Games based around trains where players get to drive locomotives, and other types of titles where they can plan elaborate transportation networks have been popular for about as long as computer games have been around, especially on the PC. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of an extension of the popular old hobby where people (like my father) would set up model railroads in their basements and then would spend hours every week building out the towns, tracks and trains that would surround them. My father would even change the seasons on his train set from time to time, for example, giving the landscape a coating of snow using cotton for the Christmas season. Train simulations on the computer let modern gamers do those kinds of things without needing to take over huge amounts of their real-world living spaces.
There have been quite a few train-based simulations over the years. The Railroad Tycoon titles are probably the benchmark for the business simulation side of this genre, although we have not had a new Tycoon title release for many years. In the meantime, lots of train-based games have released to satisfy that demand. The latest is Railway Empire 2, which is a follow-up to the original Railway Empire that was released back in 2018.
At its core, Railway Empire 2 is a business simulator like the Railroad Tycoon games, and those who want to enjoy playing it need to know that going into it. Like my late friend and founding publisher Nate Wooley used to tell me about the Railroad Tycoon titles he mastered, they are a business simulation that happens to involve trains and railroads, not a train simulation with a business simulator tacked onto the back end. Yes, in Railway Empire 2, the trains get all the spotlight, but running a successful railroad is not the point. Building and sustaining a successful economy where your railroad corporation is the centerpiece that nobody can live without is the ultimate goal. You need to be a tycoon first and an engineer second.
Railway Empire 2 is set in the early 1800s when railroad technology was experiencing its biggest boom, and its extensive tech tree reflects this with many inventions and improvements building upon one another. In an era where only small amounts of goods could be transported at a time by bumpy, country roads using horse-drawn wagons or primitive vehicles, a fully-loaded train could send an entire crop of corn or a herd of cattle from the farm to the city in a single trip. This in turn satisfied demand for that product while allowing cities that had access to the resources that trains could provide to grow and thrive. Entire industries like breweries, textile mills, meat processing plants and many others set up in cities that had a steady supply of raw materials brought in by train, and then sent out their finished products using the same rails. Trains were king back in the day, and Railway Empire 2 reflects that.
There are three ways to play Railway Empire 2. The first is a campaign where you will be given a story to follow through five chapters and multiple missions with increasingly challenging assignments. The second is a set of tricky but fun scenarios where you will generally be competing with an AI-based competitor to try and achieve some overall goal, like being the first to connect the Great Lakes communities to the Florida Keys. Finally, there is a sandbox mode that lets you set up a railroad system however you like on either smaller maps, like within specific regions of a country, or across entire continents. In sandbox mode, you don’t need to worry about money as you have unlimited resources, so if you are just into trains and not business simulations, the sandbox mode will be your go-to choice.
Railway Empire 2 has an extensive tutorial which is almost a necessity for a complicated title like this. The tutorial includes things like how to properly set up tracks and signals so your trains will run efficiently as well as things on the business side, like being able to look at what is essentially a complex spreadsheet and figuring out what goods are in demand within any given city and when and how to run railroad lines to support that. You also need to know things like how much a city has to grow before it can support secondary buildings like factories and hotels which your railroad corporation can also invest in. There are no monopoly laws in Railway Empire 2, so if you can control everything from production to transportation to distribution and sales, then you will be making more money than you could ever possibly spend. But there is a lot to learn before you figure out how to do that. The tutorial does a good job of getting you started.
In terms of gameplay, Railway Empire 2 tries to make things as simple as possible, but then gives players the option to improve upon its automatic features. So, for example, if you want to run a rail line between Washington DC and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you simply need to put stations in both cities and then draw a track line between them. The problem is that the title will simply put the track at the shortest distance between those two points, likely trying to drill multimillion-dollar tunnels (in 1800’s era dollars) through the mountains and putting in lots of bridges as well. That really makes the route prohibitively expensive in anything but sandbox mode, so players will instead need to go in and snake the route carefully through the mountains to minimize both the angle that the trains must traverse while also avoiding costly things like bridges and tunnels.
You will also need to add support structures on the route like sand and water towers, and maybe a maintenance depot if you don’t have them at the city stations. Ideally, you would also want to set up a double track so that trains can travel both ways at the same time, and maybe even side tracks to allow passing if needed. You might also want to set up intermittent stations between those two destinations to allow for things like local goods including food crops or livestock to be loaded and delivered to either city. That in turn probably means that it’s best to set up express tracks for the passenger trains to run between the two cities and separate tracks and engines for freight traffic. This is especially true later on in the timeline when certain engines were optimized for either speed (for express service like passengers and mail) or for trains transporting goods.
Your rail networks can quickly get extremely complicated. More than once some rogue signal or quirk in the way I had designed a track prevented me from finishing up an important link in my transportation hub. It was at those times when I wished that Railway Empire 2 was a little more forgiving in terms of letting the trains run. It does not need to be fully geared towards easy gameplay like the Sid Meyer’s Railroads title was back in 2007, but little things like letting a train change tracks automatically at a huge multi-tracked station so that it could continue on to its final destination would have been appreciated, at least by more casual players like myself.
The difficulty at playing Railway Empire 2 successfully is balanced somewhat by the rewards at seeing your rail network and your bank book flow once you finally get everything in place. Graphically, the title looks great, with a more detailed world when compared to the original Railway Empire. There are also some very nice quality of life improvements like the ability to paint all of your engines to match your company theme. In one game I was playing a former Union general from the Civil War, so naturally I painted all my engines red, white and blue. They looked fantastic, and I can see why people wanted to ride those trains as opposed to the competition.
There is also an amazing soundtrack that really sets the atmosphere for a train simulation type of game. The soundtrack is available as a separate purchase for those who really enjoy it.
Railway Empire 2 helps to push the train simulation genre ahead again, easily becoming one of the best business and train simulations of the modern era now that Railroad Tycoon titles are no longer being made. It should appeal to a lot of people who like trains, of course, but also to those who enjoy a good business simulation. It may be a touch too difficult for casual players to fully enjoy, although if they put in the effort, Railway Empire 2 can prove quite rewarding when you finally get everything to go right and have all of your trains running on time.