In the late 1990s, when I started getting back into boardgames, the first few that I discovered were pretty much the standards of the time: Settlers of Catan, El Grande, with some Magic, Illuminati and the like thrown in. When the 2000s started, meatier, and yet still simple, games started to emerge, like Princes of Florence, Puerto Rico, Stephenson’s Rocket and Liberte by a certain Martin Wallace. This last title fascinated me simply because of the multiple path to not only victory, but also to ending the game. I remember many an evening playing this, walking the knife’s edge in trying to put myself in a position to win without pushing the game too far lest one of my opponents push it over the edge to score a win.
Naturally, when Wallace’s next title came out I was intrigued. I had hoped that it would be as unforgiving as his last title and as deep without being overly complex. Boy did he ever deliver! Age of Steam was everything I had hoped for and more. Not only was it cutthroat but it was also unforgiving, with one minor misstep causing you to go bankrupt and be out of the game. It also had something else that fascinated me: different maps. Simply using a different map and using maybe some rules modification, you got a whole new experience, forcing the players to change their strategy. I fell in love but with a harsh mistress. The game was perceived by many in my different gaming groups as too difficult and unforgiving. While I managed to play it, it still sat almost forgotten, that is until it came back as Steam, published this time by Mayfair Games. Was this a good thing? Well, let’s find out.
In Steam (Mayfair Games) by Martin Wallace, the 2-6 players are rail barons who are building their rail empires throughout different parts of the world, attempting to deliver goods in order to gain income, pay off their debts and ultimately gain victory points. They will do that by taking loans to finance their operations, build various tracks and move colored cubes to matching colored towns.
The base game comes with a double-sided maps, but many, many other maps have been made by Bezier Games, AoS Team, Mayfair Games and Winsome Games. These maps cover most of the globe and even places in outer space or simply fanciful. Heck, there’s even a Montreal Metro map.
The components for the game aren’t bad, but they’re not the greatest either. The game comes in a deep box (which you will need if you collect maps like I do), a double-sided map with one side being a northeastern Canada/US map, and the other side a European map; a set of tokens in 5 colors for the goods that will be delivered to the various cities on the map; 6 sets of player tokens to mark the routes that they will build; a big stack of rail tiles to create the rail networks with; 8 new cities tiles; city growth markers; 7 action tiles; money tokens; a goods bag and a first player token.
The maps are nice enough and are functional, even if sometimes it is hard to tell the exact terrain that the hex represents. The player tokens are simple wooden discs, not the best but not the worse. All the components give the game a pleasant heft.
The rulebook is adequate, but is divided in two confusing sections, the Base game and the Standard game. I’m not sure why they are not simply called Basic/Advanced, as the Base/Standard leads to confusion over which version of the game is the intended one (hint: it’s the Standard. The Base game is too… forgiving). The rulebook does a decent job of explaining the rules but can make it hard sometimes to find an exact rule during play.
Note: I will not cover the Base game in this review as it is a version that I’ve only played once and decided against playing again. I feel that it simplifies the game too much and takes out any kind of challenge.
Setting up is fairly straightforward: all the goods cubes are placed in the bag and mixed. Cubes are then pulled out and placed on the cities on the map, with the number on the city dictating how many cubes they will get. Then, 3 cubes are pulled and placed on each Good Supply Space track of the map. Each player then takes a set of player tokens, placing one of them on the zero space of the VP track, one on the 1 Locomotive Level track and one more on the zero space of the Income track. Next step is establishing the turn order for the first Capitalization phase: take one token from each player and drawn them out one by one, placing them on the turn order track. Finally, place the turn token on the 1 space of the Game Turn track. You’re ready to go!
The game is structured in a number of phase, each of which is done in player order. Once all the phases are done, the turn is over and a new one begins.
The very first phase is the Buy Capital phase in which each player, in turn order, will decide by how much they will reduce their Income track to gain some money. For each point of Income they give up, they will receive $5. Note that this, and the Collect Income phase at the end of the turn, is the only time they will get money during the turn and since players start with no capital whatsoever, they will need to gain some right away.
Next come the Turn Order Auction. This is a classic “bid to stay in” auction, with each player in turn bidding to be first player. The only difference here is that the first player to pass, who thus will become the last player for the turn, pays nothing, the second player to pass pays half their bid and all other players, regardless of whether or not they successfully became the first player, pays the full amount of their current bid when they finally pass.
The next phase is the Select Action Tile phase, in which players will select a special action which will modify their turn a little bit. There are 7 such tiles and each one can only be selected by a single player. They are:
- Turn Order: the player will be allowed to pass during the next Turn Order Auction without dropping out of the Auction.
- First build: by selecting this tile, the player will go first during the Building Track phase, ahead of the first player. The regular turn order will resume once the player has done their building action.
- Engineer: allows the player to build an additional track tile during their Building Track phase.
- First move: allows the player to be the first to move goods cubes during the Move Goods phase, ahead of the first player. The regular turn order will resume once the player has done their building action.
- Locomotive: allows the player to increase their Locomotive Level by 1.
- City growth: allows the player add some goods cubes from the Goods Supply Track to a city that hasn’t gotten restocked yet. Once the new goods cubes have been placed, a token is placed on the city to indicate that it cannot receive more goods for the rest of the game.
- Urbanization: allows the player to upgrade a town (a hex space with a circle) into a city. Any town can be thus upgraded. Once placed on the board, the player then adds goods cubes from the Goods Supply track to this new city. Note that this city acts exactly like any of the pre-printed cities on the map.
The next phase, Building Tracks is straightforward: player will be placing up to 3 tracks (4 if they selected the Engineer Action tile) onto the map, paying for each track and for the terrain they are placing the track onto. All new tiles must extend the player’s already placed network. If the placed tracks connect a city to another city or to a town, it is considered to be a completed link and the player can place one of their token on the tracks (only one token, no matter how long the track is). If they are not completed (ie, do not connect a town/city to another town/city), the track is considered uncompleted and must be completed or at least extended next round else the track could be taken over by anyone else. Tracks can also be upgraded (ie, more tracks added to a tile) or be re-oriented if their are not connected to a city/town. If the player cannot pay for the track lay, they cannot lay that track.
During the Move Goods phase, players take cubes from cities and bring them to a city of a matching color. Each player, in turn order, will be able to move one cube or gain one Locomotive Level on their turn and this twice (they can only gain one Locomotive Level however). There are a few rules to follow:
- A goods cube must stop in the first city of the matching color. You cannot skip a city of the same color.
- A goods cube must finish it’s move in a city of the matching color. You cannot move the cube part-way.
- The maximum amount of links (rail connection between city/town and other city/town) is equal to the player’s Locomotive Level.
For each of their own link a goods cube traveled to its destination, the player will earn a Track point, They can also use other player’s links, as long as the majority of links used are their own but they will be giving the Track point to the other player. These Track points can either be used as Victory points or as Income points, but not both. Using them as Income point simply raises the player’s income by that many points.
The last phase of the turn is the Collect Income and Pay Expenses phase, or as I like to call it the Accounting phase. The players must pay $1 for each level of their Locomotive. To this is added the Income level of the player, with the player having to pay if their Income level is negative, and receiving money if their Income level is positive. Should the players be unable to pay their expenses, they will lose 1 Income level for each $2 they are short, until they hit -10 income. If this should happen, the player could still save themselves by reducing their VP level by 1 for each $2 they are short. If they are still short, they go bankrupt and they are out of the game.
Once the Collect Income/Pay Expense phase is over, the game starts again with the Capitalization phase unless the game is over. The game ends after 7, 8 or 10 turns, depending on the amount of players in the game or the map being played. Once the game is over, each player increases their VP for each 2 positive Income they have, or lose 2 VP per negative Income they have. To this total is added 1 VP per completed link (player tokens) that they have on the map. The player with the highest VP total is the winner.
Why do I love Steam/Age of Steam so much? Let me count the ways:
1) Simple system: really, although the rulebook is quite long, it is a fairly simple game. You get money at the start of the turn, you bid for turn order, you take a special action, you build then you deliver. You either get cash at the end of the turn or you have to pay back some. Do this 6 to 10 turns, depending on the amount of players. Pretty straightforward, really.
2) Difficult decisions and cutthroat aspect: Well, yes, it’s a simple system, but there’s a lot of difficult decisions in there. Just how much money do you get at the start of the turn? How much do you want to spend on the bidding for turn order? Which cube will you move first? Within this set of difficult decision, you also have to make the life of the other players as difficult as possible, blocking them from doing the perfect play. Yes, it’s a game about trains, but it’s really a game about business and while you may want to be nice, you really need to be mean.
Even the simple decisions can carry a long term effect and eventually means the difference between winning and losing. Take building tracks for example: should be a no-brainer, no? Well, not really. Choosing where to start depends on a lot of small factors, such as the original seeding of the map, who else has placed before you and where and how much money you are willing to spend. Keep in mind that to spend money you need some money and for the most part, this will come from dropping on the Income track. Drop too low and you’ll need to spend a good amount of cash at the end of every turn. Not enough and you might just go bankrupt (remember: taking money at the start is a 1 Income for $5 exchange, while at the end of the turn, it’s now 1 Income for $2) or at least you’ll be in a position where you won’t be able to bid or to build tracks in the first place. And don’t forget that at the end of the game, Links are worth points as well, but not as much as Income if you’re in the negative (-2 per Income) or more if you’re in the positive (1vp per 2 Income). There’s really a nice little knife’s edge to that as well.
There’s another interesting key decision to this game and that is when to switch from spending your Track points on Income to spending it on VP. Remember, there’s only a set amount of turn. So, if you’re playing a 4 player game, there’s only 16 deliveries in total (8 turns, with two Move actions each). So that’s only 16 times that you can gain VPs, which are the way you’ll win the game. On the other hand, you need to bump up that Income, else you won’t be able to get some Capital to continue. You have to figure out the ideal time to switch from one to the other, not only to gain some money at the end of the turn, but to not have -2 vps for each negative Income, because that can easily mean the difference between winning and losing.
3) Oh yeah, the system too is a real pain: It’s not only the other players that you have to fight against, it’s also the system. Just how much money do you need at the start of the turn is such an important decision because later on, it will mean how much money you may owe to the bank and if you owe too much, you’ll need to sink further. And if you sink too far, you’ll go bankrupt. Don’t think it won’t happen. While it is more difficult than in Age of Steam, I’ve seen veteran players go bankrupt in Steam as well.
Remember the part above where I talk about interesting decisions regarding something as simple as building tracks? Well, that feeds directly into going bankrupt, doesn’t it? Take too many loans and suddenly you have to pay back $10 + Locomotive Level at the end of the turn. Chances are, you won’t have that and you’ll need to figure out a way or you’ll be out of the game.
4) Low luck factor: Apart from pulling the goods cubes out of the bag at the start of the game, there is no luck in this game. Luck, no, but plenty of chaos as you’ll try to figure out what’s the best thing to do at this precise moment and how the other players will mess with your plan. Thought you’d grab that nice green cube for a 5 Track point delivery? Wait? What do you mean the other player grabbed it first for a measly 2 Track Points, giving 1 to someone else? Yup, be prepared for the chaos of others.
5) The maps: There are currently on the ‘geek some 90-odd map packs for Steam/Age of Steam, with most pack containing at least 2 maps, if not more. That means there’s probably something more along the lines of over 150 maps for this game, coming from companies such as Mayfair Games, Bezier Games, AoS Team, and others. 150! Sure, not all map packs are great, but there’s some really, really good maps in there that change the rules just a bit and make the experience almost a brand new game. I highly recommend checking out the map packs from Bezier Games and Mayfair Games, as they both have a habit of bringing some amazing maps to the table. The wide selection of maps also means that you can play Steam with anywhere from 2 to 6 players, depending on the map.
There is a little bit of a black sheep in the wonderful Steam family however, and that is Steam Baron. This was Wallace’s attempt to bring a stock market into Steam, in a similar way as the 18XX family and, at least according to most Steam fans, was a giant failure. The two ideas didn’t fully gel and the idea failed to grab peoples attention. I’ve only had the chance to play with the expansion once and, while I didn’t want to flip the table or burn it, it didn’t really catch my fancy. I’ll have to try it again someday to see if it was just a case of bad first impression, but the odds of this happening are fairly low.
In my opinion, Steam (and Age of Steam, of course) belong in any gamer’s top 10 list and it is perhaps one of the most important game of the last 15 years. Sure, it can be a beast to master and it can hurt your brain when you play, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as winning a game or at least coming close. You know you worked for it and didn’t simply lucked into it. What are you waiting for? Get yourself a copy and let’s play!