Train Fever, coming from the Swiss indie studio Urban Games after a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012, gives you the job of being the manager of a transport company. Taking place over more than 150 years, starting in 1850 with horse-drawn carriages and simple steam locomotives, you decide how to expand your empire. Placing tracks, stations, roads and other features, you build transportation routes which you then purchase vehicles to operate on, transporting either passengers or cargo.
The procedurally generated map contains numerous small towns, with several forms of industry dotted around the map. Resource producing buildings, such as mines and forests, supply factories which in turn produce goods that are used in the settlements which grow in both population and size as time passes. Linking these settlements together with a railway enables passengers to move between them, which can become a highly profitable source of income, but only if carefully managed.
Even beginning on a “small” map, I was initially overwhelmed by the scale of what I had to mange. It can be quite daunting looking at the various settlements and industries, knowing that eventually you will need to link them together to form an efficient and profitable network. Luckily, the enormous amount of freedom in the game means that you can start wherever you want to and focus on what you want.
To begin with, you can create bus or tram routes within each settlement. This allows people to move quickly between the different zones (Residential, Industrial, Commercial, and Leisure) found in each town. Early on in the game, creating bus networks in the largest towns provides an easy source of income, as bus stops are cheap to build and horse-drawn carriages are cheaper than trains by far. You simply place the bus or tram stops where you want around each town and add them to a route that your vehicles will follow.
Building a railway is slightly more tricky. While you place the track by simply dragging and clicking, you need to take into account the topography, as well as anticipate how each settlement will grow. Tracks can’t be laid upon steep hills, whilst tunnels and cuttings can be expensive. It’s great that the map isn’t grid-based and that you’re free to place objects wherever you want, however it can become frustratingly difficult to join tracks together in a network. Occasionally, the game seems to prevent you from placing tracks which look perfectly fine, and gives you un-informative error messages such as “not enough space” or “unable to align terrain” which don’t really help you. Placing signals can also be problematic, mostly because there isn’t a tutorial that tells you how they work. But, sooner or later, you finally figure out what was wrong and begin ferrying passengers between stations.
Like with most games of this genre, it is key to be constantly planning ahead, questioning every decision you make as to what will the consequences be 20, 30, 40 years or more down the line. For example, I once made the mistake of purchasing only a few of the first motorised lorries when they became available. This meant that on my roads, I had a mix of horses traveling at relatively slow speeds and the much faster lorries. As a result, the lorries I had just purchased did not provide the increased efficiency I anticipated, simply because they were stuck in horse-drawn traffic the whole time. To rectify this, I sold all the carts and bought an entire fleet of motorised lorries.
For about 20 years, this was great; my cargo routes were running quickly and efficiently. However, when the vehicles came to the end of their lifetimes, I suddenly found myself needing to replace a large number of vehicles all in one go. When a vehicle comes to the end of its lifetime, its maintenance costs begin to creep up, in turn reducing the amount of profit that the vehicle makes. You can continue to use the vehicles if you wish, but this can quickly turn into a downwards spiral with profits decreasing and less money for you to use to replace your aging fleet of vehicles. If you’re not careful, this can be game over for you, something I learnt this the hard way before the autosaves saved me!
Since then, I always try to upgrade vehicles in stages, aiming to reduce the problem of suddenly requiring to carry out widespread upgrades later down the line. I also take into account the routes taken by those vehicles, so that I minimise speed differences and thus reduce holdups. Eventually, there comes a time where you need to upgrade the road infrastructure, as simple dirt roads restrict the speed of your lorries. While this doesn’t cost a huge amount, it’s certainly something to be aware of, as there’s no point in upgrading your vehicles to find they offer you no improved speed due to the quality of the roads. Much later on in the game, it can worth upgrading your busiest roads to wider, multi-lane ones to reduce traffic and you may also choose to have dedicated bus lanes to ensure your passenger network gets priority.
As time progresses, and newer vehicles such as high speed trains become available, you naturally upgrade your routes and expand your network. Ultimately, you aim to have each settlement being provided with the right amount of goods from your factories, with passengers able to travel from settlement to settlement. The demands from each settlement drives the production at your factories, which in turn drives the production of raw materials. There’s no endgame as such, because you can keep going for as long as you like, but no new vehicles become available after 2020.
The game is mod-able though, and already there are mods that add new vehicles and alter certain settings. The best one I have seen so far is one that increases the number of industry chains from the rather underwhelming 4 to 12, which will not only makes the game longer, but harder too. Additionally, the developers appear to be very open, discussing what they are currently working and have already released patches to address certain issues, which is great to see considering the game hasn’t had the smoothest of launches.
I say this, because it feels like this game was released slightly too soon. It’s not just because there’s the odd bug here and there, but simple things, like an ‘undo’ button would be a welcome addition for fixing the odd misclick when placing railway tracks. The UI, although nice to look at, could also do with some more functionality to help you manage your empire of routes and vehicles.
The lack of a tutorial upon release is particularly baffling though, and I had to resort to the official forums and user guides to uncover more about what I could do in the game and how best to do it. In some ways, it was satisfying to discover things on my own, and I kept wanting to start a new game. This was so I could put certain practices in from the start, rather than having to learn and adapt, but I must admit there was also a certain amount of enjoyment to be had from fixing the problems I had created.
While there are incredibly frustrating moments, Train Fever can be really enjoyable to play. There’s certainly a lot of potential for its future, and as the debut game from a five man team, some of the lack of polish can possibly be excused. If you approach the game with an open mind, perhaps even trying to think of it as an Early Access game, the £19.99/$29.99 price tag will look more appealing. All in all, Train Feaver has all the ingredients to be a great transport tycoon game, and with a few tweaks and additions, it can certainly become that.