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Kalypso turns its attention to railroad sims with Railway Empire

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What a tycoon wants, a tycoon gets

Gaming Minds/Kalypso

It's been a decade since the last entry in Railroad Tycoon — the series that practically made the word "tycoon" into its own games genre — and, as I was told, Simon Hellwig figured that was long enough. The Kalypso co-founder and president wanted one, if not for business purposes, then at least for himself.

Hellwig put Kalypso's in-house studio, Gaming Minds of Gütersloh, Germany, on the case, and now we have Railway Empire arriving at the station sometime before the end of the year. Somewhat like Dungeons 3 (previewed here), Railway Empire appears to be another stab by Kalypso at overtaking long-remembered but lapsed PC gaming genres and delivering their experiences not just to that platform, but to consoles as well.

Gaming Minds/Kalypso

Hellwig's interest in a railroad tycoon simulation makes perfect sense to me. Kalypso is well known for its series of strategy and builder titles, with users in an unscrupulous or antiheroic role, and wrapping it all in period-piece motifs — like a Cold War banana republic or Prohibition-era Atlantic City — is a pure Kalypso play. The 11-year-old publisher has built steady followings, particularly through Tropico, on such a formula even if the games themselves haven't hit true breakout status.

Daniel Dumont, Gaming Minds' studio manager and creative director, showed me around Railway Empire's landscape at GDC 2017. The game encompasses the lifespan of the steam locomotive in the United States, roughly 100 years beginning in the 1830s, though some diesels are available in-game at the very end.

The campaign mode is built around a single goal, with AI rivals trying to reach it first (the Transcontinental Railroad is a typical example). A series of mission tasks within the campaign, such as laying a certain amount of track or buying out a rival, leads the user to the ultimate goal. Other modes allow users to set their own historical parameters and resource constraints, or go straight to "model making," in which one may build the most impressive railway system without any financial constraints or competition.

Straight away one sees that every choice in Railway Empire is supposed to be a tradeoff. Shorter and more direct routes will increase profit because the locomotives run faster and track maintenance is less. Winding a track so that it bypasses a steep grade change, though, will improve the engine's efficiency, particularly for lower powered locomotives. Structures such as bridges and tunnels add greatly to the cost and maintenance of the line.

Gaming Minds/Kalypso

We started in San Francisco, building out a single straight shot to Sacramento that picked up some cattle (I guess around Vacaville or something) before dipping into a canyon and chugging up a long grade into the terminal. Dumont said that while satellite data was used to mark the boundaries of the landscape, the terrain itself was massaged (in terms of elevation and water crossings) to be more interesting and present an ongoing series of choices to users — so don't expect the topography to be completely accurate.

Users will have, effectively, two types of engines to put into service: passenger locomotives that are fast but not powerful, and freight engines that are vice versa. Dumont said the game will be playable and winnable by a skilled player focusing on one line of business to the exclusion of another, but it would make sense that a diversified approach is going to deliver higher profits and greater stability.

Newcomers will be able to lay lines and let their trains run without worrying about bottlenecks or collisions — trains will just ghost through one another. Actually, collisions are impossible, even in the harder difficulties where rights of way must be actively managed. Trains proceeding at one another on the same line will just stop until the track is clear. Still, tougher difficulty options with more granular management tasks are included to appeal to train buffs who want full decision-making authority — including the need to pick up sand at a maintenance station before making a long uphill climb into snow.

Gaming Minds/Kalypso

Train robbers, industrial espionage and sabotage round out the threats a user faces (and may deploy against AI rivals). Tycoons have to staff their lines with personnel who get along, from engineer to railroad detective. The entire landscape can be zoomed down to a street level, and at any point a user may ride along one of their trains. Just remember that time is always passing, and something always needs attention.

The version of Railway Empire that I was shown was played with an Xbox One gamepad, and the process of laying and orienting track, knowing where to put a line, and stopping time to make decisions seemed as reasonably intuitive as the difference between keyboard and mouse and gamepad in Tropico 5, which I've played extensively on console and PC.

Railway Empire is slated to launch by the end of 2017 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Linux, and Xbox One.