Steam session

No, we didn't move our games venue to a sauna last week — we played Martin Wallace's simplified version of his Age of Steam. Keith brought his copy and explained the rules to Damen, Graham, Sam and myself. It was again one of those evenings where I did some of my trademark stupid mistakes, this time right in the first round. While in many other games I would have plenty of time to recover into, say, 3rd position, Steam is absolutely unforgiving and I would remain last throughout the game...

Steam box coverThe game is about building rail tracks between cities and transporting goods between them. At the start of each round, players can get income by selling shares of their company for \$5 each. Each player chooses how many shares they wish to sell. Next, players bid for the turn order and thereby spend part of their money. Then, in turn order, each player chooses one privilege, like being the first to build track or transport goods, independently of turn order. Following that, players take turns to build track between cities and pay according to the terrain and other factors. Finally, players take turns to do 2 actions, which can be to increase the reach of our locomotive or to transport one good (a coloured cube) to a like-coloured city. Each segment of track between two cities used to transport the good brings in 1 VP (or 1 share, at their choice) for the owner of that segment. The reach of the locomotive imposes the limit of segments used, i.e. the maximum of VPs/shares earned by transporting the good. The round ends with each player paying \$1 for each reach level of their locomotive, and \$1 per share they don't own (i.e. if it is held by investors). If they played well and own shares, they get \$1 per share.

All players start with no money, no shares, and their locomotive only traverses one segment. A typical first round will hence go like this: sell two shares to investors for \$10, spend \$4 or less in the bidding round to get in a reasonable turn position, get the privilege to build or ship first, spend \$4 to build a 2-track segment, ship two goods between the two cities to get back the two shares you sold. This means you're back to zero shares owned, you only pay \$1 for the loco, and keep \$1 after the first round.

If you don't have enough cash to pay for the loco and to the investors, you have to sell extra shares for just \$2 each, meaning you will owe even more money in the next round. You will basically have to always pass when bidding for turn order to keep the money for buying track and making further connections. This in turn means you always have last choice of privileges, go last in building track and hence don't get the cheapest routes, etc. etc. Recovering from debt will take many rounds, as in real life 😞

Now guess what? Everyone picked up the gist of the game, as I explained above, except me. Although Keith had warned that money was tight, I was stupid enough to just raise \$10 in shares and pay \$6 for going first! Did I pick up the best privilege? No, I picked the one that allowed me to build in first place! Did I then built the track segment in such a way that blocked others from connecting the same cities? No, I allowed Graham to build track parallel to mine!  With such stupid mistakes, I finished the round lacking cash and having to sell extra shares. Most of the rest of the game was just making ends meet in order to never have to sell extra shares again. I succeeded and in the last rounds I managed to make some VPs, but by then it was too late for any recovery. Another mistake was to upgrade the loco too late and too little: by the end of the game, I could only earn at most 3 VPs/shares per turn, while the others were raking in 4+ VPs/shares per turn during most of the game.

Damen won the game by smartly taking the urbanization privilege often, which allows one to put a new city and 3 cubes on the map. There are several city 'placeholders' within short distance in the east of the map, and Damen quickly connected them, thereby getting several end-of-game VPs (1 per segment) in a cheap way. Not to mention he got to pick the cubes that could be best transported between the cities. Keith came second by expanding alone in the northwest corner, setting up a circular line  between cities of different colours, so that he could always send any good the longest way. Sam struggled a bit during the first half of the game, but picked up nicely in the second half. Graham did well in the first half, but in the second one it became apparent that him and I occupying the same south/south-western corner was damaging both, as we were transporting between the same cities and hence depleting the goods supply doubly fast. Final score: Damen had 36VP, Keith 35, Graham 25, Sam 21 and I had a pathetic 10VP. It goes largely without saying that Damen provided lost of generous unsolicited advice during the game, although not always quite in our best interest.

Final impressions: a great game, but definitely with a snowball effect, both ways. If you do a mistake, you get into even more trouble and you're just fighting for survival most of the game. If you do well early, you're on a roll. For example, Keith was impressed Damen got so early into owning more than zero shares. I must play this again and show I've learned something (the hard way), like studying well the map and placement of cubes before the first bid, taking \$15 in the first round, and upgrading the loco in sync with the length of the built path in order to maximize the VPs/shares per turn. The game should become more balanced if all players are experienced.

If you wish to know more details about the game's strategy, I recommend Graham's detailed and largely accurate report. He only forgot that he (not me) was the first copy-cat, by putting his track next to mine between the same cities in the first round. Playing 2nd and with \$11 to spend, he had plenty of other choices.

At the other tables, loads of games were played. Nigel needed the whole evening to beat David, Steve and Big Nick at a game of Brass. It took much less time for Paul B. to win the Tigris & Euphrates tournament game against Chris and André. They next played Coloretto and Sequence, and Paul won both! Chris left, Paul and André played Lost Cities... and Paul won! Paul was definitely on a roll. I can't remember any of us winning 4 games in a single night. Well done, Paul! At another table, Paul H., John, Dan, Manuela and Michael played Citadels and Heckmeck am Bratwurmeck, while Ester, Julian, Matt and Ben played Reef Encounter followed by Stone Age.

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