Hello. I’ve got Train Fever. I love trains to the extent that I have been diagnosed with a communicable disease, the main symptom of which is my intense love of trains. When I’m not looking at or riding around on trains I’m thinking about trains and drawing trains with both of my hands at the same time.
I love big trains I can sit inside, I love little trains I can sit on like a steam-powered horse. I love really long trains that seem to never stop emerging from tunnels. I love short trains with no carriages at all, untethered and allowed to roam the rails as they please. I love metaphorical trains. I love trainers.
To a lesser extent I love buses.
Train Fever is a tycoon game in which you become the god of a square chunk of randomly generated English(ish) countryside. From your avian vantage point, hovering above this perpetually bleak landscape, you can see a handful of towns. They’ve all got faintly British sounding names like West-Twottering-Upon-Avon, Cladsworth and Goochington-By-Sea.
The year is 1850 and everybody gets everywhere by walking. Presumably the sheer psychic force of the population’s combined frustration at a lack of a public transport system has willed you, an omnipotent flying industrialist, into being.
I forgot to mention that, all throughout Train Fever, cool rompy MIDI disco music is playing. You are Brunel in a mini-skirt, rollerskating backwards and chewing bubblegum, laying tracks and establishing sexy rail infrastructures to the hot hot beats. Train Fever has by far the best soundtrack of any train-related game released in the last decade, an utterly gleeful and poppy playlist that makes you stop and think “hell yeah, planning bus routes is the most fun I’ve ever had”. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve been humming my favourite tune, the rousing and slap bass heavy ‘Swinging Priest’, for days now.
But what do you actually do in Train Fever, besides listen to the best music train-and-bus-centric gaming currently has to offer? Well you can do two things: either serve the working population by linking towns together with buses, trains and tram routes, or you can serve local industries by setting up cargo routes between resource producers and resource consumers.
Creating public transport is easy enough. You plonk down bus stops in the towns you want to link up, before adding them both to a new line. By adding a bus depot you can then purchase the earliest form of bus, a horse-drawn stagecoach, to move up to six passengers along your line at hoof-blistering speeds of up to 15mph.
As it’s 1850-something and there’s literally nothing else to do but be pulled around by what is effectively a big dog, almost everybody will want to ride your “bus service” at the same time. People will spend days at a bus stop waiting for a stagecoach to arrive. They require neither food, nor drink, nor sleep. Their basest desire is to be locomoted.
As word of your amazing horse-thing spreads, more and more townsfolk show up to have a go. To serve the uncontrollable demand for public transport you must add more and more stagecoaches to your line, dozens of them in fact. There’s no way to regulate the service either, and as such your fleet of coaches tends to bunch up, marching around the countryside in line formation like a big horse army. You wait days for a bus and then seventeen show up at once. And they’re not even buses. They’re horses with seats.
Regardless, within a very short space of time this interminable equine rollercoaster will be earning you more than half a million dollars per month. That’s right, the fastest way to very quickly earn cash in Train Fever doesn’t even involve a train. In fact, nobody seems to want to go on trains early in the game. I built a train station near to a very crowded bus stop, only to have a mere handful of daredevil passengers willing to ride the railway each month. These are people to whom horses are fascinating. A train should be like a fucking TARDIS to them.
Passenger trains are probably more useful later in the game, once you hit the 20th century and the roads begin to fill up with traffic. When you start out in Train Fever, nobody owns their own vehicle. The roads are empty. Your horses can really let loose and break into a sprightly and unimpeded maximum trot. And once you unlock steam-powered trams and other horseless jobbies, roads become the most sensible way to get about. Who’d use the train when the bus is so much quicker? Or maybe I just put the station in the wrong place. It’s impossible to know. Please get in touch if you know why nobody wants to go on my train in this videogame that is called Train Fever.
There is another use for trains (and roads), and that’s transporting cargo. Here’s how that works. You have places on the map that produce a kind of resource. An oil well makes oil. A quarry makes ore. You have places that need those resources to produce goods. A sawmill that requires wood. A refinery that requires oil. Link the first place to the second place, and the second place to a town, and you have an industry loop that generates free cash.
I don’t think there’s a way to not make staggering piles of money straight away in Train Fever, apart from, as I said earlier, even thinking about building a single railway line. That said, transporting cargo is where trains eventually excel. Extract enough of a resource from a production site and it will increase its rate of production beyond what is possible for a feasible number of road-based haulers to carry. When this happens, drop a cargo train station next to a beefed-up production site and you can move huge amounts of cargo to wherever it needs to go. It’s immensely satisfying seeing tonnes of coal chugging across the countryside, through tunnels and over bridges, before arriving at its destination with a gratifying “cha-ching” sound.
There’s also a ‘cargo’ overview mode that reveals all the cargo on the map at once, which reveals a spooky truth about Train Fever’s world: cargo just sort of floats magically along roads if there’s nobody around to take it away. I don’t understand what that means. Ghosts? Look at all of this oil making its way to Wickham, apropos of invisible spectres. Perhaps it’s an indicator of some hidden demand for cargo to be moved? I can’t tell. Either way, if you see cargo that’s so fed up with sitting around that it starts rolling itself along roads to its destination, that probably means you should put a truck or two in there.
As the game clock ticks on, new kinds of vehicles are invented. Usually they’re faster or more capacious than your current lot, and they all seem to be historically accurate too. Overtaking seems to be illegal in Train Fever, so its usually wise to upgrade an entire line at once rather than have your brand new 50mph coaches stuck behind a century-old horse’s arse. As time passes and you upgrade your roads to include tramlines, you can at least avoid public traffic, but you’ll always suffer from uncomfortable bunching, whether it be clusters of 19th century steam-powered trucks or gaggles of 21st century buses. Everything bunches in the end.
Train Fever is a minimalist transport sim with lots of heart and an astoundingly fruity soundtrack. The industry chains are all essentially identical, but satisfying to link together. The world is detailed and well scaled and the buildings, vehicles and people all evolve, both visually and functionally, as the years progress. The construction tools are basic but functional, and while the game could certainly do with an undo button, for the most part your tracks and roads will end up where they need to be.
Train Fever scratches at a Transport Tycoon itch, but like one of those itches you can’t quite get, one of those ones where the point of the itch seems to migrate around your body until you’re just sort of writhing around in your seat like a big worm, it will leave you wanting something a bit scratchier. Which is a shame because when there’s a really good train game you get to call it a sleeper hitand then you get the rest of the day off work.