I wrote a review of Age of Steam (in Finnish).
Age of Steam is probably my favourite heavier game right now. As the name betrays, it’s about the golden age of steam engines, the most romantic and glorified period of rail transport. A slightly boring theme, perhaps, as laying railway tracks across the map of the USA has little excitement anymore after so many games on the topic, but hey, it works.
Martin Wallace is an expert on rail games. One game stands out from his ludography: Volldampf is a predecessor for Age of Steam. I haven’t tried it, but I’m told it’s basically a lighter and simplified version of the same game.
If I had to sum Age of Steam up with just one word, it’d be challenging. Learning the rules is a challenge: Age of Steam isn’t a game that can be learned just before you start playing for the first game. Someone needs to study the rules well and then teach other. It’s much easier to teach than to learn from the rules.
It is also challenging game to play well. The money management is tight, so tight that it’ll often take several turns before players make profit. Even then they’re not making profit for themselves, but the share owners: players start the game with no money. All money comes from investors, who want return for their investment.
While Warfrog isn’t the biggest and most well-funded games publisher, they’ve done a good job on the game. The most important parts, that is tracks and the board both look good and work well. The art is fairly minimalistic, but I like it and it’s very functional. Player aid charts and the rule book are more shabbily done. Ok, but nothing exceptional. The rule book has some errors, which complicate learning the game a bit.
Turns start with a turn order auction, which has double significance. Turn order can be important, but the auction is also about getting roles or actions, which grant special benefits that can be quite critical even.
Players then build track using the track tiles. It’s swift and fun. Map has cities and towns — players try to connect cities. Towns have two purposes: connecting through them increases the number of links in players’ connections (which is important) and they can be urbanized into new cities, creating a map, that’s little different every time the game is played.
Routes are created by shipping coloured cubes across the board. Cubes and cities are colour-coded and cubes need to reach a city of the same colour. That’s hard, as the distances can be either too long or too short. Long connections (number of links is critical, not the length of the track) are profitable, but players must first develop the necessary train engine technology.
There are also quite limited amount of cubes to be shipped. Once a cube ships, it’s not automatically replaced with a new cube. Therefore it can be quite crucial to either be first in the turn order or pick the first move -action, because otherwise someone else might steal the cube.
Doing shipments doesn’t bring in money — instead players get income levels, which are better, as players cash in their income every turn. Using a connection from A to B adds one income to the player who owns the connection. There’s no obligation to use one’s own tracks, but of course that’s always the best option. However, sometimes it can be useful to move a cube through one of your opponents’ connections so you can reap the benefits of a long connection.
Of course, to balance the income, there are costs. Players must hand out the money to the shareholders, who want their share, whether the company makes profit or not. And don’t imagine you could buy your shares back — who wants to sell a profitable share? Engine level costs, too. If you have enough money, the tax collector gets interested, too, and might start cutting into your income.
Goods production is the only lucky break in the game. There’s a table for cubes that appear on the cities. Which cities get new stuff is up to the dice. There’s predictability and a dash of unpredictability, a good mix. Players can choose a production action to add more cubes on the table to cities of their choice.
Game lasts a fixed number of rounds. In the final tally, players reduct the number of issued shares from their income, triple that and add the number of their tracks. Highest total wins.
Age of Steam is a challenging game, but avoiding bankruptcy isn’t that hard. The costs and incomes are fairly obvious, so it’s all about doing a simple calculation on each turn to see if there’s a need to issue more shares or not.
There’s a definite learning curve, but newbies usually start figuring out the game during their first play. Next time they’ll know better. However, newbies rarely win Age of Steam, because there are only limited ways to stop a leader and thus the best player usually wins (and not the best player who was hosed the least).
The game has one problem, though — that of limited availability. The first run was 3000 copies. There’s a new edition of the same size, but when that runs out, it remains to be seen if there’s a third edition coming. I’d say buy, if you come across and are at all interested. This is a game that’s easy to sell, if need be.
Age of Steam gets a high recommendation from me. It’s something all gamers with an interest for challenging games should try. There are lots of interesting challenges involved: analyzing the map, balancing the accounts, bidding… There’s a lot to learn, yet it’s still fun and not too work-like.