December 7, 2012
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Sid Meier’s Railroads

Sid Meier wrote a wonderful game, Railroad Tycoon, back in 1990. It’s a complex business and engineering simulation, abstracted sufficiently to be fun but replete with tons of interesting detail, both historical and technical. The history is mostly baked into the game, not merely an appliqué, and this is one of the few time’s that’s worked well.

Now, the game is back for Mac OS X. It looks terrific. It plays very well. The rules have been adapted and, in general, improved a bit to reduce micromanagement and simplify automatic decisions. The effects of competition — always a thorny issue for this game — have been revisited again, to more satisfactory effect.

A bit of the economy has been abstracted into oblivion. Nothing requires more than one raw material, for example, and so you find yourself with a greater number of dedicated trains with single-purpose tracks. The cost of bridges and tunnes has been reduced, but there’s no way to borrow money. The portfolio of trains is smaller – no dedicated special-purpose engines – but the trains are modelled in beautiful detail. I still find the “stock market” a distraction, at least when playing the AI, from building railroads.

Game studies people might enjoy a look at the way this version of the game consciously combines rail simulation with simulation of model railroading – a simulation of a simulation.