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.
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.