Pocket Trains by NimbleBit looks to bring long-term strategy and empire management to mobile, with a sprinkle of Minecraft just for good measure. Tasked with creating a transport empire to span across Europe (to start with), you'll be building trains, buying tracks and claiming routes.
Somewhat surprisingly, Pocket Trains draws more from browser based games like Rail Nation than it does traditional mobile fare. This is a game that you should, in theory, be able to play over the period of many days, constantly upgrading your trains, unlocking new routes and assigning new schedules - without the usual worry on mobile platforms of having another player invading your empire with an army - and that's something that excites us greatly. We love these sorts of empire games on PC and there aren't enough good ones on mobile.
This is very much an old-school game, and that applies to the graphics and interface. It looks thoroughly Amiga-like. While that style is charming, it does create issues when it comes to games that make use of lots of menus and text. It's not really a comfortable experience on the eyes when you have to read pixelated and blocky text for lengths of time.
In order to expand, you'll need to spend money. There are three forms of currency, effectively, in Pocket Trains. There are crates, which contain parts that you need to build new trains and cars, there are ‘bux' which you need to unlock the crates (a contrivance to get you to spend real money), and there are coins, which you'll need to unlock new tracks, claim routes and speed up your engines.
Coins are earned by completing jobs with your trains. Select a train, go into the jobs screen, tap the ones you can complete using the routes available and try to make as much money from a single trip as possible. The longest route will take around ten minutes of real-world time, so the game does present times where you're just sat waiting for something to happen. That's perhaps not the greatest idea for a platform that is itself meant to fill times where you're waiting for something to happen. Completing three jobs should be enough to claim a newly built track, however, you'll need to complete around ten in order to actually lay down a new track between cities - a little slow.
Frustratingly, there's no mechanic that allows you to automate routes as the jobs aren't continuous. This isn't like browser games where you can log back in the next day and suddenly your automated minions have earned you a bunch of cash, and we think, for once, it suffers because of it.
When it comes to crafting, you'll need to be lucky enough to collect several of the same parts in order to build a new train. At least in the early stages of the game, there don't seem to be many different train parts to collect, so if you get three crates you should be able to build a new train straight away. We do like this approach rather than just straight up buying complete trains using currency, as there are already enough gold sinks in the game.
Sadly, as freemium mobile games often do, Pocket Trains falls into the trap of trying to force players into spending real money on the game far too quickly. I'd played for less than fifteen minutes before running into a dead end. It's not the coins, but the ‘bux' that you run out of quickly. You start off with ten, you can get a couple of free ones by watching a short video and you can get up to five more per day by converting coins. Sadly, considering that you need to open three crates to build a new train and you're not guaranteed to get the parts you need, you'll be constantly short of them.
Now the game does also offer some as reward for completing jobs, and you'll get enough to open three or four crates - but from what we've seen you'll be lucky to get these once per day.
There isn't quite enough to do at all times. Perhaps once you've got a dozen trains on the go you'll spend more time actively organising than sitting watching, but having got to the point where we have seven trains on the go, I'm still finding times where I'm sat watching the environment scroll by my trains and absent-mindedly tapping at the screen waiting for it to offer us a floating crate. What they really needed was a more engaging mini-game - perhaps something like being able to drive the train yourself for a coin reward boost.
Pocket Trains is almost a great little mobile game. Sadly, as is often the case, the freemium model as applied by NimbleBit in many of their games such as Disco Zoo ends up hindering it more than helps it, and as such most people are likely going to find the experience of sitting waiting for a mobile game to let you do something while you yourself are waiting for something in the real world too big of an ask.