Toward the end of last year, somewhere deep inside Firaxis HQ, Sid Meier shut himself away with a computer to create a prototype for his new game. After what one of his development team confided to me as being a "depressingly short amount of time," he reappeared, all smiles, with an intricate working model of what would become Sid Meier's Railroads!, a sequel to his own seminal Railroad Tycoon in all but name - and the team started to build from there.
Railroads! is recreating Railroad Tycoon in the same way that the similarly exclamation-marked Pirates! found new glory two years ago - taking the fun of the old and shovelling it into the boiler of modern technology. It's now introducing such concepts as 3D graphics, surround sound, real-time multiplayer and bloody big mountains with bloody big tunnels going through them.
You play as an entrepreneur in the golden age of trains - a timeframe that spans the century or so from 1830-1950. Money isn't simply made through jobsworth ticket inspectors arbitrarily demanding post-privatisation on-the-spot fines, either - it's your job to shuttle around letters, wood, coal, steel, people and the like to wherever they're needed, in direct competition with AI (or human) players who'll be attempting to undercut your track-building expertise and cut you off at the economic pass.
"What we thought was fun and special about Railroad Tycoon was just the fun of railroading - of running your own railroad, building the track, building the stations, figuring out where the trains should go, what sort of cars you should use. That sandbox feeling where everything's at your fingertips," Meier tells me. He then explains the naturally progressing stages of the game: from track creation, to optimising your cashflow and where it's directed (do you want to be a paper magnate or an oil baron?), to finally fully ploughing yourself into the stock market. Then, you can absorb smallfry railroad companies, buy out major competitors and protect your own company from unwelcome takeovers.
The real joy of the new game however, and primary thrust of what I was shown, is the ability to build your own working model railway which, despite the stereotypical domain of those with slight social issues, is quite a fun endeavour (if well hidden from public view). Tracks bend, terrains deform, bridges are built upon bridges and pretty little lumber mills deposit logs atop the willing backs of steam locomotive cars in scenes that kickstart long-forgotten emotions in anyone who was once a proud owner of a Thomas The Tank Engine lunchbox. (I later got a Transformers one, so don't send letters.)
This isn't a detailed rail simulator, it's a stylised sandbox tycoon game - the actual 'Tycoon' being removed from the title due to the poisoning of the genre since the original terminated at platform five. "I'm flattered in a way that people can call it a 'Tycoon' game, and that people will buy it, unfortunately not every 'Tycoon' game has been of the highest quality and I think it's got a reputation," explains Sid as delicately as he can. "So we thought maybe it was time to start anew - a new genre."
And then, despite the poisoned 'Tycoon' legacy and despite having been to Birmingham New Street station, your correspondent was suddenly overcome by Sid's love of rail. It might be slightly tragic, but I think there's an officious ticket inspector inside all of us...