Sid Meier's Railroads! is a fun and challenging look at a fascinating industry

More than 20 years ago, legendary game designer Sid Meier invented the "tycoon" genre of strategy games with Railroad Tycoon. Meier would go on to create the Civilization series, and Railroad Tycoon chugged along too--but without him, passed along to a different developer. Sid's gone back to his roots, though, and decided to revisit the concept in a new game: Feral Interactive's $30 Sid Meier's Railroads!, now available for download from the Mac App Store and other locations.

The name may have changed, but this game's pedigree as a Sid Meier title shows through. It's a detailed strategy game that puts you in charge of a railroad, responsible for building the rails, transporting passengers, freight, raw materials, and finished goods.

If it stopped there, Sid Meier's Railroads would be enough to appeal to a wide swath of fans--after all, how much fun is it just to lay out track and run locomotives? But that's just the surface for Railroads. Because as a railroad baron, you're interested in more than owning the railways--you also want to own a piece of the action along the rails, too.

As you run track and locomotives, you'll make money by connecting disparate towns and cities to each other, or places where raw materials are harvested and mined to places where they're refined into finished goods. You can also invest your money in the businesses that grow up alongside these tracks. Buy the power plant that needs oil from the nearby refinery to operate, for example, and make money both transporting raw materials and using them. You can do this over and over again to amplify your wealth.

Sid Meier's Railroads is less of a hardcore economic simulation than some of the recent Railroad Tycoon games have been, but there's still plenty of challenge there. There's a lot of juggling required to make sure your railway is getting everything to where it needs to go, and the businesses that you've invested in are making money.

Of course, playing at being a rail baron gets boring pretty fast in a vacuum. So Sid Meier's Railroads lets you play against AI-controlled rivals--railroad barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt and "Diamond" Jim Fisk. If you run short of cash you can issue stock; so will your opponents (you can buy theirs, and vice versa). You'll mainly have to contend with them laying track and foiling your plans with their own rail lines. You'll also have to duke it out at auctions for control of patents that help you keep railroad costs under control (a special device that reduces the cost of tunnels, for example), or if you bid on the myriad industries that pop up in the towns and cities you connect (a power plant near a bustling city, for example).

If you prefer opponents of the human variety, Sid Meier's Railroads lets you play online over the Internet through the free GameRanger service, or over your local network if there are other players nearby. If you purchase the game through the Mac App Store, you can also use Game Center to find opponents.

If you don't want to be bothered with all the economic stuff, Sid Meier's Railroads includes a "train table mode" that just lets you lay track and connect cities and towns. It's a bit less rewarding for a player looking for challenge, but it's great for little kids or for some low-key fun when you just want to pretend you're running the train set you got for the holidays.

The game includes fifteen preconfigured scenarios. Seven of them are single-player games that span the United States and Europe, from time frames ranging from the dawn of rail to the diesel era (France's TGV even makes an appearance), along with a fanciful scenario involving Santa's workshop. The rest are multiplayer scenarios suitable for two to four players at a time.

Unfortunately, the game suffered a few visual glitches on my machine (a Mountain Lion-equipped Mac Pro with an Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT card, more than enough horsepower to handle this game). There were occasional problems with individual railroad cars rendering off their tracks, and with tracks being occluded by scenery or other objects. All told, though, the problems were minor and didn't affect the game's performance or stability.

Sid Meier's Railroads first made its debut on the PC in 2006 and is only making a Mac appearance now. Let's face it, though--a good game is fun to play no matter how long it takes to get to your preferred platform. Feral has released the game as part of their Feral Legends line, which include another Sid Meier game (Pirates!) and Rome: Total War. That means you'll pay $30 for it rather than the price of a newer game, but that still might stick in the craw of gamers who can find the Windows version for much less. That requires Boot Camp and a copy of Windows to play, however, which seems like a lot of trouble.

Bottom line

Whether you're a fan of the original Railroad Tycoon or just a fan of railroads or strategy games in general, Sid Meier's Railroads has a little something for everyone. It's a fun and challenging look at a fascinating industry that's had a transformative effect on the world, and it's sure to keep you busy for hours.

This story, "Sid Meier's Railroads! is a fun and challenging look at a fascinating industry" was originally published by Macworld.

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