Chris Sawyer’s Transport Tycoon was released on PC in 1994. 21 years later it’s still as addicting and fun to play as ever and despite many attempts (including a sequel and mobile version), no one’s been able to make something better. It is a game of micromanagement, repetition, planning, and most importantly, patience. Therefore, if you prefer blowing things up for immediate satisfaction, you should stop reading right now. At its core, it’s a business simulation game. You’re in charge of a company whose job it is to move things from point A to point B. You have trucks, trains, planes, and boats at your disposal to be as cunning as you see fit in order to make a profit. That’s the entire gist of the game, so again, if that’s not your cup of tea, here’s yet another chance to skip out on 1000 words of what surely will be mind-numbing boredom.
If this game sounds interesting, continue reading. If you’re already a fan, I salute you. If you just want to figure out what makes this game magically suck up hours of your life despite not seeming all that fun at all, allow me to explain. Transport Tycoon is addicting because there are few limitations to what you can create, but it’s not a formless or structureless creativity. Minecraft is great, but besides “making something cool” creative mode doesn’t provide many incentives. The incentive of Transport Tycoon is fake money. Yep, there’s something intoxicating and satisfying about becoming a ruthless billionaire, even if those billions mean absolutely nothing in the real world.
It’s not like Transport Tycoon is the first and only biz-sim game or the only game to use fake money. If you’ve played any Sim City game, Tropico, or even Chris Sawyer’s own Rollercoaster Tycoon it’s possible to rack up incredible sums of money, but that’s not really the point. In all of those games it’s great to have a lot of fake money, but you’re not motivated to milk your customers for everything they’ve got. The point of those games is building more, making something memorable, and having people like you. In Transport Tycoon, the only person that needs to like you is you, because the game doesn’t spend time making you have to entice your customers to use your service. You build a station and they simply show up.
This simplifies the experience considerably and takes away potentially tedious gameplay. What’s left are plenty of opportunities to put the creative side of your brain to work in order to stuff your coffers as much as possible. How do I make this more efficient? How do I make my competition lose? How can I make more? As your company grows, you get sucked in more and more.
The worst part about the addictive nature of Transport Tycoon is that it has become more addictive over time. First, they released Transport Tycoon Deluxe (TTD) which added more to the original game. Later, in the 2000’s, freeware versions of the game became available. OpenTTD took the game to a whole new level. It improved some of the quirks of the original game, updated it for modern computers, but didn’t change the core gameplay at all. More sophisticated AI modules add new challenges, maps can now be 64 times larger than those in the original game for truly limitless gameplay, access is available to user-created graphics and content additions, and a multiplayer system that can accept up to 255 players in a single game. The best part is that OpenTTD is free. That’s right, one of the best games ever made was made more awesome and it’s also free.
If Transport Tycoon sounds complicated, it’s not. In fact, its refreshingly simple. There can be a lot to keep track of, but the foundation of the game is solid. It provides the players with everything they need to maintain their fictional company and manage it with efficiency. This includes the sexy isometric graphics, which never feel like they get in the way. With newer 3D simulation games it always feels like you’re struggling with the camera to see some hidden detail that stubbornly remains hidden. I want to spend my time making millions, not fighting with the game itself. In Transport Tycoon, there’s one view and one view only. So live with it. If you’re worried about realism, you’re not devoting your brain power to making more of a profit. Instead, enjoy how it is brilliantly designed, which is why it has had such great longevity.
There may not be any combat in Transport Tycoon, but there is lots of fighting with your competition. Ruthlessness is rewarded, and the more creative you are about it, the better. Does your competitor have a truck route? Plop down a set of rails on the road and park a train on top of it and those trucks will be stuck indefinitely. Is your competition expanding too fast? Buy up all the land where they just built a gigantic new rail line so that they have to spend more money to go halfway across the map to finish connecting their lines. If they’re trying to transport food from a factory and you have enough money, just buy the factory. Or you can try your hand at stock market manipulation. Sabotage the competition so their stock sinks low enough so that you can just buy them out. Bribing the officials is also a solid strategy.
If you’d rather just play alone, that’s fine too. In fact, it’s arguably more addictive to play alone or with an AI than other players. When you’re playing by yourself, it becomes an effort to build to the best of your abilities rather than to just beat your competition. Rail lines can always be designed to be more direct. As you get more money you have the ability to build straight through mountains instead of around them. Your customers will pay more money to get things quicker. The end result is road and rail porn that looks ridiculous, but actually has a purpose, especially later in the game when real estate begins to become sparse.
Most impressively is the way that the game “grows” over time. Not only do the communities surrounding your depots prosper when you prosper, but technology advances as the game moves forward. You can start in 1950 (1930 or earlier with mods in OpenTTD), but the game has new tricks up its sleeve all the way until 2050. After the year 2000, the game has an almost science fiction feel to it. There are monorails, maglevs, and all sorts of crazy flying contraptions that seem to have been created by 6 year old kids. All of these things give the game a lot of character. It’s fun to see what’s next. It’s fun to invest in new technology in order to make even more money. It’s fun to watch your trains whiz by so fast that you can barely see them. And if the standard setting is not interesting enough for you, the game has three other modes; desert, mountain, and toyland (aka candy land). Yep, toffee quarries are a thing.
So, if for some reason you suddenly have a large block of free time open up in your life, and retro-futuristic business simulations don’t make you fall asleep at first mention, OpenTTD is worth looking into. Transport and Business Simulations have come and gone, but none have been able to repeat the black hole ability of Transport Tycoon to remain playable hour after increasingly shorter hour.