2003 Multiplayer Category Winner: Age of Steam
Series Note: I'm currently documenting the history of the International Gamers Awards (IGA) for Counter Magazine. The IGA is awarded annually by a jury of prominent gamers from around the world, with a stated goal “to recognize outstanding games and designers, as well as the companies that publish them.” Over the years the IGA has grown to be one of the three major prizes in gaming, alongside Germany’s Spiel des Jahres (“Game of the Year”) and the Deutscher Spiele Preis (the “German Game Prize”). The IGA’s nomination and voting procedures are outlined on the jury’s website (http://www.internationalgamersawards.net/).
This series walks through the history of the IGA, doing an entry for each winner in the multiplayer and two-player categories. For each game, I provide a brief history and a review. If you have any feedback or material that might aid in the series, I’d be grateful to hear from you. I'm posting the entries on BGG, but the most recent entries are only available through Counter, which can be purchased via the BGG store.
Age of Steam was created by legendary game designer Martin Wallace in 2002. Wallace, who is originally from the United Kingdom, started designing games in the 1990s. Today, he is a game design star, creating many of the highest-rated titles on BGG and having won the International Gamers Awards three times.
Wallace designed Lancashire Railways for Winsome Games in 1998, giving him some experience with designing train games. In 2000, after playing his first 18xx game, he got the idea for Age of Steam. “It struck me that the goods movement of Lancashire could be combined with the tile system of 18xx,” he said, “resulting in Age of Steam.”
Wallace started working on the game, completing the first prototype in 2000. Though he said the core mechanics of goods movement and tile placement remained the same, he did make a few changes over the course of development. “The additional powers changed from cards to action boxes,” he said, and “the track tiles were altered.” Lastly, he simplified where junctions can occur, putting them only in towns and cities. (Wallace and the game's developer, John Bohrer, would later have a falling out.)
The game was jointly released in 2002 by Wallace’s company, Warfrog Games, and Winsome Games. The game was finished just in time for the Essen fair, leading to a funny story from Wallace: “On the day I was meant to fly over I could not find my passport, so missing the flight. The rest of the group contacted me once they got there to let me know about the mistake on the board (Denver had the wrong number on it). I was able to make up replacement stickers at home to fix this, so maybe somebody upstairs intended me to miss the flight.”
Age of Steam was an instant success. Early reviews were extremely positive, and the game went on to win the 2002 Meeple’s Choice Award and the 2003 International Gamers Award.
Age of Steam remains popular today. It is still in the BoardGameGeek Top 100, and it has received printings in more than a half dozen languages. Dozens of expansion maps have been released, covering every corner of the globe (and even the moon). Eagle Games started publishing the game in 2008, and they are the publisher today.
In 2009, Mayfair released Steam, an offshoot of Age of Steam.
Age of Steam has dozens of maps available, many of which contain rule variations, but the below walkthrough focuses on the map that comes with the base game (which features the Rust Belt and Great Lakes region).
Each player starts the game with $10, which represents two shares that have been issued. Each player also receives five disks: one each for (1) the engine track (which represents how far you can ship a good), (2) the income track (which represents income per turn), (3) the turn order track (which shows player order), (4) the issue shares track (denoting how many shares each player has issued), and (5) the selected actions display. Each player also receives ownership markers which are locomotives in more recent editions to denote their track ownership.
The game has ten phases per turn, and the number of turns depends entirely on the map played and the number of players. For example, a five player game ends at the end of the seventh turn.
The first phase is to issue shares. Players receive money either from issuing shares (which is necessary at the start of the game) or from income (which is hopefully the case later in the game). Each player can issue shares and receive $5 per share, and more than one share can be issued per turn. There is a total cap of 15 shares in the entire game, but shares should be issued cautiously, as they cost $1 per turn in dividends.
The second phase is to bid on player order. Each player either drops out or bids at least $1 more than the previous player, and bidding continues until all but one player has dropped out. The first player to drop out takes the last player space and pays nothing. Each player from then on out will either pay half the amount they had bid before dropping out or, in the case of the last two players participating, the full amount.
The third phase involves selecting actions, which confer special abilities on the player. In turn order, players pick from the available actions, which are: (1) the “first move” action, which allows the player to be the first to move goods; (2) the “first build” action, which allows a player to be the first to build track; (3) the “engineer” action, which allows a player to build four track tiles instead of the normal three; (4) the “locomotive” action, which allows the player to move up one space on the engine track; (5) the “urbanization” action, which allows a player to place a new city tile on a town before they build their track; (6) the “production” action, which allows a player to draw cubes from the bag and place them on empty boxes on the goods display; or (7) the “turn order” action, which allows a player to “pass” without exiting the round once during the next time players bid on turn order.
The fourth phase involves building track on the hex map in player order. A player may place up three track tiles (unless they chose the “engineer” action, in which case they can build four). A player’s track must connect their existing construction, and the track cannot run off the grid, nor can it connect to another player’s track. Players denote who owns each track via their ownership markers. A simple track tile costs $2, but it costs $3 if there is a river or $4 if there is a mountain. A complex track without a crossing costs $1 above these levels, and complex crossing track costs $2 above these levels. Placing in a town costs $1 for the town and $1 for every track to the town. Track may be unfinished at the end of a player’s turn, but if an unfinished track section is not extended on the player’s next turn, it becomes unowned and may be claimed by others.
It is possible to replace track. Replacing a simple track with a complex cross track always costs $3. Replacing a track in a town also costs $3, regardless of the reconnections, and all other replacements and redirections cost $2.
The fifth phase involves moving goods. Goods are represented by cubes. Players move goods from one city to another, with the goods being able to be moved as many “links” allowed by the player’s position on the engine track. A good must stop movement as soon as it enters a city with the same color as the good, although because players are free to choose their route, they can intentionally avoid such cities. Each completed link increases the income of the railroad link’s owner by 1 on the income track. Players can use other player’s railroad, which mean the owner of that link gets the increase on the income track. Players may move goods twice per turn, or can instead move their disk upon the engine track (to a maximum of six).
In the sixth phase, players collect income as shown on the income track.
In the seventh phase, players pay expenses, which are $1 for every share and $1 for every link on the engine track. These expenses must be paid with cash, and if they don’t have cash, they reduce their income for every dollar they still owe. If a player goes below $0 on the income track, they are eliminated from the game due to insolvency.
The eighth phase involves income reduction. Depending on where a player’s income is, it may be reduced by a predetermined amount.
The ninth phase involves goods replenishment. Dice are rolled (one per player) and goods are put out onto the cities corresponding to the number on each dice.
The tenth and final phase is merely advancing the turn marker.
After the final turn, players do the victory point computations. Players earn three victory points for every dollar of income on the income track, plus one victory point for each section of completed track they won. Players lose three victory points for each share. Money has no value at the end of the game.
Does it stand the test of time?
Age of Steam is the consensus favorite game in one of my groups, with it getting several plays per year. I joined the group having never played Age of Steam, and before my first play, the group’s leader said, “Your goal today is to not go insolvent.” I managed to avoid bankruptcy, but I was immediately struck by how much careful planning is rewarded in Age of Steam. I immediately fell in love, and today I consider the game one of the finest pickup-and-deliver and railroad titles ever created. It is currently in my top 10.
Age of Steam is tense, with the competition for building track and shipping goods being fierce throughout. The game presents fascinating choices at each stage of gameplay, and I always agonize over how many shares to issue and what action to select. The game can be unforgiving to mistakes, but that’s part of its charm: this game is a true battle of wits.
There’s considerable depth here, and given the number of maps available, players could spend a lifetime working their way through Age of Steam’s various iterations. The design of the goods display was a brilliant addition, providing great replayability to any map.
That said, despite Age of Steam’s depth, it ultimately isn’t that difficult of a game to learn, and I’ve taught it to beginning gamers. Gameplay feels streamlined and logical, with each aspect being essential to the experience.
I’ve played several versions of the game, and all of them are well produced for a train game. The artwork more functional than attractive, but the components are decent int he most recent edition. Some of the game boards could have been dressed up more, but that is a minor nitpick.
In short, it is easy to see how Age of Steam won the 2003 IGA and racked up several other honors. It has long been in the BGG 100. Few games have the deep tension and interesting choices of Age of Steam, and I hope this is still hitting my table decades from now.
Coding Architect | Husband and father | Boardgame addict | Loves Clutch as well as Tricky
Coding Architect | Husband and father | Boardgame addict | Loves Clutch as well as Tricky
Still one of the best games out there...
I am a wargamer but this is my Desert Island game as long as I have 3 other shipmates.