Let me get one obvious misconception out of the way: Sid Meier's Railroads is not a game exclusively for train fanatics. Sure, if you really love trains then this is a game for you, but Railroads has the potential to appeal to more than a niche group. In fact, unless you have a pathological hatred for trains or strategy gaming then you will enjoy Railroads. Where as the 'Tycoon' series was heavy on stats and high on complexity, Railroads is a deliberate simplification of the formula. It's tautly designed and, unusually for strategy title, easy to pick-up and play.
The most obvious changes come in menu navigation, which is far more streamlined and intuitive than in the Tycoon series. The tutorial does an excellent job of introducing all the key elements, and information can be accessed with a bare minimum of mouse clicks. Laying down track is just as simple, requiring little more than to click and drag toward your desired location. All other considerations, such as the creation of tunnels or bridges, are dealt with automatically; allowing the player to focus on all the routing conundrums that are bound to crop up.
Further on the theme of accessibility, Railroads provides plenty of options for scaling the game's difficulty. There are fifteen scenarios in total, all of which have their own level of difficulty based upon the level of resources and complexity of the terrain. Moreover, you can adjust both the basic difficulty (starting funds, cost of maintenance etc.) and the routing difficulty. There are three levels of routing difficulty, with Easy and Medium allowing trains to pass through each other should a conflict occur, whilst Hard is as strict as you would expect, with no exceptions made for clumsy track layout. There's also a Train Table mode for those who just wish to tinker around with trains and not deal with the economic side of the game.
'... if the trains are the stars, then the economic side of the game is the management entourage that keeps them in the spotlight.'
This is great if you're a train fanatic, however, it does take a lot away from the game - if the trains are the stars, then the economic side of the game is the management entourage that keeps them in the spotlight. Behind the plethora of trains and attention to detail is a game based around the simple principle of supply and demand. Every town or city has commodities which it supplies or demands, and catering to their needs is the essential task of Railroads. Have a town that processes fish into food? Then you'll need to find a fishery to source the fish for it and then transport the food to somewhere that needs it, and hopefully make a tidy profit. All commodities fetch different prices which fluctuate as the game progresses, and occasionally an incident will occur that increases or decreases the price of a certain commodity. Adapting to movements in the market can prove vital, and relying on a single commodity can prove devastating should prices crash.
It's also important to understand which commodities fetch the highest prices, and therefore make the most money. Although passengers and mail are the bread and butter of the rail network, you have to shift a lot of passengers and mail to make a significant profit, whereas commodities like Gold or Arms are very lucrative, providing an excellent return on your investment. Exploiting these high margin commodities can prove the difference between being profitable and losing thumbs and fingers to the repo men.
Though you can choose to play any scenario alone, attempting to complete the various objectives of each scenario, the real fun in Railroads comes when competing against other players - whether they be human or AI. When competing against other players Railroads changes from a pleasant, if a little dull, economic strategy game to a ruthless race to secure the best routes and buyout your competitors. This competitive edge is enhanced by bidding wars on patents that will reduce costs and increase profits, and ownership of town industries that can give you further profits on any related raw materials - even if you don't deliver them yourself.
For all the elegant simplicity and competitive verve, however, Railroads is not without some significant problems. I found the game to suffer from occasional glitches and lock-ups, and the game engine is surprisingly demanding. If you have a real beast of a machine then you'll enjoy a good looking game, but even decent mid-range systems will struggle to hold a decent frame rate if you want effects turned on. More worryingly, Railroads doesn't hold your attention for as long as ought to. Despite being well designed and fun to play, the lack of any kind of campaign mode restricts the long term appeal of the game considerably. Although there is plenty of replay value, only real fans of the game will find value in playing through all the various scenarios on offer.
Sid Meier's Railroads is a game that comes frustratingly close to excellence without ever justifying such a tag. Though the gameplay has depth and simplicity, it often feels more like a multiplayer game with single-player tacked on, than a genuine single-player title in its own right. Without any kind of campaign mode there's a significant lack of structure and incentive, and this restricts Railroad's appeal, making it a fun, but ultimately short-lived experience.