Rails Across America is an excellent strategy game debut from Flying Lab Software, published by Strategy First. Although it seems at first glance to be another hands-on railroad building/management game in the vein of Railroad Tycoon 2, RAA is a very different game that has much more in common with 1830, SimTex's underrated PC version of Avalon Hill's boardgame. And like 1830, RAA is a superb beer-and-pretzel strategy game that deserves a spot in our Hall of Belated Fame.
Let's first dispel the commonly mistaken perception people have when seeing this game on store shelves: Rails Across America is NOT Railroad Tycoon. It does not let you micro-manage your railroad empire on the operational level, such as changing your bogey types to match each city’s supply and demand, laying tracks carefully to avoid high elevations that will slow down the trains, and deciding the exact location for a depot/station. In contrast, Rails Across America lets you concentrate on the big picture of managing a successful railroad company. Starting at any time between 1830 and 2015, you compete against up to seven opponents, either human or computer-controlled. The goal is either the completion of a set scenario goal or the accumulation of prestige points, which are awarded for every profitable action you take, with big rewards available for achieving feats like completing a trans-continental line. The AI competitors are modeled, like in SimTex's 1830, after real-life barons such as Gould and Vandebilt. I find the AI in RAA tougher than the ones in 1830 with more distinct personalities. Some barons will engage in costly price wars with you, some will concentrate on laying expansive tracks, and some are savvy investors that will attempt to sabotage your operations as soon as opportunity arises.
The gameplay is easy to learn, and very user-friendly as most micro-management tasks are automated for you, thus allowing you to focus on high-level business and strategic decisions such as "what is the best economic opportunity I have at the moment?" For example, when you lay tracks to connect one city to another, you can use the "suggest" button to see and approve the computer's recommendations of profitable routes. You can even let the computer assign freight and passenger trains to run on new routes for you, if you don't feel like doing that on your own. This level of automation may make it seem like RAA is a simplistic or easy game, but that's far from the truth. Although you don’t have to micro-manage, you have to do everything else: balancing train traffic and capacity utilization levels, constantly improving your operations with newer signals, more tracks, and replacing older engines, adjusting to the growth of cities over time – these are just some of the tasks you are responsible for.
The key to winning in RAA is sound business logic, i.e. seizing the right business opportunity at the right time, ahead of your opponents. But when the going gets tough, you can use "influence cards" to execute some Machiavellian schemes. These cards work similar to the cards in Entrepreneur and Corporate Machine: you get one card every two months of game time to do fun things like intimidating a city, sabotaging your rivals' lines, promoting labor strikes, or badmouthing your competitors to the banks so they will be refused new loans for months. You can even use graft to increase the rate of getting new cards, and the same cards can be accumulated and used simultaneously to increase their effectiveness.
Although each game can be finished in one evening thanks to the compact, focused beer & pretzel design, RAA is almost infinitely replayable thanks to a great variety of scenarios, opponents' behavior, and gameplay options. The game includes more than twenty scenarios which encompass interesting historical events in the history of the U.S. railway, such as the construction of the Trans-Canada line and dealing with the turmoil of World War II. There is also a number of "What If?" scenarios that are based on an alternate history of the 19th century. If you ever wonder what would have happened if the British barons were trying to dominate California lines, now is your chance to find out. Each scenario requires different strategies to succeed, because there are some fundamentally large differences; for example, you have to cope with abnormally high interest rates and a demand slump during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Billy the Kid (yes, Billy the Kid) in the 1880s. Like any other good strategy game, RAA includes the sandbox scenario, the freeform mode that allows you to set your own parameters and goals.
With a superb user interface, playability, and outstanding play balance and variety, Rails Across America is a must-have for any fan of strategy game who is looking for a solid, fun "quickie" strategy title that can be finished in one setting, but offers plenty of challenge and variety for repeated play. The game supports all major multiplayer modes (up to 8 players), including TCP/IP, LAN, and GameSpy Arcade support. A definite must-have to any fan of business simulation or the colorful history of robber barons, although railroad engineers pining for Railroad Tycoon should look elsewhere. Two thumbs up, way up!Reviewed by: Underdogs