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The Lost Fourth Genre of the Hobbyist Game Industry

Train games aren't about the trains!!! Your great grandparents weren't nearly as primitive as you believe they were.

Marc Michalik, Blogger

May 12, 2016

6 Min Read

The game conventions of the 15-year or so "golden era" of The Big Three games all had a similar basic format.  There were generally 5 main areas of a game convention of this era.  Each of The Big Three games, of course, had their own areas (with the "ASL area" actually being the Avalon Hill room for all of their games).  There was a general gaming area for all other games.  And then there was the train game area, my local convention called it "The Puffing Billy Room".  This area wasn't for any one train game, but the dozen or so favorites of the genre that were so popular that a dedicated area at conventions just like The Big Three had was necessary to support the large number of players who came just for the train games.  This is the origin of the genre that you know as Railroad Tycoon and it's descendants... which the modern game industry got wrong right out of the gate.  The train game genre is timeless, just like The Big Three, and will never lose it's appeal as long as it is done right.  Train games are "the lost 4th genre" of the hobbyist game industry... because they actually have absolutely nothing to do with trains, but since your industry never really paid much attention too us you wouldn't know that.

There are several different ways of "doing it right" with train games, once you know what they actually are.  It's pretty obvious that Sid Meier was the only actual train game fan to make a computer game version of them... the rest were all "fingerpainting", so-to-speak, so the genre went in the wrong direction right from the beginning and failed in your industry.  Sid tried to make the train aspect of the game more detailed to add an element that wasn't present in the classics of the genre, which does seem like a good idea on the surface for a certain type of "train guy" computer train game, but in doing so he confused those who tried to follow him without knowing the true source of where Railroad Tycoon had actually come from.  It's actually still there, if someone were to do it right in any one of half-a-dozen or so different ways that have always been loved by gamers.  Playing hobbyist train games like 1830, for example, and the other "Puffing Billy Room" games, will show you why these are such timeless classics.  To put it in the simplest way... train games aren't about the trains, it is the best and most interesting way of making a financial/stock market/business expansion game. 

Train games just happen to have all the right elements to make it all work in any number of amazingly interesting and fun ways.  You've been "blinded by the trains".  The classic train games aren't really about the trains at all.  They weren't popular because old guys liked trains and had train sets running through miniature towns in their basements, like you think they were.  The trains are just the perfect tangible model to convey too the player "his business empire in motion" in a simple and iconic way... nothing does that better than tracks and trains.  It has nothing to do with the trains.  And "doing it right" doesn't mean making a mathematician-programmer PHD'd economist's spreadsheet dream.  It means the opposite of that.  It means doing it in an intriguing and interesting, simple, abstract and iconic way... with "stations", "trains", and "tracks" conveying "expanding business in motion". 

Sid Meier was a great game designer, obviously, but not great at everything.  Railroad Tycoon actually wasn't very good as train games go.  Not comparatively, anyway.  He made it way too much about the trains (train games are not about the trains!!!), and he really wasn't very good at working within this genre so the business/stock market aspects of it are really done pretty badly compared to the classics of the genre.  He uses ledgers and figures where the whole point of the genre is to use the stations, tracks, trains, and shares of stock to represent these things in a simple and iconic way.  Specifically NOT with ledgers and figures, that's kind of the whole point.  Sid Meier's considerable influence on the modern game industry set the wrong course for this genre, which has made it far less than it should be in the modern game industry.  Still... he was definitely better at making train games than he was at making football games, that's for sure...







     I really wish I could make these roll... FPS:FB98 w/ IKNFL98e RULES!!!    yes


               Madden, eat our dust (Indra says Hi)...  Ok, back to the "train games"...  devil


If you've never played a board game version of a train game, then you don't actually know what a train game really is.  You could try Acquire as the most basic and simple example of the concept, it is the primary concept of a "train game" stripped down to it's most basic possible form.  It's not about the trains!!!  They don't even need to be trains... get it?  A new network of Mars colony domes, a trade network between colonies in the same or different solar systems (the one I would make), caravan's in the ancient middle east, Roman roads...  any form of "stations", "tracks", and "trains" will do.  This is it's own potentially vast genre, it really is.  

A "train game" is not the same thing as the "trading games" you are thinking of right now that have already been made.  These are very different.  Train games are purely "strategic level" games.  "Trade route games" like Ceaser are descedants of Sid Meier's "train heavy tactical level" vision of the genre.  The hobbyist train game genre is the opposite of what Sid did in many ways.  More dynamic and intricate as games and yet at the same time more simple, because it is very abstract and iconic, with no "tactical level of detail" at all.  Acquire is the "Chess" of this genre... the genre of minimalist abstract "expanding empire business simulations" presented in a way that a casual gamer can appreciate and easily understand.  It's huge, it really is.  Really, really huge.  No matter how big you are already thinking that it might be... it's bigger than that.  A lot bigger.  There is a really big "lost genre" here, and it looks something like this...

1830: Railways & Robber Barrons.  There are half-a-dozen or so popular basic forms of this genre, and many variants among those basic forms.  Many of these games were made.  1830 is among the most popular and most commonly seen at conventions.  By tradition of the genre, most of these game names begin with a year such as 1836 or 1856: 


Avalon Hill's Acquire.  This is the original.  The "train game genre" stripped down to it's bare essence, it's most simple and basic form:


Settlers of Catan.  One of the last big hit games during the final days of the hobbyist game industry.  This German game was the beginning of the train game genre diversifying into other subject matter, but the industry died before this evolution could continue.  It's a huge untapped proven genre, just waiting for someone to translate to the computer (...without the trains!!!):  


Now that I've gone over The Big Three main branches of the Tree of Life of the modern game industry, and this one fairly thick medium-sized "lost train game genre" branch that also comes growing out of the Avalon Hill trunk of the tree, I'll continue this blog as a weekly series of articles.  Each week I'll cover one of the "Tiny Little Branches" of the Tree of Life of the often surprisingly not-so-modern games of today.


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