Posted by: gschloesser | July 13, 2011

Age of Steam

Design by:  Martin Wallace
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser
Publisher:  Warfrog
Players:  3 – 6
Time:  2 – 3 hours 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in the Gamer’s Alliance Report.

I first had the opportunity to play this game late one night at the infamous Jung Hotel during my journey to the legendary Spiel show in Essen, Germany. The room was bursting at the seams with folks playing games, but six of us managed to squeeze into a corner and play the game. Although I played the first half of that game attempting to develop some sort of strategy or plan, I still have very fond memories. Not only was the game outstanding, but we all got a great laugh out of witnessing designer Martin Wallace have a glass of beer spilled in his lap and watching as Dr. Steve Owen, who helped teach and demonstrate the game dozens of times during the Essen show, was mercilessly bounced from the game at the conclusion of the first round by a particularly evil play!

First, let me state flatly that I am a big fan of Volldampf, the TM Spiele version of Martin Wallace’s earlier Lancashire Rails. After hearing me sing its praises, Martin mentioned to me that if I enjoyed Volldampf so much, I would likely love his next game. Well, he was right. Age of Steam is nothing short of fantastic. The game is the next step on the evolutionary track for Lancashire Rails and its roots are plain to see. However, there have been numerous enhancements and twists that elevate the game to a new, more tense and  richer level. Perhaps the main change is that the train routes are no longer pre-established. Rather, as in 18xx games, players construct the routes themselves.

The object of Age of Steam is similar to that of Volldampf: construct rail lines and transport goods across these lines to the cities that are demanding those goods. Money is earned each time a good travels across rail line segments. The ultimate objective, of course, is to turn a profit and become the wealthiest rail merchant. Such wealth, however, isn’t easy to come by. If you thought money was tight in Volldampf, it is tighter here than Ebenezer Scrooge’s pocketbook!

The board depicts a cross-section of the Ohio valley, with twelve cities already established. There are fourteen other town sites that may be developed into cities during the course of the game.

Each turn consists of a logical and easy-to-follow sequence of play:

1) Issue Shares. As in Volldampf, players may issue shares from their railroads and receive $5 per share issued. However, at the conclusion of each turn, they must pay $1 per outstanding share in expenses. Shares may not be redeemed during the course of the game, so players must weigh this regular expense against the benefit of acquiring the extra cash. Further, each outstanding share at the end of the game reduces a player’s victory points by 3. Ouch!

2) Determine Player Order. This recreates the clever turn order mechanism found in Volldampf, wherein players bid cash to determine the player order for each turn. The first player to drop out of the bidding process will go last in the turn order, but he does not pay any cash for this right. The last two players participating in the bid must pay ALL of the cash they bid when they drop out of the process. All players in between must pay ½ of their bid amount, rounded up.

3) Select Actions. Not only does the bidding process listed above determine the player order, but also the order in which each player may select their special action for the current turn. These special actions add tremendous spice to the game and are often the focus of heated bidding wars. In turn order, as determined by the bidding process described above, players select one of the seven possible special actions:

a) First Move. This player may move goods first.

b) First Build. This player may build track first.

c) Engineer. This player may build up to 4 segments of track, as opposed to the normal 3 that are allowed.

d) Locomotive. This player may upgrade his engine to the next level, which allows him to traverse more rail segments when moving goods.

e) Urbanization. This player may place a new city marker on one of the fourteen possible town locations.

f) Production. Before placing new goods markers onto the board, this player may place two new goods markers on the Goods Display charts.

g) Turn Order. This player may elect to pass ONCE during the bidding process and jump back into the bidding.

All of these special abilities can be extremely powerful, particularly when exercised at critical moments. As mentioned, the desire to grab a particular ability makes each auction round very tense and exciting.

4) Build Track. Each player may construct up to three segments of track per turn (with the exception of the player who chose the “Build Track” ability, who may build four segments. The cost of building a track segment ranges from 2 – 5 gold, depending upon the type of terrain being traversed and whether a player is upgrading the track from a previously laid track. As in Mayfair’s Streetcar, players can upgrade a previous track segment provided all previous track directions remain intact.

The objective here is to construct track in such a manner as to form completed routes between cities. It is across these routes that goods may be moved from city to city, earning income for the players who control the segments across which the goods are moved. So, it is critical to construct track routes that your opponents will also be forced to utilize when moving goods, thereby earning you money. It is also wise to construct contiguous track routes, so that you can use primarily your own routes when moving goods.

Of course, “getting their first” can be important, as it is quite common for players to secure the shortest and most inexpensive routes into cities, or completely block access routes to cities for their opponents. This is why the “Build First” and “Engineer” powers can be vital.

5) Move Goods. This is virtually identical to the Volldampf rules. Each player may move two goods on their turn, but they may not exceed the number of “links” (city to city routes) indicated by the current level of their locomotive. For instance, if a player has a locomotive level of two, then he may only move goods a maximum of two city-to-city links. This is why upgrading your locomotive is so important. The downside is that for each level of your locomotive, you must pay $1 at the end of the turn in expenses. Did I mention that money is very tight?

Goods may only be moved to a city that matches the color of the good being moved. So, the red goods must end their journey in a red city. This forces players to carefully analyze the layout of the board and the location of the goods when making their bidding, building and movement plans. Since the Urbanization ability allows a player to place a new city marker onto the board, this power is usually highly coveted as the placement it allows can give a player some very lucrative movement routes.

A brilliant addition to the system is the Goods Display chart. These charts list all of the cities on the board, as well as the potential cities. At the beginning of the game, these charts are filled with goods. Each turn, dice will be rolled to determine which goods are placed on the board. Since the location of the goods is pre-determined, players can study these charts and make their plans accordingly. Although the timing of the appearance of the goods is determined randomly, one can “play the odds” with some degree of certainty that certain goods will appear at certain cities. Plans can then be made accordingly. The “Production” ability gives a player the right to place two new cubes onto the charts, increasing his chances of getting desirable goods onto the board at the location most favorable to him.

6) Collect Income. When moving goods, each “link” traversed increases the income by one space for the player who owns that link. This is recorded on the Income track. During this phase, all players receive income equal to their current position on this track.

7) Pay Expenses. Time to pay the reaper. For each outstanding share and each level a player has achieved on the Locomotive track, players must pay $1. In the early stages of the game when income is extremely tight, players must exercise the utmost caution in their financial management. If a player is unable to pay their expenses, their marker is moved down on the income track one space for each $1 they are unable to pay. Another ouch”.

8) Income Reduction. As the rich get richer, Uncle Sam steps in and increases his taxes. This is a clever “catch the leader” mechanism wherein as players enter certain brackets on the Income Chart, they are forced to pay a stipend to the government and move their marker backwards on the chart. The first bracket is 11 – 20, wherein a player must move back 2 spaces after collecting their income. Brackets rise in increments of 10 spaces, with each subsequent bracket forcing a player to move back two more spaces than the previous bracket. Often, players will attempt to play the movement of goods so that they do not enter the next bracket.  Of course, their more devious opponents will often utilize their track as part of the movement of goods so that the player is knocked into a higher level and will suffer income reduction.

9) Goods Growth. At this point, after the player who selected the “Production” ability places two new cubes onto the chart, dice are rolled to place more goods from the Goods Display charts onto the board. The Goods Display has two charts, one for each side of the board (east & west). Each chart contains columns for the six cities and four possible towns. There are three cubes that can appear for each city and two for each town, plus any that are placed due to utilizing the ‘Production’ ability. In most of my games, all of the city cubes have been placed during the course of the game and a bit more than half of the town cubes.

As mentioned, since the cubes are placed on the charts at the beginning of the game, players can readily see which cubes will eventually appear in which cities. This information should be used when planning one’s actions and routes. It does remove much of the randomness that was present in the placing of new goods in Volldampf.

The length of the game is determined by the number of players. With six players, the game is completed after six turns. With three players, the duration of the game is 10 turns. Our group tends to play fairly slow, so our six player games have lasted about three hours. However, it has been three hours of tense excitement, so the time truly flies by.

Once the game is completed, players tally their victory points:

· 3 points for each dollar of income as shown on the Income Track

· 1 point for each section of track that is part of a completed link

· -3 points for each outstanding share

In all but my very first game, the games have been very competitive, with the player ultimately winning only slightly ahead of the next few competitors. Certainly, the game rewards careful planning and a player who establishes profitable routes early and manages his finances wisely will be rewarded later in the game with handsome profits. However, it is not impossible to catch the leader as there are numerous actions players can take to hinder his progress and rob him of potential goods movements. Plus, the government steps in with taxes (Income Reduction) which helps reduce the financial lead the front-runners might be enjoying.

The game has some outstanding production values, with thick cardboard tiles, a functional, easy to read mounted map, lots of wooden cubes and markers and plastic chips for money. The rules are good, but not without some ambiguities. Fortunately, this latest edition has cleared-up most of these.

Age of Steam has just been re-released by Eagle Games, a division of FRED.  I am well pleased to see the game still in production, as it is truly one of the best “gamers” games of the past 20 years.  Indeed, it captured the International Gamers Award for outstanding game in 2003, and has spanned a dozen or more expansion maps and variants.  It continues to be a huge influence on many other game designs, and will likely continue to be played and enjoyed far into the future.

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Responses

  1. This is one of those games that I always wanted to understand but never enjoyed when I played. I always forget to watch the turn order and thus would never have commodities to deliver. It is without a doubt a very good game but it is so unforgiving if you make a mistake that I do not want to play it. (5/10)


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