Sid Meier’s Railroads!

February 26th, 2009 by Potato

Carefully picked out of the discount dustbin, Sid Meier’s Railroads! is a fun little minigame to keep yourself busy and relax with when you’re home with a head cold. There isn’t much depth to the game: you have cities with industries and sources of raw materials; build train tracks and buy trains to bring one to the other (and to move goods and people between cities). You can play with just your own model railroad, or compete against others (humans or AI) to see who can become the biggest railroad tycoon first.

While there are maybe 20 different industries in the game, they’re segregated by scenario so you can only encounter 8-10 of them in any given game you play. Like I said, there isn’t much depth to the game: you can choose to deliver to industries and make money on the shipping, or buy them up to earn it manufacturing as well… but not a whole lot to play with beyond that. Whether industrial output grows or not is a function of how long the industry has been active; you can’t choose to pay to upgrade. Sometimes it feels like I should be playing it through a flash-enabled web browser.

The game’s scale is way off: when playing the midwest scenario for example, a single 8-car train stretches nearly the entire 400 km distance from Toronto to Detroit; it’s impossible to route a train from Toronto to Niagara Falls because the “turn is too tight”. You’re constantly battling the terrain in this way, a gameplay mechanic that by all rights probably should be there, but stands out as silly at certain times (trains really don’t have a 300-km turning radius in real life). The biggest complaint I have about the game is that the train routing is really, really dumb. Since routing trains is just about all the game does it’s especially aggravating that it does it so poorly. Each track can only take one train at a time — despite how far out the game map seems to be zoomed from real terrain, you can’t take things like sidings for granted. Each city can only have 3 unloading tracks in it. So once I start having a large number of trains I like to spend the money to build parallel tracks — an eastbound and a westbound lane if you would. I put crossovers through the network so trains can shunt around as needed, and so the two travel tracks can split to the 3 station platforms… and the trains still get stuck. If there’ s a single train moving between two cities in a setup like this, it will invariably take every crossover (slowing itself down — trains move fastest when going straight ahead) instead of just going straight on the clear, open track it was on. Most of the time, the trains will manage to split up and make the most of the 3 station platforms, but not all the time. Every so often you’ll look at a city, see an open platform, and a train just sitting there, perfectly capable of switching over to it, but instead waiting and waiting for the occupied platform to open up.

Laying track goes easily enough: the game automatically throws in bridges or tunnels as needed to get from point A to point B. Most of the time, branching works fairly well… but again, it’s infuriating when it fails. You can click from one track to another to build a connection, and sometimes it just simply won’t see the second track and you’ll be left with an orphan piece running under the track you were trying to connect to. Sometimes, in the brilliance of the train routing, the trains will take this piece of track to nowhere, get stuck for a few seconds, then magically teleport to the other track. So I guess in a sense those “connections” do sort of work… kinda… and slowly.

However, there’s something about watching the electronic trains make their way around the map and tooting their steam whistles that appeals to the child in me.

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