Video Game: Railroad Tycoon

Railroad Tycoon is a series of games simulating the operation of railroads/railways. The original game was created by Sid Meier at MicroProse and released in 1990. Two sequels were created by other developers in 1998 and 2003 respectively, before Meier returned for a fourth installment, Sid Meier's Railroads, in 2006.

The original "Tycoon" game and the one that helped to popularize the Business Sim genre. The game was very well received when it first appeared in 1990 since it captured some of the real life challenge and competition of running a large rail company. It was also a classic example of being better than it sounded, drawing in players who weren't the slightest bit interested in trains, the stock market or 19th-century history.

Tropes present in this series:

  • Anachronism Stew: A minor but still noticeable case in Tycoon 2. While train cars will change appearance through different eras, the world map does not, and thus a meat packing plant or a steel mill will look the same in 1855 as in 2055. Additionally, managers are not confined to specific eras, so in the 1800s you could potentially hire a manager that gives discounts on diesel or electrical expenses, things that do not even exist yet. And of course, all these managers you're hiring variably haven't been born yet, or died years ago.
  • An Entrepreneur Is You: Start with 1,000,000 units of your local money, an empty region of a country, and cities demanding goods. Goal: Provide the best service, make money, defeat rivals.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 1 halfway to Class 2 in the expansions of Tycoon 2. No, really: Twenty Minutes into the Future, the Strait of Gibraltar is dammed and a futuristic geothermal power plant is built in Spain while the drained Mediterranean Sea becomes free land for European development. However, protesters and activists bomb the plant, and the resulting eruption of greenhouse gases causes world sea levels to rise rapidly. In the chaos, North America descends into anarchy, Africa becomes an island and a haven for displaced civilians, the Mediterranean re-fills as Europe is flooded out, and Antarctica melts and is settled.
  • Artificial Stupidity: The AI in Tycoon 2 is generally competent, but sometimes they start their company between two mediocre cities in mountainous terrain with track so convoluted that their trains can do no better than crawl. When Reality Ensues, this leads to a stunted and minimally profitable railway that you can easily out-compete.
  • Awesome but Impractical:
    • The MagLev in Tycoon 2 is rated as having a top speed of 280 miles per hour, but it costs a boatload of money to buy, fuel and maintain, and performs very badly on grades. It's pretty much only useful on high-value passenger runs between large cities on flat ground.
    • In the same game, any industry that requires steel. Steel is only produced from a steel mill, and needs coal and iron to do so, two resources you will likely never find close together near a major town, and thus the cost of the two or three trains needed to produce and move the steel around will likely outweigh the profits you make doing so. In later missions some industries switch to aluminum for their production, and the only industries that still accept steel are Tool and Die Factories and Automobile Factories, the latter of which needs another resource, tires, to produce cargo, and tires in turn need to be manufactured from rubbernote . Good luck finding any profitable and practical route with all these factories and resources in close proximity.
    • In Tycoon 3 you can build suspension bridges across really long distances such as the Great Lakes or construct tunnels through the entire length of a mountain chain. Understandably, this is highly expensive.
  • Beyond the Impossible: In Tycoon 2, pushing up the throttle on trains, especially if they're older engines and/or have poor reliability, can result in their annual breakdown probability going over 100%.
  • Bland-Name Product: A few trains in the third game appear with names changed from their real-life counterparts. The AMD 103 Genesis becomes "USA 103" and the SD90MAC becomes "NA-90D". The "unofficial" 1.06 patch includes the proper names for these 2 locomotives as part of its changes. And then some are entirely made up, like the MagLev in Railroad Tycoon 2.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Tycoon 2 introduces the People Against Humanity (PAH) in the Second Century expansion, who are protesting against the development of the dammed Mediterranean as well as the construction of the Geocore Plant. They eventually bomb the plant, with the resulting global warming causing a Class 1-2 Apocalypse How.
  • Boring but Practical:
    • Want to climb that wall of mountains to get at the mines you see just out of your reach? In Tycoon 2, the 3-Truck Shay has a horrible top speed but is one of the best steep-grade haulers in the game (definitely the best among steam engines) and is rather cheap to boot.
    • In the same game, industry investments. For a few thousand bucks, capping at a million for the really profitable industries, you get a cut of the profits if that industry supplies any trains. The more trains supplied, the more money made. Production facilities like mines and farms can earn you tens of thousands a year for an initial investment of only a few thousand to buy them, if you happen to be running trains to them over and over.
  • Cap: 30,000,000 money units in the original game.
  • Captain Ersatz: Second Century in Tycoon 2 includes a mission where you're contacted by a small Redmond software company called "Macrosquish" who want a connection for their workers. Depending on your success in the mission, the ending message of congratulations will comment that their CEO gives you a few thousand shares as thanks, but the narration snarks "Like those will be worth anything ..."
  • Cattle Baron: The player can build (in the original game) or buy (in Tycoon 2) local industries to make two sets of money. In Tycoon 3, both are possible.
  • Command And Conquer Economy: Specially averted in the third installment; not only there are other rival companies building their own transport networks as in the previous two, but the game itself implements an alternative method: unpicked goods and materials are gradually moved from their production sites to the places where they are needed, following supply-and-demand logic and price curves. Depending on the relative locations, it can be inefficient or actually capable to feed the industries on its own, as the cargo moves slowly inland and even more in mountain terrain but faster via rivers and other bodies of water.
  • Competitive Balance:
    • In Tycoon 2, this is achieved for all trains via their speed versus the cars they're hauling and their grade performance. Trains get exponentially slower the more cars you attach and the steeper the grade they struggle with, but attaching fewer cars means less profit. Thus any train can be a Fragile Speedster that moves quickly between stations but makes little profit for having only a couple cars, or a Mighty Glacier with a full load and high profits but sluggish speed. Naturally if you plan your routes properly and choose trains suited to the route though, you can still make any train a Lightning Bruiser, moving between stations quickly and still being highly profitable.
    • The same game also gives this regarding the three train types — steam engines, diesel, and electric. In general, steam trains have higher fuel costs and need more station facilities to keep them running properly, diesel trains have a higher initial price tag and middling speeds, and electric trains are cheap and fast but need expensive electrified rails to run on.
  • The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard: Specifically My Rules Are Not Your Rules:
    • In the original game, the AI can build track in ways the player cannot, like several bridges along the length of a river, or up to eight tracks coming out of a station in all directions.
    • By the time it gets to Tycoon 2, things are much more even, though the computer players still seem to be able to afford things that the human player cannot (like stock in the human player's company). And if you buy out an opponent's company, you're going to find yourself wondering how their steam engines managed to run properly for years when none of their stations have roundhouses or water towers, which are vital for steam engines to run smoothly for more than a year. Additionally, the AI is able to go into debt to buy things it doesn't actually have the money for at the time, whereas you either have the money or you don't.
  • Cool Train: Guess. From Railroad Tycoon 2, for instance:
    • Many of the older classic steam engines, like the 4-4-0 American or the 2-8-0 Consolidation.
    • Several of the late-game electric "bullet train" models, culminating in the futuristic MagLev, rated as having "instant" acceleration and a top speed of 280 miles per hour.
  • Copy Protection
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: You! The player can engage in activities such as running trusts or insider trading, transport illegal goods to make some extra cash, and make shady deals with dubious figures to get a leg up on competitors.
    • Try this in Tycoon 2: use a majority share of a rival company to elect yourself chairman, sell off or destroy all their trains, railroad and industry investments, then re-elect yourself chairman of your original company and buy out the rival company for a bargain price (again using your majority share to ensure the buy-out goes through) since their stock price will have plummeted as a result of losing all their assets. You'll not only get your rival out of the way but the profit other players would have made off a "normal" merger is reduced to pennies since at the time of the merger the stock price was so low.
    • Here is a route if you're trying to improve your personal net worth. Acquire a 50+1% share of your main company, which gives you full ownership and neutralizes the company board of directors. Resign your chairmanship and found a new company which you also control the majority of shares (which doesn't need to have any tangible assets). Re-take the chairmanship of your original company, and then buy out the new company for maximum share price (if you want you can take out bonds to increase your first company's cash on hand to afford an even higher price per share). The result is all of your company's money that goes into the buyout slides into your own pocket. Your board of directors will be furious with you for treating the company like an ATM, but there is nothing they can do about it since you hold majority ownership. In real life this would result in lawsuits and possibly jail time.
    • A few maps have the objective of being the only railroad in operation, encouraging this sort of play to drive the competition into the ground as ruthlessly as possible.
    • The last few missions of the Second Century campaign in Tycoon 2 have you as this trope in the storyline. Sure, the world is flooding, anarchy is rampant, and food is in short supply. That just means a cunning railroad baron can make a killing supplying the people in their time of greatest need! The narrator even says on one such mission, "In chaos lies profit".
  • Crutch Character: In Tycoon 2, the Iron Duke far and away has better stats than any other train to be available before it, and a few after it too. It'll be your go-to engine for several decades, but eventually its high purchase price, fuel costs, and terrible grade performance gradually make it outclassed by more modern engines.
  • Divided States of America: The flooded United States scenario in the Second Century campaign in Tycoon 2 is somewhere between this and Fallen States of America. Flooding is bad enough that the entire Mississippi valley is gone, along with most of the major cities. The government has collapsed into several successor states, while everything west of Omaha is an anarchic wasteland.
  • Disc One Nuke: Several maps include deals to get you early access to higher-tier engines than what would otherwise be available by default.
  • Early Game Hell: Generally, Tycoon 2 is hardest in the first 10 years or so of play: you have few stock holdings, your company probably only has enough money to lay down track for one route and run one or two trains on it, the starting managers to help you out suck, and you'll probably have to take out bonds to help finance it all. As the game continues and you begin to rack up profits, however, you can expand your network, pay off your debts, buy up more stock, and so forth.
  • Expanded States of America: The "Eastern USA" scenario allows you to start anytime between 1830 and 2050 and the USA includes at least Ontario and Quebec, and thus Montreal and Toronto are now US cities and require no customs to travel to other US cities. It is, however, entirely possible that this was a simplification for ease of gameplay.
  • Expansion Pack:
    • The Gold and Platinum editions of Railroad Tycoon 2 add the even harder "Second Century" campaign along with a whole bunch of new stand-alone scenario maps.
    • Railroad Tycoon 3: Coast to Coast adds maps such as Ireland, Spain, Western Russia, Eastern China, and the whole continental USA.
  • Explosive Overclocking: In Tycoon 2, pushing a train's throttle setting above 85% (represented by a red zone on the throttle gauge) drastically increases the risk of a breakdown. At 100%, that risk is quadrupled. New trains can handle 100% fine, but don't try to push it with any trains that are over a year or two old. Averted in the original Railroad Tycoon and in Tycoon 3, where no throttles are present.
  • Fake Difficulty: Some missions in Tycoon 2's "Second Century" expansion have the objective for the company to have an average lifetime speed of all trains of a particular speed. The problem is that such scenarios give you access to diesel trains which cannot hope to achieve such speeds regularly, forcing you to instead use electric trains, which generally have higher fuel and maintenance costs as well as needing electric track to run, making them much more expensive and the mission more difficult, all to achieve a relatively pointless and insignificant statistic.
  • Fragile Speedster: Some of the fastest steam engines, such as the No. 999, cannot climb very well. In addition, some similarly fast engines have alarmingly low reliability ratings.
  • Gameplay and Story Integration: While its adherence to historical fact is laughable, occasionally the story rears its head to shake things up, such as wars affecting train route access or cargo available at the time they would be expected to start.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Guess what the cheat code to increase city growth is? "Viagra".
  • Glass Cannon: In many early missions in Tycoon 2, the Iron Duke has speed a good ten miles or more faster than other trains of the time, making it your go-to engine for those missions ... unless you're facing a route with steep grade, because the Duke moves like a snail over anything steeper than a gentle incline.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: The kid from the intro of Railroad Tycoon 3.
  • Historical In-Joke/Alternate History: Several historical scenarios have the player as a major driving force behind the events, for instance in the third game the German Second Reich can be based on Prussia, Bavaria or Hannover as the core power, depending on the business choices. A Divided States of America scenario also exits. Or how about the victory screen of the "Cape to Cairo" scenario which says "Have you considered colonizing ''Europe'' ?" In a sense, here, you can take history Off the Railsliterally.
  • I Want My Jetpack: The MagLev was said to come out in 2008. Well in 2008, the only such train in commercial serivice was the arguable white elephant known as the Shanghai Maglev Train. Even more unfortunately, Germany's equivalent of this train was dismantled in 2012. And the closest we will have to a proper commercial long-distance high-speed Maglev is the Chuo Shinkansen, which is planned to open for revenue service between Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027.
  • Idiosyncratic Difficulty Levels: Investor, Financier, Mogul and Tycoon in the original. Changed to a more flexible system for Railroad Tycoon 2 and beyond.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, and Sid Meier's Railroads.
  • Infinity–1 Sword: That MagLev mentioned above under Awesome but Impractical? Enter the Brenner — half as much to purchase, less to maintain, lower fuel cost, top speed with a full load of six cars just 20 MPH slower, significantly higher grade performance and better reliability. The drawback compared to the MagLev is slower acceleration. Okay, so your trains take a bit longer to get there and thus you make a bit less money off them, but you'll end up saving a lot more money than you lose since the Brenner's fuel cost is $70,000 a year compared to the MagLev's $305,000.
  • Just Train Wrong: Railroads is full of locomotives missing their tenders.
  • Lighter and Softer: The apparent fourth installment, Sid Meier's Railroads departs from the serious business, hard-simulation approach and has a more toyish and simplified design. Appropiately, it lacks the Tycoon surname and breaks the Numbered Sequels custom.
  • Lightning Bruiser: The Big Boy. Also, the less iconic GG1, GP18, E111 and Dash-9 also count.
  • Loophole Abuse: Unless it's a mission where taking over other companies is not allowed at all, there is no rule that states you have to stick with your starting company to win a scenario. In fact, in a lot of missions your AI opponents will have greater access to foreign territories than your company, so it's beneficial to grab a majority share of a rival company so you can take over it and run it as your own in lieu of the original.
  • Luck-Based Mission: Most maps have randomly generated buildings, so it's in your interest to restart missions over and over to see what you could get. One such map, if you're lucky, might give you two populous cities, one with Coal and Iron Mines and the other with a Steel Mill, creating a very lucrative route for you. Or you might end up with a Bakery at one and a Produce Farm at the other.
  • Mighty Glacier: The Three-Truck Shay in Tycoon 2. It has awful top speed, likely being even slower alone than other trains with full cargo, but its grade performance and speed loss with cars is amazing, so while it is very slow it can easily power over hills and mountains while towing six cars, when most other trains would slow to an absolute crawl.
  • Nintendo Hard: The "Second Century" campaign in Tycoon 2 presumes you've finished the original campaign and thus is appropriately a few steps up in difficulty — many missions have multiple different objectives to achieve, you tend to work in unfriendly territory, often have to play the stock market, and need an awareness of how industry supply lines work. You want that Gold objective? You are earning it.
  • Obvious Rule Patch: A mission in Tycoon 2 has you develop a downtown rail system for Seattle, transporting only passengers of four classifications (depending on their destination). The rule patch is that the game treats these special cars as freight instead of passengersnote  for tracking profit, resulting in the managers that give massive profit boosts to passenger travel being useless when otherwise they would make the mission much easier.
  • Railroad Baron: The player, of course, and some real life examples from history such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, as well as engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and megalomaniac rail-building world leaders such as Benito Mussolini.
  • Real Time with Pause: You can pause in single-player but not in multiplayer.
  • Refining Resources: The purpose of the industries served by the railroads; converting raw materials into elaborated and more expensive goods, usually with an added value.
  • Shout-Out: In the third game, the newspaper includes occasional references to the island of Tropico. Both games were created by PopTop.
  • Showing Their Work:
    • The locomotives in the game tend to be recognizable as real-life engines with performance ratings similar to the real things, and historical scenarios tend to be at least somewhat grounded in reality.
    • The benefits offered by managers line up pretty well with their real world careers. For instance, George Pullman gives +25% passenger revenue and +20% car maintenance costs. Pullman is credited with the invention and widespread adoption of Pullman sleeper cars, passenger cars with fold-out beds so customers could sleep on overnight rides, and his "Pullman Porter" workers provided top quality service on trains. Presumably the addition of such luxury elements means your passenger fees are higher, and the sleeper cars are more expensive to maintain than normal passenger cars.
  • Snowclone Title/Follow the Leader: Oh, Lord, yes. Every single game ending with "Tycoon" can be traced back to this game.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Soft bluegrass pervades the game in all maps, which is weird when you are not in the USA.
  • Third Is 3D: Railroad Tycoon 3 was the first installment of the series in three-dimensional presentation. Tycoon 2 does a good job (for its day) of faking it, though; see the page image above.
  • Trope Codifier: For the private business sub-genre of the Construction And Management Games, compared to SimCity for the local-government sub-genre.
  • Unexpected Gameplay Change: The "Second Century" campaign in Tycoon 2 really changes things up. Several maps have you shipping military supplies to various cities and territories during times of active war, and another has you essentially building a light rail system in the middle of a metropolis.
  • Units Not to Scale: The trains seem to be a mile tall when compared to the size of the map.
  • Video Game Time: Naturally; it's highly unlikely real life train rides take months or years, even when cross-continental.
  • We Buy Anything: On easier difficulty levels cities and towns will buy any goods. At higher levels commodities are only demanded if a local industry needs them, and small towns must expand into cities before they will buy passengers, mail, and other goods.
  • White Man's Burden: The "Cape To Cairo" scenario invokes this by tasking the player to aid in the Colonization of Africa by building rails and running trains between Cape Town and Cairo within 40 years of the start date (1890). Becomes a Crowning Moment of Awesome if you do succeed at this goal, which obviously never happened in Real Life, and even more so if you provide rail service to places which lack proper rail transport even now such as the Central African Republic, Libya, Djibouti, Botswana, Rwanda, Burundi and Chad.
  • Wide Open Sandbox: Most scenarios to a somewhat limited extent, but taken literally in the "Sandbox Mode" of Railroad Tycoon 2. Even by default, the North America scenario sets you down in the continent and gives you free reign to build the ultimate rail empire however you choose and however long it takes.