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STEAM: RAILS TO RICHES

Reviewed by Herb Levy

STEAM: RAILS TO RICHES (Mayfair Games, 3 to 6 players, ages 12 to adult, 90+ minutes; $55)

 

Martin Wallace has established himself as a name to be reckoned with in game design. Perhaps the most lauded game under his byline would be Age of Steam (featured in the Winter 2003 GA REPORT) which, for many aficionados of the genre, sets the standard for train games. With Steam: Rails to Riches, Wallace has revisited his classic and added a few significant twists.

Steam comes in a big box to hold an impressive array of components: a mounted double-sided game board (showing northeastern USA and neighboring Canada on one side and Europe’s lower Rhine and Ruhr Valley on the other), 136 double-sided track tiles, 8 New City tiles, 7 Action tiles, 144 wooden player tokens (in six colors), 96 wooden goods cubes (in five colors) an a bag to hold them, 10 City Growth markers, money tokens and rules for both a Base (the focus of this review) and Standard game.steambox

The gameplay of Age of Steam is detailed in our Winter 2003 review and, with Steam, Wallace generally follows the basic play pattern. On each turn, players choose Action tiles, build track, deliver goods (twice), collect income, upgrade locomotives (if so desired) and pay expenses. But changes here have given the game a slightly different feel.

One big change involves money as it flows more freely in Steam. Loans may be taken at any time and are indicated by reducing your income (as measured on the income track on the board) one space per $5 loan. Auctions, a regular part of the original game, are sharply curtailed here. In Steam, players may auction for turn order on the first turn. (For your first game, the rules suggest even bypassing this and choosing initial turn order randomly.) After that, however, player order is determined by the Action tile chosen the previous round. So, for example, a player choosing tile 1 will go first the next turn, the player with tile 2 will go second and so on. By sharply reducing the role of auctions, Wallace has improved the game’s flow.

Seven Action tiles are available, each with a significant something to offer. Tile 1 guarantees you will go first next turn. Turn 2 allows you to move first when goods are to be delivered. Tile 3 (the Engineer) allows you to build 4 tracks (rather than the standard 3). Tile 4 grants you the privilege of building track FIRST; Tile 5 (City Growth) allows you to add goods to a city. (In another change from the original, during set up, goods are randomly placed on a “Goods Supply Track” with room for 13 placements. This allows players to have a choice when cities undergo “growth” giving players a lot more control and rewarding planning.) Tile 6 allows a player to upgrade his locomotive. Finally, Tile 7 (Urbanization) allow a player to upgrade a town on the board to City status. (As with City Growth, the active player can choose which set of new supply goods will be placed in the New City.) Tiles 5, 6 and 7 will cost additional funds when/if chosen. Maximizing the effectiveness of these tiles is another key consideration to the game.steampcs

As in the original, the goal is to move goods from city to city to generate income. Goods are represented by color cubes and can only be delivered to a city matching the color of the good. Each link the good passes through en route to its final destination equates to +1 income. Locomotives may be upgraded to a level of 6 which means that if you have been shrewd and successful in building track, you can transport goods up to 6 links along your own built track and score +6 for that delivery. Players need to be aware of not only building their own routes but positioning their routes to be important (if not integral) parts of another player’s potential route. The reason is simple. Should you need to travel over routes built by an opponent, that opponent will share in your bounty, earning +1 income for each link under his control that you use in your delivery. But income does not have be used solely as income!

Unlike in Age of Steam, players are faced with a choice here. They may either use the transport score as income OR use it as Victory Points. This may NOT be divided; it’s either all for income or all for VPs. Early in the game, you will need the income to pay for track and locomotive improvements so immediate gratification in the form of VPs has to wait. But as the game progresses, this source of VPs cannot be denied. Sooner or later, you have to convert income to VPs. It’s up to each player to recognize that pivotal moment in order to position himself for victory.

Steam continues for 7 to 10 turns (depending on the number of players). Once income is collected and expenses paid on the final turn, Victory points are calculated. To VPs already received and charted on the scoring track, players receive 1 VP for each $2 of income (rounded DOWN if necessary) and lose 1 VP for any incomplete link of track (that is, track that has not completed a connection from a city or town to another city or town). The player with the most VPs wins. (With the Standard set of rules, Wallace makes three significant changes bringing the game closer to the original: players must decide how much money to raise at the start of each turn, players bid for turn order AND locomotive expenses must be paid every turn.) More scenario maps (with different regions) for use with the game are planned, and according to the rulebook, these maps will fit over the the map on the board leaving the various game tracks (for charting income, VPs and locomotive improvement, supply goods) unencumbered. This is a very smart design decision.

In Steam: Rails to Riches, Martin Wallace is impressive. He has taken an acclaimed design, tweaked it just so, and ended up with a game more streamlined, more accessible and more forgiving while still managing to maintain the flavor, tension and tough decision-making of the original. Steam is a rich gaming experience that stays on the right track. Recommended. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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