Giant Fire Breathing Robot
The steampunk theme is a scary one. Not that it embraces horror, but that every time I see it appended to a game, I hold my breath. Like pirates or cthulhu, it is often the mark of a design that tries to make up for poor gameplay with awesome theme. Steam Works, however, bucks this trend. There is a substantive game here, which places you firmly in the role of a tinkerer.
Players are tinkerers trying to build inventions to impress Queen Victoria. The player with the most impressive array of devices will be named Official Inventor for Her Majesty.
The Basics. The game comes with eight characters that the players can choose. Each has a slightly different starting tile setup. They are also double sided and the “B” side provides unique action spaces for each character.
The game is played over three ages. In the first age, each player gets two workers and another is automatically gained in each of the next ages. Going in a round, players take turns placing workers. The first worker is generally free to place, but further workers require payment. If a player doesn’t have the ability to pay a worker, or chooses not to, the worker goes unused but the player collects his wages from the bank.
Each player has three or four actions on their own personal board where the worker can be placed. They allow you to get a tile, take a power source, build a simple device, or activate one of your own devices. Once a device is built, though, any player may place a worker there to activate it and gain the benefit.
Devices must have a power source and one or more components powered by that source. Sometimes the source of power matters. The Librarifier, for example, can be attached to any source. If powered by clockwork, then it allows you to take an Age I tile. Steam allows you to take an Age II, and Electricity allows you to take a coveted Age III tile.
Most components are worth a point when added to a machine. Players also get points when their opponents use their devices. Finally, some components generate points. The Patriotic Haiku Generator turns coins into points while the Anthem Organ turns unused sources into points.
As players use one another’s devices, special clock tiles are removed from the board. When the last one is gone, the game is over and the player with the most points wins.
The Feel. Steam Works is a worker placement game in which the vast majority of available places are built by the players. The experience becomes wholly player driven as the individuals at the table decide what options will be in the game.
Of course, the game guides some of those choices. Players are in pursuit of points and so want to create those devices that will generate the most points for them. To that end, you’ll often see many of the same components being utilized from game to game. Sometimes getting points means making a machine that will encourage other players to use it and give you points that way. Other times, you want to get a point generator and hoard it by using it to keep it from other players.
But while a simple machine is just a component and one source, as the game progresses there is greater and greater complexity. When a player activates a device, he actually activates a single source within that device. Then, every adjacent component fires. Typically, this means up to four different effects from one placement. If a device has been expanded with power converters, it might mean even more.
As the capability for more powerful devices grows, the players are faced with interesting decisions. If you build a large device, other players will undoubtedly want to use it. While it is nice to get the free point from their use, it also means that they’ve taken the spot that you’ve worked so hard to build. Luckily, the game addresses this nicely with the personal board. That board has a single spot where you can activate any of your devices. So, even if everyone stole every spot you had built, you could still use one. If your large device is popular, you’ll still get to use it, too.
As the game moves into Age II and Age III, there are more and more components to use – each with their own power being added to a device. Essentially, the players are creating the worker placement spots throughout the course of the game. And it’s up to players to see what will be most helpful in a given setup. In fact, it almost creates a little pseudo-economy. You typically do not want to simply create more of what’s already out there. Instead, you want to achieve something unique or strictly better than what already exists so that players will want to come to your device rather than a competitor’s.
Put it all together and this is a steampunk game worthy of playing. The mechanics are fun, tense, and keep you constantly watching your opponents and their capabilities. Meanwhile, the steampunk flavor is really fun. The old-timey titles for the various components provides just the right touch.
As with any game, there are a few downsides. While Age II and especially Age III seem to launch increasingly interesting and unique inventions, Age I tends to be less creative. It takes some time for players to even develop the capacity to build a machine larger than two tiles. So the early game often features the same basic machines. Also, the conveyer mechanism is largely superfluous. Tiles get grabbed too quickly for it to have any real impact or meaning for the game.
Components: 4 of 5. The bits are top notch here. Workers are painted wood and the automaton worker is larger and impressive. The tiles are on very thick stock. It includes both victory points and clock markers, though I’m not sure why. Clocks are worth one point each so the board could have used victory points to mark the time instead of clocks. But it’s no bid deal. I also like that the starting components for each character are separate so there is no searching through the deck to pull out various tiles and thereby changing the mix.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Steam Works is almost a pure strategy game. The entire game is player driven and component abilities will only be present if players elect to build them into their devices. There is some amount of luck in which tiles are added to the conveyor. If the tile you’ve been looking for is added right as you become first player, then awesome! If you are last to move that round, then you risk it’s loss to an opponent. But this is a relatively minor aspect and makes things like the Alarm Chronometer more valuable.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. This title, like the devices I’ve made, is solidly constructed. Many of the components seem fine on their own, but when paired together make completely new devices. For example, in one game, a player put both a Manufacturer and an Upgrader on the same source. Even though it was powered with steam, it effectively allowed you to build a four-piece device which usually requires electricity.
Replayability: 3 of 5. Replay value should be consistent with other modern board games. There is room to explore the numerous tiles and combinations. Although the game comes with a whole host of tiles, they are cleanly separated by age. And that means within a given age, you know more or less what will be there and there is some repetition. More tiles or more unique tiles would be nice.
Spite: 1 of 5. In true euro fashion, there are no direct attacks (with the possible exception of the alarm chronometer). Instead, the competition is mostly indirect as players compete for the same spots and the early bird gets the worm. Even so, if a player uses your device, you can always power at least one of your own devices each turn. So the competition is mostly about stealing opponents’ devices from other opponents.
Overall: 4 of 5. Steam Works is an interesting worker placement title that has clearly picked from among the best representatives of the genre. But it nevertheless distinguishes itself in that the players are the driving decision makers when it comes to what placements will actually be available to their workers. Interesting and inventive combinations will see the most use. And fans of the genre should definitely look into this interesting twist.
(A special thanks to Tasty Minstrel Games for providing a review copy of Steam Works)
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
One minor observation:
Also, the conveyer mechanism is largely superfluous. Tiles get grabbed too quickly for it to have any real impact or meaning for the game.
Largely superfluous? Maybe. But the obvious alternatives are either leaving components lying around indefinitely until somebody takes them or clearing away all unclaimed components between rounds. Each of those will occasionally have its drawbacks. Sure, some players will tend to pick the belts clean like ravening vultures, but when there is stuff left, it's good that unpopular things go away, yet you don't have to rush to take things before the round ends.
Besides, the mechanism is hardly cumbersome, and is nicely thematic. (-8
I've played three times, two of them 2 player games. In those, the conveyor belt was vital to moving through the components. In one game we might even have wanted it to clear the last two columns.
On replayability, do note that there are some quite different B sides to the characters. Yesterday I played against the character who received their automaton every turn but pays more for his actions, for example.
- Last edited Sun Oct 18, 2015 11:13 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sun Oct 18, 2015 11:11 am