I've owned Age of Steam for several years, but wasn't quick enough to pick up the various "official" maps (I have some of the third party stuff, however). Even so, when I learned that Martin Wallace was going to put out a new edition of AoS, now called "Steam," because of copyright issues, I wasn't really sure I wanted to put down yet more money for what seemed to be more or less a straight reprint. After all, the only significant rules change is that you don't draw cubes randomly anymore, they're all known quantities at the start of the game. Although, for anyone who's heard my opinion of Agricola, that would be a very big change indeed as it was the wacky random element in what was otherwise a very strategic game with little luck involved.
Then I got a chance to play with Mike and Matt G before Christmas, and I liked it enough that I not only bought the base game, but also the Steam Baron expansion, which adds two maps (both suitable for five or six players) as well as a stock market option.
And so it was that when Matt R, Matt G, Patrick, JD, Mike, and myself sat down to play a game at our regular Tuesday evening session, it was the Eastern US map that came out. Would the game be interesting enough that downtime wouldn't be an issue? Would the board be so crowded that we couldn't get anything done? And would we use the player discs, or the player choo-choos?
In the last case, that was easy. Use the choo-choos! Woo Wooooo!
This map has a couple of twists. Most obvious are the addition of mountains, which are essentially hills but add 3 to the cost of building track. Also, there are several cities which are adjacent to each other, and some towns that can be upgraded to cities that are could be adjacent. You build "track" between these for $3 and put a train between the two to denote the route. Funny, as it's actually *cheaper* in many cases to just use a tight turn tile (if available). Finally, you can't just build from anywhere - you must build from a port city or from a city/town that has been connected to a port city through anyone's track. Of course, you can always extend your own track as well.
The early round started with Matt R building in the four-city block near NY/Philly, Mike starting in Chicago, and Matt G beginning in the Deep South in Charleston. The rest of us all built right around Chicago, which in retrospect was a smart move - lots of room to branch out without a lot of hills/mountains. Interestingly, there were very few grey cubes on the board or in the placement boxes, and only two were built the entire game.
The game lasts for seven turns, and it took us a full three hours to play (after I missed the part where we were only to place two cubes in each city and placement box). During that time, I ended up heading toward the NE up the St. Lawrence River. Mike headed to the NW corner, JD straight west, Matt G cut across the southern edge of the board (with me tossing in a couple of links there as well), and Patrick headed more or less SW.
The entire trick to this game is simply to build a route that you know you can sustain throughout the entire game. That means sometimes picking cubes to deliver that only net you a single point in order to leave other cubes around to be picked up later. Of course, sometimes people can sneak into a city and nab the cubes you thought were safe, but in this game (as in my previous one) I was able to play this aspect of the game well for the most part.
To illustrate my point, here are two situations that came up during the game. One was Patrick meticulously building a four-link route to move a cube from a city I was also in. There was a one-link route that allowed me to move that same cube, and after a little counting of spaces, I figured that I'd need that one point (but nowhere near as much as Patrick needed that cube - it was his only move for the turn, sadly). As it turned out, I probably could have lived without taking that cube, but as I'd won by one point over both Matt G and Mike in my previous game, I figured every point was important.
The second situation came up in the sixth turn. Matt R was making move toward the St. Lawrence and Buffalo, which I had been eyeing for a turn or two. When it came time to bid for turn order, I found myself forced to either bid high for first and not have enough money to build that track, or hope Matt missed it and do something different. As it was, Matt got busy south of Philly to prevent Matt G from moving up and I managed to snag the city and the 4-point yellow cube there. It also allowed me to build an extra link down toward NYC on the last turn of the game. Those links are important, as they all equal one point at game end.
However, it was Mike who ran away with the game. Managing not to move a goods cube more than three links, he beat me by four points for the win. I felt very good about my second place finish, especially as I felt I had struggled to get the routes I had. Matt R was behind me by two measley points, Matt G behind him by a like margin, and JD back a few more points. Poor Patrick, who lost any improvement in position at all on that one turn (which I'm feeling increasingly bad about) and also was in the most crowded part of the board.
I can't speak for JD or Patrick, but the rest of us felt it was a very interesting game, other than Matt G who I think would have preferred a three-player game instead as he felt stuck in the South. The time flew by for me, and every turn, while fairly tactical to some degree, was also fraught with planning and adjusting those plans. For example, I took a chance on that sixth turn to go last and hope I could get to Buffalo but gaining the "pass" token that helped me take first place on the all-important last turn. And it was important because I wanted to get those last couple of links in to hold onto second.
Now I've played the southern Germany and eastern US maps from the new sets, and I'm very pleased with them. I'm also happy to hear that my pre-Steam maps are easily adapted (you really only need some way to hold the additional placement goods cubes and how many to use). I'm also delighted that the game seems to play well with any number. It's a popular system with my group (as is the 18xx series), and I'm hoping that the stock market game is as good. And you can even play it with light-to-medium weight gamers by using the "Base" rules that take away the bidding mechanism, which is *always* the most difficult to figure out effectively in almost any game.
Great stuff. I highly recommend the new set even if you have the old one, although to be fair you could probably get by with the old sets and online rules for adapting the old maps. However, wouldn't you rather help a bloke out with his legal bills and put a little money in Martin Wallace's pocket?
There, that should start a flame war.