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There are some themes that board game designers are drawn to far more than others: medieval times, fantasy adventures, war simulations. Trains is definitely one of those themes, one which countless games have been made for and which has been an important part in our current board game history.
Steam is a product of this board gaming history. Train games allow for literal network building in board games, which has lead to the crayon rails series as well as the much more complex 18xx series. Out of this sprang Age of Steam, a harsh game which managed to be a little more mainstream than its 18xx cousins. After this, simpler games like Ticket to Ride sprang up, leading to a further distillation of the genre, turning age of steam into the Steam you see before you.
Let’s take a look.
The components for Steam leaves something to be desired, but its not as though we are playing with pen and paper here. Its all high quality, just a little on the bland side, although that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it bothers others. The train track hexes come in a variety of track directions and look good for what they are. The player pieces that go on the tracks are simply wooden discs. Wooden trains would have probably made more sense, especially when they tease us with a single wooden train used as the turn marker.
The game comes with a double-sided board; one side showing New England, the other Germany. The map isn’t flashy, but it shouldn’t be. It shows the landscape nicely while still being functional. It fits the game quite well. The various tracks around it could be overwhelming for first timers, but it all makes sense once you know what’s going on.
The goods are wooden cubes of various colours, which is fine. They don’t need to be fancy. However, it would be nice if they were designated as something; steel, or wool, or whatever. It just would have helped with picturing the theme a little more.
The core of the gameplay is straight forward: you are building track and then moving goods across those tracks to cities to score. The interesting thing about the scoring is that you get to decide whether to use the points you get as actual points or as income. Therefore, there is a watershed point at which you must decide your economy is running well enough to start scoring.
What makes the game complicated are all the aspects surrounding this central idea. The banking mechanism, for example, isn’t very intuitive and can take some time to get your head around. Once you do its quite neat though. Even the scoring itself can be confusing, as it all depends how far away you are from the city you are delivering, and hos tracks you use to get there.
Another big part of this game are the jobs that are chosen each turn. Each job allows a player to do something the other players can’t, like be the first to build track even if you aren’t first in order, increase your locomotive abilities for cheap, or even build a whole new city. These tiles can either be chosen in order or can be bid for in an auction. Deciding what job is best for you at what time is where a lot of the strategy come into this game, but its not easy.
Steam is a difficult game; there’s no getting around this. It is hard and unforgiving and it constantly feels like a struggle to get anything going. Therefore, this is not necessarily a game for casual gamers, and serious gamers will need a few plays under their belt to feel confident.
As such, there can be a lot of frustration that comes with Steam as its hard to have a feeling of accomplishment when you are barely getting anything done. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some people will love tackling that challenge. Others however may be completely turned off by it.
I’ve heard that the other child of Age of Steam, Railways of the World, is a little more user friendly, but I don’t have experience with it myself. I have tried Days of Steam which is a simpler version, but not as strong a design. But for gamers who want a challenge without the length and intricacies of Age of Steam or 18XX, Steam may be for you.