Drop Some Tracks with Rail Nation
A tycoon-style game with a train theme, Rail Nation by Bright Future looks to tempt fans of an under-represented genre. With a decent freemium model and plenty of depth, it’s a good strategy game that goes above and beyond what other browser games offer.
The basic premise is to build a rail transport company from the ground up and turn it into a successful business empire. The game spans across eras, with each one lasting seven days before automatically progressing on to the next. New eras unlock new trains, technologies, and goods. When the game progresses through the last era, the ten most developed cities will begin an endgame battle.
Rail Nation shares a familiar layout with other popular browser-based strategy games – there are resources to collect, building queues that take a fair amount of real time once you get a little developed.
Most of the time you actively spend with Rail Nation will be focused on scheduling trains and having them drive around the country collecting and offloading goods. Each good requires a specialised wagon, so there’s plenty of forethought required to ensure that you spend your resources wisely. Once the schedule is sorted, you’re free to focus on the other areas of infrastructure within your city.
There are various outposts scattered through the country around your city, each requiring you to create a track between it and your base of operations. Better resources tend to be farther away, forcing you to plan routes and rail car configuration more strategically. You’re not going to be able to chain two outposts that produce the same resource on the same line.
You are competing against other players, however unless you manage to qualify for the end-game top-ten ‘battle’, you’ll never really notice it.
If you were to compare it to a traditional strategy game, the city in Rail Nation would be your base. Within your city are various different buildings that carry out different functions. The engine house can be compared to supply depots in Starcraft 2, as it allows you to construct and operate more trains at once.
Some browser games are very watered down. When I think of the online Age of Empires game and compare it to the older, desktop incarnations of the series, I remember being disappointed at how simple the battles were and how the number of units had been stripped down. Rail Nation does not follow that trend. There’s a great deal of depth and choices for you to make, and fans of slower paced grand strategy titles should feel accommodated.
The comparison to grand strategy games goes a little deeper. There’s a research tree, something with fans of strategy games take very seriously, and they’ll be pleased to see that it is by no means a half-effort. The tech tree expands with each era, too. This is where Rail Nation attempts to set its pacing. You start off with seven research points which will get you one of simpler technologies. You’ll get an extra research point every hour.
Filling out an entire tech tree, should you need to, will take roughly 420 hours – 17 and a bit full days. If you don’t increase the rate at which you gain research points, you won’t actually be able to finish a tree before an era ends.
Browser games live and die by the number of players that come back day after day, and to ensure that happens they employ a few little tricks. One common trick is to make players manually click on earned resources before they’re added to their balance. Rail Nation uses a few of these tricks - which is not a problem in this instance, as they’re not heavy-handed or overly demanding. Luckily, it seems possible to spend a good half an hour or so making a start in Rail Nation before encountering build times that force you to come back later.
Freemium Done Pretty Well
There are a lot of cash drains. Each train needs to be serviced regularly, new track needs to be laid to expand your routes, upgrades need to be applied to both new and existing trains for the same cost – you’ll quickly find your supply of gold running out and if you don’t want to pay for more you’ll be forced into making much slower progress.
That’s not a problem if you’re just looking for a persistent tycoon experience that you can spend a few minute each day organising, however if you want to compete for the top ten spots I can’t see you having a chance without entering your credit card details at some point.
One thing that I don’t particularly like seeing shoe-horned into games is gambling mechanics. Rail Nation is one of the plethora of browser games that features a lottery. You’re given a free ticket each day that allows you to play a virtual scratch card and you’ll always win a small reward – enough to tempt those susceptible into buying more with real money. This always seems a little predatory to me and I’m not a fan of it.
Continuing the theme of predatory game design, some of the store prices are a little eye watering, to say the least. The biggest pack of gold will set you back a massive €149.99. This, again, is common in games that have been designed with a focus on making the most of ‘whales’ – that 1% who spend staggering amounts of money on freemium games. 100 gold costs €1.99, which is much better and at least they’ve had the sense to offer purchases at lower rates, rather than starting at €20+, which I have seen before.
Some of the engines are locked behind gold purchases and will more than likely require you to purchase some if you want to obtain them before the era ends. Pleasingly, these engines only appear to have cosmetic differences.
If you’re wanting to play Rail Nation without spending anything, there are other ways to earn extra resources. Usually, this is done by asking you to watch short videos, which open within the game itself in a little pop-up screen. I like this idea as it’s completely down to the player. The videos appear to be using the YouTube player, too, which is the safest option they could have gone with.
If you need to catch up, you can spend your gold on rushing production within your city. While some luxury buildings can quickly reach build times of thirty minutes and higher, those critical to your expansion can thankfully get to a much higher level before reaching the same build time. This is key to the pace of progression. If, for instance, improvement of the Engine House was limited by long wait times early on, you’d be stuck with a handful of trains for a long time. As a result, the business model would look a whole lot different, making the game feel much more like a pay-to-do-anything title.
I think Bright Future have created the core of a game that would translate very well to a fully-fledged desktop strategy game. There aren’t enough decent train-themed tycoon games these days despite the passionate fan base that the genre still has. I’m pleased with Bright Future’s take on the freemium model and it’s a game I’ll keep going back to for a while yet.