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In it for the haulage.

It’s funny how you can get hooked on the simplest of games. Train Valley is a simple game, yet for some reason I can’t put it down. The premise is quite straightforward: you build a railway, and manage the trains on it. While you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s something of a railway tycoon game, it isn’t as complex as that, but is more like a traffic management game.

It reminds me a lot of Flight Control, the popular mobile game in which you manage planes landing at an airport, and chances are that if you enjoy juggling several incoming planes, planning their flight paths and avoiding major air traffic disasters, then you will enjoy this too. It begins with just a couple of stations which need to be connected by railway, but how you layout your track is up to you, and it’s incredibly intuitive to just click and drag to place the track how you want it.

At each station, a train will randomly appear with a colour indicating which of the other stations it wants to go to. Click on the train, and it will start happily chugging its way down the track, but it’s up to you to manage the route that it takes to its destination. You can change their route by clicking on the track points to change which way they send the train, and if needed, you can stop the trains or turn them around. As and when you successfully direct a train to its destination, you get a load of money.

See? I wasn’t lying when I said the mechanics were simple, but while it might be easy to play, completing the missions is actually rather difficult. Firstly, you don’t start with a huge amount of money and laying your track can quickly become very costly. Scattered across each map are forests, villages and other structures, and demolishing these to make way for your railroad is a quick way of racking up your construction costs. On the other hand, it’s important to get your trains from A to B as quickly as you can, as each train carries a cargo with a value that constantly diminishes.

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At the beginning, you’re often living from paycheck to paycheck as each train pulls into a station. Avoiding bankruptcy is incredibly hard and I found that the first two or three tries of a level resulted in failure because I ran out of money. The yearly tax can hit you at just the wrong time, whether it’s just after you’ve laid a particularly expensive line of track, or maybe just a few seconds before a train arrives at a station and the subsequent influx of income can hit your bank account.

With the game currently in Early Access on Steam, the developers have admitted that this is a bit harsh, and this will change in the next update after someone in the Steam forums suggested the tax be based upon income rather than a flat fee. It’s refreshing to see a developer welcome and act upon feedback feedback like this, and as the game still has quite a small user base, your voice will almost certainly be heard and help to shape the game’s development.

In Story mode, each mission gives you three additional bonus objectives to try and complete. I say try, but what I really mean is if you can complete them, as they are devilishly difficult. One of them might be to prevent train crashes or ensure that trains don’t arrive at the wrong station, and that’s harder than it sounds. Some of them are related to money, such as earning or spending a certain amount, or avoiding a certain limit for destroying objects when placing track. I found just completing the level hard enough, with several restarts required to figure out the optimum track layout.

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Alternatively, you can play in sandbox mode which removes the time and money limits, which I found this far more relaxing that the hectic story mode. Across the whole game, you can play through three different ‘seasons’, which include Europe, America, and Russia, with Japan to be added before Early Access ends. Each continent has it’s own time period, but generally you play between the early 1800’s up until 2020. This means there’s a nice variety of trains (ten to be exact, with five more to be released), and each map feels pleasingly different from the last.

Overall, I’m quite impressed with Train Valley. For an Early Access game, it already has a level of polish most games don’t manage. The gameplay is frustrating and addictive, but it’s also incredibly rewarding once you finally complete the mission. I think most people either love or hate traffic management games, and you’ll probably know if it is for you or not as soon as Train Valley’s genre becomes clear.

It’s perfect for 20 minute blasts, or much longer if you get sucked into completing a certain mission, and while the developers have said there won’t be any major new features on the way, there’s still a decent amount of content for its asking price of £6.99/$9.99. Whether you want to keep puffing away until you complete the three additional objectives on each mission, or just mess around in sandbox mode, you’ll be in for the long haul.

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