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Subject: Age of Steam: my view rss

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Rob Mortimer
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Age of Steam: my view.

Preamble:

Age of Steam is a game by Martin Wallace, produced by Warfrog. It is designed for 2-6 players and takes 2-3 hours to play. I purchased the game a couple of months after it came out, largely due to good reviews. It also appealed because I had lots of games for 3-5 players, but very few that could be played with 2 or 6. I have played Age of Steam many times, so a review seems in order.

Components:
The game comes with a mapboard depicting the north eastern United States. This map is rather understated, comprising khaki green hexes, with blue rivers and lakes. Hilly or mountainous areas are ornamented. Towns are grey circles with their names beneath. Cities are colour coded (yellow, red, blue or purple) and numbered (black 1 to 6 on the western half of the board, white 1 to 6 on the eastern half). The red and blue cities are fairly evenly spread across the map (4 of each), whilst the yellow and purple cities are confined to the eastern and western edges respectively (2 of each). I like the board very much because it is elegant in its simplicity. Unfortunately, there is a typographical error in that Detroit is labelled ‘1’ but should be ‘3’. This is annoying, but doesn’t detract from gameplay. The rest of the components are similarly understated, and give the game a unique appearance. There are thin cardboard goods/action display and income track display cards. There are a series of wooden markers: a black pawn for recording the turn, grey disks to represent towns, 6 sets of track ownership disks in a variety of colours (red, yellow, green, blue, purple and black), and 96 goods cubes (red, blue, purple, yellow and black). All of these pieces are simple yet highly effective, and they complement the board well. There are 136 hexagonal khaki hexes with track ornamentation that are used to build the railway networks. These come in a variety of types from simple straights and curves to more complex junctions. Finally, there are six well made wooden dice and 90 plastic coins (40 gold, 40 small silver, 10 large silver). Overall, the components are very nice. They are not as immediately enticing as components produced by some manufacturers (e.g. Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight), but I like the look that they give the game. Aside from the annoying map misprint, only the coins are rather disappointing. They are plain plastic disks with no ornamentation and they are rather at odds with the otherwise nice cardboard and wooden components. The rulebook is also a let down: simple black and white text that is not particularly well laid out, and contains key errors in some examples. It is worth printing out a FAQ sheet from the internet to clarify key points.

Gameplay:
The board is laid out, with the Goods/Action display and Income Track next to the board. All the wooden Goods cubes are placed in a cup and then drawn one at a time and placed on the Goods display. Three cubes are then randomly drawn and placed in Pittsburgh, 3 in Wheeling, and 2 each in the other cities.

Players choose a colour and take the 25 wooden disks in that colour. One is placed on the ‘1 link’ square of the Engine Track, and one on the ‘0’ of the Income Track. Players roll dice to determine initial player order, placing wooden disks on the Player Order Track as appropriate. A final disk is placed in the ‘2 shares’ box on the issue shares track, and each player is given $10. A fifth wooden disk will be used for Selected Actions. The game ends when the last turn is completed. Turns are recorded with the black turn marker on the Turn Track. The number of turns depends on the number of players.

The game is played in a sequence of rounds:

Issue Shares: players may issue shares. For each share issued, they move their marker along the Issued Share Track and take $5. Shares are issued in player order, and a player may only issue 15 shares in a game.

Determine Player Order: The disks are moved above the player order track and then players bid for turn order. The first player bids $1 or more to stay in, or drops out (placing their token in last place). After the first turn, a player may also have chosen the Pass Action, in which case they can PASS to stay in. Each player in turn must either bid higher to stay in, or drop out and place their marker in the lowest available space (or PASS if they have chosen that action). The player who chose the PASS action is only allowed to say PASS once, and must then bid or drop out. Bidding continues until only one player is left in. Only the last two players to bid pay the full amounts that they bid. Any other players pay half of what they bid (rounded up).

Select Action: In player order, players select an action. Each action may be selected by only one player. Actions are:
First Move: player is the first person to move goods in both rounds of the Move Goods phase, regardless of player order.
First Build: player is the first person to build track during the Build Track phase, regardless of player order.
Engineer: player may build 4 track tiles instead of 3 during Build Track phase.
Locomotive: player immediately increases their rating on the Engine Track
Urbanization: player may place one of the New City tiles on a town before they build track.
Production: player randomly draws 2 goods cubes from supply at the beginning of the Goods Growth phase, placing them on any empty boxes of their choice.
Turn Order Pass: player may pass once during Player Order determination.

Build Track: Track is built in player order, except that a player who has chosen the First Build action goes fist. Players can build up to 3 tiles, unless they have chosen the Engineer action, in which case they can build 4 tiles. The very first track that a player plays in the game must be adjacent to a city. All future track must ultimately connect to a city through that player’s track. Tracks that run off the gameboard or into water are not allowed. Tracks may not be built on city hexes. Tracks may not connect directly to another player’s track. Tiles are either simple, complex (two sections of track that cross or coexist) or have a dedicated town shown. When simple or complex tracks are placed in a town hex a grey wooden town marker is placed on top. Wooden ownership markers are placed on a track once built. If the track is uncompleted (ie. one end does not end at a city or town), the wooden ownership marker is still placed, but it must be extended the following turn, or the ownership disk is removed. A player may replace a tile if they build a track that crosses or coexists with another. Similarly, a player may change the end of an unfinished track section with a different tile. If a player has chosen Urbanisation, he/she places a new city on a town and then builds track as normal. Track building costs $2 per simple track tile, $3 if the hex contains a river, $4 for a mountain. Placing a track in a town costs $1 for the town and $1 for every track to the town. Replacing a simple track with a complex one costs $3, even if in a town. Other replacements cost $2.

Move Goods: Players may move Goods once in player order, and then a second time, again in player order. If a player has chosen the First Move action, they move first in each round. The Good cube must be moved along Completed Railroad Links so that it ends its movement in a city of the same colour. The good can only visit each town or city once. As soon as it enters a city of the same colour, it must stop moving. The good can only be moved up to the number of links as shown by a player’s position on the Engine Track. For each link of track that the good uses, the player increases his/her position on the income track by one. A player can use another player’s railroad link(s) but must pay the income gained to the owner of the link(s) used. During one of the Move Goods phases, a player can instead decide to move their disk on the Engine Track up one space.

Collect Income: Players collect income as shown by the position on the Income Track.

Pay Expenses: Players pay expenses. Expenses are $1 for every share issued (shown on Issued Share Track) plus $1 for every link their locomotive can traverse (shown on Engine Track). If a player has insufficient cash to pay their expenses, they must reduce their income track position by one for every dollar they owe (players are eliminated if they fall below zero).

Income Reduction: Players check the income track, and then apply the income reduction shown by moving their marker back the appropriate number of spaces. For instance, if a player has an income value of 31-40, this is reduced by 6, which means they move their marker back 6 spaces.

Goods Growth: The Goods Growth chart is split into a western (white) and eastern (black) half. For each half of the chart at a time, one player rolls as many dice as there are players and then places then takes cube(s) from the corresponding columns and places them on the cities on the board with the same number. Goods are also placed in New cities that are on the map. If a player has chosen the Production action, he/she draws two cubes from supply and places them in any two empty boxes on the Goods Display before the Goods Growth phase.

Advance Turn Marker: The turn marker is advanced on the turn track.

So What Do I Think?
Age of Steam is a great game. With our group, initial games tended to involve everyone building and using their own separate networks. Players struggled with income and we tended to have a problem with catching the leader (even with the income reduction phase). Nowadays, track networks are more complex and players often place single links amongst those owned by other players. Players also tend to use other players’ tracks quite often. During initial games, we found that the Production action wasn’t chosen often because players kept drawing colours that were no use to them. This tended to mean that the early stages involved moving goods short distances, the middle game built up to lots of goods moving 5 or 6 links, but then we began to run out of goods badly. To rectify this we introduced a house rule whereby for the Production action, the player draws 4 cubes and keeps 2 of them. The Production action is used more often now, and although we still sometimes run short of goods towards the end of the game, there isn’t such a drop off as before. During initial games, players often overspent on shares and struggled to remain solvent, but now everybody understands the balance of the game, this rarely happens. The new expansions (see my parallel reviews) offer lots of additional variety and keep the game fresh. Overall, I really like Age of Steam, and I give it an outstanding 9 out of 10.

Age of Steam doesn’t get to the table enough, mainly because it appeals to the guys in our gaming group more than it does to the ladies. However, whenever we play, it delivers a wonderful couple of hours fulfilling gaming. Highly recommended.
 
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Mark Crane
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This is a nice review, and I find the last paragraph especially interesting. I don't think it would be a bad thing to link to your other AoS reviews at the end. Good work!
 
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