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Premature Evaluation: Train Valley

Narrow guage

Each week Marsh Davies boards the Steam locomotive as it chugs its way through Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or is cannibalised by rabid commuters while delayed in a siding. This week he’s played Train Valley, a chirpy but challenging rail construction sim.

My attempts to run a railway system make a good case for nationalisation: the absurd delays as I reverse trains back and forth over a switch in the track, somehow making the same signalling error each time; the piles of cargo that end up in the wrong town, or so late that its value has completely expired; the destruction to wildlife, farmland and neolithic monuments; the forced relocation of indigenous people. Oh, and the massive loss of life, too, I suppose. At the end of it all, I go bankrupt - and yet they keep giving me another chance.

You know those little pull-chords you get on train carriages to alert the driver of emergency, emblazoned in stark warnings about tugging on them unnecessarily? This was the event that sparked their adoption on British trains. (Incidentally, in lots of emergency situations, you certainly shouldn’t pull them - the train driver is obliged to stop right there and then, which may leave you stranded from a station where it will be easier for emergency services to render help.) It also ended up contributing to the ban on public executions. Frustratingly, no one really knows why it happened.

Which is good, because it is hugely enjoyable. (Maybe that’s why First Great Western still exist - they just seem to having so much fun no one can bear to end their contract.) And not just enjoyable, but exciting, too. Even though the game lets you pause time at any moment - to flip signals, give trains instructions, or designate areas for track to be laid - the game quickly requires intense concentration as you micromanage your choo-choos, ensuring that the blue one stops just long enough for the red one to nip past, before you flip the signal and shunt it onto the track just in front of the yellow one, which leaves its tramshed just in time for the purple one to enter. Or, more likely in my case: everyone dies and I console myself by paying myself a gigantic bonus and hiking fare prices. Suck it up, peasants!

Oh okay, your own salary, fare prices and the self-evident evil of private rail monopolies aren’t actually factors in the game: all you really need to care about is getting trains to the station of the matching colour, preferably before their value ticks down, and not blowing so much of your budget laying track that you can’t afford the next tax bill. And, really, this is more than enough to contend with. Each level takes place over the course of years, during which time new stations, bridges and tunnels will sprout up on the map, and much of the trick to the game is about optimising your track layout early on to account for later additional complexity without extensive and expensive remodelling.

What we do know is this: two commuters boarded a first class carriage at Hackney to find it slathered in blood. On the windows, the floor, the seat, the door. A cane, too, was found - and being so coated in gore itself was thought to be the weapon. The momentarily-still-living body of Thomas Briggs, an elderly bank clerk, was found shortly afterwards. After being horribly bludgeoned, he’d been thrown from the car while it travelled between Fenchurch Street and Hackney Wick, spotted by the operators of a train heading in the other direction and taken off to a nearby pub. He quickly died.

You do feel, occasionally, like you’re at the mercy of the map: it might take a couple of attempts before you aren’t caught unawares by later scripted developments. Woe betide you if you’ve put track down in an area where a city is destined to erupt - it gets instantly obliterated. And, on some maps, cities don’t necessarily appear in the same place each time, either. On the whole I feel like this is an acceptable element of fickle fortune. You already have to account for the fact that the game’s randomness will sometimes go against you: demand you send trains out of stations just as trains are pulling into them, delaying their departure and reducing your profit.

Most of the maps have fixed layouts, however, each providing its own particular challenge: a nasty bottleneck through which all your trains must pass; the need for multiple lines between distant destinations, to keep up the flow of traffic in both directions; a spaghetti of signals and crossroads; structures that are too expensive to bulldoze. Pulling up your own track gets you a measly $100 for recouped materials, but demolishing anything that isn’t yours comes with a hefty pricetag. Running a line through some serf’s pumpkin patch may set you back a couple of grand for each tile. Stonehenge will cost you quite a bit more.

It was not immediately clear why this would have occurred - though robberies were commonplace on trains, where there were, at that time, no connecting corridors between carriages that might allow help to reach you while in transit. But while a gold pocket watch and glasses had been taken from Briggs’ body, a substantial amount of money had been left on him. This nonetheless proved to be a critical clue. A man named Jonathan Matthews came forward (though not until a £300 reward for information was offered) to state that he had become suspicious of his younger daughter’s ex-fiance, one Franz Muller, a struggling German tailor, who had recently purchased her a gift of jewelry.

Although all you really have to do is survive financially, there are bonus victory conditions for each level. Sometimes these are just common sense - don’t send trains to the wrong station, don’t turn your trains into a blazing heap of twisted metal and severed limbs - but others are more arbitrary, designed to put you into tension with the levels particular geographical constrictions - put down more or less than a given quantity of track, don’t spend more than a certain amount bulldozing teepees or forests.

I confess, I am attaining less and less of these as the game goes on. Particularly the blazing heap of twisted metal one. On a recent level, I had so poorly managed my signals that I ended up in total gridlock, and, while I untangled that mess, I opted to ignore Purple Town’s plaintive demands to send a train to Blue Town. I hadn’t yet even built any track to Purple Town - I figured they could wait. They could not. The driver got so impatient that he drove the train right out onto the desert sand, killing himself and everyone on board. I was a little nonplussed at the time, but, on reflection, I too have been stuck on trains where such a conclusion would have seemed a blessing.

The jewelry itself was not the pocket watch in question, but it led back to the jeweller, John Death, who remembered a man with a German accent coming in to exchange one gold chain - which proved to be from Briggs’ watch - for a cheaper one, which Muller had evidently then given to Matthews’ daughter. The hunt was on - but it transpired Muller had fled, catching a boat to New York. Several police inspectors took Matthews and Death as witnesses, hopped on a faster boat, and zipped across the pond to New York, meeting Muller as his boat docked. He was promptly identified by Death (which was perhaps not conclusive evidence, given that Death had already seen a photo of him). Fortunately, the discovery of several more of Briggs’ possessions in Muller’s luggage suggests this was not a miscarriage of justice.

As the game progresses, bankruptcy becomes ever more of a problem: train crashes dent profits, sure, and make you rebuild track, but even if you avoid them, the simple need to get enough rails down will take you close to the red line. In the late game you are poised to drop track the moment an arriving train’s profit ding-dings into your bank account. If it all becomes too much, there’s a slider switch on the main menu that flips the game into sandbox mode, where you have a limitless budget to construct the railway as best you can. The imagined socialist paradise come at last!

Yet, somehow that’s just not as much fun. Say this for capitalism: it makes for a good game, even if it’s only the winners, and not commuters, who appreciate that.

Extradited back to the UK, Muller stood trial in one of the most widely publicised trials of the time: partly because of the transatlantic chase sequence, but mostly because rail travel was a controversial innovation, and some interests were well-served by scaremongering about the dangers of using it. He protested his innocence to little avail and was duly sentenced to execution: an event that was attended by some 50,000 people, in various states of inebriation. Several were injured in the throng, as it pushed forward to witness Muller’s last moments. It is said a German-speaking Lutheran priest obtained a confession at the very last moment, but no motive was ever given. Nonetheless Muller’s legacy was assured: windows between each compartment were installed, known as Muller’s Lights - a fact which I now think of whenever I eat yoghurt. One other macabre detail has gained recent relevance, too: you may soon be able to look Muller in the face. His death mask was taken and stored in Scotland Yard’s infamous Black Museum - a private collection of macabre artefacts relating to many cases since 1874, gathered to better the understanding of criminality. With the relocation of Scotland Yard this year, it is now being discussed whether to open this museum to the public. I hope this happens - if nothing else, it’d be nice to go along and thank Muller for his inadvertent improvements to rail safety.

Train Valley is available from Steam for £7. I think it’s certainly worth it. I played version b1.3 on 24/06/2015. The build is robust - I have so far spotted only one minor bug - and it currently ships with 18 levels set across Europe, America and Russia, spanning the 19th and 20th century. If you’re as terrible a Fat Controller as I am, then you may be playing those levels quite a few times. It has a colourblind mode, too! A further ‘season’ of six levels is planned, set in Japan between 1900 and 2020.

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Marsh Davies


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