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[Review] Age of Steam

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Joined: 03/23/2011

If Martin Wallace designs a new game these days, I will buy it sight-unseen, on the spot without any question or qualms. Not all of his games are favorites of mine (Lords of Creation, Election USA); but most of them are real winners, being tremendous games of strategy. The single game that turned me around to becoming a Wallace fanatic was Age of Steam (Winsome Games and Warfrog, 2001 - Martin Wallace). When I first picked up the box and looked at the back, I thought that the board was drab and boring and delayed playing it.

Once I saw it set up for the first time, I was floored, seeing little wooden bits all over the table. My first playing was one of extreme fun (after we restarted when I went bankrupt), and I’ve been playing it ever since. It’s one of the few heavier games that plays well with three to six players, although differently with each. There’s certainly a learning curve; but once a player has played their initial game, the lure of trying a new strategy calls it back. When one wins a game of Age of Steam, it is an accomplishment; as the scores reward both good strategy and tactics. Age of Steam has entered my top ten games; and with expansion maps continually coming out, it will probably stay there for quite some time.

The basic game of Age of Steam uses a partial map of America, depicting the Great Lakes area - split up into hexes, with twelve cities and fourteen towns in various places. The twelve cities are split up into two groups - western half of the board and eastern half, each city having a number from one to six and being one of four colors (purple, blue, red and yellow). Each player takes a pile of discs in their chosen color and places several on two-player aid boards. One token is placed at the “0” space on an income track, another is placed at the “2” space on an issued shares track; another is placed at the “1 link” space on the engine track, and one is placed above a selection actions chart; a final one is randomly placed on a player order track, determining the starting order for the beginning of the first turn. A pile of money tokens is placed near the board, with $10 given to each player. A pile of hexagonal track tiles is placed in the box lid, and then goods are placed. Ninety-six goods cubes in five different colors (purple, blue, red and yellow) are placed in a cup or bag, and then two are randomly placed on each city (three on Pittsburgh and Wheeling). Each city has a matching column on the player aid (the Goods Display) with three spaces - in each of these spaces a random good cube is placed. Ten new city tiles (in all five colors) are placed near the board, marked “A” through “H”. These cities also have a matching column on the player aid with two spaces with random good cubes placed in each. A turn marker is placed on a turn track at the start position, and the first turn is ready to begin.

There are ten phases to each turn in which all players participate. The first phase is the “Issue Shares” phase, in which players (in turn order) decide whether to issue more shares. For each share the player issues, they receive $5 from the bank and move their token on the issued shares track up one. Players then determine play order through a bidding sequence. The player in first place must either bid $1 or move their token to the last space on the turn order track. Each succeeding player must increase the bid or move their token to the last available space on the track. If a player took the “Turn Order Pass” action on the previous turn, they may pass once during the auction without having to place their token on the Player Order Track. The top two bidders must pay the full amount of their final bid to the bank; the lowest bidder pays nothing; and all other bidders pay half of their bids to the bank.

Players then, in turn order, choose one of seven different actions: First Move, First Build, Engineer, Locomotive, Urbanization, Production, or Turn Order Pass. Each of these actions takes place in a specific phase, except for Locomotive, which allows the player to immediately increase their token on the Engine Track by one.

The fourth phase is the Build Track phase, where players build track tiles on the board. If any player took the “First Build” action, they go first; otherwise, all players build in turn order. Each player may place a maximum of three tiles on the board, unless they took the “Engineer” action, allowing them to place up to four tiles. The player who chose “Urbanization” may also choose any of the unused city tiles, placing them onto any town spot on the board, upgrading that town to a city, replacing any track tile that might be in that square. There are some rules when building tracks...
- Simple tracks (straight or a simple curve) cost $2 to build.
- Complex track (crossings or two co-existing tracks on the same tile) can replace a simple track - costing $3 for a crossing, and $2 for a coexisting.
- A track placed on a space with a river running through it costs $3.
- A track with a mountain terrain costs $4 to place a track in it.
- A track connecting a town costs $1 for the town, plus $1 for each connecting track.
- If a player connects two towns and/or cities, he places one of his disks on the track to show ownership of it.
- If a player does not connect a city and/or town with their track, they place one of their disks on the track to show that they own it; but if they don’t complete the track the following turn, the disk is removed, leaving the track up for grabs.
- There are a few other rules regarding terrain, connecting towns, etc.

The next phase is the “Move Goods” phase. Starting with the player who picks the “First Move” action (if any), and then in turn order, each player may either move one good cube or increase their maximum links by one on the Engine Track. A good can only be moved to a city that matches its color. Each section of track connecting a city or town counts as one link, and players may only move cubes the amount of links equal to where their token is on the Engine Track. For each link of their own color that the cube passes over, the player moves their token one on the Income Track. If the cube passes over other players’ tracks, their income is also increased by one for each link passed over. Once all players have shipped a good, increased Engine Track, or passed, the same thing is repeated one more time.

The next two phases, Collect Income and Pay Expenses, can be combined. Each player receives an amount of money equal to the number their token is on the income track. However, they must pay to the bank the sum of the shares issued and the number of links their token is on the Engine Track. If the player doesn’t have the money to pay the bank, they must reduce their income track marker by one for each dollar owned. If a player’s token goes below $0, they are eliminated from the game.

In the Income Reduction Phase, players move their tokens back a certain amount of spaces on the income track, if they are above 11. The number moved back is determined by how far their token is on the track. There is then a Goods Growth Phase. The player who chose the “Production” action can randomly draw two goods cubes and place them in any empty boxes in the Goods Display. After this, four dice are rolled for the western cities, and then four for the eastern cities. Each city whose number matches a number rolled has the first available good in their column on the Goods Display placed on the city. Multiple cubes might be placed on the same city, and cities with no goods in the Goods Display ignore the rolls. The New Cities columns are lined up with some of the numbers, so they might also have goods placed on them.

In the last phase, Advance Turn Marker, the turn marker is obviously moved one space. If it reaches a space declaring game end (different depending on number of players), the game ends after the next turn. Players then sum up their victory points:
- Points equal to three times the number their disk is on the Income Track.
- One point for each section of track they have on the board.
- Negative points equal to three times the number of shares they have issued.
The player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: I stated that at first I was less than impressed by the board; but after playing the game, I was glad it was so plain, as it was very easy to place tracks and see what was going on. And even so, once all the tracks are laid out, with cubes and discs on the board, it really does look really cool. The map of the Great Lakes area is very well done, and it’s fun to connect cities you know (for those who aren’t Americans, maps are being done of many other countries). The track tiles are of a good thickness and are very clean and easy to see on the board. The money is different sized Tiddly-Wink pieces (seems to be common in many games), and the tokens and cubes are nice sized and easy to handle. There are a LOT of pieces in the game, but everything fits well in the box when bagged, and I was even able to fit an expansion board in the box also. The player aids are impressive, managing to hold a wealth of information on them in an orderly fashion. Warfrog has done an outstanding job on the components, which are certainly equal to the price of the game.

2.) Slight Problems: Warfrog is known for their errors in games (although it’s really quite miniscule, people tend to talk about it.) The problem in AOS is that Detroit is numbered incorrectly. This is extremely easy to ignore or fix - Warfrog issued a sticker to correct the problem, or you can download it off the internet. Also, the goods and city colors are identical to the player colors. For an experienced player, this is no big deal but can be confusing to new players. (It is expensive to do 11 different colors, however.) Notice that even with these minor problems, I still rate the game a “10” which shows how nitpicky these problems are.

3.) Rules: I usually criticize Warfrog for their formatting of their rules, but AOS’s rules are the best from that company. They are seven pages of nicely formatted rules with illustrations and many examples. Everything is laid out in detail, making the game easy for someone to understand. Learning the game itself can be a task, often depending on how good the teacher is; but once learned, everything runs fairly smoothly.

4.) Learning Curve: At the same time, new players are at a definite disadvantage in their first game. Even with the more experienced players coaching them, helping them realize what good decisions are, I’ve rarely seen a new player win their first game. At the same time, because the game has an excellent way of stopping the “rich-get-richer” problem (Income reduction), games are usually close, with even the losers having a good time and not caring that they’ve lost. I always warn new players about bankruptcy, however (I’m sensitive since it happened to me); and very rarely have I seen it happen, as long as players realize they are on a short leash financially.

5.) Finances: One thing I love about the game is how tight money is at first. If a player breaks even in the first couple of turns, they are usually ecstatic, knowing that they’ve done well. Only near the end of the game do players have a lot of money, and by then it’s good for nothing. Knowing how many shares to take and when to take them is crucial. And even players who make little money in the beginning of the game can still do well, as long as they keep their debts down.

6.) Strategies: There are whole series of articles written on strategy of the game - most of which I haven’t read, since I like to form my own strategies with games. But Age of Steam, one of the few games I have a high winning percentage at, is so well designed that you can see exactly how your strategies are implemented. Of course, strategies vary greatly depending on how many players are in the game; and while I think that the optimal players is four, I love playing with any number of players. (I even heard that there’s a two-player variant available, but I’m not interested in it. I prefer it as a multiplayer game.)

7.) Fun Factor and Interaction: This game, even though it’s sometimes head-scratching strategic, is a blast. This is helped in great part by the player interaction in the game. From the auctions, which can get fairly tense at times, to the special actions (“Hey! You took Urbanization, and my strategy revolved around that!”), to cutting off other players with your tracks, to shipping your goods over other players’ rails, to shipping cubes just before others players, there is massive interaction in the game, and one must watch all other players at all times so that they don’t lose. I’ve played several games that have been won and lost by only a point or two, and making one small critical mistake can cost you. The joy of winning and the joy of losing (the game is that fun) make this one a game that I’ll pull out often.

8.) Expansions: There are several expansion maps from both Winsome and Warfrog, as well as unofficial maps that can be found online. These maps with different layouts and special rules allow the game to have a great variety. I would be satisfied with the map in the box, but the extra maps make the game even more fun. (My current favorite is Korea.)

This is a great, great game, and one should not hesitate to pick up a copy of it if they can. It’s certainly not a light game, and one in which all the players should be ready to match wits and tactics, but it’s fun and involving. Seeing your tracks laid out on the board gives one a great feeling of satisfaction, and the theme really fits the mechanics well. Until I had played Age of Steam, I had never been interested in rail games; and this game has really sparked my desire to play more, although I’ve yet to play one as good as this one. This game is Martin Wallace’s masterpiece and is certainly one of the best games of the decade. If you like good strategic games, buy this one; you won’t regret it!

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

Scurra's picture
Joined: 09/11/2008
[Review] Age of Steam

This is one of the greatest games ever (tm) :-)

I am terminally lousy at it (I have gone bust more than once, despite knowing how the game works!) but the magical interaction of the actions, the turn sequence, the mechanisms and the economy is amazing: to the point that I actually abandoned my own attempt at designing "an 18xx game that only lasted 90 minutes" because essentially this is it.
Hopefully the promised reprint will allow a new audience to discover it.

One observation on the design side though: this game is part of the evolution* of a sequence of railway games that Martin designed; it's a great example of why you don't stop developing an idea just because a game works. Instead, you can push different parts of the game to see what happens.

(*I would say "culmination" but I'm not at all convinced that it is :-)

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