Everything game developers include in a final product exists to either teach the player something new or guide them in a particular direction. Everything from how the level is laid out to how the controls are set up should encourage your players to move towards achieving the goals of the game, whatever they may be. Some games provide players with a strict list of “quests” which usually reward the player in some way. Other games, however, encourage the player to create their own goals. Games like this can range from adventure titles like Minecraft to grand strategy games like Sid Meier’s Civilization, but one thing remains true. When the player creates their own goals, those goals are more rewarding and longer lasting than if the developers were to provide specific tasks. Railway Empire is a strategy game through time that encourages experimentation and alternate playstyles.
In Railway Empire, you play as a wealthy industrialist with dreams of constructing a, well, railway empire across your little stretch of country. Working against you are a number of competing railroad companies, an ever changing simulated economy, and the very map itself. You’ll need to construct stations and connect them with railroads in order to provide towns and industries with the materials they need to make a profit. Over time, and as you research new and more advanced technology, you’ll be able to optimize your routes for maximum efficiency.
Railway Empire is relatively simple to learn, despite the increasing complexity as you progress through the eras. Beginning in the early 1800’s the campaign gives you nothing but a starting sum of cash and a single station in a small, undeveloped town. As you begin to build more stations and trains, it becomes necessary to build sidetracks, directional signals, and to make sure two trains aren’t going to collide. This gets exponentially more complicated as you add more routes, but there’s nothing more satisfying than finally figuring out an efficient schedule and path for all of your trains.
While you could make money by simply connecting specific suppliers to the towns that demand their goods, this will be a very slow process. Railway Empire features a fully simulated economy with dozens of different resources and specializations. Raw materials, like grains or cattle, can be acquired from farms and ranches, but they need to be processed in a city to be turned into more valuable luxury items. By carefully planning your train routes, you can boost a specific industry across multiple cities and reap all of the profits. Or you can purchase a factory or market in a specific city and then design your rail network around enriching that business. Railway Empire gives you the option to build a sprawling network of dozens of trains and tracks, or to focus on a few cities and industries instead.
Taking place in the United States between 1830 and 1930, Railway Empire places you in the shoes of a ruthless capitalist on the wild fringes of the American frontier. Areas like the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon provide gorgeous, realistic scenery as well as imposing challenges to be overcome. Upon selecting one of your trains, you’ll have the option to “Ride Along.” While lacking any real gameplay purpose, it can be incredibly relaxing to just sit and watch as you travel along a track you spent half an hour designing or to experience the increased speed and efficiency of a newly researched locomotive first-hand.
It’s clear from the get go that Railway Empire was designed for a mouse and keyboard as opposed to a controller. While the numerous menus and options can cause some confusion, the most frustrating aspect is trying to select any of the tiny objects on screen. Every train, track, station, and even town center is so small it can be tough to even find, let alone select. Using the left and right triggers to rotate objects means you have a little less control than I’d prefer when it comes to designing the perfect, most optimized track.
For those players who spend hours building the perfect road layout in City Skylines or who want to squeeze every last drop of productivity from their factory in Factorio, Railway Empire offers a variety of ways to play on a number of unique and beautiful maps. While the control scheme seems more appropriate for a PC than a console, there are a number of hints and tutorial videos that appear when relevant that help a lot and prevent things from ever getting too frustrating. With its open-ended gameplay, gorgeous setting and scenery, and focus on player freedom, Railway Empire is an excellent addition to the library of any strategy fan.