If you've ever wanted to have a continent at your fingertips and under your thumb, now's your chance. Flying Lab Software's real-time strategy game, Rails Across America, lets you engage in empire building on a grand scale, covering most of North America from the years 1830 to 2020. You'll tackle historical scenarios or engage in customizable play against challenging computer opponents modeled after historical rail barons. You can also match wits with other humans online. While admittedly inspired by the hit Railroad Tycoon series, Rails Across America takes a broader approach to rail empire building and offers some novel, entertaining features. At the same time, it's a game that can't quite decide whether it wants to play like a fast-paced family board game or like a detailed simulation. It's a game whose real strengths are always in competition with its flaws. Happily for fans of hard-core strategy games, the strengths usually win out.
Rails Across America ("Rails" for short) features a couple of core design elements that set it apart from other railroading or empire-building games. Unlike the extremely detailed focus on individual tracks or trains that you find in the Railroad Tycoon series or Microsoft's Train Simulator, Rails looks at the grand scheme. You'll build vast rail networks running from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada or from New England to California. There's the potential for hundreds of trains to ply dozens of tracks. Rails also distinguishes itself by making prestige the key to victory instead of money. You earn prestige by building an imposing transcontinental railroad, gaining supremacy in one region, hauling the most freight, and so on. Ultimately, though, prestige is like a commodity that's most often bought indirectly with money.
To gain funds, and thereby prestige, you'll need to build tracks. Every city on the game map has some amount of passengers or goods just waiting to be hauled. Your initial goal is to construct lines between the cities that will generate the most traffic and income for your burgeoning empire. At the same time, you'll also choose your lines geographically by building to cities with limited rail access. These cities then work as choke points that can cut competitors out of vital areas. Rails includes a handy suggestion feature that advises you where to build next if you're unsure.
Once your workmen finish building a new line, you'll need to make it as efficient as possible by constantly balancing the number of engines, maintenance costs, track improvements like better signage, and so on. Doing this usually entails repeatedly and laboriously scrolling through a list of all your tracks and incessantly clicking on endless rows of little lights. To minimize this micromanagement, you can hire managers for each track to handle most of the decision making for you. However, a single manager can cost you $10,000 a month, even way back in 1830, which seems an outrageously high salary for those days.
In addition to lots and lots of mouse clicking, track maintenance poses some other problems and oddities. You can add or remove extra tracks or alter signage on a particular line instantly whenever you want. Those are labor- and time-intensive tasks in the real world that aren't undertaken lightly. Also, it's not immediately obvious how much a track is earning each month, and therefore how much it's worth to you.
Ironically, despite all the track tweaking, Rails is really much more about economic and geographical strategy than about trains themselves. The iron horse is merely a means to a financial end. With some work and imagination, Rails Across America could probably just as easily have become an outer-space 4X game, with space stations instead of cities, interstellar trade routes instead of railroads, and credits instead of dollars. In Rails, you concentrate very little on the engines (other than occasionally upgrading them for newer models) or anything a typical rail fan might be interested in, but you do concentrate intensively on the bottom line. This is a game with a seven-page annual-report feature, after all.
While you certainly don't need to be a banker or CPA to play the game, it helps to understand the basics of loans, including interest payments and refinancing. If you default on your loans, you'll be thrust into bankruptcy. Unless you've decided to play a session where bankruptcy knocks you out of the game, going broke isn't actually all that bad. You escape your creditors and temporarily benefit from reduced maintenance costs, meaning you can start raking in lots of money easily. Then again, you lose vital prestige points, can't continue any building projects, and get a lousy credit rating, which the game's banks don't smile on. Still, borrowing obscene amounts of money--loans of $100 million aren't uncommon--and then going bankrupt seems to be a powerful, if perhaps unrealistic, strategy for building up your empire early on. Without amassing trainloads of cash in a hurry, you likely won't be able to complete the big, prestige-rich transcontinental lines before your rivals, for instance. Getting certain tracks laid quickly can outweigh any harm from temporary bankruptcy after they're laid.
Even when you can't get loans because of a lousy credit rating, you can always hurt the other guy. One of the most entertaining weapons for success in Rails is influence peddling. You're regularly dealt random influence cards that work somewhat analogously to a standard card game: Cards come in different suits, like labor or publicity, and have different values. As you're dealt new cards, they appear briefly on the main screen while you manage your empire--too briefly, in fact, to see what they say when you're busy trying to take in all the other information on hand. Fortunately, there's a separate screen that shows all your cards side by side.
At the risk of a scandalous backfire, you can use your cards to play all kinds of devious dirty tricks on competitors or unsuspecting allies with whom you've temporarily united. If you decide to perform an "influence attack," and it turns out that you hold a better hand of cards than a competitor, you can wreak havoc on his or her operation. Muckraking journalists might report embarrassing news about your rival, lowering his or her prestige points. Or, you can buy off labor unions, causing a strike on your competitor's rail lines. A stock raid lets you grab millions of dollars from their coffers. Through graft, you can buy extra influence cards, and you can sell them too, with each one providing hundreds of thousands of dollars but leaving you exposed if someone tries to attack you.
For a complex game with so many facets to consider, Rails doesn't do a particularly good job of explaining things clearly and concisely. The manual discusses topics like cities, politics, and so forth separately and fairly clearly. Still, it would have been more helpful to begin with a better general discussion of the overall goals and basic game mechanics and then lead you through the different steps and considerations needed to reach those goals. Instead, you pretty much have to piece everything together on your own. Amazingly for a game that focuses on prestige, there's no substantial discussion in the manual of how you garner it in the game. You'll only find those details by hitting the "goals" button on the main game screen. Rails doesn't feature a tutorial mission, either. Instead, the manual walks you through the beginnings of a standard game, but with only enough detail to acquaint you with the very basics. Most strategy games involve an extended period of discovery on your part, but that should deal primarily with learning the nuances of the strategies themselves, not the game mechanics. At least Rails features very extensive and useful pop-up tooltips to explain features.
The best strategy games mask their sophistication and depth behind a simple and unobtrusive interface. It seems rather the reverse with Rails. Your first impression will likely be that of drowning in a sea of charts, indicators, and readouts, though with time they become manageable. Rails includes numerous different screens that need to be accessed throughout the game, and while some of the most important data is always present on a panel to the right of the game map, you'll still need to jump between lots of screens.
There are many minor interface weaknesses too. You can't load game sessions from the screen you save them on. When setting up a new customized game session, you need to scroll through huge lists of cities and dates using little arrow buttons. Drop-down lists with scroll bars would have been much more convenient. Once in a game session, there are oddities like the seemingly superfluous "apply" button for track changes. You can just make the changes without ever clicking it, and they'll take effect. Auctions can proceed far too quickly for you to even read everything on the auction screen. That's real-time gaming carried to an uncomfortable extreme. A slower pace for that portion of the game would be helpful.
At least the various interface screens tend to look reasonably attractive, with wood-grain backgrounds behind dialogue boxes reminiscent of old-time promissory notes or stock certificates. The main map window, with its minute animated trains, provides extremely little of interest to look at, though. The opening splash screens and engine encyclopedia feature gorgeous photos of classic trains, but during an actual game session, you never see any trains or scenery up close and in detail. Most of the time you'll play with the map zoomed out to where tracks are just boring colored lines squiggling across the map. Even abstract strategy games deserve attractive and entertaining visuals, especially when the immensely colorful source material offers so much to work with. When looking at the detailed data on a particular track, it would have added a lot to the experience if a small photo or painting of an appropriate railroading scene from the region had been shown. Sound effects are as pedestrian as the graphics and include a few predictable train whistles and so forth. The music is largely limited to bland, repetitive banjo music.
Despite its well-paced gameplay, tense competition, very strong computer opponent, and clever influence attacks, you might find Rails hard to relate to and enjoy fully. Whether you're playing a session set in 1830 or 1930, gameplay feels roughly the same, despite the enormous differences in real-world train equipment and historical conditions. You likely won't feel much of a personal stake in your railroad empire since, despite all the data involved, it tends to feel so abstract. The game focuses so much on rapid, unrestrained expansion that you never feel any real ties to what you've already built. There's little to carefully nourish and tend to, meaning there's little to become attached to. Along the same lines, there's not much that visually sets your railroad empire apart from those of your competitors. Even Monopoly includes unique tokens to represent each player and offer a little insight into their character. For that matter, there are no real personalities or characters to relate to in the game, despite the artificial intelligence being modeled after real rail barons. Seeing little portraits of your opponents pop up when they offer the occasional taunt or compliment would have made competition more personal. As it stands, their comments rush by in a scrolling message box at the bottom of the screen where they're easy to overlook.
Rails Across America's many weaknesses certainly don't totally dampen the fun of racing to see who can outbuild the competition. The devious influence attacks and the focus on prestige, even if not always implemented smoothly, offer really interesting gameplay situations. Dramatic come-from-behind victories are common, and someone losing $16 million per month or sitting $740 million dollars in debt can still win the game. It may not be realistic, but it makes for some hard-fought contests to rule the rails across America.