Historical Detail and Process in Railroad Games

In his chapter “Simulation, History and Computer Games,” media scholar William Uricchio posits a continuum on which “historical games” can be placed: at one end are games addressing specific historical events, and on the other are games that model historical processes (328, 2005). Games of the former type often include war games seeking to recreate specific battles or campaigns. While these naturally include a certain amount of “what if?” (a game wherein players simply move through pre-determined steps would hardly be a game), the emphasis is on accuracy and simulation. Uricchio notes that in these games “Play emerges in the space between the constraint of detail and the exhilaration of improvisation” (330, 2005). At the other end of the spectrum are the process-type games, the best known example being Sid Meier’s Civilization (MPS Labs 1990). These games allow a freer engagement with the past in exchange for a deemphasis on particular referents: “Rather than a what if simulation with a known case study as the referent, nonspecific simulations provoke a wider range of interrogations, encouraging a more abstract, theoretical engagement of historical processes” (Uricchio 330, 2005). These games are more concerned with general processes, principles and ideologies than specific events.

The research question driving this project is how board and computer games have represented the founding and early years of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This question will be addressed by applying Uricchio’s ‘process-event’ spectrum to a selection of games, and in so doing both expand upon and complicate the spectrum. This will be done so by taking into account not only the rules of the game, but multimedia elements such as audio and video (in the case of computer games), each game’s rules, mechanics and art, and any paratextual elements (Genette 1997) such as rule books, manuals, the game box, and so on. In doing so this project will show how the “historicalness” of a game is built-up through a combination of rules, fictional and thematic elements (Juul 2005), and other multimedia aspects.

Adding another layer, this project will also be mindful of the chronology of the games studied. The history of games themselves as cultural artifacts is not well studied or understood. This project will contribute to our knowledge of game history by analyzing how these games have built on design conventions and act in conversation with each other. Train games are a particularly rich genre for this project because they are one of the few game genres popular in both analog and digital media.

This project will be well-suited to digital scholarship because of the nature of the sources considered. Simply put, games from any media are difficult to depict in text. The project will be built on Omeka with a separate page dedicated to each game. Each page will integrate multimedia elements to enrich the analysis and reduce written description. In the case of board games the pages will include scans and photographs of relevant game materials, such as cards, boards, boxes an so on. Videos or sequences of still images will be used to depict rules or complex actions. Further, links will be provided to the game’s entry on BoardGameGeek, a crowd-sourced board game database. This will allow readers to find more information about each game. Similar strategies will be used on the pages of discussed video games. Recorded video will be particularly valuable in showing the reader how each game functions and in illustrating various multimedia aspects.

The sources I will be using for this project include a selection of board games, video games, and books of railroad history. Example board games I will be using include, but are not limited to, Age of Steam (Wallace 2009), 1830: Railways and Robber Barons (Tresham 2011), and Baltimore and Ohio (Robbins 2009). Age of Steam is a process-driven game where players are building track and delivering goods in the Eastern United States. The game’s supply-and-demand model promotes track construction and economic development. 1830: Railways and Robber Barons is an event-given game of track building but also stock market manipulation; players take on the role of nefarious robber barons seeking to drain publicly-held companies for personal profit. Baltimore and Ohio is perhaps more event-driven than either, as players are more bound by historical detail with respect to track construction. I will further show how the design of these board games as multiplayer competitive experiences in itself problematizes the event-process spectrum.

In terms of video games I will be analyzing artifacts such as Railroad Tycoon II Platinum (PopTop Software 1998) (RRT2) and Sid Meier’s Railroads! (Firaxis Games 2007) (SMR). RRT2 is similar to 1830 in that players act as the president of one or more railroad companies, but it uses the power of digital media to not only be more specific in terms of historical detail, but it also incorporates many multimedia elements that lend an air of “historicalness” to the game experience. For instance, when a player builds track a short, grainy film clip of workers hammering railroad spikes is played. SMR, while coming after RRT2, is simpler and has a stranger relationship to history: players may purchase historically-grounded locomotives, while delivering and manufacturing automobiles in the 1860s. RRT2 seems to be more event-driven and SMR more process-drive, but the multimedia nature of both games complicates the spectrum.

Works of railroad history such as Stover’s History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (1987) and Wolmar’s Blood, Iron and Gold (2010) will naturally be a key component of this project. These histories (and others) frequently provide a great amount of detail to the laying of track: where a company started, how far it got and when is often a topic of great interest to railroad historians. Not surprisingly, then, all of the games mentioned above feature track laying as a “core mechanic,” (Salen & Zimmerman 2004); that is, the building of track is central to the play of the game. How track is laid in a game is thus a key mechanism for that game to represent history.

Lastly, the project will make use of hypertext to enable readers to browse from subject to subject. Each game analysis will be divided into common sections that will link to each other. This would allow users to navigate by theme, such as track building, maps, etc., instead of by game.

All of the materials for this project will be culled from Concordia University’s library system and my own personal collections.




Firaxis Games. 2007. Sid Meier’s Railroads! Steam Edition. 2K Games. PC Game.

Moon, Alan. 2004. Ticket to Ride. Days of Wonder. Board Game.

MPS Labs. 1990. Sid Meier’s Civilization. MicroProse. PC Game.

PopTop Software. 1998. Railroad Tycoon II Platinum. Gathering. PC Game.

PopTop Software. 2003. Railroad Tycoon 3. Gathering. PC Game.

Railsimulator.com. 2011. Railworks 3: Train Simulator 2012. Railsimulator.com. PC Game.

Robbins, Eddie. 2009. Baltimore and Ohio. Eagle Games. Board Game.

Tresham, Francis. 2011. 1830: Railways and Robber Barons. 2nd Edition, Mayfair Games. First Edition Avalon Hill, 1986. Board Game.

Wallace, Martin. 2009. Age of Steam. 3rd Edition, Eagle Games. First Edition Warfrog Games and Winsome Games, 2002. Board Game.

Wallace, Martin. 2009. Steam: Rails to Riches. Mayfair Games. Board game.

Wu, Harry. 2009. Chicago Express. Queen Games. Board Game.


Books and Journal Articles

Bogost, Ian. 2006. Unit Operations. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Fogu, Claudio. 2009. “Digitalizing Historical Consciousness.” In History and Theory, Theme Issue 47. May 2009, pg. 103 – 121.

Frasca, Gonzalo. 2003. “Simulation versus Narrative: An Introduction to Ludology.” In The Video Game Theory Reader. Edited by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, 221-235. New York: Routledge.

Genette, Gerard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ghys, Tuur. 2012. “Technology Trees: Freedom and Determinism in Historical Strategy Games.” Game Studies vol 12, issue 1. http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/tuur_ghys

Juul, Jesper. 2005. Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Salen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric. 2004. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. 1986. The Railway Journey. 2nd English edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press.

Squire, Kurt. 2004. Replaying History: Learning World History Through Playing Civilization III. Doctoral Thesis, Indiana University.

Stover, John F. 1987. History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press.

Uricchio, William. 2005. “Games, Simulation and History.” In Handbook of Computer Game Studies, edited by Joost Raessans and Jeffrey Goldstein, 327-328. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Wolmar, Christian. 2010. Blood, Iron, and Gold. New York: Public Affairs, 2010.

Woods, Stewart. 2012. Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games. Jefferson: MacFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers.

Digital Sources and Reference Projects

BoardGameGeek. http://www.boardgamegeek.com

GameFAQS. http://www.gamefaqs.com

Rudin, Ronald. Remembering Acadie. http://http://rememberingacadie.concordia.ca/

Thomas, William III and Ayers, Edward. 2003. “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities.” American Historical Review, December 2003. http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/AHR/






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