Sean Brown
United States
Carrollton
Texas
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I received my much anticipated copy of Mississippi Steamboats in the mail Monday, so I brought it to our usual Wed game night to see its first play locally. I had played a prototype version at BGG.Con back in November, and had pretty much talked constantly about playing it again since that time. So our group was more than willing to play, if for no other reason than to shut me up. There were only 4 of us tonight, but we had all played Age of Steam several times before, albeit only a few times each.

I went over the rules differences while Tony helped setup the starting distribution of cubes on the board and production track. I had played previously with 3, but money was a little less tight in that game than it was in ours, so I nearly bankrupted myself on the very first turn by dangerously declining to take a share. Everyone else took at least one share, and Tony ended up winning the auction and choosing Urbanization. Urbanization, of course, is how you get steamboats onto the board, so it's a very important turn option, and one that should not be given away too cheaply. Early in our game, Aaron, David, and I perhaps let Tony have that option too cheaply, and he was able to build an early lead off easy 2 pt deliveries to his steamboat each turn that magically appeared at the Minneapolis port. Aaron and David were vying for the New Orleans to Memphis portion of the board, while David and Tony fought over the northern reaches. I was left alone in the middle of the board, making simple connections from St Louis to Springfield, MO to Little Rock, and eventually West Memphis.

As luck would have it, the die rolls for the endless stream of steamboats coming down the river almost always resulted in a ship being docked at St Louis and/or West Memphis, allowing me to make deliveries otherwise impossible, as well as making 3 pts for almost every 2 track delivery without having to increase my locomotive. Tony relied a little too much on the Steamboat mechanic, while failing to create enough connections for longer deliveries, something that he corrected about a turn too late. David and Aaron seemed unable to grasp the need to diversify across the river, as their cubes were quickly drying up in the southeast. I continued to be unchallenged until about turn 7 in the St Louis area, so a turn or two previous, I went for engineer and built a connection to Quincy from Springfield, and claimed a route out of Des Moines, and the backdoor route from Green Bay headed south. At this pt, Tony finally tries to invade my territory, blocking my engineer choice from making the easy finishing connection from Des Moines to St Louis, so I instead added onto my Green Bay route, built towards Jefferson City, and up from Springfield, MO, leaving 2 spaces to complete the route next turn. Aaron had finally branched out to the north, and was preparing to connect to Springfield, IL as well. David and Tony were beginning to build out of Lafayette, which had been totally ignored at this pt, a mistake on David's part moreso than Tony's. With my steamboat good fortune, the economics didn't make sense for me to head south to connect Lafayette, especially when it became apparent the route from Green Bay to Springfield, IL was mine for the taking.

As we neared the endgame, I was able to get some very cheap locomotive upgrades as the others tried to up production or get first move/first build to beat out their rivals. I rarely moved a cube for less than 3 pts after turn 4, and in the last couple of turns, I was able to move several for 4 and 5 pts each, thanks to steamboat congestion, the luck of the dice, and routes now leading from Green Bay to Madison to Rockford to Springfield, as well as Des Moines to Jefferson City to Springfield, MO forking to St Louis and Little Rock with additional connection to West Memphis. David attempted to play kingmaker by giving me an extra point on his final delivery, catapulting me to 31 instead of 30 on the income chart, whereas everyone else was safely within the -4 portion. Alas, the 2 5 pt deliveries made possible by the position of the steamboats, combined with a few extra track builds gave me a 3-4 pt cushion, even after losing 6 on the track. Tony perhaps took one too many shares, but even without the luck, I would have won narrowly thanks to more track. Tony came in 2nd by 3 or 4 pts, Aaron was a few pts behind him, and David was about 10 pts behind me in last.

Discussing and thinking about our game afterwards, I think Tony relied too heavily on the steamboats, instead of planning ahead for longer routes. Steamboats can be quite important, but not if it forces you to sacrifice the planning and building of long routes for the late game. David and Aaron were hampered by competition for the same cities, but I think Aaron could have made the trek to Green Bay, and beaten us all, if he had noticed how easy it was to complete. Controlling at least one of the middle ports (St Louis and Memphis) seemed to be a very strong play, especially with the proliferation of steamboats by the end of the game. If steamboats are all but ignored, I think a person in the middle of the board could have a very difficult time without some luck in the goods distribution. I think another key is to know when to cross the river, and not fall into the trap of building routes only on one side or the other. The steamboats make it foolish not to try to connect a city to a port opposite another port, allowing you to deliver cubes that would otherwise be stranded. I think in the case of competition for the same cities as Aaron and David had, choosing production then first move becomes key, but that could be said of any game of AoS. I think it holds even more true here however, since you can't rely on the availability of a steamboat for delivery purposes. 3 of us nearly went bankrupt during the game, but all were able to recover, and in my case, ultimately win the game. I think the map is more forgiving to beginners than many of the other maps, as the Steamboats can really bail you out of poor placement, or a failure to bid enough to get the right turn option. This randomness might aggravate more experienced players, and perfect information gamers, but I personally find it a nice change of pace, and a challenge to constructive planning based on the probability of a boat stopping near one of your ports. All in all, I think it's an excellent and extremely enjoyable addition to the AoS panoply of maps.
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