It sounds strange, but running your own steam-powered trade empire turned out to be the perfect recipe for a violently addictive game. Of course, it takes a special kind of game designer to create a gem out of such a seemingly soul-destroyingly dull concept, but then when we're talking about Sid Meier and Railroad Tycoon, a remarkable game from a remarkable developer.
Released in 1990, when games didn't necessarily need to be blood-splattered and have billions of polygons in the breasts of the lead female character alone, Railroad Tycoon sought to simulate the exciting world of trade via the medium of locomotives. From a tiny one line route ferrying passengers and mail back and forth to sprawling multi-goods networks encompassing hundreds of miles of track, it never once became less than compelling entertainment.
Even venturing into the stock market wasn't dull, although for those of us who were less business-minded, it was probably the most difficult thing to get our heads around. Nevertheless, buying and selling stock was never so thrilling.
Four locations were available for budding toot-toot entrepreneurs: the western US, the north-eastern US, the UK and mainland Europe. You'd get a million dollars (even in the UK and Europe) split between equity and loans, raising more cash by selling company bonds. Even now, those words still confuse me.
Once you'd picked a map, you'd need to decide a good starting point. You'd need to find somewhere that allowed for good regular business, like the passenger ferrying and mail delivery, while also remaining close to rarer resources that would take longer to deliver but provide much more in terms of monetary gain.
With your first two stations and an engine shop in place, a train merrily puffing away at a very slow speed between them, you could think about expanding out to new territories or perhaps investing in the ones you already had. Current stations could be upgraded from a tiny Depot to a sprawling Terminal, allowing you to pull in business from a much larger area. You could also construct new buildings in your stations, like hotels and various kinds of store.
Naturally, the goal was to deliver as much cargo as possible in the shortest period of time, which would be made harder because a) your trains initially are terrible and b) even the smallest slope could slow them down to a crawl. Good track placement and balancing the length of a route with the speed was essential to creating a smooth-running and profitable business empire.
Railroad Tycoon was rightly hailed as a classic in 1990, reeling in plenty of players who had absolutely no interest in the subject (like me) and giving them an amazingly addictive management game experience that probably hasn't been bettered to this day, although Chris Sawyer's Transport Tycoon is right up there too.
Followed in later years by a fully fledged sequel (Railroad Tycoon II) which amazingly appeared on the Dreamcast and the PlayStation, RR2 added single scenarios to provide unique and smaller scale challenges to that of the general sandbox mode. Many new concepts were added, like train robbers, a more intricate stock exchange simulation and even an alternative history representation of train systems in Korea, but the gameplay, in general, remained the same, just seem from a dimetric rather than a top-down perspective.
Railroad Tycoon 3 continued this expansion of ideas, with more and more scenarios and concepts. However, by this time, the magic of the original had, arguably, disappeared and even if the quality of the game was far greater on the whole, it could never recapture those heady days of Sid Meier's original. The less said about his return with Railroads the better, too.