A good number of developers have been incorporating trains and trade into their Facebook railways, though only one game dedicated to the concept — Lucky Train — has done significantly well. The latest developer to take a shot is Vivio, which takes the concept out to the frontier with Wild West Express.
At its base, Wild West Express feels like a city builder, with the city made up of with factories and farms coupled with an interesting trade system. Unfortunately, unintuitive mechanics and frustratingly unclear aspects of the social design mean the wild west still needs a lot of taming.
Players start off in charge of a small western town built upon the frontier railways, and the idea is to set up bustling trade routes between cities. The concept is simple enough, as users must build production facilities, such as farms, bakeries, mines, and so on to produce goods. Taking a set amount of time to complete, users take the finished products and ship them off to friends or NPC towns to earn a trade profit.
In order to make the transaction possible, players must build train cars to carry their shipping goods, as well as a locomotive to pull it. The energy mechanic for all of this is water (fitting for the old west) that is consumed every time a train is sent out. As the trains come back, coin and experience is earned, and the player slowly turns their small pile of desert dust into a flourishing oasis.
That’s the theory, anyway. As the user a builds, a stock ticker representing the success of the town changes. This is the first unintuitive aspect of Wild West: every time the player builds something new, the stock drops, only to be boosted back up, slowly, by sending out trains for trade.
It’s true that in “reality,” until trade starts booming, players are technically spending more than they are bringing in, but Facebook players shouldn’t be expected to grasp a real-life economic model, in the same way that a mass-market flight game shouldn’t necessarily use the control reversal of a real plane. It has become an expectation, especially in city builders (and some business sims like Nightclub City), that décor and additions boost the value of a space, not decrease it, so for an early player the sight of a falling ranking will be a significant discouragement.
Another problem appears in the new buildings themselves. Players can unlock them higher-level buildings early at the cost of virtual currency. That’s a good (and entirely standard) idea, but the first item we bought using our starting virtual currency turned out to be a building that required friends to send items to complete (which is a problem we’ll address in a bit). As with several other games that have tried this tactic of late, there was no indication that more would be required, leaving the player (us, in this case) broke and without a completed building.
Although the invite friend function was, for whatever reason, non-functional in our game, we were still able to send gifts — on virtual trains, of course — to friends. This is where a truly interesting mechanic comes in, as users can hire both a sheriff to protect trains, and gangs to rob them. There’s little instruction on how this works early on, and oddly, players can hire gangs right away, but a sheriff can’t be bought until level nine.
Perhaps most baffling is the daily lottery. In almost every social game, the daily lottery gives the player a chance to win something extra, be it currency or décor. In Wild West, a player’s rewards only benefit neighbors — the daily lotto can only be sent as gifts.
Given some of the early, confusing design choices in Wild West, some players might never dig into the game far enough to find the deeper aspects of the game, which revolve around specialization into certain production or trade types. At launch, Wild West has an impressive twelve trade goods that can be exchanged. Some of these can be upgraded through industrial buildings — iron ore to steel, steel to guns. As a single player, it’s probably not optimal to try to do everything, so if your friends are playing along you can maximize your efficiency by owning a specific part of the value chain, or even becoming a robber baron. This all provides a depth that some players must crave for when trying to work with CityVille’s single-good shipping model.
But at the end of the day, it feels like Wild West is trying too hard to be social, from the buildings, to lottery, to the collection mechanic in which players who find a set of items (e.g. horses) that sometimes come in via NPC trade trains have to have the rest of the set gifted. Since the game’s trading premise is inherently social, the rest may be too much. Vivio is working to add the ability to trade with players who aren’t friends, but before it can really succeed it will probably need to tweak the early game, adding in a better tutorial, making the existing gameplay more intuitive and removing some of the experiences that might turn away players. If it can do those things, Vivio may have a game that can hook players in for a significant time.