The Business of Railways

Review of board game Age of Steam by Pevans

Age of Steam is the latest development by designer Martin Wallace of the game system that started with Lancashire Railways and New England Railways (both published by Winsome Games) and progressed through Volldampf (from Kosmos). At heart, the idea is to build railway lines to transport goods between cities and thus gain income. This costs money, which you have to raise from shares until your company becomes profitable. Those of you who are familiar with the earlier games will see the similarities, but this game is definitely more sophisticated.

The game comes in a solid, chunky box that's a bit bigger than A4 and a couple of inches deep - it has a good heft to it, too. Inside are lots of components, well up to German standards (not surprising when the game was manufactured in Germany). The full colour, mounted board shows a section of the American Mid-West, centred roughly on Chicago. Features on the board are the major cities, smaller towns, rivers and mountains, with a hexagonal grid superimposed. Then we have lots of thick cardboard hexagonal tiles. These show sections of railway track: mostly a simple section that comes in on one side and exits from another. However, there are some tiles with tracks crossing each other, some showing towns with railway lines coming in and out and some extra cities. There is a set of round wooden counters for each player (six colours), lots of plastic 'coins' and wooden cubes to represent goods. Plus half a dozen dice, a turn marker pawn and two card displays showing various tracks. And a set of rules, of course. You get plenty for your money. The only thing that lets the game down is an unfortunate printing error on the board. This is easily remedied with a sticker provided with the game.

As a player you are running a railway company. You start with $10 (raised by selling shares) and a '1 link' locomotive (it can connect two cities). The rest is up to you! The game is played over a set number of turns: more if fewer people are playing. At the end, a player's score will be the income s/he's built up, less the number of shares issued, plus a point for every three lengths of track on the board owned by the company. Most points wins - and it's often pretty close. It is also possible to go bankrupt and crash out of the game.

Each turn starts with the players deciding whether to issue more shares. Each gains you $5 cash, but adds to your costs each turn and reduces your score at the end. However, in the first turns you will have to issue shares or you simply won't be able to operate. One of the key decisions is how many to take: a bit of budgeting is needed, but you also have to allow a fudge factor for what other players may get up to during the turn.

The first opportunity to spend money comes by bidding for the order of play this turn. The options are either to raise the bid or to drop out and take the lowest position remaining. Depending on what you bid and where you end up, you may have to pay all (first and second), half or none of your bid. However, the next thing players do is select which special action they want this turn. Two of these give a player 'First Move' and 'First Build'. So, if you really want to make sure you get the first build, you not only have to bid and pay for first place, you then have to choose 'First Build'.

There are a total of seven actions, so there is always a choice available - though it's often not much of a choice for the last player in a 5-6 player game. Apart from the two already mentioned, the others are 'Engineer', which allows the player to build one more piece of track this turn. 'Locomotive' upgrades the player's locomotive by 1, increasing its range. 'Urbanization' allows the player to put one of the extra cities on the board, in place of a town. This is very useful as it brings extra destinations into play and is, effectively, an extra piece of track for that player. 'Production' allows two extra goods cubes to be added to the table, from where they may eventually appear on the board. This seems to be quite weak and a suggestion I've heard from a number of people is that the number of cubes should be equal to the number of players in the game. 'Turn Order' allows the player to make one Pass in next turn's bidding for the order of play. This is very useful: it's unlikely to get you first place, but will usually move you to second.

Once everybody's picked their action, it's time to build track. Everybody can place (or upgrade) up to three tiles on the board. I won't go into detail, but there are several points to note. First, you can start a line from any city on the board. No 'extending existing track', no 'home base'. Second, tracks can only meet at towns and cities. Third, every track laid or replaced costs at least $2 - more for crossing rivers, building through mountains and towns and upgrading. Each track section is marked with a counter of the owner's colour.

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Age of Steam: game in progress (upside down!)

Making a profit

Then everybody gets two opportunities to move goods. These move from their starting city and stop in the first city of the same colour as the good that they come to. Each link they pass over increase the owner's income by 1, but the player moving the good can only move it as many links as his locomotive allows him to (as everybody starts with a '1 link' locomotive, the first moves tend to be short). However, players can forego a move to upgrade their locomotive by 1. Hence, a common tactic is to upgrade your locomotive first and then move a good for two links. Once gained, income remains for the rest of the game and is the major source of victory points. So moving goods is the heart of the game. Because all the goods are visible, including those that will appear on the board later, players have the opportunity to plan networks that will continue to pay off as they grow. The problem is that the other players will almost certainly get in the way! Hence you have to remain flexible and take opportunities where you can.

There are a few other wrinkles with the goods. Both purple cities are on the west of the board. Both the yellow cities are on the east. And there are no black cities on the board. This is where Urbanization comes in. Eight new cities are available, including one each of purple and yellow and four black. This is one reason why Urbanization is so useful. Another tactical option is to move goods that deprive your opponents of opportunities. However, unlike some of the other games in this series, moving goods along other people's track is bad news. You really want to avoid it if you can.

After building, players collect their income and pay their expenses: one for each share they've issued and one for each link their locomotive can travel. If you can't cover your expenses, your income drops by the amount you can't pay. Drop below zero and your company goes bankrupt. You're out! This underlines the importance of budgeting: at the start of the turn you look ahead to these expenses, how much you're going to spend building track and how much you want available to bid for turn order. This means that players often issue extra shares, to make sure they have enough cash later in the turn. If you can run your company on the edge, you have an advantage. But an unexpected expense can ruin you.

Players' pieces are then moved back along the income track according to which section they're in. The further along they are, the further back they go. This is a blatant handicapping mechanism, but also offers some tactical opportunities. The optimum place to be on the track is the space before the next boundary and players may forego the odd point of income in order not to cross the line. Or another player may give you a point of income to push you over the boundary and lose an extra two. Finally, new goods are placed on the board. One die is rolled for each player in the game. For each number rolled, one good is placed on the city of that number from the display for that city. The die-rolling element means that, while you can see what goods will appear in which cities, you can't predict when. It could be early on, it could be never. And this adds an element of chance to your strategy. You may have planned a route to deliver those purple pieces from Detroit, but they may arrive early and be taken by another player or never appear at all!

I feel that I've gone on at some length about the rules of this game, but you have to understand these to see the wealth of tactical opportunities the game provides. In theory, you have almost perfect knowledge at the start of the game and could set up an appropriate strategy from turn one (helped by knowing that the game will last a set number of turns). However, the actions of the other players add chaos to the system and the die-rolling for fresh goods brings further unpredictability. So my view is that this is a tactical game. Each new link of track should allow another good to be moved, so that it pays for itself. This is particularly true at the beginning of the game, when money is very tight. Once you're in profit, you can afford to build extra tracks - remember: track is worth victory points, money isn't.

This also brings up the point that you need patience. At the start of the game, you will have to issue more shares to bring in sufficient cash to run the company. This is painful, but it's important to get it right: too many shares and you're incurring extra expense for no reason. Too few and you're in trouble (though losing the odd point of income is something you can come back from). Once you're in profit, it's plain (-ish) sailing. But you have to keep pushing and keep ahead of your opponents - running out of goods to move is bad news.

Overall, this is a terrific game. The development through the various titles has added layers of sophistication to the original game system of Lancashire Railways. The end result is something special: I recommend it highly.

Age of Steam was designed by Martin Wallace and is published by Warfrog (under licence from Winsome Games). It is a board game for 3-6 players, aged 13+ and takes 2-3 hours to play. It is readily available in games shops at around £28.
Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Flagship 100 (Dec 2002/Jan 2003).

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Page created 23rd November 2002. Last modified 24th June 2005.
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