We were provided with 500 gold for our review of this game. We spent this on the two starter packs available at the time of writing and to unlock one of the trains.
There’s an odd dichotomy between older PC fans’ love of sim-style games and their hatred for Farmville. Essentially it’s the same idea, you build something as efficiently as possibly with a nod to aesthetics, and then you wait for the money to roll in so you can build more. The execution is what matters and if a game is encouraging you to wait more than to play, that can be the stumbling block. Rail Nation treads this line very carefully, and it’s hard to tell which side it comes out on. It’s a free to play game you play entirely in your browser, with gold available to buy in an in-game shop but no other barrier to entry aside from signing up for an account.
Essentially the game is about managing rail routes between cities in a persistent version of America. You manage a station, levelling up buildings (this part is in 2d and very simplistic, you don’t place anything or even have any say over the way it looks), you research new parts for trains and whole new engines, and then on a world map with some 3d effects you plan out routes and schedules to try and make as much money as possible. On top of money there’s also reknown to consider as you try to make sure your company has the prestige it deserves, competing against other players.
In practice this means you set up a few things like a couple of train routes, and then you leave them for a day or so and come back to see what you got. You’ll have more money, and maybe an event or two will have happened generating new bonuses or problems. There’s occasionally time-based challenges to deal with as well, so you can get a few extra dollars by transporting loads of wood in half an hour. The pace of the trains is slow but all the financial statistics are worked out by dollars per hour allowing you to have a reasonably good idea of how long you need to wait before you can do something.
The way it avoids the Farmville tedium is by adding a surprising amount of depth to the scheduling and planning. Do you want a fast route with a low profit or a slow one with a high pofit? Is there too much competition at one station, forcing you to use another? Do you want to spend your money to expand quickly, damaging your profits but making sure you own a decent chunk of the map or do you focus on min-maxing where you are creating a huge income after a few days. These are all interesting decisions and there’s plenty of maths and strategy to consider. This is where the meat of the game is and part of what will keep people coming back.
The other part is the multiplayer aspect. Players can form larger corporations which compete on an ever-present league table, giving you an idea of who is making the most money at any given time. This is all about prestige and choosing who to ally with as well as who to abandon starts to make it feel a little like the real business world. Effective multiplayer is always difficult in the sim-genre, but just focusing on financial alliances simplifies things in Rail Nation but adds enough interest to make it worthwhile and meaningful. You’re always aware of other players as you see their logos next to cities and resource points and as you spread out and progress further into the game they have a greater effect on your business.
The big sticking point for many will be the payment structure. This isn’t a game where you spend money for aesthetic choices or new features, you essentially buy time. You can compelte buildings quicker, you can buy bundles that gives you extra research points and add levels to your structures. The money is just used to skip something that has nothing to do with the gameplay and it’s hard to feel like the slow timers were put in for any reason other than to encourage you to spend money to avoid them. This isn’t the best kind of incentive and we can’t imagine anyone will be excited about spending cash to get rid of a timer in the same way they could be about a new gun in Planetside or a new dungeon in LOTRO. This is the biggest failing of the game so far and one that leaves a particularly sour taste in the mouth. You know you’re being manipulated but to carry on playing you either have to grin and bear the pointless inconvenience or you have to spend cash. Since the timers only get higher and higher a one-time payment isn’t going to make a big dent in what you’re trying to achieve, there’ll always be more timers and more reasons to spend money on the game.
One of the biggest and most interesting features that’s only just becoming apparent in the live version is the idea of eras. No matter where you are in your research or progression, the march of eras rolls on based on a timer. This will bring in new trains. If you’re not keeping up with everyone you’re going to be left behind like real train companies over the last hundred years. This is a really unique feature that we can’t remember seeing before in a game, and also provides a nice incentive to keep an eye on how your business is doing. Once the eras are complete (around 3-4 months) the ’round’ will be over and a winner will be announced before a new round begins. This gives the game some kind of purpose and a progression, and also extends the longevity as you can start afresh with a new strategy to take your corporation to victory.
Overall if you’re on the lookout for a fairly casual business sim game with a fair bit of depth but not much upkeep required, Rail Nation might be just up your street. If you’re looking for something to delve into for hours at a time though, it’s far too limited by the timers unless you’re willing to splash out some serious cash.