Something interactive today. My favorite game is Age of Steam. It is an amazingly deep economic game with some of my favorite mechanics: auction, network building, and pick up and deliver. It is tough and unforgiving, with a nice mixture of strategic and tactical thinking required to do well. This is definitely my favorite Martin Wallace game.
Age of Steam is a game about the early days of trains in the USA. Players represent railroad tycoons trying to build the most profitable train lines. It is a game of route-building, opponent-thwarting, and opportunity-taking built around a system that continually punishes the players and drives them towards bankruptcy. During the course of the game, players must build a network of rail links on a hex-grid map in order to deliver coloured cubes to cities of the same colour. Timing is everything, and the central feature of the game is a tense auction each round that sets player order.
Players begin the game with a handful of track markers, a scant $10, and with a board full of unbuilt hexes with a scattering of coloured cities waiting for deliveries of the cubes already laid out on the board. Each round they go through the steps of taking loans, bidding in the auction for player order, selecting powers, building track and shipping goods.
The goal of the game is to have the highest income with a smaller bonus for track built. Income is gained by transporting cubes from their starting location to a city of matching colour. Each link used in a cube’s journey increases its owners income by $1 for the following round, but the cubes can’t touch a city twice, and must stop at the first city of matching colour they encounter. Players start the game with 1-link level locomotive and must upgrade it to its maximum of 6 by either taking the locomotive power, or by giving up one of their two shipping actions in a turn to take an upgrade.
This sounds like the recipe for a jolly little game, but the developers decided to give it some real teeth. Firstly, money is incredibly tight. Players start out with only $10, and with builds through ugly terrain costing up to $4 per hex, this isn’t nearly enough. The only way to get more money is to take out a loan (in fact, the starting $10 comes from two compulsory loans). Each $5 loan requires $1 of repayment every single round, but there are a maximum of 15 loans available in the entire game (including the 2 initial ones). Every player in the game is locked into a desperate struggle to get become profitable before they run off the end of the loans runway and plunge flaming into the trees.
Another consequence of these interest payments on loans every turn is that a player who doesn’t keep spare money on hand and through poor management is prevented or unable to complete deliveries in the first round of the game stands an excellent chance of going bankrupt and being eliminated. This can be used as a great motivation for new players to keep careful track of their cash, although it can be a little intimidating to first-time players. In practice, it almost never happens, but persists as an effective threat.
If all this wasn’t enough, as soon as players manage to get their incomes high enough, income reduction starts to kick in. Each round, player income drops by this $2 per full $10 of income, and at higher income levels, this can wipe out the gains from a turn of shipping cubes. Thematically, this is explained with the idea that the bigger a company becomes the less efficient it is. In practice it gives players another layer of depth to consider when planning actions.
At the end of the game players receive three points per income level (less the number of loans) and a point per track segment in any completed links. Money, for all the struggling to get it during the game, is worth nothing.
So, with all of the punishment the game puts players through, what keeps us coming back? The difficulty is actually a reason in itself. AoS is a game that players can derive a great deal of satisfaction from by doing well. Turning your first profit is an amazing experience exactly because it is a difficult thing to do. Plus, the building aspect is a lot of fun. Watching your rail empire sprawl across the map is quite enjoyable and spurs you on to do better each time you play. And, as difficult as it sounds, it is a really easy game to learn to play, though, like chess, it is a game that takes time to learn to play well. You have a lot of options every turn but a very low rules overhead that enables them all.
So, what is your favorite board game and why? Leave your answers in the comments below.