Is Age of Steam the greatest train game yet created? Possibly.
I say that mainly to impress upon you that it really is good enough to be considered in the top rank of such games. The secondary motive is that there is a lot that I'd like to say about the game and much of it can be construed as negative. Examining a game in minute detail has its advantages but the big picture can easily be lost when taking such a view. If you prefer the short version, it's this—if you appreciate heavy, mentally taxing yet rewarding games such as 18xx or Die Macher, then I highly recommend Age of Steam, buy it.
Martin Wallace has designed a number of train games many of which are refinements of earlier designs. In many ways Age of Steam could be described as "Volldampf, Only More So". Take the basic idea of that earlier game, tinker and modify every single system and you'll have Age of Steam. This description is useful only if you have played Volldampf so I should start from the beginning.
Players are presented with a hex map showing several cities and towns along with a few rivers, mountains and lakes. Throughout the game players will build track, creating links between cities and towns (this concept of a "link" is important as it governs many aspects of the game). Unlike 18xx these links are owned by players although this does not prevent others from using them. Players earn money by transporting goods across links to destination cities, for every link used the owner's income is increased by one. Obviously players will attempt to build track so that they can transport goods using only their own links but this is not always possible. Further, they'll want to create as convoluted a set of links as possible—if you can send a good on a long, tortuous route over five of your links you'll be much better rewarded than if you take the direct route. So much for efficiency. This sums up the basic framework of the game but there is much in the way of features and complications.
The most noticeable (and important) feature are the roles—each player will choose one of the seven available each round and they all have special abilities, some of which are very important. For example, the "Locomotive" role lets you upgrade your train. Initially you can only move a good over two links and so it's imperative that you upgrade so that you can make use of longer routes. Other roles let you build four pieces of track (instead of three), transport goods before the other players (there are a limited number on each city) or upgrade a town to a city.
Altogether there are seven different roles and some of them are significantly better than others. Since only a single player may select each role in any given turn, the auction to determine player order is critical. All the more because money is tight in this game, very tight. Each player starts with $10 and must use this to bid for turn order as well as constructing track. It won't take long to realize that $10 will not go far at all. Since income is likely to be less than $10 for the first several turns it might all seem a little bit hopeless. There is some help though but it comes at a big price—shares. Players may issue shares for which they receive $5. (In fact, the initial $10 comes from the two shares each player starts with.) The catch? At the end of each round players must pay $1 for each outstanding share. Since there's no way you can buy these back, they'll forever be a chain around your neck. Things are so dicey at the start of the game that it's very easy for players to enter a "cycle of death". If you don't have enough money to pay your expenses (shares and upkeep on your train) you need to reduce your income for every dollar you're short. Of course this means you'll start the next round not only with a reduced income but you'll need to take out more shares which increases your expenses which then makes it even harder to pay your expenses next round. It won't take too long for such a player to go bankrupt so an incredibly careful eye needs to be paid to finances during the early turns. Often the loss of a single dollar can cause a player to enter a death spiral so it's not something that can be taken lightly. For the most part players tend to be concentrating on their own sections of the board throughout this phase so any such problems are usually the player's own fault. Still, it's something that must be paid close attention to.
Eventually, as track gets further developed and engines are able to cross more and more links, the players' incomes will increase such that the need for loans is greatly curtailed and expenses are readily met. At this point the competition for the limited number of goods starts to heat up. The goods are colour coded and must be delivered to a city matching this colour. Since they belong to no one, any player is free move any good to a valid destination. If multiple players have the ability to move a particular good, then it's probably best to move it before your opponent gets the opportunity to do so.
Finally, after a set number of turns the game ends and scores are calculated. For the most part this will be a player's income minus the number of loans taken (as if those loans didn't already hurt enough) but there are also points awarded for the amount of track built over the course of the game. Scores tend to be very tight.
I really like the game but there's one thing that Age of Steam is not, and that's elegant. Practically every rule and system is somewhat "fiddly" to a degree. As mentioned earlier, this feels very much like a complicated Volldampf. (In fact, if players haven't played either game I'd recommend trying Volldampf first—it makes a subsequent explanation of Age of Steam that much easier.) Consider the auction for turn order: Players must increase the bid or drop out. The first player to drop out pays nothing. The second player (and third and fourth in a 5 or 6 player game) pay half their previous bid and the final two players pay their bid in full. Further, one player each round may have the opportunity to "pass" without dropping out. This "pass" ability may create the situation where another player is due to bid but has already made the high bid—in this case he need not "raise himself". Now this procedure works very well in practice and appears relatively fair but it is certainly not what I would call elegant. Almost every rule in the game has this feel to it. While that may sound like a negative, that's not necessarily the case. Elegance is an admirable quality but sometimes it's just not possible. More important is that the game actually "works". For example, a more "elegant" solution would have been a standard, in the fist auction to determine player order. This would have been more stream-lined and easier to explain but I think it would be far inferior to the clunky method used.
The written rules, to my mind, leave a lot to be desired. They remind me very much of old Avalon Hill rules—everything you need to know is in there but it's organized and written in such a way that it's very hard to know precisely what is meant. Having to read a rule three or four times, paying very close attention to the exact syntax used is not user friendly nor an easy way to learn how to play the game. There is a FAQ available for Age of Steam and I recommend reading it as it will help clear some of the inevitable confusion that will arise.
Warfrog is a small company and Age of Steam has been produced in small numbers but the component quality is excellent. Importantly, the money has been spent where it really counts—the tiles are thick and sturdy as is the board. Quite simply, they're a pleasure to use. Whenever I hear an American game company complain that their print runs aren't large enough to justify German quality components, I offer up Warfrog's recent releases as a counterargument. If they can produce games of this high a standard there's no reason other companies can't as well. Graphically, things are on the clean and simple side rather than beautiful and flamboyant but it's still a very nice package.
The official rating for Age of Steam is 120 minutes and it seems that many groups are completing the game in this time frame. My playings have been far longer however, often in the four hour range. Some of this may be due to inexperience but I do not believe that we'll ever complete in less than three hours. Is this a problem? It depends on your point of view. I never felt as though it overstayed its welcome which is probably as high a recommendation as you can give. Any game that can hold you attention for four hours must have something going for it and Age of Steam definitely does.
It may occur to some readers that I've pointed out a number of shortcomings but haven't really singled out anything as particularly good. I'd have to agree and, to be honest, I'm a little puzzled that this is so. There's nothing I can really point to and say "look at this mechanic, it's brilliant and innovative!" Age of Steam is a good game but it's of the "whole being greater than the sum of its parts" variety. It's not glamorous but it works and works well.
So, greatest train game ever? Well, I think a case could be made that it is and that it's even worthy of such a nomination should be high praise indeed. Other than the issues raised above it does fail in a number of ways that prevent it from being the ultimate train game however. The first is that there are some problems with how the rules work thematically. The idea that you gain income every turn for each good you've ever delivered is hard to justify in game terms. Also, it's hard to justify the preference of shipping goods over as long a route as possible. Still, these are mostly minor irritants that can easily be dismissed as necessary game requirements. The only major problem is that with the scores so tight a single point of income can determine the winner. Why is this a problem? It's very often the case that one player can pick and chose which other players' links to use. When this happens at the end of the game it can easily determine who wins. This was the major shortcoming of Volldampf and it remains a problem in Age of Steam. Although you tend to use other player's track less than you do in Volldampf it's a bigger problem here and the reason is that Age of Steam feels so much heavier. This is a big, meaty game and it's disappointing when it devolves into a kingmaking situation.
This aside, I give Age of Steam a very high recommendation. It's not for everyone but those train gamers who are looking for an involved, tense struggle are highly advised to give Age of Steam a try.
- Greg Aleknevicus