Train Fever attempts to take the railway and transportation management genre to the next level by including elements from many of the past greats. The strongest influence on Train Fever is Transport Tycoon. The Train Fever website acknowledges this by including a small section devoted to the history of this genre. While Train Fever attempts to resurrect and bring rail and transport management back to modern gaming, it fails at standing out among other recent similar titles.
Train Fever tries to be the Jack of All Trades. It includes city public transport, inter-city travel, and cargo supply line management. By putting all these features into one title, not one of them feels fully fleshed out. It may gather a curious audience who has played a game that simulates one of those features well, but it will not hold their attention for long as gamers will find their favorite feature lacking.
The cities are not as large as cities presented in games like Cities in Motion, and the populations are very small. Most cities will start with a population under 200 in 1850. Unfortunately, by the year 2000, it will be a struggle to get their populations north of 1,000. The cities grow dynamically, depdending on how far the residents can travel on your networks in the space of 20 minutes and how well supplied a city is with finished goods, but they never feel like a metropolis. Managing travel within a city may be done with 1 or 2 bus lines, easily getting 80% line usage from the population. The population is not divided by class, either, and every person feels the same, with random destinations (one building each) for home, work, shopping, and leisure. Which one a person picks to travel to seems random, and times passes so quickly (1 day per second), that there is no illusion this person is alive with a real schedule to keep. Cities are so small that many players have stated they do not bother with public transportating within the city limits and focus solely on intercity transportation.
Intercity passenger transportation is a bit more interesting. Traveling from one city to another will be the first task undertaken that the passengers cannot fulfill themselves by just walking. Establishing a connection between two cities also jumpstarts the growth in both cities and you will see an immediate benefit in population growth. The newly created residents now have a chance to have one of their destination buildings be in a different city than their home. The player has a choice of using bus lines, tram lines, or rail lines to complete the connections. Rail is the fastest way to travel throughout the game, but it is the most expensive to build infrastructure, maintain it, and run it. The running costs of one train will dwarf the running costs of an entire bus fleet or tram fleet. Due to this, many players opt for focusing on road connections using trams and buses. Trains are the fastest vehicle, but due to their expense, most lines can only afford one or two trains, which makes for long waiting times at train stations. Trams and buses are slower, but running an entire fleet will shorten the station waiting time dramatically. I actually got passengers farther using light rail trams compared with using trains. Late in the game, the costs for running trains increases dramatically, and passenger rail lines are very difficult to make profitable.
When it comes to cargo transportation, the game feels weakest. There are only three production lines, and each line ends in the same generic cargo type "finished good." The lines are:
Iron Ore + Coal -> Steel Mill -> City
Timber -> Lumber Mill -> City
Oil -> Refinery -> City
Players have an option to ship cargo via trucks or by rail. Trucks can only carry a few tons at a time. Rails need large amounts of cargo in order to be profitable, but it's easier to make a cargo line profitable via rail than it is a passenger line, keeping in mind that freight trains generally have much high running costs than passenger trains. Unlike passengers, cargo has no set destination and can be hauled to any facility that accepts deliveries. This seems like a step back for the genre. Even Simutrans, an open source project with low resolution sprites that look like they were regurgitated from old DOS games, has more production lines with business contracts that provide destinations for all cargo. The one interesting idea that Train Fever presents is that producers will not manufacture without demand. Unless the entire production line is hooked up, nothing will produce. The only way to make a facility produce more is to increase the demand, and that starts at the end of the chain by providing more outlets for the finish goods and working your way up to transporting more raw materials. Unfortunately, the execution of this idea seems lacking. On a small game map, it is possible to supply every city from one cargo line. It does not matter which line you choose, as they all end in the same type of finished goods. Any delay on your line will kill productivity. Train is old and needs to be replaced? You had better put the new train on the track first before getting rid of the old fella as production immediately starts dropping when the line is not serviced. If you want a supply line challenge, try Railroad Tycoon III. Even Railroads! has a better transportation model, as each city will have a variety of needs to be filled.
Routing in Train Fever is the best part of the game, but it can be frustrating. The auto-recalculations of routes at various points in the game sometimes make the game stutter. Routes can also change based on traffic density, turning your nice straight bus route into a twisted death pretzel over time. Rails present some fun puzzles as you try to figure out how to extend your lines without causing train collisions. You can use signals to help with this, but you are limited to simple switches, tunnels, and overpasses on your rail lines. No double-crossovers or four-way diamonds allowed. Designing the throat to a high-traffic station is a pain as you map out where each simple switch enters and exits the throat, and you end up extending the station throat almost halfway to the next town in order to accomodate each one. Station planning is important as you cannot upgrade your station once it is placed. Need a longer platform? Stop all your trains, tear down the old infrastructure, and build an entirely new station. Need more platforms? Same thing. Unless you already have five, then you're at your limit and need to build an entirely new station elsewhere near the city. While train routing is realistic (no trains passing through other trains on the same track), the actual track constructs are limited in scope. Railways X provides a more satisfying layout modeler with far more tools to build interesting crossings and signal systems.
Train Fever has a laundry list of features that made me want to play the game. Unfortunately, each one of these features on its own is handled better by other (and often older) titles. By trying to do so much, Train Fever feels like it glosses over what makes transportation and rail management games fun to play.