Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Give Me "Steam"

The big problem with a lot of board games is that the cover art and subject matter gives people the impression that the box is filled with meeple-shaped Dramamine tablets.  Case in point:

Sorry, but I've never had a train fetish.  This might as well be a picture of a paper clip sitting on a white tablecloth for all I care.  This is a real pity since this bland exterior does absolute nothing to sell the truly stellar game contained within.

Here's an overview right from the conductor's mouth:

"In Steam you build railroads and deliver goods along an ever-changing network of tracks and stations.  You build the tracks, upgrade towns, improve your train, and grab the right goods to make the longest, most profitable deliveries.  Score your deliveries and add to your income or victory points, balancing your need to invest against your quest to win the game.

Steam contains a beautiful, double-sided game board.  The map on each side depicts terrain, towns, and cities at the start of the railway age.  The map of the northeastern USA and neighboring Canada is ideal for 3 or 4 players.  Use the map of Europe's lower Rhine and Ruhr region when playing a 4 or 5 player game.  You can play Steam on any number of current and future variant and expansion maps, so we include pieces for 6 players.

Steam is the culmination of Martin Wallace's classic railroad game series.  It contains a brilliantly balanced standard game, and a very rich, elegant basic game.  Both offer you unparalleled flavor and fun."    

Looking to run train on yourself?  You can read the game's full rule book by choo-choo-choosing the following link.  

Color Selection


Here's how the board looked upon initial set-up, just prior to us screwing around with its Zen-like simplicity.  Oh, and for the sake of full disclosure, we played the Basic Game and not the uber-auctiony Standard game.  

Right off the bat, Andrew seemed to realize the importance of an upgraded locomotive.  By the end of Round Two, his trains had the ability to move across three rail segments.  This served him very well in the construction between Philadelphia, New York, Albany and a refurbished Amsterdam.

I tried to create a circuitous route between Scranton, Philadelphia and New York but high-spending Andrew plunged himself into debt in order to to snatch up the line between the Big Apple and the home of Philly Cheesesteaks.  After noticing that I had the potential to score three big Veeps by delivering a blue shipment along the same route, I started to upgrade my locomotives.  Around the same time I also realized that the two purple cubes sitting in Scranton were probably going to collect dust for a little while.  

Chad also was quick to invest in speedier locomotives.  This allowed him to envision and then exploit a three-segment track running from Albany to Boston via Hartford.  

For the longest time, Mike resisted the temptation to spruce up his locomotives.  Unfortunately, this kept him limited to purple and blue single point cube deliveries along one-track routes like Albany to Hartford and Boston to Maine.  Indeed, Mike seemed pretty leery about burying himself in debt, which meant that his northern route between Ottawa and Valleyfield went incomplete for awhile.  

By the time the fourth round was over, Andrew had transformed his locomotives into five-track crusin' Maseratis.  He also weaseled his way back onto my turf by constructing a two-segment route from Amsterdam to Syracuse via Utica!  As a second affront, he also began laying a length of track from Syracuse to Kingston!  Jerk!  Although this put him into serious debt, he managed to dig himself out somewhat by transporting one blue cube from Amsterdam to Philadelphia for four big points and then  smuggling one of my yellow cubes out of Philadelphia to Albany for three.  Even after all of this clandestine shipping, he was still -2 in the hole.  

Although it cost him a bundle, Chad managed to keep up with Andrew in the locomotive upgrade race.  A single, inexpensive segment laid between Albany and Amsterdam immediately gave him the ability to transport one red cube all the way from Amsterdam to New York for four points.  Chad also started to build a track towards Plymouth but didn't want to sink lower then -1 in debt so he stopped two hexes short.

Frustrated that three cubes (two yellow and one purple) were virtually stranded in Maine, Mike turned his attentions up north.  Instead of investing in expensive locomotives, Mike funneled all of his profits into building abbreviated tracks.  He started by completing the route between Ottawa, Valleyfield and Montreal, which eventually allowed him to deliver two red cubes for four points.  After working on some tentative routes between Montreal, Burlington and an Urbanized Sherbrooke, Mike somehow managed to claw his way back out of debt.  

Unlike Mike, I really thought that long-range locomotives would be the key to victory.  As such, I put priority into getting mine up to four speed, just one behind Chad and Andrew.  But like Mike, I was also playing the game w-a-a-a-a-y too passively.  My first crime was building railroad tracks without deviations.  Although this tactic was relatively inexpensive it also prevented me from branching out to new towns and cities with ease.  My second goof was allowing Andrew to box me in.  After that, all I could really do was make tracks along the only route still available to me: Scranton to Syracuse via Binghamton.  Eventually this allowed me to stay out of debt by shipping a blue cube from Syracuse to Philadelphia for four points and a purple cube from Philly to Scranton for two. 

Over the next two rounds, Andrew continued to spend money to make money.  First off, he drove himself into six points worth of debt in order to attain the highest possible locomotive speed.  Then he  completed a major line from Kingston, Smiths, Ogdensberg and Ottawa, wisely leaving one junction open to create an inevitable circuit.  To pay for all of this, Andrew horked one of my red cubes and sent it off to New York for five points!  

Now completely painted into a corner, I did what I could to eke out some space.  At first I tried to branch out from a completely different location (specifically Amsterdam) but Mike threw me a curveball by diverting his northern line from Burlington towards Rutland and erasing my sole entry into the town.  I tried to bounce back by building a three-segment route from Scranton to Harrisburg and a two point track from Binghamton to Towanda, but without any resources to ship it was all for nought.  To generate some fresh resources, I upgraded Binghamton with a Gray City Tile and then stocked it with purple and yellow cubes.  Andrew had already performed City Growth on Philadelphia, which gave me an opportunity to move the lone gray cube there up to Binghamton for three points.  Because I had very little payoff after all of that frantic development I ended up being two points in the hole.       

Chad kept up his furious pace with Andrew, scoring six-movement-point bullet trains as well.  Even though he completed a three-segment rail line to Plymouth and a two-track route to Bridgeport this didn't translate into a lot of shipped goods at first.  But at least he accomplished something that I'd failed to do, which was create some jumping off points in far-flung corners of the board.  First off he placed a one-tile track in my territory between Syracuse and "New Binghamton" effectively blocking Andrew's intended access to the city.  Then he curb-stomped Andrew right in the knutz by linking Ottawa with Smiths using a single tile.  Unfortunately, Chad's lack of income hit him pretty hard, leaving him at -4 on the Debt-O-Meter. 

After defending his sole access into Rutland, Mike concentrated on linking Sherbrooke to Maine via Rumford.  Even though he had access to more uncontested resources then Andrew or myself, Mike's lack of mobility was beginning to hamstring him.  After producing more goods in Maine, Mike was still limited to only one or two point shipments.  Thus, one yellow cube went from Maine to Sherbrooke and a blue cube came back the opposite way for two points apiece.  There was also a shipment of one yellow cube from Montreal to Sherbrooke.  Although this only gave Mike a total of five points, it also buoyed him back up to -2 monies and kept him out of financial ruin.

The last few turns of the game were all about delivering goods for "Hail Mary" points and dropping one and two-hex railroad tokens like leftover Scrabble tiles.  Andrew got five points for shipping a gray cube all the way from New York City to Syracuse.  I also got a small windfall out of the deal when Andrew snubbed Chad and used my Syracuse to Binghamton line instead of his.  The rancor between Chad and Andrew at that point was so toxic that neither of them were willing to concede so much as an inch to one another.  

Exiled in my own little corner of the world, I couldn't lay down any new routes even if I wanted to.  After my proposed track from Amsterdam to Rutland got scrapped, I knew that my only hope to generate points now was through Urbanization.  But even after I upgraded Harrisburg to a purple city my earning potential was still pretty anemic.  I did manage to sneak a lone grey cube out of New York and send it to Binghamton, but this was via Scranton and it only resulted in two measly points.  After shifting one purple cube from Scranton to Philadelphia for two points and another from Binghamton to Scranton for one I realized that I was taking three moves to accomplish what Chad and Andrew were doing in one.  

Chad might not have earned a lot of points during the last few rounds, but certainly set himself up for a killer endgame.  First up, he did me one better by constructing a last-minute route from Amsterdam to Rutland by refashioning the latter into a red city.  He then scored three points with a blue cube transported from Hartford to Amsterdam, four points with a similarly-colored cube sent from Plymouth to Albany and a whopping five points via a gray cube that went from Bean Town to Plymouth Rock.  

Stuck behind the Appalachian Mountains with no branching tracks to work with or towns to link up to, Mike did what he could to score a few 11'th hour points.  But since his range was still stuck at three, even this was a challenge.  Rewards came to him piecemeal: Sherbrooke and Montreal traded red and yellow cubes for one point apiece, Maine sent a red cube to Boston for a point and Sherbrooke got a yellow cube from Maine for two points.  Without any matching destinations nearby, several of Mike's gray and purple cubes ended up going unclaimed.  

At game's end we added all of the Income and completed rail link bonuses to our Victory Point tracks.  Here was the final result:

The player with the highest income value broke the tie.  As a result, Andrew was declared the winner with a +2 income!    

I was actually quite impressed by Steam; the mechanics of the Basic Game are simple yet thematic.  For example I really like how turn order was determined by the actions you take.  Even though some of the options are clearly more powerful then others, this is offset nicely by putting players who pick them at the back of the turn order.  As a result, the odds of any player getting to use one of these powerful actions twice in a row is pretty slim.   

I also dug the spacial relations challenge provided by the railway track tiles.  During this first game, I was constantly buying straight-away tracks just because they're cheap.  In retrospect, this was pretty myopic since branch-off tiles give you the chance to strike off towards new towns without re-starting a track from scratch.  Although going into debt feels appropriately scary such boldness is a prerequisite to victory.  The economic system really drives home the theme that heavy investment in infrastructure is key to securing those precious end-game returns.        

Several strategies become evident as you play the game.  Are you going to put yourself in hock to crisscross the map with far-reaching rail lines?  Or will you eke out a small yet resource-heavy region of the country and concentrate on developing the area's commercial potential?  Whatever tactics you decide on, there's a genuine sense of evolution during the game.  I love watching the rail lines, cities and production routes develop.  The board, Railway Track hexes and Action Tiles all contribute to the sensation that players are olde tyme rail barons out to make a fast buck.  

Unfortunately, the rest of the components do very little to enhance this theme.  The cute l'il train tokens featured in the sessions photographs are a misnomer since Andrew had to buy them separately.  In fact, the "trains" included with the game are small, round, flat, lame-looking colored wooden discs.  Also a tad weak-sauce are the nondescript "Goods Cubes" which are supposed to represent the vagaries of "long term delivery contracts".  *YAWN!*  If the designers had opted to use representations of "real" raw materials instead, this would have been a lot more evocative.

Regardless of my issues with the components, this is still a rich, immersive gaming experience that will have you chomping at the bit for your turn to come back around.  In fact, when it comes to jacking up your opponents with New City tiles or heading someone off at the pass with a series of deviously-played track segments I get the impression that we've only begun to scratch the strategic surface.        

While you're playing it, Steam certainly builds up a head of its namesake and I'm pleased to award the game five pips out of six on the ol' Die-O-Meter!

Want an excuse to dress up like a conductor and throw your friends out of a second story window after they fail to produce their "ticket" on demand?  Well, right now you're shit outta luck 'cuz Steam appears to be out of print.  Keep watching this space for an update! 


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