Games That Time Forgot: Rails Across America (2001)
Before Flying Lab Software put its attention to its Age of Sail massively-multiplayer online game, Pirates of the Burning Sea, it created a seemingly innocuous train-empire-building game called Rails Across America. The game was initially misunderstood as a watered-down knockoff of Sid Meier's excellent Railroad Tycoon series of games. But when reviewers dug into early builds of Rails Across America, it confounded them. "What are we supposed to be doing in this game?" they must have wondered to themselves as they tried to build a railroad from Quebec to Boston or Richmond to New York and continued to fail.
One of the most difficult things to wrap your head around is the idea that you are not really building a financial institution in Rails Across America; you are trying to make history through any means necessary. Whether that history is building the first rail line to connect Canada to Mexico or the first to dominate a particular region doesn't matter, because it all boils down to prestige, not how much money you have amassed. You gain that prestige, the game's other currency, by building lines of historical significance between major cities.
And it is this kind of thinking -- fame over fortune -- that makes Rails Across America such an interesting game. While Railroad Tycoon or even Transport Tycoon are content to let players wallow in the minutiae of building and maintaining a multimillion-dollar transportation industry, Rails Across America puts the player's focus on influence pedaling. And while that might sound like a boring endeavor, I assure you that it is more sinister and clever than watching your train ride the rails from Boston to Albany.
Even though you spend a fair share of your time borrowing and paying back loans, watching fluctuating interest rates, buying independently owned short lines, and dealing with the highly competitive artificial intelligence, the financial aspect of the game is only a small part of what's going on behind the curtain. Money, and the activities associated with getting and keeping it, are just tools in a toolbox full of wickedness. There are darker tasks to give your attention to.
Rails lets you use influence, which is amassed at regular intervals during the game based on your prestige, to do all sorts of nasty things to your competitors. Greed is good, but influence is better; it is an omnipotent commodity that can help you manipulate any situation -- be it grandiose or unimposing. The game uses an odd real-time battle system where you match a set of cards against the target's set; anything he can't block seals his fate. These cards unleash politicians, local governments, unions, celebrities, the media, citizens, etc. to give you the outcome you desire.
What is interesting about influence in this game is how nonchalantly it is intertwined in the gameplay; there are no moral or ethical conundrums here about ruining another's reputation, causing them to lose money; or bringing together special interests to put someone out of business. It's one thing to be greedy, but it is quite another to be a ruthless, calculating bastard. This game definitely encourages the latter, without any judgment or commentary.
And perhaps that is the true appeal of Rails Across America: its cold-hearted nature and single-minded purpose, morals and ethics be damned. Like Brütal Legend it challenges our notion of what is good and right, though I'd like to think that making history is more of a lofty endeavor than getting a piece of ass.
Check out more Games That Time Forgot.