Game Developer Magazine has an unusual regular article in each issue: "What went right? What went wrong?" Each month, they get another actual manager from a real video game project to do a post-mortem on a successful game that's shipped. The good and bad describes engineering, management, and organizational challenges, and it's always an interesting read.

So what about model railroads? Here's the equivalent for my layour:

What went right?

* Double deck layout This layout's turned out to be the perfect size for me -- large enough to feel like I'm going somewhere, and small enough for me to actually build and maintain it. After a series of shelf layouts, I'm very, very happy.

* Staging to staging + reverse loops The loops for turning trains have worked well in operation. I only wish I had a continuous run option on the lower deck when troubleshooting as I'm not really willing to run trains unattended on the (unscenicked) upper level.

* No yard Most model railroads have a freight yard both for the fun of switching, as a centerpiece of busy action, and as a place to show off all their locomotives. By consciously giving up the yard, I gained a lot of space -- probably an extra town or two. As a switching layout, the extra industries make the layout much more fun and realistic. Finally, any attempt at a yard would have ruined the prototypical aspects of my layout as there was no way I'd get anything resembling the San Jose yards in my garage.

* Model based on maps and photos Jack Burgess is right -- you can get wonderful, realistic detail on a layout when you match a prototype and work from photos. This is a lot like preparing a movie set. I don't know how Hollywood set dressers fill a teenager's bedroom on a movie set with appropriate clutter, but I can't do it on my layout. The San Carlos St. overpass is a nice example; I'd originally designed it as fill with a short bridge. However, one day I realized the prototype was a viaduct. Once I switched over to the viaduct, I also realized I could (prototypically) keep the old pre-viaduct street that survived next to the bridge, and have enough space to add the packing house's boiler and oil tank. I've also got space for a (probably prototypical) hobo village under the bridge.

* Just build it I'd been hesitating on building this layout until I could prepare the garage appropriately, put in lights, etc. I finally decided I just had to start building. I'm glad I did, for I'm enjoying the last couple years of construction, and I'm getting skills and ideas for the next layout.

* Focus on my skills On previous layouts, I learned (the hard way) that I was good at electronics and scratchbuilding structures, but I'm no good at handlaying track. The layout got flex track and Shinohara turnouts, and I got the layout running. I also knew I could do some unique buildings, and I could do them over time. This meant that I could do a big industrial scene without going nuts or spending a fortune on structure kits.

* Treat it like an assembly line Some of my modeling skills still resemble my teenage years -- using whatever wire color was available for a circuit, buying electrical switches piecemeal to keep costs down, and trying to make do with the inexpensive option. I realized early-on that wouldn't work if I wanted to make progress on this layout. Approaching each problem -- laying track, putting in power, or attaching switch machines -- from scratch meant I didn't get to get practised at any one task nor did I save time by building several assemblies at once.

I found it much better to place an order at an electronics supply house for enough toggle switches for the entire layout rather than mix-and-match whatever was available at Radio Shack on each shopping day. I bought Tortoises in bulk so I could prepare several at a time and install switch machines when I was in the mood. I preprared the Tortoises in assembly-line fashion, preparing several for installation at once and soldering wires on them on the benchwork. When I installed them, I'd waste any excess wire, but I significantly sped my move to powered turnouts. With a layout larger than 4x8, these kinds of work practices really speed construction.

What Went Wrong?

* It might have been nice if the layout were level. Okay, maybe over-engineering does have benefits. My layout has few legs and big unsupported spans so we can use the space under the layout. I also didn't fully plan on how to support the upper deck. As a result, the benchwork is a bit overloaded and I've got some sagging in the layout. Between this, the sloping garage floor, and a lack of levels during construction (apart from a single 24" level), the layout and grades didn't get as level as I would have liked. I wish I'd gotten a laser level before I started; the 30 dollar one I got at Sears a couple months ago would have been a *BIG* help when building the layout.

* Not enough staging. Staging tracks, fiddle yards, and yards for switching are all used differently, and require different sizes for the same railroad. When I started treating my staging as a real yard, I found I didn't have anywhere near enough space.

I'd based my staging on the number of trains I expected to run during an operating session. However, I quickly noticed that because the staging's exposed, I could treat it as a yard and sort boxcars between trains. This worked fine at first, but as I got enough freight cars to simulate the traffic, I found that four tracks was way too few tracks to do a proper job sorting. more difficult.

This was made doubly worse when I switched from car cards to a computerized switchlist that tries to model the movement of foreign cars. Not every foreign car would get used in every operating session, so I'd end up with a fair number of cars that don't leave the yard... and get in the way. If a yard is staging, I might only need one track per train (plus a spare), but if I'm switching or storing, I need space for the cars that aren't moving, and extra space to speed sorting.

* Garage layout. My layout isn't well sealed from the elements. As a result, the track gets way too dirty between use, and the reliability of the layout isn't where I'd like.

* Ground throws for throwing switches. When I started the layout, I assumed that a switching layout meant I could live without powered turnouts. I thought I could instead use Caboose ground throws. Between the garage environment, small locomotives, and my higher expectations about making the layout reliable enough for operation, I quickly figured out they just plain wouldn't work. I had lots of problems with electrical contact and with switchstands coming loose. This year, the railroad did a massive investment in Tortoise switch machines to improve operation.

So what's on your "What went right? What went wrong?" list?