MMObility: Rail Nation is perfect for armchair engineers

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MMObility: Rail Nation is perfect for armchair engineers
Rail Nation screenshot
Travian Games' Rail Nation, a new browser-based, non-combat MMORPG, is intriguing, especially if you are a fan of trains, sim management, and friendly player competition. Admittedly, much of the competition in the game is just as cutthroat as I have seen in more "hardcore" games, but at least there is no blood involved. Players start off with a very basic train and route, and a friendly NPC called William L. Smith explains things nicely to get things moving. The idea is to connect your trains to goods, open new routes, and upgrade your fleet of trains to help level your city (a group of players) as you pass through six different eras of technology. Each era lasts two weeks, and the last era is a competition between the 10 highest ranking cities in the game. As you grow you'll also need to open more routes by adding new tracks, which require more goods. Many industries are not even visible on the map until the player unlocks them, giving the game a real feel of moving forward in time. Travian Games likes to put a time limit on gameplay, meaning that there is a true "win" scenario for players to pursue.

While I'm not a big fan of a time limitation on an MMO, and I'm definitely not very skilled at micromanagement, Rail Nation is a lovely game that is relaxing to play. It does take time to grow on you, and its beta access means that the game still has a few issues that need to be ironed out.

Rail Nation screenshot
The first step is to purchase an engine. The beginning tutorial will give you everything you need for these first few steps, so be sure to follow through with it. Next you'll need some wagons (the game uses the British "waggons" as it's made by a German company) to haul goods. Both engines and wagons can be found in the Vehicles menu. There are several different kinds of wagons, each one needed to carry different types of goods. Players unlock the different types as the game progresses. The next step is to set up a schedule that will tell the engines where to go and for how long.

You add stops in the schedule. At the first stop, the train will load goods. The game has some simple icons that show what will happen at each stop. Beginning routes will consist of trains that go out to one stop, pick up goods, and come back to unload them in the city. Once the schedule is submitted, the train goes on its route until it is stopped.

Starting a new route is easy to do and fun. You simply select another engine, hit the schedule button, and select which cities you want to go to. Of course, you'll be limited by the connections that you currently have and by the amount of time it might take the trains to move from one point to another, but I've learned the hard way that slow growth is much better for a newbie. I often become too excited and spend my starting funds and wind up with a couple of extra routes that do not seem very useful. I started a new game on a new server so that I had a better chance at a mre successful performing.

Associations are sort of like guilds. It's a group of players who work together to upgrade a particular city. Because the goal is to eventually be part of one of the top 10 cities in the game in order to participate in the endgame, pulling your weight (I mean, freight) is important. In order to do your job, ryou'll need two components.
  • Wagons: These carry the goods that come from cities. The type you need for a particular good from a particular city becomes available once you make a connection to that city using tracks. The different wagon types all have unique costs.
  • Tracks: Depending on the level of your Track Production building (which can be upgraded), you can lay down a certain number of tracks to different cities. Tracks are not cheap, so do not do what I did and buy some without considering what they connect to. I eventually used a third track to connect to a good that was needed in my host city, and I kept my other trains on short routes until my cash could be built up.
There's also an interesting city-view that will give you access to important buildings that do a number of different things. There's a bank that stores money, a handful of buildings like a restaurant that produce funds automatically, and various buildings that need to be upgraded to unlock new technologies or to add new tracks and routes. If you've ever played a browser-based MMORTS, then you'll be familiar with the layout, but instead of creating tanks and warriors, you'll be manufacturing new engines and components that are needed to run a railway empire.

Rail Nation screenshot
I'm simplifying a bit here, of course. The details about gameplay could fill up a month's worth of columns. The endgame, or becoming one of the top 10 mega-cities that participate in the endgame, is sort of a game in itself and not one I expect to see as a casual player. I put the goal of reaching the endgame out of my head. Instead, I worry about helping out my fellow city or association members and figuring out how to be more efficient during each new game.

The game has plenty of issues, however. Lag, even on a powerful gaming rig, is a problem. The game is developed in Flash and will often lock up on a loading screen or will leave you hanging without access to certain areas. It's been in beta for a while now, but the developers continue to allow the purchase of virtual cash that can be used to speed up upgrades. Normally a game like Rail Nation is perfect for leaving on a separate monitor or tab while checking emails or performing other tasks, but the lag makes the game sometimes unplayable for those purposes. Perhaps a server upgrade or code tweak will smooth the game out.

The in-game chat is basically worthless as well. It updated at odd intervals, leaving all of my newbie questions unanswered. It's a shame when chat boxes are so wonky because chat is often the easiest way to find an answer to a question or to find players to play with.

The game is relatively complicated for newbies, as well. It's easy to make a mistake or to get lost in an attempt at perfect routes. My suggestion is to take it slowly and to keep two games running on two different servers. Use one of the games for experimenting and the other one for "serious" play.

If you like miniature railroad-centric, puzzle-ish gameplay or MMOs that are trying something different, try Rail Nation. Just remember that it is in testing and load times and lag will be a frustrating recurrence.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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