Monday, March 9, 2009

Review of Age of Steam

So the copy finally arrived of the long awaited "greatest train game ever". I happily sold my copy of Railroad Tycoon the next day on BGG Marketplace. I will say I was nervous, having played Railroad Tycoon and been severely disappointed and unimpressed. So is the hype really worth it?


The box is small but heavy and is pretty chalkful of goodies. My friends were impressed with the little plastic trains (one said, "these are way better than Ticket to Ride trains!") and the wooden bits are quite standard and reasonable. The board is a bit bland but upon playing is quite functional and actually worked fairly well. I suppose it would be nice to have everything dressed up a bit more, like say Chicago Express, but someone was lazy and this will have to suffice. Tiles are crisp and look good and the money is not an issue. Why were people so upset about the paper money? Didn't slow us down at all.

My BIG complaint is not the quality of the components but the utter stupidity in colour choices. Frustratingly, the purple goods cubes are damn near the same colour as the blue goods cubes. I'm colour blind and this pisses me off. My friend, who was already unimpressed that she had to learn a complicated strategy game, said, "this company made a poor choice on colours." All I can figure is purple was already on sale and they were too damn cheap to find a more distinct colour. I hate having to ask after a goods cube appears whether it is blue or purple. Worse is two of the player's colours are made of the same colours. Poor decision. Verdict: Decent/Poor.


As I had to wait a few days to play the game, I read up the rules a couple times and even tried out the solitaire version to get an understanding. The rules themselves are complicated but logical and I think are approachable by anyone looking for good strategy game. HOWEVER, I had to go online for two different issues. One, the missing rule about the last two players out of an auction. Not a big deal as the example in the rulesbook showed it happening. The second rule, though, was completely unclear to me and I had to search it out. The issue is when goods appeared in New Cities on the board. I had to search far and wide for someone to explain that it happens when the numbered column directly above that New City is rolled. I found this entirely ambiguous in the rulesbook and was kinda unimpressed.

In general, this game is complicated. I know. But that's no excuse for an incomplete ruleset. It's not that hard to have someone test it out before printing. Verdict: Decent.


Onto the good part. And when I say good, I mean really good. We've only played one game so far but it was obvious immediately how great this game is. So what happens?

Briefly, the goal is to earn the highest income and grow the largest set of track on the board. Income is gained by moving goods (wooden cubes) to cities of the corresponding colours on the map. For each link (track connection from city/town to city/town) moved across the owner of that link earns one income. Simple enough? No, not really. Money is tight, very tight. So immediately buying track costs money which you have borrowed and will have to pay interest on. As well, one must have an engine that is big enough to move the goods far enough. Big engine equals big maintenance costs. Of course, one can borrow more money but these diminish one's points greatly at the end of the game and make it harder to have money throughout due to the interest payments.

Another important aspect is the auction for turn order, the point where the game REALLY takes off. One wants to always be first but can barely afford, at least early on, to bid in the wicked auction. The reward for first: first choice of the special powers, first track build to cut off opponents, first move of goods that your opponent may have been eyeing. All this makes for a very cutthroat and delicious game. Many more details I will leave out other than to say in each of the phases of the rounds, every decision I made was interesting, important, and hard. Gotta love it. And even the player who was hesitant to learn ended up delighting in her delivering first the good her boyfriend had been depending on. Nasty. Verdict: Excellent. Classic. Even better than everyone says.


It's hard to say too much about strategy after only one four-player game but I will say money management and planning are tops. One false step can mean early bankruptcy, something we all managed to avoid in this first game we played together. It's extremely satisfying to see one's network carefully grow by a series of meaningful decisions and I am excited to explore the different strategies. Verdict: Deep. Very deep.


This game, despite the shoddy rules and plain board artwork, shines completely due to the monumental Wallace design. Great depth and meaningful decisions throughout and you even get to watch your network expand over the board, a reason I love Ticket to Ride. In fact, I found this far, far more satisfying than the useless Railroad Tycoon which, due to the unnecessarily large board, seemed to end right when something was actually starting to happen. I was actually surprised at how quickly we all got into it. Despite the heaviness of the game, I found it surprisingly approachable for our little game group who usually plays Dominion, Stone Age, and Acquire. Most importantly, this game is really fun, mean-spirited but fun, probably the most competitive game I've bought in awhile. Verdict: worth every penny.


  1. I miss playing games with you Eric. This one sounds awesome.

    (this is Shannon by the made me choose a profile and the only thing I have is this old livejournal one that I never use)

  2. I'm wondering if you could compare it to Railroad Tycoon. My group found RT long and not very balanced. However, I really liked the idea and theme and am very interested in Steam/Age of Steam.