Wot I Think: Train Fever

After a series of ghastly accidents, train jousting was banned in the UK in May 1866.

In Train Fever you don’t play Basil Batchley-Lytton, a Holmes-style epidemiologist investigating a gruesome skin disease sweeping Victorian Britain. Pressing ‘h’ doesn’t hail the nearest hansom cab. Pressing ‘m’ doesn’t bring up a microscope view. The climactic scene doesn’t take place in the horsehair storeroom of the GWR upholstery shop in Swindon. Accept these crushing disappointments – recognise that £20 has secured you a compelling Transport Tycoon replacement with a few annoying yet surmountable flaws, rather than a fog-wreathed microbial mystery – and enjoyment is almost inevitable.

Made by five chaps from the unlucky Swiss city of Schaffhausen Train Fever is actually as interested in buses, trucks and trams as it is in trains. With long-distance rail line construction an expensive business, the early phases of most sessions tend to be dominated by bus stop placement and coach and cart purchasing. The randomly generated gridless maps are sprinkled with towns and industries. Entangle these loci in a net of mutually beneficial transport routes and settlements should grow while you prosper.

The simple premise is served by a clean, logical GUI, but that doesn’t excuse the absurdly brief tutorials. Beginners are presented with half-a-dozen Post-it sized text pop-ups and expected to get on with it. Important information about economics and engineering is withheld. I spent my first couple of hours ferrying workers to inactive industrial sites not realising that the only things such sites required were links to markets and raw materials. After a week of experimentation, I’m still not entirely sure why some lines flourish and other apparently similar ones fail.

Economics might be less opaque if the game haloed its bus stops and railway stations with helpful catchment area circles. Urban Games explain that citizens of TF towns are persistent individuals with specific homes, workplaces, and recreational haunts. They point out that people will automatically travel between these locations using ‘the cheapest and fastest’ form of transport available, but they don’t make it particularly easy to read the resulting passenger flows, identify network holes and over-provision, or tune systems for maximum efficiency. Combine instinct with observation and experience, and – on ‘easy’ or ‘medium’ difficulty at least – you will succeed in fashioning profitable transport empires, but it’s unlikely initial bafflement will ever completely lift.

Tinged with inscrutability Train Fever is, thankfully, never short of momentum. New bus and truck lines rarely take more than a minute or two to set up (just position stops and depots, sequence them via the elegant line creation UI, and then assign appropriate vehicles). Even with fiddly track laying tools (more on which later) laying rail and sleeper isn’t much more time-consuming. Like all good tycoon titles, one project invariably triggers another…

Now Crewe and Nantwich are linked by rail I really should add some extra station-feeding tendrils to Nantwich’s bus network. And as the new line runs very close to that unexploited coal mine, perhaps a spur connecting colliery with steelworks would be sensible. Which means the steelworks will need ore. Time to extend truck route ‘B’ to take in…

Before you know it your coffee has gone cold, the fruit in the fruit bowl has blue stubble, and hover cars and jetpackists are buzzing past your window.

Train Fever’s own timeline stops some way short of hover cars and jetpacks. The range of vehicles draws on 160 years of European transport history. The majority of locos, trucks, buses and trams are based on German and Swiss prototypes, but British and French designs also appear. Though modding is still in its infancy, early efforts suggest we will, eventually be able to play with country-specific vehicle sets.

Country-specific terrain may prove a taller order. Currently, the map generation screen is disappointingly short of buttons and sliders. Budding Brunels may choose between three map sizes , three hilliness settings, and three starting dates (1850, 1900, 1950) but there’s no way to give venues a tropical or Mediterranean flavour, say, or specify tree or water coverage percentages. Terrain is available in any colour as long as it’s green and is never shrouded by snow or fallen leaves. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their name, Urban Games seem more interested in providing charismatic towns than charismatic countryside. Clever procedurally generated architecture mean town skylines are unusually diverse.

Townscapes grow and change spontaneously over time; often you end up altering them through building demolition and road building too. The latter activity is complicated somewhat by Train Fever’s annoyingly fussy track building regulations. Want to create a level-crossing by running a road across a railway line? You’ll need to scrap the track first. Want to create a diamond junction or carry a railway over a railway using a bridge? Good luck with that. The game’s invisible navvies are at their most recalcitrant when tunnel digging and elevation changes are needed. Even fairly small height transitions can cause problems.

The devs claim they are merely reflecting real-life physics but in a game where locos use teleportation rather than turntables to change direction at branchline termini, and bulldozing a major trunk road in order to force punters to use railways is possible, citing realism seems a tad rich.

Another annoyance that needs prompt attention is vehicle replacement. As it stands vehicles have limited life expectancies. When they hit a certain age their maintenance costs start spiralling and a message pops up recommending withdrawal. Withdrawal involves recalling the museum piece to a depot then selling it, buying something new and assigning the purchase to the appropriate line. Written down it doesn’t sound particularly onerous, but when you’ve got hundreds of vehicles beetling round a map the task rapidly becomes tiresome and distracting. A ‘maintenance cost cap’ tickbox on the options screen would be a welcome interim solution.

Train Fever is pure solo sandbox at the moment. The freedom is splendid but the time may come when you find yourself yearning for a soupçon of structure or a pinch of friction. Optional dynamically generated side tasks linked to vehicle unlocks or temporary construction privileges would have been an interesting inclusion, as would competing AI entities or multiplayer. The growth of towns and the march of time does slowly alter the challenge (In the second half of the 20th Century increasing car ownership creates congestion and threatens profits) but apart from these factors and the extra workload generated by a larger transport network, the feel of early eras isn’t dramatically different from that of late ones.

Train Fever is a little under-equipped and clumsy in places, but its economic model makes sense, its ceaseless transport networks are a pleasure to ponder, and its constant encouragement to build and buy is incredibly hard to resist. If you’re in the mood for a rail-related mallardy and have already got tuberculosis, tendernitis, and wagonorrhea then it’s unlikely you’ll regret your purchase.

Train Fever is out now and costs £20.

32 Comments

  1. kevmscotland says:

    Is this the same guys that did Cities in Motion?
    The UI and route planning look VERY similar. If so, I could well be interested in this.

    • Granath says:

      No, this is not by the guys who did CIM. However, from what I’ve read if you like that game then you should like this one as well.

    • Bernardo says:

      Having played both games, I concur. Train Fever’s UI was instinctively accessible to me after having played CIM2 and it feels a lot like CIM with both town traffic and long distance traffic; however, I had to look for a web tutorial (there are some good ones in the forum at the game’s website) to understand the economics. Tim’s definitely right about the lack of introduction into the game’s systems, but it’s alleviated by the forum tutorials.

  2. Stellar Duck says:

    After that introduction I propose that Tim Stone henceforth writes everything posted on Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

    Sorry, Hivemind, this was just… well, it was Tim Stone.

    This game sounds intriguing.

    • Ross Angus says:

      He certainly deserves the “Best Intro in Computer Journalism” Oscar. Week after week, he hits it out of the park.

  3. Laurentius says:

    So is it Transport Tycoon replacement ? I mean i heard that before and it was never the case.

    • RedViv says:

      Right now it’s really more of a Locomotion in 3D.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I don’t know, even Locomotion sounds a lot more capable than this. It does have AI opponents, for example, as useless as they are, and is, if anything, too eager to let you build complicated bridged junctions.

        Then you get very varied terrain, thanks to the Rollercoaster Tycoon engine. Plenty of artic environments with steep cliffs, and the rack-and-rail trains to go with them.

        And to think the one thing they kept from it and [Open] Transport Tycoon [Deluxe] was vehicle aging and replacement becoming a chore as your network scales…

        • RedViv says:

          Well, yes, it is definitely less complex than even LC. As the article should probably tell people. I was commenting more on the general “feel” of the game. No big analysis of the situation, gets right to the building of your transport network, little effort in getting tracks down right. A transport imagine-point-there-and-off-you-go-er, not much of a transport planner.

  4. Snids says:

    Where’s Smingleigh?
    He’d need a spell on the fainting couch after that opening paragraph.

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      I do not use a fainting couch, I simply retire to the Syncope Parlour to enjoy a brief, relaxing bout of stress-induced unconsciousness. Naturally, this can only occur after securing all fragile and valuable objects in my pockets and ensuring that Earl Grey is fed.

  5. killias2 says:

    You know, I was a huge fan of Railroad Tycoon as a youngster, but I haven’t played anything like it since. Are there any follow-ups or what-not that are any good?

  6. Triggerhappy says:

    “…in the mood for a rail-related mallardy…”

    I tip my hat to you, Sir!

  7. Bernardo says:

    Did this story about unlucky Schaffhausen come up on google? Having live in the region for quite a while, I’ve never heard this. Interesting, though.
    Also, I am not astonished that a Swiss development studio is good at modelling train-based transport system. They have the best trains in the world. The most delay I got in fifteen years was four minutes. As Germany becomes more and more English in terms of train travel, Switzerland is the last bastion of trains – punctuality, scenery, space and good coffee… I could go on.
    What they didn’t include, though (and i don’t blame them) are the unbelievably complex engineering feats of tunneling the Alps – and the thousands of dead Italian workers…

    • Player1 says:

      Being an Italian who grew up in Zurich, I remember my father’s stories about the dead Italian workers too well. They have accomplished amazing things in the Swiss alps. I actually didn’t know this game was made by Swiss guys when I saw it here, but I wondered, because the tram in the first picture is an older model of Zurich’s trams. This looks very promising, and as I have heard, they will be present at this week’s Ludilicious festival which will take place here. I might try to meet them.

  8. trjp says:

    I’m keen on this but I want to see how much support the developers put into it before I throw cash at my screen.

    I like what’s on offer but I want to see if the obvious “frankly not finished yet” bits are addressed in the near future – I want to see how the modding stuff shapes-up too.

    What we need is a developer who will take this game format and polish/love it until it’s the game we all really want – too often these games are released on a shoddy state and remain that way whilst the developer does something else entirely or makes an equally disappointing sequel.

    So my eyes are on it but my hand isn’t on my wallet YET

  9. FriendlyFire says:

    Is it bad that this makes me want to reinstall OpenTTD more than anything else?

    • LionsPhil says:

      Not really; OpenTTD is a fine piece of open source clone work. (Or at least was circa 0.6. I remember there being some iffy deviations from the original since, but not what they were.)

      • phelix says:

        Well, in OpenTTD you can at least build train tracks facing in every direction with ONE tool. Hardly an ‘iffy deviation’, I’d say.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Yeah, I’m not saying every change they’ve made is bad. I used to play with TTDPatch, after all.

          I honestly can’t remember which ones I wasn’t keen on.

  10. P.Funk says:

    I honestly found the track laying so confounding that I flat out stopped playing. Compared to a venerable title like Railroad Tycoon 2 its just too much work to be enjoyable. If you build a line, encounter a phantom issue linking to another line, then decide to delete the old line the terrain rise or cut remains and then you end up having to flatten or raise terrain because that terrain shaping has now altered how the track laying functions again.

    Its maddening and I just can’t be arsed. It just made me want to play RRT2. Maybe if they fix it I’ll be game to try again.

  11. Sian says:

    Ah, now I know why the game contains vehicles specific to Switzerland. I was wondering.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Swiss trains would be fun to model, what with the abundance of vertical topology to master.

  12. Arathorn says:

    It’s nice to see a ‘Wot I think’ for this game. I think Train Fever shows a lot of potential, but I does feel very beta in places. One annoyance is that if you use the right mouse button to pan, the mouse moves ‘quicker’ than the map, so you can only scroll a little bit before the mouse pointer hits the edge of the screen and you have to release and try again. It’s also a bit weird that the vehicles are mostly German and Swiss, the town names are British and the currency American.

  13. darkshadow42 says:

    Hate to disappointed you but having recently started a job as a Transport consultant. I’ve been simulation Cambridgeshire in 2035, there are no hover cars…

    Anyway on topic I’ve already sunk a couple of hours into Train Fever despite it for me being now a bit of a Busman’s holiday. There are a few issues but being fully 3D the game has so much more potential than you could get with a geometric grid, at the moment TF is like OTTD but not quite as good, but I am hopeful that one day soon because of the potential it will reach the point when it is better.

  14. vorazan says:

    Having played this game for about 30 hours now, it took me all of those 30 hours to learn how this game works.

    After I have figured out the industrial side of it, I have a few issues.

    Industries – Oil, Lumber and Steel, all center around manufacturing generic item called Goods.

    Each city requires certain amount of Goods. That is, ANY goods from any source.

    Sincere there is only one type of Goods, you are better off having 1 super factory developed to server ALL CITIES on a single map. As cities grow (you actually need to help them grow with transport/buses/new roads), their Goods demands increase -> increasing Oil Refinery demand -> Increasing single oil well manufacture.

    The Oil Well/Lumber Yard/Coal/Iron Ore mines will all scaled with the demand. You only need ONE natural resource source per One Goods Source.

    I used to think that the more oil wells I connect to refinery the better, but nope. A single Oil well will scale endless to demand from a single Oil Refinery. Oil Refinery will always manufacture as much Goods as all of the connected cities require.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      The downside to the one-factory approach is, it takes a few upgrades until it can serve the entire map — and if there’s ever a major gap in service (say, while you upgrade a line), they may quickly downgrade back to their starting level and take a long time to ramp back up again.

      • vorazan says:

        I found that most of the time, looking at the Goods overlay, the refinery will maybe send 10 Goods via the road to the city while you are replacing trains. The loss is not deadly.

        Of course, the actual Train lines are extremely expensive to maintain. Which is why you need to maximize your profits from the get-go if you really want those trains to make money.

        Sadly I found that even if a line can make money in 1880, by 1930 it may lose money because of some unforeseen developments that may or may not be out of your control.

        There is a period around 1950 where all your steam locomotives are outdated, and your only alternatives are either the only sole 1.1 Million Mallard steam loco or the electrical locomotives which you do not have infrastructure built for.

  15. disperse says:

    Any TTT (Transport-Tycoon-Type) game that would be fun for both me and disperse jr. (who is 6)?

    I think this type of game might be fun to play with the boy but too much complexity would quickly bore him (and probably me as well.)

    • Telkir says:

      Depending on whether you feel OpenTTD falls into that “too complex” category, maybe consider checking out Simutrans, another open source TT-style game. It goes through the occasional spurt of development and is free with a variety of different graphics sets.

  16. oldkc says:

    Ooooh. Sheppey got some love. Random