This article originally appeared in issues 249 of PC Gamer UK.
Eighteen years after release, I'm still captivated by the patchwork landscapes of Transport Tycoon. The neat fenceposts of the game's cottages, the chugging steam locomotives and the tranquillity of a tiny seaside hamlet are still as arresting as ever.
I've been playing OpenTTD – a free, open-source remake of Chris Sawyer's classic 1994 management game. It's one of those rare things: a facsimile of a well-loved title that improves greatly on the original.
It's infinitely customisable through downloadable mods that can change everything – the gorgeous pixel art, the relentlessly jazzy midi soundtrack, the AI opponents, the names of the towns or even the basic rules of the game itself. But what doesn't change is the charm, the quirks and the atmosphere.
Having moved to Sweden in the last few months, I downloaded a Swedish building set, selected Kronor as my currency, and set the town names to be Swedish, creating places like “Tråtthammar”, “Fjunnsvik” and the delightful-sounding “Gamla Upparp”.(opens in new tab)
The results are adorable. Quaint cottages flying tiny Swedish flags sit alongside ice hockey arenas, frozen fountains and distinctly European office blocks. In one square, a Christmas tree pops up during the month of December and quietly disappears again in January.
I opt to begin with a simple bus route between two towns close to each other – Oskarås and Trollborg. It's going nicely, generating a small profit, but then a subsidy pops up. In Transport Tycoon, the first company to carry cargo along a subsidised route gets a considerable cash boost for a while, so they're worth pursuing. In this case, I'm being asked to carry wheat from a farm to a food processing plant, through the tiny village of Ryttskrona (population 96).
I build a couple of truck depots and begin operations, but wheat is piling up at the station faster than I can transport it. I build as many trucks as I can afford to maximise my profits while the subsidy lasts, but the backlog remains and the village is getting annoyed at me. I try to build a second lorry depot on each end to ease congestion and shift more stock faster, but the village refuses to grant me planning permission because of my “appalling” reputation in the area. To spite them, I decide to start trucking the food produced by the processing plant over to another town instead – Fjiggsloott.(opens in new tab)
Eventually the backlog of wheat clears in Ryttskrona and I can sell some of my vans. I cautiously get rid of three of them for 20,000kr less than I paid for them. Ryttskrona still hates me, so screw them. With the cash in the bank, I'm off to look for new opportunities.
I decide to play punchy, and head on over to a spot where one of my competitors is trucking coal from a mine to a power plant. I set up a railway that runs almost alongside the road the whole way, grinning at the thought of the faces of the truck drivers when they see my sleek modern trains passing them carrying mountains of coal.
The first shipment nets me 60,000kr in one pop. That's not bad compared with my trucks, but I was hoping for more. So far, it's only paid for a pair of its trailers. As the train turns around and attempts to climb the hill out of the station, it breaks down.
Then a message pops up on the screen. Cluemore Transport – one of my competitors – is in trouble and will be sold off or declared bankrupt if performance doesn't improve. I idly scan their company information. They built a truck network too. Time to indulge in a little corporate warfare.(opens in new tab)
I borrow a few hundred thousand kronor from the bank, and build a circular track across a busy road being used by the company's trucks. I hook up a train depot, and build the cheapest diesel train I can find. I position it across the road, and apply the brakes. Soon, a tailback builds up, and the trucks can't get past to deliver their goods. “Train 3 has too few orders in its schedule,” protests the game. No, I think it's carrying out its orders perfectly.
Then an even better idea strikes me. I tell the train to go again, and the trucks start moving. The train rounds to the other crossing, and the truck positioned neatly across it. It's crushed in a fireball under my locomotive's wheels, and the train rolls on, running over a pair of lorries on the other side too. Then, to add insult to literal injury, I stop the train on the crossing again. That's what happens when you mess with me. And by mess, I mean compete legitimately on a level playing field.
I glance at my budget sheet. My trucks are making me in the region of 440,000kr a year. If I can keep a lid on expenditure, and my train line proves profitable, it's still going to be at least five years before I can pay off my loan. Time to build another train line.(opens in new tab)
For me, there's an apt metaphor for development and environmentalism in Transport Tycoon. You start a game in 1950, in an unspoilt countryside full of gentle hills, rolling dales and tranquil lakes, with the best intentions, wanting to preserve the quiet beauty of the landscape.
To start with, you do. A quaint bus route between two towns can only enhance its attractiveness. But then you get greedy. A short coal line here, a livestock truck route there, and before long you're hauling oil half way across the map.
By the time the year 2000 rolls around, every resource has been exploited to its maximum extent. Spidery railroads, traffic-clogged highways and enormous airports scar the map, and any new industry that pops up is leapt upon by a horde of greedy companies. The world you created is richer, but at what cost?
OpenTTD is free, and you don't need Transport Tycoon to run it. Go to openttd.org, hit download, and grab the installer for your version of Windows. If you stick with the default options, you won't go far wrong.