Conductor is one of several jobs that children often fantasize of when growing up. There’s a certain allure to the idea of commanding hundreds of thousands of tons of metal and cargo on a long-distance haul over railways most people never see.
Of course, now that we’re grown up, we realize that conducting a train is a job like any other, and that qualifying for it requires a very specific set of skills that most of us don’t have the time or inclination to develop. Fortunately, there are games that can help you indulge your love of the rails from the comfort of your computer chair.
Railroad Tycoon 2
Not all railway games are about driving trains directly. Others are about building railways, buying trains, and developing a strategy to force competitors out of business. If that’s what you’re looking for, Railroad Tycoon 2 is an excellent pick.
Developed in the mid-90s, Railroad Tycoon 2 offers old-school 2D graphics that translate fairly well to a modern system, and you can buy the game on Steam for just $4.99. For that price you’ll receive not only the full game, but also the expansions, which feature a dizzying array of scenarios.
Gameplay focuses on logistics like load size, laying the right rail for the terrain, and manipulating urban centers with the supply of goods you can provide. There’s also plenty of train-love, though; you have to select what trains you want to buy for your economic empire, and the type you pick has a big impact on how your business operates. Railroad Tycoon 2 is the perfect game for players who want to master the rails from a bird’s eye view, and its inexpensive price and low system requirements make it accessible to everyone.
There’s also an original Railroad Tycoon, of course, and a Railroad Tycoon 3. Each has subtle pros and cons, and are worth a look. For me, though, Railroad Tycoon 2 is the best.
Microsoft Train Simulator
Microsoft Flight Simulator was the company’s most well-known simulation game, but it’s hardly the only one the company made. In 2001, for example, it released Microsoft Train Simulator, a title that to this day is considered one of the best train sims available.
The game’s main lures are its realistic gameplay and breadth of content, which is supported by a mod community that’s been committed to the game for over ten years. Fan support has been so strong, in fact, that some paid third-party expansions exist, and they’re actually rather popular!
However, like most old simulations, the game can be hard to start playing. A forum like Trainsim.com is a good place to start and will help you get up to speed with popular mods as well, how to play the game, and how to conquer any bugs you might encounter. The relatively high barrier to entry is reduced somewhat by the low cost of the game; you can find used copies for just a few bucks.
Train Simulator 2014
After a lull in the middle of the last decade, train simulations have gained new popularity since 2010, and the Train Simulator series is probably the reason why. Though it’s not the only modern train simulator, its developers have made sure it’s readily accessible on digital storefronts like Steam, which has improved the game’s accessibility and put it in front of the eyes of millions.
The pros and cons of the Train Simulator series should be familiar to anyone who has played a niche simulator before. On the plus side, the game offers decent graphics, a realistic experience and a huge variety of content. On the downside, the game is notoriously buggy and accessing all the content means laying down a lot of money for DLC. Some DLC trains are $19.99 by themselves, and that’s on top of the core game’s $54.99 MSRP.
Still, if you want an attractive, modern train simulator, this game is the way to go. Just keep in mind that it requires Steam, so you’ll need an Internet connection to play even if you purchase the game from another source, such as Amazon.com or the developer’s website.
Sid Meier’s Railroads!
Hardcore simulations have their place, but there may come a time when you want a quicker, more accessible experience. That’s where Sid Meier’s Railroads! comes in handy.
Despite Sid Meier’s reputation for delivering deep strategy titles, Railroads! is actually a fairly simple strategy game that focuses on economic development and mastery of the rails. In this sense it is similar to Railroad Tycoon 2, but Railroads! has a smaller, more condensed map, a less sophisticated economic system and simpler track placement. All of this makes for a faster, more competitive experience, and multi-player was a standout feature when the game came out in 2006.
Speaking of release dates, the fact that Railroads! arrived less than ten years ago is to its advantage. Even the most recent Railroad Tycoon title is three years older, and it looks it. Railroads! feels like a more modern game, and it’s less likely to have compatibility issues with recent hardware. You can pick up the game for less than $10 on Amazon.
Trainz Simulator 2012
You could be forgiven for thinking a game called Trainz Simulator shouldn’t be taken seriously. Surely it’s some kind of joke – right?
Nope. Trainz Simulator is for real, and it’s among the most rigorous train sims ever developed. There’s a huge list of locomotives and cargo, a broad range of routes to explore, and a variety of different eras to choose from, ranging from modern southern China to America in the late 90s. Though initially a bit buggy, the game’s most recent version (Trainz Simulator 2012) is now a couple years old and has benefited from various patches and improvements.
The downsides are similar to the Train Simulator series, but are arguably less severe. Bugs can be an issue, but are less frequent. DLC can be expensive, but is a bit more affordable than with its competitor. The game’s retail price of $49.90 is a bit less, too, and Steam is not required (but there is DRM in the form of periodic activation checks for DLC content).
An iPad and Android version of the game, called Trainz, is available. The game is based off the 2010 edition and is simplified for use with touch. You can pick up the tablet version for just $4.99 on both Google Play and the Apple App Store.
Picking the best game from this list is impossible. Long, heated and ultimately inconclusive forum flame-fests have tried to reach a definitive answer, to no avail. Different players prefer different games for their own reasons, and often the reasons themselves are so niche they’re almost impossible to explain to the layman.
Still, I feel I have to make a recommendation, so I suggest Railroad Tycoon 2 and Trainz Simulator (depending on if you’d prefer strategy or first-person simulation). These titles are the most accessible of the bunch, so they’re probably the best place for a newcomer to start. If you’re on a budget, though, Microsoft Train Simulator is a good alternative, because used copies can be purchased for peanuts.