A-Train is a financial empire building game based on railway building, train scheduling, land speculation, real estate management, city planning, and stock trading. To put that into perspective, it can best be described as a cross between Sim City and Railroad Tycoon. A-Train can be run in either Hi Res (640×400) or standard (320×200), the first thing you notice about A-Train is the beautiful graphics in Hi Res mode. Everything is shown in an isometric perspective, with beautiful little details such as trees and lots of different sorts of houses and farms. There is a night/day cycle which starts to darken the landscape as the evening approaches. After everything turns rusty red at sundown, the building and train lights turn on. The grey of early dawn turns into the bright sunshine of the daytime around 7am. Snow falls in winter, and you occasionally get other little details like Santa Claus flying past on his sleigh and reindeer at midnight on the 24th of December. There are UFOs, and the amusement parks sometimes have fireworks burst above them on Friday nights in summer. Skyscrapers under construction have hammerhead cranes on top of them, and the streets have streetlights. The commercial buildings have neon signs, and so on. The attention to detail is incredible in A-Train from Maxis.
There is a lot more to A-Train than just good looks, however. There are six scenarios in A-Train, addressing different problems with differing amounts of money. The most open is called “New Town,” which presents you with a small community with a rail line and station already running through it. Passenger and freight trains arrive and depart 24 hours a day. You get the profits from these trains, however. The challenge is to build a feeder line to this town, essentially causing other new towns to spring up. The rest of the map is covered with scattered farms, with no real concentrations of settlements. The first is that you are dealing with urban commuter lines, not main lines. One glance at the rolling stock for sale will show you that these are all subway-style trains. Second, if a line runs off the map, it is assumed to connect to a major city slightly off-map. Trains running off the map come back bearing materials and passengers. Materials look like little off-white boxes which freight trains carry in and dump next to your station, if you have land that you own within a certain distance, on which the materials can be stored. An empty freight train stopping in a station will remove materials if there are any nearby and carry them to its next stop. Materials are used to build buildings. Depending on what you’re making, you need more or less materials available locally. Houses built by the program also require materials. If there are no materials available, growth stops. Trains are the only way to carry materials and passengers around and get them where they’re needed.
This brings us to the trains themselves. There are five different freight trains, with differing speeds (high/low) and different capacities 2 or 4 boxes of materials. There are about 18 different passenger trains, either 2 or 3 car, and high or low speed. These trains may or may not be able to pass through stations without stopping, which can be important. The trains also cost different amounts to buy and to run. Every train must be scheduled. A small map is presented showing the tracks available, where you decide what orientation you want the track switches (points or turnouts) to have when the train goes through them. You can then have a test run of this. Also, the departure times of trains must be decided. By default, the train runs a shuttle service, stopping 1 hour at each station on the route. When you’ve laid track and made stations and so on, you can turn your attention to building apartment blocks to encourage commuters. Later, you can build lease buildings (5 to 40 stories), commercial buildings, hotels, factories (which make materials), amusement parks, golf courses, ski resorts, etc., to encourage greater profits. There is a stock market with 24 different stocks for you to dabble in, and a bank to make loans (up to 10% of your net worth). Both of these are only open 9 to 5 weekdays, though. The interest rates change for loans (there are 3 types of loan available), so it’s best to borrow when rates are low. The financial model in this game is very complex, coping as it does with tax, corporate tax, capital gains taxation, land prices, building prices and stock prices (which rise and fall depending what you do – if you are building a lot, for example, you can expect steel company and building company stocks to rise. The options in A-Train are immense and in the end an extremely complicated and complex game, but when you got the hang of it, you will have hours of enjoyable gameplay.