“What have you done for me lately?” That’s what I thought as I played Sid Meier’s Railroads! At one point, Sid Meier was the most innovative game designer out there, with classic hits such as Pirates! (1987), Railroad Tycoon (1990), and Civilization (1990). But then he joined Firaxis Games, and something went wrong. He stopped coming up with new ideas. He managed to make one game about golf (Sid Meier’s SimGolf, 2002), but every other game has been a sequel or simple recreation of his other games.
Now, making a new version of Pirates! two years ago made some sense, even if the game didn’t add anything new, because there haven’t been any good pirate games since the original came out, and how many people playing games now were also playing games 20 years ago? But with Railroads! there have been a lot of railroad and transportation games in the last 15 years (including two more Railroad Tycoon games), and a simple recreation of Railroad Tycoon wasn’t needed. Railroads! doesn’t add anything new to the genre, and, worse, it dumbs down just about every aspect of the game, making it little fun to play.
Your goal in Railroads! is about the same as your goal in the Railroad Tycoon games. You start up a railroad company, you build track and buy trains, and you transport people and goods between towns. Laying track is much easier in Railroads! than in the Railroad Tycoon games -- you just click one point to start the track and another point to end it, and the game automatically modifies the terrain (including adding tunnels or bridges, if necessary), and it also automatically adds the signals. The easiest cargo to move is still people, and, unlike in Railroad Tycoon 3, people are just a regular resource. They don’t care where they go, as long as the city where they end up is large enough to accept them.
Really, if I were to pick any part of Railroads!, I could describe it as being just like the same part of Railroad Tycoon, except that it is much simpler. In Railroads!, the railroad businesses only produce 10 shares of stock. The stock never splits, you don’t have to deal with a board of directors, and it’s almost impossible to be taken over by your competitors. In Railroads!, only train engines have maintenance costs; stations and industries and track are all free once you’ve purchased them. In Railroads!, you don’t need to buy hotels or post offices or freezers for your stations; if you upgrade your stations then these add-ons are put in automatically. In Railroads!, if you need to build track through a city, then the buildings in the city magically jump out of your way. In Railroads!, trains can’t crash or break down, bridges never flood, and tunnels never collapse. Basically, nothing bad ever happens.
I guess if I were a game player, and if I had tried other train games and found them to be just too complicated, then I might have liked Railroads! But I like my strategy games to have some meat on them, and Railroads! is about as skinny as they come. About the only positive thing I can say about the game is that it is fairly pretty. The trains look good, the terrain is pleasantly modeled in 3D, and in a nice new feature (the only new feature in the game, as far as I can tell) each annex you place at a resource is distinct to the resource. That means when you send your train to a logging camp, you can watch the logs being loaded onto your flatbed cars, or if you send your train to a stockyard, you can watch the cows being herded into your cattle cars. I’m all for games looking pretty, but there has to be more going on than that.
And so Sid Meier’s Railroads! isn’t a game I’d recommend for strategy fans. Most of the things that made the Railroad Tycoon franchise fun and challenging were either removed or dumbed down here, and the result is a game that might appeal to casual gamers who like trains... or it might not. Railroads! is pretty to look at, it’s easy to learn, it’s easy to play, and it’s available just in time for Christmas, but I can’t imagine it’s a game that you’d want to play for very long.