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      Rail Nation: Newbie Guide (Part 1)

      I discovered Rail Nation about a month ago. I had been looking for a competitive strategy game that allowed me to build an empire (of sorts) but didn’t have an enemy who was dedicated to trying to destroy my empire. Rail Nation fitted the bill very well.

      The sort of game I have described often boils down to an economic competition. Rail Nation is (obviously) centred around running a railway/railroad company and building tracks, but your trains are just agents towards an underlying goal of economic growth. It has the classic elements of economic MMO strategy games: three different currencies (cash, used for most purchases; research points; and gold, used for premium purchases); guilds/associations that players are encouraged to join; a research tree; buildings that provide better benefits if they are upgraded (which requires cash); gradual depreciation of assets to encourage you to log in regularly (i.e. your trains need servicing every 24 hours or so); and the option to buy advantages by spending real money on extra gold.

      I have played a few other MMO games in depth, but some I have given up on because you have to be online as much of the time as possible. Life is too demanding for that. Rail Nation offers timed cash bonuses (one comes every 90 minutes, the other every 6 hours); I was very pleased to discover that Rail Nation has a feature where other members of your association can collect your bonuses for you. No longer do you have to worry that if you oversleep and don’t have time to log on in the morning, you will lose hours’ worth of bonuses.

      It does have benefits for those who like to be online. The principal one is competitions. Every 6 hours or so, each city will generate a competition to deliver a specified volume of goods to the city in as short a time as possible. The top four who complete the challenge receive prizes – usually cash and prestige points. The trick is to be online at the moment the competition starts to register for it, with your trains already running the relevant routes; you can pre-register for competitions but it costs 10 gold to do so, and the prize is almost never worth that.

      Gameplay: The Beginning

      I’m currently playing on two servers: one is running the USA variant of the game, the other is running the Steam Over Europe variant. (There is a 3rd variant – Classic – which uses a fantasy world map). I’ll describe the USA version first since Steam Over Europe is a newer version of the game with added features.

      First of all, as a newbie you REALLY want to register for the game on Day One of Era One. Any later and you’ll be struggling to catch up for quite a while, and you’ll miss out on the surprise day 14 login bonus. To find out when the next server start will be, go to the game’s home web page, open the Forum and look for the Serverstarts thread. However, starting late isn’t as bad as it might be in other MMO games because you won’t necessarily lose out if your research is not at the forefront of technology (more on this below).

      When you register for a server you’ll be asked which city you want to start in. The game will offer you 100 gold if you start in its recommended city. While 100 gold is worth having, do not take the offer as the recommended city is typically one that’s short of players and the way to win this game is to be based in a city that has as many players as possible. Instead, choose a city that’s close to several other cities – it’ll save you money building tracks between them. If a nearby city has many more players than your start city, you can transfer your HQ to that city once you have built tracks to it.

      The USA variant of the game has a competition between two regions, West and East. The Europe variant has a competition between ten regions. In most cases, these competitions won’t affect you as a newbie until quite a while into the game. If you want to keep your options open for later in the game, then choose a start city that’s fairly central on the map.

      Standard game

      The basis of the game is that trains deliver goods to cities. Once a city has enough of the goods it has requested (normally known as required goods or RGs), it will grow to the next level and request a slightly different set of goods. The faster your city levels up, the higher in the city rankings it will be.

      As a newbie, what matters most is the tension between being asked to deliver the city’s RGs and wanting to deliver other goods, perhaps to other places, that make the most money. Prices offered for goods diminish as the city gets closer to being full of them, so just before a level up the RGs usually provide poor payback. It’s up to you how you deal with that; delivering RGs is always the best strategy long-term (and it makes your association and your fellow city dwellers happy) but if you are desperate for cash for some upgrade or other, you may go for short-term gain instead – or mix and match.

      One thing to look out for is the “wait for recalc” messages on the city’s or association’s forum just after a level up. The system recalculates occupancy rates of industries every hour. If the occupancy rate is 0% then there is no waiting time, which means all haulers get a golden hour of massive profits until the next recalculation. But if even one person ships goods for any part of the previous hour (and it’s often a newbie who doesn’t know about recalc), the occupancy rate will be well over 50%. So it’s worth everyone’s while to hold off shipping certain goods until after the recalculation.

      As far as strategy goes, it’s a good idea to chain your deliveries (e.g. rather than simply picking up leather and delivering it, pick up grain and deliver it to the cattle farm; pick up cattle and deliver them to the tannery; and then pick up leather and take it to the city). It’s also a good idea to connect track to other cities in order to be eligible for their competitions. (Note that the last track that actually connects to the city costs more than normal track laying – the more city-linking tracks you have laid, the more it costs). And keep an eye out for warehouses – usually far away from all cities, they typically offer higher prices for goods than cities do (though if they are too far away, they’ll be less profitable than making a short run with cheaper goods).

      Building upgrade strategy guides can be found scattered around the Internet, but the basic advice is to upgrade your engine house to its maximum level ASAP. A bigger engine house means you can run more trains, which are the mainstay of your income.

      About competitions: in the early days of Era 1, you are likely to find it impossible to win them. This is because Rail Nation has a (rather nice) feature to reward dedicated players called a Career Engine. As you play and achieve certain targets, you get Achievement Points and these are used to unlock and upgrade a bonus blue engine, which is always available to you on every server you play on. So if you are in a competition in Era 1 and you’re up against a player with a well-upgraded Career Engine, you have no chance of winning. This is a nuisance in the first few days when the cash from a competition win can really help your finances. However, as the game goes on, the influence of the Career Engine becomes less important.
    • Rail Nation: Newbie Guide: Part 2

      Research

      Research works a little differently in Rail Nation than in many other MMOs. Rather than having a huge research tree to choose from, you have very little choice in the path that you pursue as you discover and upgrade successive engines. Your main decision is whether to research all the upgrades for an engine (because you’re going to use it) or just the minimum number to get to the next engine in the tree. In Era 1, the standard advice is to research all upgrades on the Swallow (the first engine you get) and to run Swallows until you research the Falcon. Upgrade the Falcon fully and stick with it into Era 2.

      After upgrading the Falcon, you are offered the chance to research the next engine and then to research Coupling which allows your Falcons to haul the goods of Era 2. However, very few players reach Coupling before the end of Era 1 – and it doesn’t matter much. The cities will still demand some Level 1 goods well into Era 2, by which time you will have researched and bought some Era 2 engines.

      This feature changes the emphasis on research from many other MMO games, where staying ahead in research is the key to victory. In Rail Nation it’s useful to research quickly – you’ll get the best engines of an era a day or two before other players – but you can have merely adequate research and still do well in the game.

      Premium bonuses

      Games such as this one exist because keen players pay real money for premium bonuses. It’s a fine balancing act for the game makers to attract enough money while still making it feasible for non-payers to win.

      In Rail Nation, real money buys gold. There are several things that you can spend gold on but there are only two that are worth discussing: the Plus account and era packages.

      The Plus Account gives you various advantages for seven days. Only three directly affect gameplay: the account increases your research speed by 33% and your bank account limit by 100%, both of which are very handy, and it also gives you a cash bonus of 5% of your daily turnover. Several other advantages make your life easier, such as allowing you to upgrade two buildings simultaneously or telling you the hourly profit from various routes your trains could follow to deliver goods, rather than simply listing the prices offered for goods. (The hourly profit is affected by how far away the supplier is; how fast your trains are; how long the waiting time at the supplier is; and whether you have a licence that gives a bonus on those goods. Without a Plus account, you can see it once you have set up a schedule, but not beforehand).

      You get a Plus Account for seven days when you start playing. When mine expired, the thing I missed most wasn’t the gameplay advantages. It was the ability to assign schedules to multiple engines at once. When you want to switch the orders of all your engines to enter a competition and then switch back a little later, giving seven separate sets of the same orders, twice over, is a pain. And that’s in Era 1 – in later eras you may have more than twenty trains running.

      Era packages give you a mixture of building upgrades, engines and other bonuses. They’re usually only available near the start of the era. Most players buy the Starter Package (the Era 1 package) which includes an engine house upgrade and a laboratory upgrade, but fewer fork out for the more expensive packages in later eras.
      You get some gold allocated at the beginning of the game, and you can pick up odd bits from the game’s Lottery. Don’t rely on getting enough that way to sustain a Plus account or buy an era package.

      There are other ways of getting gold in the Steam over Europe variant of the game. See below.

      N.B. If your Plus account expires and you plan to pay for gold to renew it, wait a few days before you do. There’s a good chance the game will volunteer a special offer where buying gold gives you some kind of discount – the best I’ve had is a free 2-week Plus account.

      Steam over Europe

      Steam of Europe is an updated version of Rail Nation that has enough new features that it deserves its own section. There are various small and helpful changes such as introducing a ‘museum’ which allows you to own engines of different types and transfer them to and from the museum as needed. Also, competition prizes have been extended; instead of the prestige points, you can win licences (also available in the Standard game); vouchers; research points; gold and a 24-hour Plus account; or even bonus engines (which don’t count towards your Engine House limit). This gives an added incentive to connect to other cities to play in their competitions; in theory, you could win a 24-hour Plus account every day and never need to buy another one.

      The two biggest changes are the introduction of passenger trains and of landmarks. Passenger trains require passenger engines, and so every era gets an extra branch in its research tree. Passengers are treated as just another type of cargo – their value goes up and down according to how many the receiving city has had delivered, not according to the distance travelled, which is bad news for regions where the cities are far apart such as the East region (Russia/Ukraine). You have to upgrade a second building in your city (the Station Concourse) to run a lot of passenger trains – but if you do, you will be exempt from many of the vagaries of goods pricing and wagons of the current era. So running an all-passenger service is a legitimate strategy, and a few folk use it.

      By far the biggest change to the game, though, is the introduction of landmarks. Every city has an associated landmark a couple of track links away from it (Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Manchester has the Beetham Tower!), which functions as another place that buys goods and that must be upgraded. The trick is to upgrade the landmark and the city in step, because if the city gets two or more levels ahead of the landmark, then extra goods must be shipped to the landmark to make it level up.

      As if that wasn’t enough, the landmark also requires significant cash investment before it will level up – on average, it’s 1-2 days’ income from each player in the city for each level. When you combine that with the near-constant need to ship goods to the landmark to fulfill its quotas even when its prices are very low, it’s easy to conclude that landmarks are little more than a pain in the backside.

      However, landmarks do change the dynamic of the game in some interesting ways. Landmarks offer very high prices for goods just after they have levelled. The new changes also introduce a far larger political element to the game; cities still have mayors but every one of the ten regions has a president, and the president (and his cabinet) control a landmark bonus which can be awarded to any landmark in their region at any time and gives a bonus on goods prices there. Good politics is to rotate the bonus between the different cities, or to use the bonus as a reward (e.g. for levelling a landmark) or as an incentive (e.g. awarding it when a landmark reaches 90% of its required goods) … there are plenty of political choices to be made, though the main role of every political leader in this game is to nag players to donate money to their landmarks.

      The need to upgrade both landmarks and cities means that cities don’t upgrade nearly as fast as they do in the Standard game. This slows the appearance of the latest goods on the map, which in turn reduces the need to research Coupling, giving you research points to follow that extra research branch to get your passenger engines.

      Another change that affects overall strategy is that the ten regions are divided by so-called “special routes” which require a ton of investment from players before they can be used. The effect is to encourage expansion within your region, which does at least mean that cities on the far-flung corners of the map have some chance of being levelled up, rather than becoming ghost towns.

      I would recommend that newbies start by playing the Standard game and then move onto Steam over Europe later. Upgrading landmarks may be a nuisance but the overall effect of the changes rewards players who are prepared to think about how to make all the new changes work in their favour
    • That is a very well written introduction to the game, thanks Samwiser

      I have one comment however in response to your suggestion:


      samwiser wrote:

      I would recommend that newbies start by playing the Standard game and then move onto Steam over Europe later. Upgrading landmarks may be a nuisance but the overall effect of the changes rewards players who are prepared to think about how to make all the new changes work in their favour

      In practice, many, many players coming from the Classic scenario have real problem with switching from "levelling the city" mode to "playing as a team" mode. As a result they continue hauling to the city as they've done in the classic version, oblivious to the fact that SoE should be considered a totally different game.

      I would definitely NOT recommend that newbies start with Classic and then switch, anyone switching should be aware that SoE is a DIFFERENT game altogether. It is no longer just a 'hauling' game, it's a team strategy game. It is much more complex and much more fun because of it. Players who just love hauling to their cities to level them up and up and up to stay at the top of the list, should play the Classic where they'll be considered real heroes, rather than a nuisance if they do the same in SoE.