Age of Steam
Manage your cash and your tracks in order to deliver goods throughout the mid-eastern United States in this serious game from Martin Wallace.
Martin Wallace has made many train games, (Lancaster, New England, Pampas, Prairie Railways, Volldampf), and has had an impressive output of quality games in the past few years, (Empires or the Ancient World, Liberte), and Age of Steam fits squarely in both camps. It is a train game, and it is an impressive game. Age of Steam finds each player in charge of a railroad company in the middle of the US. Players attempt to build tracks from city to city in order to ship goods from where those goods are to where those goods are wanted. But building track costs money, as does maintaining your company's trains, and the only way to get money is by issuing shares. Of course those shareholders want to see dividends as well. Add in auctions for turn order and selectable "roles", (similar to Puerto Rico), and you have Age of Steam.
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The game begins by having two goods markers, (colored wooden cubes), being placed randomly on each city on the board, and a goods production card is filled with cubes. The cubes come in five different colors, which correspond to colored cities on the board. To deliver a good, it must move across tracks to a city with the color that matches the cube's color. After the cubes are laid out each player gets $10 in starting capital, their "Engine marker" is set to 1 link, and the play begins.
During each turn, there is a set series of phases that are followed. The first of these is the "issue shares" phase. Each player decides how many shares of stock they want to issue, and receives 5$ per share issued. Sounds like a good deal, but there are consequences, as later in the turn you must pay dividends to your stockholders and each share of stock you issue costs you three victory points at the end of the game.
After everyone has issued shares, there is an auction for turn order. It is a fairly standard auction, although you cannot pass and then get back in, and the payment mechanism is a bit different, as the top two bidders pay their full bid amounts, while those who drop out earlier pay half, (that's not quite accurate, but it's close). After turn order has been established, players chose roles for the turn. Here are the roles available:
The player who chooses this role will get to move goods first during the move goods phase, regardless of their turn order.
The player who chooses this role will get to build track first during the build track phase, regardless of their turn order.
The engineer is allowed to build 4 pieces of track instead of three during the build track phase.
The player choosing the locomotive role can move their "Engine marker" up one space, (which allows for longer deliveries).
When a player chooses the urbanization role, they can choose one of the 6 "New City" tiles, and place one on the map, covering up an existing town hex.
Before goods are placed onto the board, the player choosing this role can place two randomly selected goods cubes onto the goods growth chart.
The player choosing this action can pass once during the turn order auction in the next turn.
After the roles have been chosen, track is built. In player order, considering the Build First role, players build track on the board. Track must either be built from a city, or off of a players unfinished track from a previous turn. Unless a player is the engineer, the maximum number of tracks that can be built is three. The cost of laying track is from 2 - 5 gold, depending on whether it's crossing clear terrain, rivers or mountainous terrain, or if is a "complex tile". Complex tiles come in several varieties, including crossing tracks, and town tracks with from 1 to four spur tracks leading out of the town. If a player's track connects one city or town to another, a link has been formed. If the track doesn't make it to a city or town, it is considered "unfinished", and the player must extend that track on their next turn, or lose ownership of that bit of track.
After all track has been laid, it is time to move goods. As mentioned previously, goods are moved from the city where they start to a city which matches the color of the good. Each player, in turn order, again considering the Move First role, can move one cube from a city across links to a matching destination city. The number of links that that good can be moved across is equal to the player's engine marker level. So on the first turn, the furthest a good can be moved is one link, (except for the player that chose the Locomotive role, who could move two links). For each link a good moves across, the owner of that link's income level is increased by 1. After everyone has had an opportunity to move a good, another round of goods moving occurs. A player may also forgo moving a good, and instead, increase their engine level.
After all players have had the opportunity to move goods, each player then collects income equal to their income level. After collecting their income, each player must now pay their expenses. These are $1 for each level their engine marker has, and $1 for each share of stock they have issued. If a player doesn't have enough cash to do this, they must decrease their income level by 1 for each 1 they cannot afford. If this moves them below an income level of 1, they are bankrupt and out of the game.
Next comes the income reduction phase. On the income level track, there are shaded regions that show how much each player must reduce their income. For example, if a player's income level is between 11 and 20, they must decrease their income by 2 during this phase. This serves as a catch the leader mechanism, and near the higher levels make it very difficult to increase income at all.
Finally, there is the goods growth phase. During this phase, a number of dice equal to the number of players are rolled for each half of the map. The cities which correspond to the numbers rolled get a good from the goods chart placed on them. There are only three goods per city for the entire game, (not considering the production role), so it is very possible that even though a city's number is rolled, it may not get any more goods. In addition to the numbered cities on the board, the urbanized towns, (new cities), may also receive a cube.
This turn order repeats for a set number of turns, depending on the number of players, and then final scores are tabulated. Each player get three points for each level of income they have attained, negative three points for each share of stock they have issued, and one point for each section of track that is part of a completed link.
Detroit is mislabeled on the map. It should be a "3" city. A sticker is available from the publisher to correct this problem. Also, there is an error in the rules having to do with delivering goods. One of the city colors is wrong, making the example nonsensical.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions. There is a ton of stuff going on in this game, and a player is faced with so many decisions throughout the game. Money is very tight, so one cannot be profligate in spending, but you really need to get that certain role, but so does the player across the table from you, so how far can you push it? Where to build your tracks to help you and hinder others. Which goods can you "steal" from someone else by taking the "First Move" action, etc. Each of the roles have their place, and each is of different importance at various times during the game. Age of Steam has a really nice "game arc", where the choices you make are shaped by what's happening on the board, but also at what point the game is. Production is useless early, but can be critical late. Money is excruciatingly tight in the early game, but far less so once your income marker has risen in the late game. It is almost like there are three or four different games all going on at the same time, and you need to stay on top of all of them to be competitive. All in all, a very rich, "meaty" gaming experience.
The brutality of the money situation is first on most people's lists. You can easily make blunders in the first few turns, which can render the rest of your game moot. And, as Age of Steam is a long game, (generally around 2+ hours), that can be a long, painful time if you have no chance of winning. There is potential elimination in the game, which turns some people off, (although if you are in the hopeless situation described above, this might in fact be a good thing). Others have suggested that there can be a runaway leader problem. Now I haven't played enough to have seen this, and the income reduction phase punishes the leader more than other players, and as far as I can tell, was the primary reason this rule exists.
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