Preview - 1830: Railroads & Robber Barons (DOS, 1995)

It was lot easier being a captain of industry in the 19th Century. The government didn't care how you ran your business, your workers weren't aware that there was another meaning to the word union, and your shareholders were happy with whatever you decided to give them.

None of these things are fashionable in the 1990s, but you can experience the thrill of being a robber baron with 1830, Avalon Hill's latest adaptation of one of its boardgame titles. This isn't a game to buy if you're the type of person who has converted your basement into a train set. Trains are an integral part of 1830, but this game is won and lost by how well you manage your assets and how successful you are at disrupting the railroads that you're competing against.

SimTex, the company that brought you Master of Orion and Master of Magic, developed 1830 for Avalon Hill, proof yet again that computer games make for strange bedfellows. The Masters games from SimTex are visually appealing, complex strategy games. Avalon Hill's reputation has nothing to do with graphics – the company has carved out a niche with wargames that are heavy on gameplay and light on graphics.

Despite those different backgrounds, there's no question that this an Avalon Hill game. There's also no question that the design team at SimTex wanted to recreate the boardgame as faithfully as possible. The result is a piece of software that's so close to the original, you can use the game manual from the boardgame to learn the rules. I know this to be true because it's what I had to do when I played the beta version of 1830 that Avalon Hill sent for this preview.

1830 is separated into two distinct areas – managing your company's finances, and running your trains. You begin the game in the stock round, where you're given the chance to bid for control of a number of private companies. Then you get into the important stuff – stock sales for the eight operating railroads that are part of the game.

You gain control of a railroad by acquiring a majority share of its stock. There are limits built in as to how much of a railroad's stock you can have. The end result is that while you may be in charge of a particular railroad, you always have to worry about your pesky competitors lurking in the wings waiting for you to make a mistake so they can assume control.

The biggest element in the value of your stock is payment of dividends. If you're a kinder, gentler type who believes in returning money to your shareholders, the price will increase. If you're more comfortable with the notion of padding your own pockets, or if you prefer to invest in upgrading your railroad, you can keep the money, but the stock value will drop. Of course, the knowledge that part of the dividends paid will likely go to the competing railroads that own some of your stock might leave you feeling a little greedy.

In the operating rounds, you build up your railroad by laying track, building stations, buying trains, and establishing your train routes. At the beginning of the game, your trains are only capable of making two stops per run. You eventually work you way up to diesels, which will go anywhere that you're allowed to run.

Your operating revenue is based on the number of trains you're operating, and the size of the cities that they're stopping in. If an opponent is in control of a station in a city, you can run to that city, but you can't set up a route to travel beyond it.

At the start of the game, you alternate between stock rounds and operating rounds. As the game progresses, there are fewer stock rounds, since the amount of stock available decreases. The game ends when the bank runs out of money, or one of the players go bankrupt. The winner is the wealthiest player. Wealth is determined by a player's personal cash and the value of his stock certificates at current market values. The fact that there's a finite amount of cash available – a rarity in any computer game that I've ever seen – gives you an idea of how close this is to the boardgame.

It should be interesting to see how this game does on the market. Railroad Tycoon fans are going to find this to be simpler than Sid Meier's masterpiece, but they should remember a few things before they scoff. First off, I'm sure Sid spent some quality time playing 1830. Second, Railroad Tycoon is a computer game, while 1830 is a boardgame being transferred to the computer. 1830 isn't flashy, but it's one of those games that makes you lose track of time while you're playing it. As is usually the case when Avalon Hill is involved, less is more.