You could be forgiven for looking at screenshots from Train Valley and expecting a railway management sim a la Railroad Tycoon; it certainly looks the part in screenshots. And while it does have some light simulation elements, in truth, it’s more of a puzzle game—and a rather unique one at that, revolving around keeping an increasingly complex train network moving.
At the most basic level, it’s a game of using real lines to connect stations and directing trains around that network. The stations pop up on the map of their own accord—sometimes randomly, sometimes in a predetermined spot, depending on game mode—for you to then figure out how to connect to the existing lines, working around whatever environmental quirks appear on the current map. Trains, too, appear randomly at stations, ready to depart for a specific target on your cue… or on their own, if left unattended for too long.
The puzzle, then, is keeping all these moving as the number of stations and frequency of trains increases. With just two or three stations and departures infrequent enough that sending out one train at a time is viable, things start out easy. But it doesn’t take long until you’re frantically flipping line switches, trying to time departures just right so that you can have as many engines on the go at once as possible, and inevitably doing a bit of emergency redirection when things go awry—it’s easy to forget to flip a switch when you’re managing dozens of them, or to ignore a ready-to-go train for just a little too long and have it depart at an especially inconvenient time. Crucially, you can strategically pause at any time, and lay track of direct trains while paused.
On top of that, you have your funds to worry about, which is where there’s a light touch of management sim. Building track costs money, demolishing houses (!) and other buildings to make space for more efficient routes costs more money, and there’s a regular tax to account for. Run out of cash—which is surprisingly easy to do if you’re not careful—and it’s game over. You. make money by getting the trains to their goals efficiently: the quicker the trip, the more you earn from it. But each train starts from a different baseline, so trying to prioritise the most lucrative trips adds another layer to the central puzzle foundation.
With a story mode (of sorts) spanning five different settings from 1830 to 2020, featuring everything from old steam locomotives to modern bullet trains, Train Valley should, on paper, have a lot of depth and variety. Sadly, it falls a little short: despite those different details, there isn’t a huge amount to differentiate one level from the next. Different locations and time periods come with different visual styles and faster trains, and the terrain on some maps occasionally poses unique challenges, like working with a limited number of tunnels or bridges. But by and large, the diminishing returns in the core game loop tend to set in quickly, and things can quickly start to feel samey.
Similarly, the history nerd in me was excited at the prospect of “real-life events as the Gold Rush of 1849, the construction of the Florida Overseas Railroad, World War II…” But these events are backdrops at most, presented without context, and other than something as omnipresent as a world war, it’s easy to miss the little details entirely in an event you’re not already familiar with. I don’t expect every game to be educational, but there seems to be a missed opportunity here to shed a bit of light on some important moments of history in a fun, playful way.
But “fun, playful way” is really what’s important there—because Train Valley is a lot of fun. It takes a fairly simple concept and adds some well-thought-out layers to create a satisfying, enjoyable train management puzzler. It’s best suited to short play sessions, but in those quick bursts, Train Valley hits a sweet spot.