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Designer Diary: The Making of Bézier's 2010 Steam Expansions

Ted Alspach
United States
San Jose
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I like to keep pushing the Age of Steam/Steam expansion envelope. In 2010, for the first time ever, I'm releasing three double-sided MOUNTED expansions, as well as a double-sided bonus map. There's a fair amount of additional cost involved in printing up mounted expansions, especially at the relatively low volume necessary for expansions to AoS/Steam, but I know that's what most players really want, and I fall into that category as well. Mounted gameboards are more durable, store better, and seem more fun to play than paper maps. Without exception, all the maps I've printed on paper I would have loved to have mounted, if the math were to work out. With a slightly weaker Euro, I decided to take the plunge, and the new boards look just amazing.

For all the mounted maps I've produced, I've always used LUDO FACT, known in the industry for the highest quality game components. All the big German publishers use them for most projects, and Rio Grande uses them as well. I had the good fortune of visiting them a few years back with the Valley Games folks, and LUDO FACT has an amazing operation. That's why every single mounted map you get from Bézier Games is super high quality.

Okay, enough of the sales spiel – this particular set of maps is in many ways more "typical" than what I've released in the past. (Three years ago, I released a set of one- and two-player maps; two years ago, I released the totally unique Secret Blueprints of Steam series in which each player had his own map; and in 2009 I released four two-player maps on the back of "regular" maps.) Every one of this year's maps plays with three players, and all but one plays with four or five people. For uniqueness this year, I've included a three-player-only map and a co-op map. I really don't like co-op games, so I had a bit of fun with the latter (see below).

Steam vs. Age of Steam

As the only publisher who is releasing dual AoS/Steam expansion maps, I've run into a bit of a challenge: How to make maps that work for both systems, as while they are very close, they have some fundamental differences. In some cases, as with Atlantis, the differences are erased by rule modifications. (Production and cube dispersal via the traditional AoS/Steam rules is eliminated, replaced by an integrated system.) In other cases, like California Gold Rush, the map is more interesting for AoS players than Steam players, as there's no income reduction in Steam (thus removing most of the value of having a real "end game" advancement to VPs). However, my #1 goal with this year's maps was to make them work as well with both systems as possible, with as few tweaks specific to AoS or Steam as possible.

Not only that, but this year's maps have a single set of rules, not one set of rules for Steam and another for AoS. This cross-platform goal was challenging to create and test and keep everything straight, especially without making the maps too generic, but I'm really happy with the results. What came out of this "cross platform" rules goal was a leaner ruleset, something I favor anyway over the more verbose, involved rules of some of the other expansion maps out there.

(I know that many players have both games, and while pretty much everyone prefers one or the other – I'm agnostic in this regard – the ability to be able to play expansions with either game is huge. I wish Railways of the World / Railroad Tycoon had normal-sized tiles, so I could make these maps work with that system as well...)

Simple Rule Changes

When I play an AoS/Steam expansion, I don't want to have to refer to the rules during the game, but instead get a quick summary of them when we start and be able to keep them in mind while we're playing. My philosophy is that expansions for AoS/Steam are rarely played multiple times within a few weeks or even months, so players can't be expected to have a learning game. If they can't "get" the rules upon an initial reading to everyone at the table (with the exception of the game set-up, since that doesn't have to be memorized), then I need to scale back the rules.

One of the areas I've tried to focus on when developing new AoS/Steam maps is to keep the rule changes interesting and compelling without adding all sorts of exceptions and clarifications; it's amazing how a simple change to an existing rule often causes a domino effect that can result in paragraphs of explanatory text. You'll find the rule changes in this new set to be very crisp, even though they have to address both AoS and Steam.

The California Gold Rush rule change (only one in this case) is simple and doesn't have a dramatic impact on regular game play rules: Gold (yellow) cubes can be delivered at any time, but they don't count as income until the end of the game...after income reduction. That tiny rule change has a dramatic effect on how you play AoS/Steam, requiring you to weigh the value of 5 income at the end of the game vs. 4 or 2 incremental income on a six delivery (thanks to income reduction) during the mid- and endgame.

Another simple rule change appears in Sharing, which again has a big influence on how the game is played, but in this case the change does require various clarifications in the rules because it "breaks" some normal conventions. Sharing allows a player to become a co-owner of any link by paying the current owner(s) one share. While this seems straightforward enough, clarifications are needed for all of the situations where things are a little odd. Like what if one of the owners is at two shares already? He gets $5 from the bank. What happens if you become a co-owner of an incomplete link? Any owner can extend that link and complete it. Who gets the income when goods are delivered across a co-owned link? It's determined by the player who makes the delivery. And so on. In this case, the fundamental rules change was so compelling and interesting that it was worth the additional clarifications.

Another area of rule changes is a result of optimizing for a certain player count. In the case of Trisland, my goal was to make a three-player map that really worked for three players. There are a few other maps that work well for three players – Montréal Métro is the best of the lot, though one could argue it's a four-player map with rotating control of the "dummy" government player – but in general players run into the issue that AoS/Steam really isn't a great three-player game. Ireland tried to solve the problem by essentially removing the Locomotive action. My Essen Spiel map scales in size to the number of players, making a much tighter map for three players than six – but Trisland is different. I took the approach of thinking that if I had to sell AoS/Steam as a three-player-only game, what rules would I change? How could I retain the elegance of AoS/Steam as well as the cutthroat nature of the game when it is played with four or five players in a three-player environment? And how could I do this without totally changing the fundamentals of AoS/Steam? Here are the three things I did to make this the perfect three-player map:

1. I made the map perfectly symmetrical. A huge problem with three-player games of AoS/Steam is that board position is absolutely huge, with more impact than with more players. A player who "lucks" into being left alone while the other two duke it out for cubes and track position is guaranteed to win. Having a symmetrical map means that the only variable each game is the initial outlay of cubes. And making the center spots rather costly prevents a player from hogging the center of the map without a significant investment early on.
2. I reduced the number of goods colors by one. No purple cubes means no purple cities. It also has the effect of making it harder to create 6-link deliveries. This isn't something particularly new: I used this to great effect in last years' two-player maps (Alabama Railways, Antebellum Louisiana, 1867 Georgia Reconstruction and South Carolina).
3. I reduced both the number of actions and how many times during the game a player can choose each of those actions. This piece was key. Gone are First Move and Turn Order (arguably two of the weaker actions anyway); I also limited each player to choosing the remaining actions only once or twice per game. This had the added benefit of making turn order important in the last few turns if your remaining available actions were the same as any of your opponents, regardless of what those actions were.

The great thing about these changes is that #1 is all on the map; no rules explanation is necessary. And #2 is just a set-up rule, and since there are no purple cubes or cities, this change is something that players don't have to think about for the rest of the game. The action selection mechanism is the only real change, and that's easy to grok by the use of tokens on the action spaces.

The result is AoS/Steam for three players with a minimum of rules tweaks. Understanding the rules is as simple as saying, "You can only take the actions represented by the tokens on the action spaces" and then players are off and running. It's super streamlined and provides what I consider an ideal three-player AoS/Steam experience.


When it comes to environments, this set has something for everyone: Historical scenarios in California Gold Rush and Underground Railroad; real world locations with Amazon Rainforest and Sahara Desert; imaginary locations with Atlantis and Trisland; and unnamed areas that may or may not exist with Sharing and Really Friendly Sharing.

I've wanted to do a map based on the Underground Railroad for a long time, as the thought of smuggling slaves to freedom in the North seemed like it would be really compelling. Because it's such an important goal, this is a place where I changed the winning conditions for AoS/Steam: the winner is the player who frees the most slaves. Slaves, represented by gray cubes living in towns and cities in the South, are treated mechanically like any other good: You need to connect to a city that will accept them – several cities in the north are gray as well as another "standard" goods color – and must have a locomotive that can travel enough links. However, you don't receive any income for delivering those slaves. Instead, you hold on to them for the end of the game, at which time the winner is the player who has freed the most slaves by delivering them to the North.

Adding to the tension is that there are only 16 slaves available to deliver during the game, so you have to figure out how to balance the financial needs of your railroad with your ultimate goal. And lest you think you can beat the system, you can't win if you go bankrupt during the game...

For Sahara Desert, the challenge of building a railroad network across a wasteland of sand and barren land seems unthinkable. To prove my point, the game play in Sahara Desert is brutal, requiring the limited resource of water for each delivery, or a substantial payment (or action choice). Rushing to get water early on seems like a good strategy until you realize that the cost to build track to the water ends up costing more than just paying for it...and you might end up with an inefficient set of track as a result, too. Getting ahead and being financially stable by the mid- to endgame is absolutely critical here – if you wait too long, you'll be shut out, and if you crest too soon you'll run out of viable deliveries.

Oases await...

Really Friendly Sharing, the bonus map to the Sharing bonus map, is the cooperative game version of AoS/Steam. If you find current cooperative games to be challenging or frustrating, I think you'll find Really Friendly Sharing to be right up your alley. Most of the decisions to be made are group decisions, such as where to build track and which cubes to deliver each turn. You even work together to place cubes during the setup phase to ensure optimal deliveries later in the game. In addition, many of the more harsh rules in AoS/Steam have been relaxed to take the edge off of game play. In fact, this is more of a novelty map than any other you'll find out there, so don't expect an edge-of-your-seat I-hope-we-don't-go-bankrupt playing experience.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Atlantis. When I originally designed this map, I was making maps that were impossibly brutal. Most playtesters back then hated this map. Even the grizzled old AoS/Steam players who were famous for being efficient found themselves unable to successfully run a railroad here. After years of being stored in the "Game Designs That Need a Break" cabinet, I brought this out to see whether I could make it at least playable and fun, specifically with AoS/Steam players in mind. It's still a very tough map, and the six-player game can easily cause someone to be eliminated if he isn't careful, but it's more accessible and playable now. One of the key elements of Atlantis is the central spoke and hub design: Cubes are generated in the center of the island and need to travel to the outskirts for delivery. This in itself makes traditional "loop" building ineffective and costly, and requires a whole new track building strategy.

Ted Alspach

(This designer diary was first published on in October 2010. —WEM)
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