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Subject: Age of Steam - The Good. The Bad. The Verdict. rss

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Scotty Pruitt
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My gaming group's first train-game experience was Ticket to Ride. We quickly moved on to Railroad Tycoon and loved it immediately. However, after repeated plays, we found Railroad Tycoon to be predictable and too "friendly" for our tastes. It eventually made its way to the back of the closet and then into the trade bin never to be seen again. Given Railroad Tycoon's rise and fall from grace, we were apprehensive about trying the game's predecessor, Age of Steam. Would Railroad Tycoon's older brother meet our needs or receive the boot?

Overview

To win Age of Steam, one must earn the most victory points by shipping goods and building track. The number of turns played is based on the number of players (7 turns for 4 players). Each turn is broken down into the following phases:

Issue Shares
Bid for Turn Order
Choose Actions
Build Track
Deliver Goods
Collect Income
Pay Expenses
Income Reduction
Goods Growth
Advance Turn Marker

Age of Steam is all about planning ahead. This starts at the Issue Shares phase. A player must determine how much he wants to spend on the auction, how much he will need to pay for that turn's track building phase and how much debt he will need to cover at the end of the turn. The player will then need to issue enough shares to cover all of these expenses. Issued shares earn you money but they also increase your debt. You have to spend money to make money and money is tight. :) It is possible for a player to be eliminated from the game (and we've seen it happen twice in our group) so you have to pay attention. If you play well, your track network will start to earn you money instead of costing you money each turn. The best player will use his money wisely while shipping goods for the most points possible.


The Good

- Age of Steam is a gamer's game. This isn't a walk in the park. You have to think. You have to calculate.
- It rewards better play. Sometimes people can make mistakes and still be in a game. It's tuff to recover from a mistake in Age of Steam.
- Low luck factor.
- Long term planning. I can't say that this is strategy. Everyone is using the same strategy: build track and deliver increasingly valued goods as the game progresses. However, there is knack for seeing potential growth. A city's goods may not look attractive while you can only ship 2 or 3 links away. However, how does that city look once you've increased your network to 5 links? An area may look very enticing during the early to mid-game, but will that area lose steam (i.e. run out of goods) in the late game when shipments are worth 5 and 6 points? If so, you will lose. This "looking ahead" gives the game an interesting flavor.
- The plastic money sounds like metal. It's great for the fidgety gamer.
- The board is balanced. I have to pull in Railroad Tycoon for this one to make sense. In Railroad Tycoon the board is very lopsided and some of it is never used. The Age of Steam board's balance and size seems to be just right.
- Tons of expansions.


The Bad

- Elimination. We've had two players make the walk of shame. It's an awkward moment when everyone realizes that someone just got the boot. The eliminated has nothing to do but sit and watch or just leave.
- The components seem under-produced. While the track pieces and board are sturdy and sufficient, everything else seems like an afterthought. The Victory Point/Shares and Goods Growth charts are printed on thick paper. No artwork. No design. No color. The money has no designs on it either, just plain silver and copper-colored plastic. The components do not hurt game play; however, a little extra care could have gone a long way to promote the theme.
- Analysis Paralysis. While not as bad as Tikal, the game can produce those moments where you can see the APer rebooting over and over again.
- It's not a friendly game. There are definitely some buttmunchery moments. Of course, some consider this a good characteristic.
- I believe it is out of print. I was fortunate enough to find it at my local store. I think there are some places online that still sell it though.
- Time. A game can take between 2-3 hours. This may be a bit much for some gamers.
- You have to be in the right frame of mind to play. If you want something lite, this aint it.


The Verdict - 8.7

I really like Age of Steam. I liken it to Caylus in that it's a thinker. The auctions are fun. It's also rewarding to see your plans come together toward the end. Of course, you can also see those same plans be crushed when someone builds where they shouldn't or outbids you when you really needed the locomotive action. If you enjoy games that make you plan things down to the last dollar, this one is for you. Thoughthammer.com has is listed at $38.97 and out of stock. I think my local store had it listed around $50. Knowing what I know now about the game would I pay $50+ for it again? Yes.


Mo' Stuff

The Luck Factor - 2 [scale of 1 to 10 - 10 being high]
The luck comes from dice that are rolled during the Goods Growth phase. The reason the luck is still minimal even with the rolling is that you can see what goods are coming based on the production chart. In almost every game I've played, almost all the cubes have made it from the chart to the board. This will allow you to plan and see what is coming in the future even though it's the dice that will get those cubes from the chart to the board.

The Playing Time - 2 to 2.5 hours
2 to 2.5 hours is reasonable with 4 players. It could take a bit less or a bit more with certain types of groups and differing numbers of players.

The Ideal Number of Players - 4
We've played with 4 and 5 players. Four is our sweet spot. It gives everyone enough room to breath on the board but it's still tight and you are fighting for space. Our 5 player game was brutal. While I still enjoyed the 5 player game, it went a little long for me.

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Wade Broadhead
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Great review. In my group some LOVE it to death, while me and some others cannot stand it. I tried twice and the second time I barely hung on but the experienced player blew us away. My other gamer friend finished but only broke even the last turn, and was totally underwhelmed. The amount of time it takes to become competant doesn't warrant the amount of fun I think I'll get back out of the game. Anything this long with elimination is also a HUGE turnoff. In my second game one person had daring plans, they failed, and we just gave him the mulligan and let him continue. The alternative letting him sit there or us quiting didn't seem appealing. I got a decent netywork but then none of the goods popped up in my cities: fun fun! I admire it's design and understand if I had the time it might be a great game, but it just doesnt do it for me.
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Ben Foy
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A good review. This game is a cross between Puerto Rico and 18xx games. Learning to play the various 18xx systems takes a long time but those games are much more interesting than AoS, IMO. The people who love AoS would probably love 18xx, if they had the time to become proficient. Also 18xx games are usually longer. Though 18EU only takes 3 hours.
 
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Roberto Arbelaez
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Great review. You say it like it is. I Like AoS, but I still like RRT better... I think the fun factor in RRT is much better, and my group hasn't found it predictable yet. The game has been won by players with very different strategies, building on different places. And it can be very cut throat (depending on how you play it). AoS is a gamer's game, and as such, is not enjoyed as universally as RRT might be. But it sure is a good game!

 
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Richard Dewsbery
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littlechild_zu wrote:
My gaming group's first train-game experience was Ticket to Ride. We quickly moved on to Railroad Tycoon and loved it immediately. However, after repeated plays, we found Railroad Tycoon to be predictable and too "friendly" for our tastes. It eventually made its way to the back of the closet and then into the trade bin never to be seen again. Given Railroad Tycoon's rise and fall from grace, we were apprehensive about trying the game's predecessor, Age of Steam. Would Railroad Tycoon's older brother meet our needs or receive the boot?


Be sure to check out http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/27833

In my view, it will address all the negative points you raise. No luck. No elimination (unless you really, really try hard to be eliminated; simply playing cautiously - or recklessly - because you're new to the game won't see you going bust). Shorter playing time. Works well with 3, 4 or 5 players. Nicer components. Better balanced and smarter than Railroad Tycoon; quicker and without the AP or elimination of Age of Steam.

The only drawback is that it's not out yet.
 
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Wade,

I struggled with this game my first few plays (learning and liking). I really enjoy it now. Once the mechanics and order of play become intuitive, you can concentrate on the game. Player elimination is rare among "veterans" and we're lenient with new players (let them issue a share at any time.)

Balancing a budget and the board, deciding what role to take and when, and always worrying about what other people are going to do--unless there are several AP-types playing, I can't think of a juicier multiplayer.

 
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Dave Eisen
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Elimination really shouldn't happen in Age of Steam either. Just issue the extra share, if it's remotely close. Most it will cost you is $1 as opposed to issuing the same share on the next turn.
 
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Scotty Pruitt
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I think this game is polarzing. It seems to be a love it or hate it type of game. I loved it after the first play. It took a few plays for others in the group to catch on. Further still, there are some that don't show up on the nights when this hits the table.

denverarch wrote:
Great review. In my group some LOVE it to death, while me and some others cannot stand it. I tried twice and the second time I barely hung on but the experienced player blew us away. My other gamer friend finished but only broke even the last turn, and was totally underwhelmed. The amount of time it takes to become competant doesn't warrant the amount of fun I think I'll get back out of the game. Anything this long with elimination is also a HUGE turnoff. In my second game one person had daring plans, they failed, and we just gave him the mulligan and let him continue. The alternative letting him sit there or us quiting didn't seem appealing. I got a decent netywork but then none of the goods popped up in my cities: fun fun! I admire it's design and understand if I had the time it might be a great game, but it just doesnt do it for me.
 
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J C Lawrence
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RDewsbery wrote:
Be sure to check out http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/27833

In my view, it will address all the negative points you raise. No luck. No elimination (unless you really, really try hard to be eliminated; simply playing cautiously - or recklessly - because you're new to the game won't see you going bust). Shorter playing time. Works well with 3, 4 or 5 players. Nicer components. Better balanced and smarter than Railroad Tycoon; quicker and without the AP or elimination of Age of Steam.


AoS' player elimination problem is exagerated. Yes, incompetent players can suicide, but it takes very little expertise to survive an AoS game, and surprisingly little additional competence after that to make strong and even winning come-backs from early game mistakes or setbacks.

Quote:
The only drawback is that it's not out yet.


The AoS fans I've talked to who have played Martin's new Mayfair game were less enthusiastic. Yeah, there's a game there, even an interesting game, but the universal summary was that the game was so relaxed in comparison to Age of Steam as to no longer be interesting. Essentially the response was, "Yeah it is nice enough, shrug, but why would we ever play that instead of Age of Steam?" So far the biggest interest I've seen in the new game is a a way to get something to play Age of Steam with (as the original is thoroughly OOP).
 
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Richard Young
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I am with J.C. here. The sudden infant death thing may happen to the odd player in his first game, or to someone playing with reckless abandon. The first instance can easily be handled by giving the noob a mulligan (let him buy another share rather than go under); as far as the latter is concerned, watching the rest of the game from the sidelines might be a salutary lesson.

As for the 2nd ed. being OOP, John Bohrer continues to insist there will be a reprint of AoS in the coming year (he's never been wrong yet). I would keep scanning the boards while waiting but only for a good deal. Recall what happened to Hannibal:... (and what may happen to Titan)...
 
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J C Lawrence
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BFoy wrote:
The people who love AoS would probably love 18xx, if they had the time to become proficient.


I'm a fan of both AoS and the 18XX. However my informal yada yada survey suggests that while most AoS fans will like the 18XX, few long term 18XX fans will also like AoS. Part of this is because AoS strictly punishes the same activities that the 18XX heavily reward.
 
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Mikko Saari
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littlechild_zu wrote:
- Elimination. We've had two players make the walk of shame. It's an awkward moment when everyone realizes that someone just got the boot. The eliminated has nothing to do but sit and watch or just leave.


Elimination doesn't have to be a problem at all. First of all, if you count your money well (which is not hard), it happens rarely. Second, you can always allow people to issue emergency shares (for $3-4 per share, for example) to avoid elimination.
 
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J C Lawrence
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msaari wrote:
...you can always allow people to issue emergency shares (for $3-4 per share, for example) to avoid elimination.


When I use the emergency shares variant I like $3 shares. It makes the mistake sting without being crippling, I haven't used it in a few years though; I don't think I've ever had a player go bankrupt in ~20 teaching teaching games. Key to this comparaitve success seems to be stressing a few points during the game presentation:

1) There is a game arc: You start out in debt. Every turn you make payments on your debt. The only way of getting money is to borrow more money, making your debt payments larger, so you borrow more money than you need and use the extra to build infrastructure and then attempt to leverage that infrastructure to make money. About the time you break even the game will end.

2) When in doubt issue an extra share. You're not good enough yet to worry about fine grained efficiency and the extra share may save your bacon.

3) Given a chance, always increase your Links. If you can, increase your Links every turn.

4) If you are not making 5 and 6 Link deliveries with regularity in the last turns of the game you will lose. That simple: You will lose. Get your Links up and make those deliveries.

5) End-game incomes in a typical game with this many players are usually in the range of XXX-YYY. Plan for that. Work toward it but be comfortable that you will have accomplished something difficult if you merely break even. All you need to break even is $21 of income, and that really isn't very hard.
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Mike Bazynski
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I've taught AoS to over 15 people, and we've seen anyone going bankrupt perhaps 4 times. 2 of those times was someone not understanding part of the rules and doing their math incorrectly. Each time it was with new players, when it was enough to say 'let's pretend you've taken an extra share at the start of this turn'. first game is a teaching one anyway. in next games the problem never appeared.

(assuming you stay clear of the more vicious maps.. I've had maps where I knew full well I might go bankrupt if others notice and go out of their way to eliminate me, but I was prepared to risk sitting with nothing to do...)
 
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Scotty Pruitt
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clearclaw wrote:

AoS' player elimination problem is exagerated. Yes, incompetent players can suicide, but it takes very little expertise to survive an AoS game, and surprisingly little additional competence after that to make strong and even winning come-backs from early game mistakes or setbacks.


The source of our player elimination troubles was our transition from RRT to AoS. We were used to the easier atmosphere of RRT. When you combine that with 4 people that had never played AoS, you have a recipe for disaster!
 
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Ben Foy
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clearclaw wrote:
BFoy wrote:
The people who love AoS would probably love 18xx, if they had the time to become proficient.


I'm a fan of both AoS and the 18XX. However my informal yada yada survey suggests that while most AoS fans will like the 18XX, few long term 18XX fans will also like AoS. Part of this is because AoS strictly punishes the same activities that the 18XX heavily reward.


Hmmm, maybe. AoS was clearly inspired by the 18xx system. And I can't help but appreciate the AoS design. Also AoS is much more accessable than 18xx and AoS is alot nicer. But I'm a builder and AoS doesn't reward that as much. Your building opportunites are much more constrained in AoS and other players can interfere with you alot more. So while I enjoy playing AoS occasionally, I prefer an 18xx game or crayon rail game.
 
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denverarch wrote:
I got a decent netywork but then none of the goods popped up in my cities: fun fun! I admire it's design and understand if I had the time it might be a great game, but it just doesnt do it for me.


Hmmm, there is a role that allows you to get around that problem.
 
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littlechild_zu wrote:
The source of our player elimination troubles was our transition from RRT to AoS. We were used to the easier atmosphere of RRT. When you combine that with 4 people that had never played AoS, you have a recipe for disaster!


Nod. Approaching any game with fundamentally wrong expectations is a recipe for disaster. A reputation for almost always turning the thumbscrews tighter in any game may help set a useful basic expectation for the games I teach/play.
 
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BFoy wrote:
denverarch wrote:
I got a decent netywork but then none of the goods popped up in my cities: fun fun! I admire it's design and understand if I had the time it might be a great game, but it just doesnt do it for me.


Hmmm, there is a role that allows you to get around that problem.


Huh? There are no roles in basic AoS that guarantee production of goods cubes on given cities.

ObAside: The instant-production rules in my AoS:London and AoS:Sun maps actually guarantee production within limited bounds. Dice are not used for production in those maps.
 
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BFoy wrote:
AoS was clearly inspired by the 18xx system. And I can't help but appreciate the AoS design. Also AoS is much more accessable than 18xx and AoS is alot nicer. But I'm a builder and AoS doesn't reward that as much. Your building opportunites are much more constrained in AoS and other players can interfere with you alot more. So while I enjoy playing AoS occasionally, I prefer an 18xx game or crayon rail game.


You could start a whole new thread (or several) comparing AoS to 18XX games. First off, which 18xx game? Or, which AoS game? However, based on the two I know best (basic AoS and 1830), there is something in what you say.

As for initial inspiration I'm not so sure. I don't know the history intimately but AoS has a long line of predecessors that are totally separate from the 18XX family. But as for railroading, specifically track-building, the 18XX series always seemed to be richer with possibilities to an extent that would be bewildering to a new player with or without a background in AoS. I think it is part of the lure of the 18XX games. There seems to be something compelling about the business of track design. There is just enough in AoS to make it at least interesting, if not compelling.

The mixing of the stock market with railroading makes for some additional tensions in 1830 that are missing in AoS; a somewhat similar thing has re-emerged recently with Imperial but it is not a railroading game. There is a challenge to effective financial management in AoS (it is the essence of the game in fact), but you don't have the problem of having to reconcile running a railway in the most productive and successful way with maximizing your personal financial return (in 1830 they are not necessarily the same thing).

If I had the time and a willing group I would probably prefer to play 1830. Since I don't, AoS is the next best thing. After that (and someone with a table large enough), I guess it would be RRT. Where the new AoS-ish game will fall remains to be seen (I'm guessing just ahead of crayon rails).
 
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Nomadic Gamer
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Just to point out: RRT has smaller map variants.
 
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