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Railroad Tycoon (1990)

March 13th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Business Sim, Feature:Map

What this is about.

There is something about trains. It’s no accident that there are train simulators and railroad management games and model train sets for adults but few toys that try to capture the romance of the trucking industry. Part of it is the whole organizational aspect of things – the straight lines of the rails, the inflexibility of the schedules, the nation building myths that most of us grew up on. (For Canadians, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway is seen as a greater accomplishment than putting the country together to begin with.)

Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon is, fundamentally, a business sim. It wasn’t the first business simulation by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the first major release to use the word “tycoon”, spawning an entire genre of graphically attractive light business simulations. (An earlier game called Tycoon hewed closer to the traditional business sim model and has had little discernible influence.) Through the pull of the history of the rail business, Meier was able to make a game that is underappreciated in an oeuvre full of classic games.

But even though it is mechanically a business sim with a stock market and buyouts and bankruptcy, Railroad Tycoon is philosophically a train set. You lay track and haul goods as much to see the trains pulling into the station as to make money. Your first load of a specific good is greeted with an animation to that effect. You buy new trains as they become available, just like any train collector worth his salt (they are almost all men). And the best train sets all have nice terrain for the choo-choos to run through.


One of Railroad Tycoon‘s big improvements over earlier light business sims was the geographic specificity of it. You did not just build a connection between Philadelphia and New York; you watched the train make the trip. You didn’t just get a report that a train had broken down or that there was a traffic jam near Boston; you saw it and what led up to it. Your business wasn’t just numbers and money and ownership problems. It was a brick and mortar and steam and iron operation that you could watch.

The game didn’t make it easy on you. You had to get materials from one location to another, but there was always the problem of the return trip. How much timber could you get to the paper mill in one load? Was there any demand for people or mail at the lumber yard? A train with nothing on it wastes money and time, but for a while the big payouts for a certain good will make it worth your while.

Then the map changes. And it’s all your fault.

For all the talk about destructible terrain in many wargames or improving tiles in a game like Civ, Railroad Tycoon is one of those rare games where the map often changed as a response to your actions, not just because of an action you took. There’s an important distinction, I think, between building a fort in Civ so you can protect a pass and new cities popping up around a station because you happened to need that spot’s iron mine.


There is a sweet spot in the century you cover where passengers and mail are the really big money. It can be tempting to break into an opponent’s market with a station and have a rate war with him. But there is a sense of sweet satisfaction knowing that Pittsburgh wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for you.

Not to mention the problems of terrain. You would need to build tunnels for the most direct routes through mountains, but these could be expensive. Rivers needed bridges, and these, too, could exhaust your reserves because the cheaper bridges could only allow a single train to pass.

The maps in Railroad Tycoon were those old math problems brought to life. Train A has five cars and leaves Paris going East to Berlin. Train B has 2 cars and will use the same track going West from Bonn to Paris. Where should you put the switching station so you don’t have a traffic jam somewhere in Alsace? Would it be cheaper to double track the Bonn route? They allowed you to be traffic cop, industrialist and man-in-basement-with-engineers’-cap all in one.

Pop Top Software’s Railroad Tycoon II had better looking 3D maps, but simpler bridges and no tunnels or rate wars. The series culminated in Sid Meier’s Railroads!, a disappointing even-lighter business sim that put even more emphasis on the train set idea than the first RRT game.

Railroad Tycoon is still an empire building game in every meaningful sense of the word, with expansion and development and the eventual conquest of your enemies. You needed to take risks (like selling your stock) to lay the foundations for a better business model. But RRT was closer to SimCity than Civilization. It was about building a system and fighting the forces of entropy that are inherent in anything more complicated than a safety pin. Geography and population density were the confining factors on your empire and your sprawl, but you could subtly bend the map to your will.

Our next game is positively not about subtle map control. Populous let you destroy maps altogether.

(Images from Mobygames.)


8 Comments so far ↓

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  • Eduardo Gabrieloff

    Not many other people did, but I really enjoyed (and enjoy) Railroad Tycoon 3.

    Transport Tycoon is also a great game that is still easy to pick up and waste 3 months on.

  • Josh

    You did omit Railroad Tycoon 3, which I felt could have had its own single paragraph included. The reason why was its own innovative approach to the series with respect to the maps, that rail wan’t the only source of transport to move freight. If there was a river system nearby, then you could “see” the freight would travel also along the river system, affecting supply. Likewise, not all passengers or mail was destined to go to any location you chose. If there were six carriages of passengers in London at a station wanting to go to, say, Bristol, then only a train travelling to Bristol would pick them up.

    Those features managed to detract from the gameplay that made things ‘fun’, despite adding a sense of realism to the map.

    Likewise, just to nitpick a little, but the difference in bridges between Railroad Tycoon and Railroad Tycoon 2 was minimal. Sure, you didn’t get the cute little cutscene in Railroad Tycoon 2 when the bridge was being built, however the same rules applied – wood was always single track, iron and stone were either double tracked by default in RRT, or capable of being double tracked in RRT2. The major difference was the removal of signals in Railroad Tycoon 2 and beyond, for reasons that escape me. In Sid’s Railroad Tycoon, it was somewhat necessary to build signals each side of the bridges to stop trains should the bridge get washed out. That problem didn’t exist in Railroad Tycoon 2, more so because bridges didn’t get washed away.

    Needless to say, this was a great article that made me reflect on the days gone past when I was but a young fellow who viewed these games as more of a sandbox play area that a deep strategic game.

  • John Hawkins

    Plus, Railroad Tycoon 2 shipped with the best original music of any game ever.

    When you look at Civ, Pirates, and RRT, it really shows Sid Meier’s genius. Three completely different games on three completely different subjects with completely different mechanics, and all classics. Not a one-trick pony that guy.

  • Alan Au

    Railroad Tycoon is a reminder that one of the strengths of computer implementations is the ability to make “living maps” instead of just static representations. Sure, computers are good at crunching numbers and removing that burden from the player, but the aesthetics count, and computers are good for that purpose too.

  • Soren Johnson

    Hey Troy, you should think about submitting parts of this series for this:

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  • Oliver

    Railroad Tycoon 3 was the bomb (still play it today, though more for the business sim than the maps). In fact, I’ll often throw the RRT3 soundtrack on iTunes when I’m coding because there’s such a feel of productivity and accomplishment about it.

    I haven’t played RRT2 for ages though – I’ll have to bust it out and check out the soundtrack again.

    Great article, and +1 on a RRT3 paragraph.