Preview By: Tim Eller
Trains are fascinating machines. Powerful, bulky and diverse, they can capture the imagination of a child, or the fetish of an adult. We’ll give the latter the benefit of a doubt and assume that most adult interest in the railroad is healthy.
As an attraction develops, and especially with a subject as obscure as trains, it stands to reason that someone will find the time to explore every possible angle of the subject. In the world of video games, there is apparently a need, or at least a potent and very exclusive desire, for railway empire simulators of all kinds. JoWood’s freshman dive into the field, Railroad Pioneer, is an esoteric mélange of strategy, building, financial dominance, supply/demand, and of course the star of the show, trains. I would even go so far as to say that Railroad Pioneer attempts to force-learn you the myriad of different aspects involved in the early history and development of the Iron Horse and its tracks through time and country, but I’m also coming from a train-deficient background. This means I did not sit idly near a set of tracks in my far youth, identifying various engines and their cars-in-tow, and then hurtling rocks or fiery objects at them.
It would appear as if one map-mission in Railroad Pioneer could entertain and educate me through all the different aspects of a game I must dissect and analyze. At the onset of the first map, I had the hardy choice of being a man or woman train enterprise entrepreneur, though I suspect this is just something of personal preference for the player, and not a choice that will have detrimental consequences later in the game. Naturally, I picked the woman for no reason you need to be aware of. After that, I was presented with the obligatory playing field; a giant landmass cloaked in black except for the town I was to start in.
Before I launch into the various minutia involved in actually playing Railroad Pioneer, I wanted to note that I could really have used a tutorial on the ins and outs of train enterprising. As a beta build, most aspects of the game were well composed and looked like they could go right to production, but what I needed more than anything at the onset was an intuitive and spoon-fed tutorial in addition to the game manual to lead my ignorant ass around the dynamics of train monopoly and its play structure. I’d be willing to bet that the technical details involved in any railroad simulator are probably not something most people can decipher instantly and know the next step. That’s not to say one won’t be added before production, but I felt a distinct longing for help after I discovered how much I didn’t know about railway enterprising.
At the start of each mission is a town setting. The town is divided into relatively discriminate portions dedicated to different resources or services required to succeed. There’s a train yard where new engines can be researched, or a supply depot that contains all sorts of trade items that are either ready for shipment or listed as needed. A clumping of rustic flats provides travelers for the passenger cars. Clicking the different sets of buildings will bring up a rather cryptic but informative (meaning “information-packed”) window outlining its functions and purchasable items, which is usually the best place to go to get lost in the tiny details of trade management.
Each separate mission is basically an exercise of some kind in providing materials, supplies, and human transport via your train system in order to garner cash profits that can be poured into the business once again. An initial venture capital starts you off in order to get the upgrades going on your train engines, buy a few cars of various types, and lay down some track. This does not, however, mean you are limited to your current funds, as loans and debt also play at least as big a role in the long run as your existing cash at any given point in time. Mission goals are not necessarily based on some watermark profit amount, but making the money is certainly an indirect target.
Some of the cash will go towards hiring tradesmen in a number of different fields, including Pioneers, Prospectors, Trappers, and should the occasional waterway intervene, Raftsmen. This contingent of chosen specialists can form a spearhead group that clears away the fog of war in order to progress with the track-building across the countryside. Setting a destination to the next transit point will flag a route that the pioneers will travel. As they go, they’ll stop periodically before entering the fog of war in order to survey the area and reveal more terrain (although the in-game sound effects of flatulence and impatience leads one to believe they are practicing fraternity etiquette.) Along the way they’ll also run into trade posts or wayside stops for additional resources, like tobacco plantations or lumber mills. If they’re lucky, they’ll stumble on various prizes that award cash for their sale, like a confederate weapons cache.
Once this small group of adventurers has plowed out the war fog, it’s finally possible to put some ties to the turf. Different topographies and land types determine the cost per track unit, i.e. forests are more expensive to build in than open plain, and hills run up the cost faster than flat land. Encouraging strategic and prudent track routes is also an important piece of this game, as it affects the cost of travel and rate of profit.
The trains themselves (and their cars) are a varied list of interesting strengths and utilizations. At a glance, it’s difficult to see which would be the best bet when trying out the next engine, but suffice it to say that given time, there’s no reason one couldn’t try them all out. I can safely assume that they’re based off some real-world accuracy, a fact that is impressive all by itself. A shipment screen accessed through the terminal in each town - or wherever it’s built - shows a graphic layout of the train, its load, speed, and the profit gained from the trip. Once you have a working train engine, all you need are cars (purchasable at the train yard) and cargo (which runs the spectrum from wood to people to contracted secret weapon movement) and the show is on the road.
Outside of these general details, there are dark and mysterious corners to Railroad Pioneer that certainly set it apart from other railway empire sims (yes, there are others out there.) Strategic sims of this type require a great deal of depth in order to fully realize the complexity of the vast amount of strategic business sense enveloped by such a seemingly pedestrian economic niche. If I talked much about the graphics or sound here (both were above par, especially the music and SFX), I’d be detracting from what is already an overwhelming amount of info for a preview. When the final spike is hammered down on Railroad Pioneer, railway sim enthusiasts will have a very colorful, challenging game to master and enjoy.