Age of Steam and Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame

I’ve been on what (for me, anyway) counts as a bit of a game binge with Age of Steam. I’ve recently played Age of Steam on the Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany, and new France maps. And I also had a chance to try out Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame.

Age of Steam has always been the ultimate “bubble game” for me. On the one hand, I like its money management elements – you are caught between needed big capital improvements and the debt required to finance them. On the other hand, the game lacks the polish we’ve come to expect from games these days. The sub-par graphics and rules are one element of this, but the main thing is the serious systemic imbalances: the fact that so many of the special actions are worthless or almost worthless in most circumstances; and the fact that the late-game bidding is so weird because money doesn’t count for anything at game end (it isn’t even a tie-breaker). And let’s not forget the awkward victory conditions, which encourage all sorts of odd tile-laying so you can turn money you can’t use into track you can’t use – the track at least being worth points.

I do still sort of like Age of Steam, but I think with all the imbalances, it’s now on a terminal downward slope for me after about 10 games. In the great German-style games, like El Grande, Settlers of Catan, or Puerto Rico the players have resources that they have to make tough choices about how to spend. Because many of the resource “sinks” in Age of Steam are so unbalanced, the choices are more about figuring out which options are viable at all. This just isn’t all that entertaining, and misjudgments can have seriously debilitating effects. As a player of German-style games, I have come to trust the designer, in that if he or she puts something in the game, it is a viable choice. Such is not the case here, and it requires an attitude adjustment. Still, even with all this, I think Age of Steam is close to being pretty good. If the roles were re-developed, and the victory conditions re-thought, and the role of randomness reconsidered, some of these issues could be resolved, and the income vs. debt balance (the really good part of the game) could shine. As it is, though, it’s just not there.

When Railroad Tycoon came out last year, I went over to BoardGameGeek and surfed people’s comments and opinions, and read some online reviews. In general, I wasn’t that optimistic, because most people seemed to think of it as a simplification of Age of Steam. At the end of the day, though, I was somewhat more impressed with Railroad Tycoon than I ended up being with Age of Steam.

The reason for this is simple: in Railroad Tycoon, the role selection is gone. Instead, you have three actions per turn to spend on a variety of ways of improving your corporate empire: building track, making deliveries, improving your trains, developing cities, and so on. This leads to consistently more interesting choices than you face in Age of Steam, where your options are a lot more constrained. Between the rich turn-to-turn choices (including a lot more ways to spend money) and the fact that Railroad Tycoon retains the interesting debt-or-development choices, I think it is the fundamentally superior game.

Railroad Tycoon still has some significant issues. It seems to have played a shell game with the imbalances of Age of Steam. It hasn’t gotten rid of them, although it has moved them into areas where they do less damage. The game features a lot of special action cards. These can be of two types: cards with one-time or recurring powers available for draft, which you can take as one of your action choices; or cards which offer an income bonus to the first player able to fulfill their conditions (getting a 4-train, making a 3-length delivery, connecting Baltimore to Toledo, that sort of thing).

The first serious red flag are cards like the one that gives you a 20-income bonus for connecting New York to the West. After playing, I find it inconceivable that this could ever be done short of colossal debt that would be suicidal. The game is too short and the cost of making the Western connection too high. On further inspection, there are many cards in the deck that are too weak to even consider taking outside of very, very specialized circumstances.

Obviously, cards that are too weak aren’t a critical problem. They aren’t exactly desirable, but in this case you can ignore them and focus on the many other action choices. The more serious question is whether there are cards that are too strong. This, I am not sure of. There are a few cards (the first to make a 3-length delivery, the first to upgrade a train to level 4, and the first to deliver to certain cities) which offer potentially unbalancing payoffs when scored very early in the game. Normally, players are making one or two income points at a time until they’ve build out their network; these cards can give you easy 3-4 point income bumps, and getting one or two early can make a big difference to your chances.

So, I’m not generally enamored of the cards, and find it hard to believe that any effort at all was spent balancing them. But in general, I think they do a lot less damage than the unbalanced and constraining roles in Age of Steam, and I think by opening up the flow of the turn sequence to more player options, Railroad Tycoon presents a more interesting game. But like Age of Steam, this inability to get the balance right is what keeps game companies like Eagle, Warfrog, and Fantasy Flight from operating on the same level as the Germans.

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Age of Steam Scandinavia, Palazzo

Long-time readers of this blog will know that my feelings for Age of Steam have been a moving target. Initially, I was caught in the headlights of the game’s significant failings – mainly the ludicrously wonky endgame. While these failings mean I just can’t consider it a top-tier game, I have come around to be fond of it nonetheless. As a rail-building game, it’s a nice middle ground between the simpler crayon-style games and non-rail games like Ticket to Ride, and the slightly more involved 1825 and 18xx games in general. I like the difficult financial management decisions and the fact that most of the game is simply fending off financial disaster. I like how tough the early game is. And the route-building is interesting. With these strengths, I can live with the problems, even if I’m not happy about them.

This was the first time I’ve played an expansion map. We had 3, and I had heard that Scandinavia worked well with smaller numbers of players, so we gave that a try. Interestingly, the early game was even harsher than usual – with the expensive sea links, you’ll need to re-calibrate your instincts on how much debt you need early. Being in the middle, the sea links also provide an interesting choke-point, and if you don’t get one, you’ll get stuck on one side or the other. This worked well with 3 players; I was developing on the Germany/continental Denmark side of the ferries, which Rich and Kim were on the Copenhagen/Norway/Sweden side. Not sure I’d want to play with more than 4 players on this map, though, as I think some players might get hosed based just on how the players’ areas of operation worked out.

Still, I liked the map, maybe even more than the basic map given the small number of players. The constrained areas and heavy competition for the central Danish cubes seemed to put more emphasis on the Producer action, and I liked the Ferry action which allows you to easily move cubes between coastal cities.

We still ended up brainstorming how to fix the endgame, though. Even after only one game it was apparent to Rich and Kim that this could have been done a lot better. Rich had one of the better suggestions I’ve heard, I thought: add another action, the Financier, which would allow you to buy back one or two shares for $5 each.

Still, all told, I’ve enjoyed Age of Steam, and hope to be able to get it on the table somewhat more often in the future, maybe experiment with more of the maps. It’s never going to be a game I play more than a handful of times a year, but for its flaws it’s still got good stuff.

After finishing Age of Steam, we had time for a quick closer, so we went with Palazzo. I’ve decided this is, in fact, a very good game. So many tough and interesting choices, and like a lighter version of Ra, the randomness of the auctions means you’re never looking at the same situation twice, but it rarely feels arbitrary. I was worried that the quest for homogeneous buildings would drive the game, but I’ve now seen people win both with small numbers of huge-point buildings and with a more diversified collection. I also find the game has an interesting pace to it, with a slow start building up to a high-pressure endgame. And despite the apparent chaos, the evidence is that like Ra, skilled players reliably win, and win big. All in all, I now think this is one of the best games of the year. While Tower of Babel is a little more appealing to me because it’s a bit more unusual, Palazzo has been a reliable winner in my groups.

KublaCon Day 2 – German Games

KublaCon runs a “Kniziathon” tournament which is best described as “all Knizia, all the time”. You get points for winning games, with bigger games getting more points. It’s a kind of neat idea, although I think the format puts too much emphasis on his little games and doesn’t reward winning stuff like Ra or Modern Art enough. As much as I love his big-box stuff generally, his card games often seem to me uninspired, regardless of how well-executed they are. Korsar certainly fell into this category. The idea is to take “tricks” of treasure ships, where each trick is evaluated on your turn – if you have the highest total of cards, you take it, otherwise it stays out, Taj Mahal-style. You don’t have to drop if you can’t raise, so a tied trick can stay available indefinitely, and the number of tricks out there can fluctuate (you can play to any available one). This actually is reasonably clever, but the version we played was a 6-player partnership, in which two adjacent players are partners and can look at each other’s hands and discuss play. This took what should have been a light, fast-playing game and bogged it down hopelessly and needlessly as partners endlessly discuss minor points of play. I would be tempted to try the 3-5 player version sometime, but would not play the partnership version again.

Ticket to Ride should be familiar to most readers at this point, and I do enjoy it. I’ve decided I’ll buy a copy, as a solid second-tier type game. Which ticket cards you draw does seem to have a needlessly random effect on the game, since the tickets are not terribly well-balanced (the payoff on short tickets is too low), but it’s still simple and entertaining if you don’t mind games of the less-interactive variety. For a simple, accessible game, it seems to lack the elusive “fun factor” that would give me confidence in selling it to non-gamer family or coworkers, but still very good for the gamer crowd, and the length is right for the content.

Power Grid – still good. We played with 6, on the US map. Still a possible balance problem, as the player who started out west felt kinda hosed by the high connection costs, even without much competition as 4 of us started in the east and we eliminated the New England region. But it was fun, and even with 6 players moved quite briskly and the whole thing didn’t take more than 2.5 hours. It looks like another good game to add to the list of good 6-player games, always welcome.

Favoriten is a game from 1989 by Walter Müller that can be best described as Royal Turf without the quality. Bidding is intermixed with racing, but instead of everyone rolling a die in turn, the first player rolls the dice 5 times and moves all the horses one at a time before rotating the start player and doing another betting round. Little control, and the player going first has an immense advantage – but there are no rules on how to rotate the start player between races. Royal Turf takes this basic concept and make a game out of it, but Favoriten is just not there. Perhaps not bad for younger kids who might not get and/or be frustrated by the subtleties of Royal Turf, but for the 10 and up crowd, one to avoid.

Finstere Flure is a game I actually kinda liked, but it’s a design that seems deeply conflicted. The players have teams of individuals who are trying to navigate a monster’s lair without getting killed. The monster moves in a programatic way, going after the closest target he can see, and there are a variety of obstacles and special movement rules for various terrain types. On the one hand, this wants to be a fun, light monster game, and Friedmann Friese’s propensity for comic gore is good for a laugh. On the other hand, there is very little luck in the game and playing well requires visualizing a large number of possibilities and moves and counter-moves, so once people start playing to win things can bog down into lengthy analysis. While I admit I enjoyed playing this one, I almost found myself wishing for more constrained play and more chaos, so that it could better fulfill its obvious destiny as a lighter, amusing game.

Last was Age of Steam. I do like this game. In fact, I might like it quite a bit; but it’s also a somewhat frustrating game. It’s frustrating because even though it’s good, it’s got those obvious, nagging little issues that mean it will never be a real classic. For example, the Producer role – this role is far, far too weak compared to the others, almost useless; yet it appears that the designer anticipated people taking it, because if you don’t the endgame gets a bit dull as few goods cubes are available and player rankings are very unlikely to change over the last turn or two. Or the final scoring of 1 point per track tile (vs. nothing for remaining cash), which is incredibly tedious to count up and encourages gratuitous and annoying track-building at the end of the game – yet has basically zero impact on final scores. I think the final significant criticism one might make of the game is that it has a bit of the whack-the-leader problem, since one often has an arbitrary choice of one of a couple of players’ track to use when making a delivery. In extreme cases, this could lead to some nasty endgame problems. While I don’t think it’s a huge issue, certainly the better, longer multi-player games (1830, Power Grid, even basic Civilization) seem to manage to avoid such basically arbitrary choices. It’s easy to wish it were a little more robust. Now, all this said, I still like Age of Steam and might buy it. It’s certainly the best Martin Wallace game I’ve played. But it’s not hard to visualize a very good game with these little problems fixed up.

Bay Area Games Day XXXII

A long day of gaming at GamesDay XXXII.

First up was Age of Steam. I’ve been avoiding this one for a while for two reasons: firstly, I didn’t enjoy Volldampf much, and secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever played a Martin Wallace game that really worked. Way out West, Empires of the Ancient World, Weiße Lotus, Tyros … all games with interesting ideas that revealed fairly serious systemic imbalances after only a few plays. Or Liberté, a game that was overwrought for the level of control. Volldampf was the best of the lot, but I found it extremely dry, and had an irritating “hidden trick” – you have to go for the routes down the middle of the board. Like in EuroRails, if you try to develop the peripheries, you’re screwed.

So I hadn’t been feeling inclined to try Age of Steam. But my friend Matt liked it, and given the applause it’s received, I was willing to try at least once. I’m willing to try almost anything once. Almost.

And what do you know, I rather liked it. To me, it felt Funkenschlag-esque – built out of tried and true bits, nothing that seems innovating or new and different, and yet solidly constructed. The chart which allows you to predict which bits are going to show up where is a very nice touch over Volldampf, and gives you some ability to plan. Opening up the route-building to 1830-style hex tiles is also a big improvement; the restricted track-laying in Volldampf was not a big winner for me. The Citadelles-style roles seem a touch sketchy, but are nice for flavor.

Our game finished in 2 hours, and at that length, this seems a very nice, more substantial euro-style game in the mold of Funkenschlag or even Die Macher. Given the prior history with the designer, though, it makes me nervous – I quite liked it, but I feel like I’m looking over my shoulder, waiting for the design flaw to jump me. It might be the Urbanization role, which seems significantly more powerful than the rest while there are still cities left; or the whole geographical thing a la EuroRails or Volldampf, with one area of the board much more important that the others, thus leading to a lack of different viable strategies; or a significant runaway leader problem; or that if you play with the analysis paralysis folks, it’ll take 3+ hours and at that length it might well not be entertaining anymore. Still, as I say I did quite like it – sort a distant cousin to the classic 1830 (1830 was great because it melded railway operations with the stock market, while Age of Steam just does the operations side – although in more detail than 1830. Both are more flavored abstract games than railway games, though). I’m ready to play it again sometime, and might even pick up a copy myself – especially if I can finally liquidate my copy of Way out West.

Next up was the same pair of Die Sieben Siegel and San Juan that I played last night. I still like ’em both quite a bit. San Juan got a good reception in our group, and was played a lot at GamesDay. We got into these odd loops – for this game, someone had borrowed my copy without asking, so I had to borrow someone else’s copy to play; this also happened to one of my friends, and he had to borrow my copy. I find this stealth-borrowing slightly irksome, and in future I’ll have to keep my games right next to me so I can keep an eye on them. It worked out OK this time, but it was close.

Matt then had only about 45 minutes before he had to head out, so we played a quick round of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. This is a very good game, one that keeps revealing subtleties. This time I was starting to get better at identifying where cards were based on who people asked to play for them. Weird, but a very good game.

With the recent release of Oasis, it seems that Alan Moon’s Union Pacific has been getting some exposure recently, which is a good thing. One of its best features is that it works extremely well with 6, maybe best at that number in fact, so when you’ve got 6 who want a slightly more substantial euro-style game, it’s an obvious choice. I must admit I found this particular game slightly frustrating, because for the last half to third of the game the stock market got gummed up and everyone was drafting blind from the deck. It was a slightly unfortunate situation in that the two stock types available were only of value to one or two players, but they steadfastly refused to take them, leaving the rest of us with just the crap shoot of drawing off the deck. Not entirely satisfying, I must admit, but many of the best games still have the occasional klunker due to odd card/tile/whatever distribution (Tigris & Euphrates comes immediately to mind here).

Last game of the day was Pizzaro & Co (also known as Magellan), the bidding game from Hans im Glück and Tom Lehmann. This is a game that also works well with 6. I’ve always been rather fond of this one, but it didn’t seem to go over very well when it first came out for some reason. I think it’s rather clever. The tension between spending now and needing to save for later rounds is intense. The explorers you are bidding on are diverse, and the rewards for winning auctions are subtle. After playing it again for the first time since 2002 (when it came out), I was inspired to try to remember to break it out next time we have 6. Somehow, it has a place in my mind next to Titan: The Arena. Anyway, perhaps not quite as crisp or tight as Knizia’s best auction games, but nicely flavorful and more subtle than it appears.