What's interesting about them all is that most of them have no pretense at being, well, really educational about how the whole railroad business world actually operates. I mean, honestly; most of the aspects of actually running a railroad company are kind of boring, when what we really want to do is either build track or be wheeler-dealers in the finances. (Most games have these in some sort of combination; usually but not always being high in one area means being low in another.) But there's so much else about running a railroad that's never covered, or gets washed out--few games really get into government investment and control in any meaningful way, for example. (Some touch on it.) Then there's dealing with labor...other examples abound. No train game attempts to do everything, but usually chooses one or two aspects of the whole "train concept" to focus on, and spares the players the rest. In a game where the primary focus is on actually building a rail network, if the network roughly resembles a plausible reality it gets a decent score. Again, if the financial aspects pass a sniff test, they do OK as well (although I seem to recall a certain finance professor passing harsh judgement on a number of financial train games).
I don't recall too many arguments out there about whether a particular game is or is not a train game; usually if something has little trainies it's a train game. I think some of the dicier propositions are games like 2038 which look a lot like train games, but in fact contain no trains. I note that BGG calls 2038 a train game, which seems to have drawn no comment in the forums. (1830 BC: Not a train game.)
So they're not exactly educational, except for maybe learning geography (which I think is why my dad bought the family a copy of Empire Builder), the games have a nice range from light to heavy, and there's a reasonably robust community of "train gamers," many of whom play almost nothing else (heck, many play nothing but 18xx games).
It reminds me, frankly, of wargaming to a great degree--although there are much higher pretensions for wargames; wargames are Serious Business; so serious that many of the cognoscenti prefer "conflict (or historical) simulations."
I have yet to see a wargame that actually addresses warfare in a serious manner. Some of the CDGs come close; far closer than most traditional hex-and-counter games. If studying this crap has taught me anything, it's that warfare exists far beyond the battlefield, and in large wars can involve all of society. Wars can be affected by the combatants having differing concepts of manhood and courage--which can change over the course of a war. Dave Grossman studies the psychological costs of war; by manipulating these one way or another a clever (or foolish) commander can have a profound effect on the behavior not only of his men but the enemy and whatever civilians are underfoot. And then there are the civilians underfoot--my beat--who require more or less involvement from the occupying forces. In WWI, a major priority for the German army was to build a kind of military utopia in the occupied east, which sucked up serious resources. Why is it that an army would do that? No sane wargamer would do that; it's time and money and men that could be spent doing something useful like chasing the Russians around. But the German army did it all the same, and it's important to know that if you want to actually understand World War One.
We don't like wargames, in other words. We like combat games, where all this nonsense with Bob Hope and Lili Marlene and bond drives and on and on ("the boring parts," as my students put it) are safely ignored and/or abstracted out. OK, so the war as it was actually experienced is out-of-bounds; what are we left with?
We're left with combat, which at its purest form finds itself in battle games. In a battle game, how the generals got to be where they are and how the guns got to be where they are and how the soldiers write home to their parents and what they eat and all that other nonsense is gone. We have one line of men over there, another one over here, and let's fight.
And fight we do. We fight with considerably more than the generals at the time did, however. In essentially every game (Panzergruppe Guderian, I'm saluting you) the generals know how well their soldiers are going to fare under combat. My unit has a combat factor of "6," and yours has a defense factor of "4," I get to roll on the 3:2 table, where there is a 1/3 chance you'll have to retreat. Your historical counterpart knew none of that. Your historical counterpart probably also knew far less about the battlefield he's fighting on than you do; Lee was very misinformed about certain aspects of the geography around Gettysburg, which helped lead to the debacle on the third day. You, Wargamer-Lee, do not have that problem, and you can boss Longstreet around as you please.
And about that. Most games give you telepathic control over the men and subordinates under your command. Now, not always. In CDGs, you can't always move who you want, but if you can move him, he always follows your orders to the letter. Lincoln would have settled for that with McClellan. Truman would have settled for that with MacArthur. Lee would have settled for that with Longstreet. And so on. I don't think this is really contestable.
I have eleven train games. According to BGG, I have an even hundred wargames, and plenty of expansions. I consider the wargames I own to be kind of silly as simulations, no more or less trivial than train games are simulations of actually running a railroad. I just don't consider this a problem, since I don't really consider wargames and wargaming to be some kind of holy calling, where we're not playing a game we're running a simulation.
What the best wargames, and train games, are is evocative, something that gives a little thrill of part of the fun aspects of running an army or a railroad. For a second, we think we're there. We can suspend disbelief for at least part of a game and take on a bit of the spirit of combat and railroad administration. And they're competitive, and they're narrative. Consider, for a moment, this glowing comment on Crusader Rex (giving it a 9/10):
A really fun and enjoyable block wargame that captures the medieval theme very well. The 1.4 rules are an improvement, balancing the game nicely. This game always immerses me when I play it. I love it.
That's from Tom Madden, a prominent (if controversial) historian of the Crusades. It's balanced--more than what one can say of most wars--and immersive, which is the key here. It's not instructive, but it provides tension--and, if you will, enough madelines of history to evoke a sense that you're taking part in something historical. There's a difference between "capturing a theme" and "simulating history," and I think the former is what the best games do, and the latter is what we like to pretend they do.
I am a wargamer. I've owned probably north of a thousand wargames at one or another point in my life, and I doubt I've seen the last of them entering the collection. But as I've become a better military historian, at one point I became disillusioned with the whole wargame concept: These games are trivial simulations of what wars and combat are like! Who needs this stuff? But then I came to realize that simulation isn't the point, it's an impossible dream that propels some people on but the real matter at hand is to make you, mister wargame player, either Richard the Lionheart or Saladin. And given the constraints of the medium, real simulation probably isn't the way to go with that.
(Writing military history provides its own challenges, which I may get to later.)