certain wagons offer monetary bonuses, depending on their cargo or passenger/mail delivery. You can easily sort out and choose to have trains, transport only commuters or focus on freight duty, since some train stations will be placed near industries of interest. Speaking of which, you can buy some of those third party businesses and turn them into far more profitable ventures, should you invest in them properly along with creating the necessary rail infrastructure to support the increased output. It essentially plays out like Monopoly from a clear perspective. You will be a worthy investor and the folks you bought goods from in the past, may wish to cut the middleman and only provide their wares to one distributor.Last but not least, competitors ensure that some action and underhanded maneuvers cannot be avoided even within such economic simulations. Each rival railway company has an avatar character, a caricature in the vein of Tropico’s dictators of choice. A drop of extra color, if you’ll indulge the metaphor. Shady owners, but with funny voice acting and the inherent comic relief that ensues. Don’t underestimate them though. Expect blackmail and sabotage, since the AI will not take kindly to any “incursions” into the territory it wished to develop on its own. The silver lining in this case, represents the chance to force them out of business altogether. As long as you’re spread out across the region and raking in a sizeable profit, you will buy all the structures and businesses you wish. Afterall, if you can’t beat ‘em, buy the land beneath their feet. Pure capitalism, baby!
Without almost no flaws, a massive educational value and sheer user-friendliness, Railway Empire becomes an instant favorite of yours truly. I can only appreciate a title which doesn’t compromise historical accuracy but still manages to offer an easy to learn and adapt experience, even to players that don’t usually play economic sims to begin with. With more official updates on the horizon as well as skilled Workshop modifications and scenarios, I’d say that this particular Empire is just getting started. Full Steam Ahead!
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.