A new theme and a new mode
18 December 2023

Our update cycles seem to begin with us worrying about Iron Roads, pinpointing the source of our uneasiness, worrying some more, working on changes to assuage our concerns, sharing the result with play-testers and iterating based on feedback. This time was no different, and stemmed from a new worry - does Iron Roads have a thematic identity of its own? - and an old worry we wrote about back in August - have we effectively teased out gameplay that focusses on optimisation of networks.

Challenge mode with new train

Thematic update

When analysing the state of Iron Roads, we were happy with the progress we made on gameplay, but less so with how we had neglected theme and storytelling in the game. Thematically we felt Iron Roads lacked a strong identity/narrative hook.

We've wanted to tackle themes of development in Iron Roads for a while, after reflecting early on that we'd made a game that rewarded bulldozing the countryside and covering it in concrete and metal. This isn't to say we want to make a game that discourages all development, but one that asks the player to balance the needs of the society with the needs of the ecosystem that society relies on.

Iron Roads is now set in a world where humans have driven themselves to extinction, leaving behind a planet being repopulated by erudite animals seeking to rebuild in way that spares them the same fate as the humans that preceded them. Your job is to connect society again, balancing competing needs as you do so. This fit naturally with the offbeat tone Iron Roads already had, requiring only minor updates to the contracts, artwork and descriptions.

The second step is adding gameplay elements to relate this theme. It is easy to make a game in this genre that rewards smart choices about how you build. However, many problems with over-development are not solved by smart building, but by not building. And it is harder to create a game in this genre that rewards that!

To this end, the archaeological remains some may remember from the Horseshoe Isle are back. You will also notice fields scattered throughout the maps. Building on top of these will sometimes, but not always, damage the town relying on these features. It is only a start, but it has added an element of strategy about how you route your tracks, that we hope adds to both the gameplay and narrative.

Challenge mode

We've long felt that the strongest gameplay in Iron Roads was to be found iterating on an established network, and trying to optimise it towards some goal. For this reason we added graphs, and moved from emails to long strings of increasingly hard contracts to encourage this style of playing. However, graphs are only useful as a tool to help the player complete an objective; they don't encourage that objective themselves. So we're pretty excited to have finally added a challenge mode to Iron Roads. You are given a fixed period of (in-game) time to transport as many passengers or cargo as possible in that time.

It took us a few tries to find a challenge that worked. We even experimented with a "roguelite" survival mechanic before settling on a fixed period of in-game time. The 'countdown' mechanic is easy to communicate, works well with graphs, encourages optimisation and doesn't have the negative feeling of failing our roguelite version had. Most importantly, we both agreed that it was fun. We love how much weight this change adds to each choice you make, and the interaction with the development mechanics discussed above: Each field destroyed is potentially a loss of customers (we say potentially because there is an element of chance or luck), and each field you choose to preserve makes it harder to build an efficient network and beat your score.

We've set up a high score board and linked it to Iron Road's Discord so you can compete against yourself, us as the developers, and each other on these challenges. There are two fixed challenges in the demo, and a randomly-generated weekly challenge that rotates on Friday mornings.

Steam Capitalism and Economy fest

Other notable changes in this update cycle

Our next event with Iron Roads is Steam's Capitalism and Economy fest in January, and it is with the hope of gathering feedback on the changes mentioned above before this event that we are pushing 0.2.0 of the demo now.

As always, we'd love to hear your thoughts, positive or negative. Especially the latter. With some luck your comments will worry us enough that our objective for the next update becomes clearer!

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