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Game Overview: Imperial Steam, or The Struggle of Building Track is Real

Candice Harris
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From gallery of candidrum
I left Gen Con 2021 buzzing with excitement, mainly because it was my first time attending Gen Con and I had a blast, but also because Clay Ross from Capstone Games gave me an enthusiastic overview of Imperial Steam, a new route-building, economic, and logistics game from Lignum designer Alexander Huemer. While I have yet to play Lignum, I have played a few games of Imperial Steam on a review copy from Capstone Games, so I can share how it plays along with some of my initial impressions.

In Imperial Steam, 2-4 players compete to earn the most money in Austria during the Industrial Age. Players are tasked with carefully managing their workers, money, and resources needed to build railroad tracks and expand their railway networks. As players expand their railway networks and build factories, they can deliver goods that are in high demand and fulfill potentially profitable contracts. Before I describe how the Imperial Steam plays, allow me to explain how it ends first so you understand why I say "potentially" profitable contracts.

A game of Imperial Steam will either end at the end of the 8th round, or at the end of a round when a player has connected their railway network from the starting city of Wien to the final destination of Trieste, way at the bottom of the game board. A key thing to note is that if no player has connected Wien to Trieste, all contracts are worthless. Alternatively, if anyone has connected Wien to Trieste, then you earn money for completed contracts, and you have to pay money for any unfulfilled contracts. This is something crucial to be aware of in a game that’s all about making the most money (guldens).

After you set up Imperial Steam, your table will be filled with a variety of really nice quality boards and components that will probably appear intimidating initially. Once you get rolling, it’s smooth train-riding from there…well, aside from a bunch of hard decisions you’ll be hit with, like a surprise pie-in-the-face from a clown.

Before the game begins, there’s a blind bid for influence. Influence determines turn order, affects certain actions, and can score you money at the end of the game. Turn order is super important, but so is having money on hand. There lies your first tough decision in Imperial Steam, with many more to follow.

From gallery of candidrum
Influence track

Imperial Steam is played over a series of rounds, and each round consists of 8 phases. With the exception of the Perform Actions phase, all of the phases are really quick, and fall under the maintenance umbrella -- i.e. retrieving your action markers, collecting income, determining turn order -- so let’s focus on how the actions work.

From gallery of candidrum

When it comes time to take actions on a given round, in turn order, you simply place one of your action hands on an action tile and take the corresponding action. Players start the game with 2 action hands, but gain additional action hands in later rounds. Thus, at the beginning of the game, you can only take 2 actions, but then in rounds 4+, you can take 5 actions.

If any opponents have taken the action you choose, you can still take that action. However, if you have already taken that particular action this round, you must decrease your influence 1 step for each of your action hands already there. Decreasing your influence is generally not great as it impacts turn order, your flexibility for hiring workers, and eventually end game scoring.

Imperial Steam is a big game and fittingly has a whopping 11 different actions you can choose from on your turn. It seems like a lot, and it definitely can be a lot to soak in when you’re initially learning the game, but thankfully the actions are not complicated. In fact, 2 of the actions, pass and fundraise, are incredibly simple, with the latter being very common and helpful as you quickly discover how tight money is in this game.

From gallery of candidrum
Considering players are racing to connect their railway networks to Trieste, the build tracks action is arguably most important. With this action, you can spend resources/goods and exert workers to build up to 2 tracks on the map to expand your railway network to new cities.

At the beginning of the game, your network is nothing but a train station in Wien, so your first track must connect Wien to an adjacent city. Each connection between a pair of cities requires only 1 track, and multiple players can build a track between the same 2 cities. However, if other players beat you to connecting a pair of cities, you have to pay each player who already has track laid there 10 bucks.

In addition to spending resources, you have to assign workers on your player board to meet the effort level of each city you’re connecting to. Each city tile has an effort number you must meet or exceed by assigning workers.

Your player board has 2 areas with 3 different levels to manage your workers. When your workers are not being utilized, they stay at the bottom of your player board in the training area. When you put them to work to build tracks, you move them up to the working area. In the leftmost training area each worker can exert 1 effort, which increases 1 effort per column to the right. Therefore, each worker in the rightmost training area can be exerted for 3 effort. However, the only way to get them to gain more experience (shifting to the right) is by not using them for a round.

One of the maintenance phases before you perform actions allows you to shift any workers one space to the right that are still in the training area (bottom) from the previous round. Then you shift all your workers in the work area down to the training area. It’s often a tough decision in Imperial Steam determining when to leverage your workers and knowing they won’t level up versus holding off and not using them to allow them to train and level-up.

For example, in the photo below, if the red player does not put the 2 workers in the training area (bottom) to work this round, they will both slide one space to the right in the Train Your Workers phase, prior to the next Perform Actions phase. Then instead of being able to work for 1 or 2 effort, they can be exerted for 2 or 3 effort, respectively. Meanwhile, the workers in the work area (top) have already been exerted for a total of 8 effort and will drop down in the upcoming Train Your Workers phase.

From gallery of candidrum

When you connect to a city, depending on the city tile, there are a variety of opportunities and benefits available, so it’s not always just about taking the most direct route to Trieste. Sometimes it's worth taking a detour to take advantage of some other opportunities.

Some cities have business tokens which are placed during setup. Business tokens range in value from 1 to 3, and the higher valued tokens are always placed on top, rewarding the players who snag them first. These tokens can be spent to increase your influence, increase your share price, or permanently convert a freight car on your player board to a passenger card. If you pick up a 3-value business token you can do any combination of these actions.

Some city tiles have spaces for you to build train stations and factories. Train stations allow you to connect more than 2 tracks to a city, increase your income, and give you more storage space for resources. On the other hand, factories allow you to produce and deliver goods to cities with demand, which is an excellent way to make money. I can't stress how tight money is in this game, but let's just say, creating opportunities to deliver goods is really important.

There are 4 hub cities that each want the same goods at the beginning of the game: 1 wood, 1 stone, 1 iron, and 2 coal. If you have a factory with goods connected to a hub city, as a free action, you can deliver a single good per turn from one of your factories spending a coal from your player board. These are one-time demands, and they are first come, first serve. So if someone already delivered a stone good to a city, no other players can deliver stone to that city. Delivering to these hub cities is the epitome of ‘get it while it’s hot’ in Imperial Steam.

The Imperial Steam map has 25+ cities connected with 3 different types of connections: regular (white), bridges (gray), and tunnels (orange). In order to build tracks on bridge and tunnel connections, you need to hire special workers, bridge (orange) and tunnel (gray) engineers. I bet you're now wondering how to hire workers.

From gallery of candidrum
Worker board
As an action, you can hire any number of workers and/or bridge and tunnel engineers from the worker board. Each column on the worker board represents a source of workers from the hub city of the same color. You can only hire from hub cities whose city influence marker is at or below your own influence level.

To hire workers, you choose one column, then for each worker you hire, you pay the price in the row where the worker hiring price marker is, then move the cube up 1 space. Therefore each worker you get in the same action is increasingly more expensive, and you’re also jacking up the price of workers in that particular column going forward. Then you place each worker you hired in the training area at experience level 1 on your player board.

Hiring engineers always costs 30 guldens and there’s a special space on your player board for each type of engineer. During setup, the bridge and tunnel engineers are randomly placed in each hub city column. While there are always 1 of each type of engineer available to all players, you still have to factor in your influence level to get access to them, which is interesting and always ends up being another thing players are racing each other to get.

If you want to build a train station or a factory in a city you’re connected to, take the build a building action. When you build a train station, you pay the cost indicated to the right of the train station construction site. As I previously mentioned, building train stations is a way to increase your income, and it also allows you to connect more than 2 tracks to the corresponding city.

Alternatively, you can take this action to build a factory, which is typically a lot more beneficial, but it comes at a cost. Not only do you have to spend the amount of money listed to the left of the factory you want to build, but you also have to permanently take a worker from your player board and place it on the factory site, thus no longer being available to help you build tracks. The cool thing is, you can take the worker from either the training area or working area. This is extremely helpful in a game where taking actions efficiently and in the right order is essential to make ends meet.

From gallery of candidrum
Factory board

Depending on the experience level of the worker you assign to your factory, you take the same amount of goods matching the factory and place them by the worker on the game board. Taking a level-3 worker is great because you get 3 factory goods, but the tradeoff is that you’re losing an experienced worker that you spent a chunk of time training.

Having a factory is very beneficial because you can hook yourself up with goods, you can fulfill contracts, and you can deliver goods to cities to make money. As more factories are built and removed from the factory board, the more expensive they become, and the less money you’ll make when you deliver matching goods from them.

With the produce goods action, you can tap into all of your factories that have goods available. You are allowed to take 1 good per factory and immediately store them on empty spaces on your player board.

From gallery of candidrum
Shipment market
You can also buy or order goods as an action to gain resources needed for building tracks. You can instantly buy 1 good from the Shipment market, paying the price in its row, and then storing it on an empty good space on your player board. The more goods you buy, the more expensive they become, similar to hiring workers and the cost of building factories.

If you're seeking out multiple goods, you can order goods, but they won’t be available until the next round on the Take Ordered Goods phase. While it’s awesome to get as many goods as you can, whenever you can, there are also some challenges with ordering goods.

First of all, you always want and need access to those resources immediately, but you’re forced to be patient and wait until the next round to be able to actually use your precious goods. Also, each round there’s a maximum amount of goods you can order per round, so you’re often limited and unable to get everything you need unless you plan super carefully. This makes getting factories built crucial so you can also gain goods by producing from your factories.

The other challenge you may run into with ordering goods is making sure you have enough empty storage spaces available for the goods when you’re able to access them. That’s important to remember so you don’t end up having to discard any goods. They are too expensive and hard to get, so be sure to keep tabs on your inventory situation often.

Having space for goods is another important aspect in Imperial Steam, which is why you’ll eventually want to buy or upgrade trains. Everyone starts the game with a measly 30-train which comes with 3 freight cards and storage space for a coal, and 3 of any type of good. Of course, if you end up turning any of these cars into passenger cars, you’ll have more income, but you’ll be limiting your storage space.

On your player board you have 3 rows available for up to 3 trains. You can buy new trains, or you can upgrade existing trains by paying the difference. As the game progresses better, more expensive trains will become available.

If you upgrade your 30-train to a 50-train, you pay 20 guldens and add 2 freight cars, giving you more storage space. Alternatively, if you buy a new 50-train, you place it on an empty train row and it comes with 5 freight cards plus a coal. Remember, in order to deliver goods from your factories as a free action, you have to also spend coal. So sometimes it’s worth it to spend more money on a new train (versus upgrading) specifically for that handy coal.

When it comes to your trains, there’s so much to balance and think about. On one hand you’ll be trying to create extra storage space for resources and reserved tokens from contracts, and then on the other, you’ll want to convert freight trains to passenger cars which reduces your storage capacity, but also increasing your income. Knowing how much of which to do is always a struggle, in addition to deciding when to upgrade versus buying a new train.

As an action, you can secure a contract, and then hopefully earn a chunk of money from it at the end of the game. Each contract card shows the number and types of factories required to fulfill it, and the amount of money you’ll earn or lose at the end of the game if anyone’s railway network connects to Trieste. You'll also take a number of reserved tokens which eat up your precious goods storage spaces on your freight cars, which isn't great.

On the brighter side, you get some investor meeples which are placed on your share board. There’s nothing like having investors available when you’re low on cash and this is the only way to get them.

From gallery of candidrum
Player board w/ 2 trains and a Share board w/ 2 investors available

In addition to increasing your influence by connecting to new cities, you can also take the philanthropize action, where you can pay as many guldens as you wish to increase your influence at a cost of 10 guldens per step. Considering how many things you’re racing to beat your opponents to in Imperial Steam, this is a great way to boost your influence along with improving your turn order position.

Taking the manipulate share value action allows you to either increase your share value 1 step by decreasing your influence a certain amount, or you can decrease your share value as much as you’d like. Besides your player board, each player also has a small share board to keep track of their share values and investors. You start the game with a share value of 40 guldens and 1 investor meeple.

As a free action on your turn, you can sell a share if you have an investor on the same row as or higher than your share value marker. This is a quick way to convert demand for shares in your company into cash. Your shares can range from 40 to 240 guldens. The only caveat is, by doing this, you’re essentially promising to pay the investor dividends at the end of the game. For example, if you end up selling shares to 2 investors in the game, you will lose 20% of your total earnings at the end of the game. If you do it right, it can be totally worth to gain access to money mid-game and hopefully not lose too much at the end.

I really think investors and shares system is an awesome feature in Imperial Steam. You have to take more contracts to gain more investors, which can be risky, and you also lose influence to increase your shares, but if you can do it well and sell your shares at the right time, for the right price, it can be pretty powerful. I find it more interesting than simply taking out loans when you need money in many other economic games.

The last 2 action options are to fundraise and take 10 guldens from the bank, or you can pass. You'd be surprised how often taking 10 bucks is such a helpful action for you. There are also moments where the best thing to do is simply pass. Remember, if you take the same action multiple times in the same round, you lose influence.

A game of Imperial Steam ends if you finish 8 rounds, or if a player's railway network has connected Wien to Trieste at the end of a round. The player who has the most money after end-game scoring and paying shareholders is the winner of the game.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple other spicy reasons players are rushing to connect to Trieste in Imperial Steam. First of all, as soon as you connect to Trieste, you immediately gain 10 guldens for each track in your network. Plus, any players who didn’t connect to Trieste have to pay 20 guldens per track to share the track of another player who made it to Trieste, so they can essentially make it there via the shared tracks.

I really dig Imperial Steam and I find myself appreciating it more and more with each game I play. Personally, I find it to be such a challenging game, mainly from a strategy perspective. The rules are not complex or hard to learn, especially if you’re used to learning and playing heavier games. With all the planning, logistics, and money and resource management involved, it’s a really deep, enriching game.

From gallery of candidrum
There are some bits and pieces I didn’t really touch on, but I definitely want to mention that Imperial Steam has a lot of replay value packed in. There’s a fixed setup for your initial plays, and a normal setup for more experienced players. With the normal setup, you use one of the 15 normal setup cards to determine where the city and hub tiles are placed. There are few other aspects of the normal setup that randomize other parts of the setup process too. It seems like this variety in setup will keep players on their toes game after game. Heck, I’m still playing the fixed setup and each game already feels different depending on who I’m playing with. Either way, I’m really stoked to eventually experiment with the varied setup options after I feel I’ve graduated from the fixed setup.

The teach can be long because there are a lot of actions to cover, but again, they are all straightforward actions, and once you know them, you rarely need to consult the rulebook. I found that new players felt slightly overwhelmed initially, but by the first round or so, mostly everything clicked. Playing optimally, on the other hand, will take a bit longer.

Even when you’re struggling to make ends meet, it’s still a fun game with awesome challenges to overcome. When you’re broke and you make a sweet delivery that gives you a bunch of cash, it feels so good. Of course, then you immediately spend it all 2 minutes later. The rulebook even encourages you to not worry about playing your first game perfectly, but just jump in and make mistakes. Your mistakes and bad decisions will help you learn and improve faster. I totally agree.

I found myself wanting to play it again immediately after the first game I played. I did end up playing it back-to-back nights, and I felt like I improved, which is great. It’s the kind of challenge that excites me and makes me want to keep coming back for more.

The opening blind bid for influence is cool too. You could go big and lock in 1st player status, but then you’re likely starting the game with less money than your opponents. Whereas, you could hold back your money and buy a 2nd train earlier than other players, then get to the juicy business tokens so you can convert some freight cars to passenger cars early on, and get a better income engine going faster than your opponents. There are lots of different ways you could play that opening influence bid.

I also really like that it feels like you’re racing to do almost everything. You want to connect to different cities faster than your opponents to get business tokens first, and lay your track first. You want to hire workers first, so you can get them cheaper. You want to buy goods first, so you can get them cheaper. You want to build factories first, so you can build them cheaper. And you want to deliver goods first, so you can make more money.

From gallery of candidrum
You also have to keep an eye on which type of factories your opponents are building so you can make sure they’re not delivering the same good to the same hub city you’re hoping to deliver to. Plus, you’re wondering if they’re going to snag that juicy contract before you. You want to connect to Trieste first, so you can end the game before your opponents make it there and they’ll have to pay you money to use your network. All of this racing makes for an exciting game with lots of great player interaction, on top of the fact that you’re also trying to play optimally with all of these logistical challenges built in.

As far as player count goes, I've only played 3 and 4-player games so far and both player counts played great. There are different worker boards, factory boards, and city tiles you use for different player counts, so I suspect it'll be decent with 2 players too. You might miss out on some of the player interaction on the map, but there's still plenty to chew on.

If you like heavier economic and logistics games, Imperial Steam is definitely worth checking out. I also think fans of Brass would especially enjoy Imperial Steam. They’re definitely different games, but they share some common DNA. I’m really looking forward to playing more Imperial Steam, and who knows, I might even win a game at some point.
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