Reviewed by Joe Huber

PLANET STEAM (LudoArt, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up, 2+ hours; about $100)


Computer games tend to have a short lifespan – not much different from most boardgames, actually, but with the added pressure of changing hardware. For a computer game to survive (albeit mostly as a cherished memory) for a quarter of a decade is therefore an incredible accomplishment. But that’s exactly what M.U.L.E. has done. Programmed by Dani Bunten and released by Electronic Arts in 1983, the game was not a best seller, but the influence of the game has been tremendous; The Sims – the greatest selling computer game of all time – was dedicated to Bunten. And I can’t count the number of boardgame designers I’ve met who had ideas for turning the game into a boardgame; I’ve certainly been tempted by the idea myself.

In 2008, 25 years after the release of the computer game, Planet Steam, designed by Heinz-Georg Thiemann, was published, the first example I’m aware of where a boardgame based upon M.U.L.E. has reached publication. For anyone who’s familiar with the computer game, the remainder of this paragraph can be skipped. For everyone else, Planet Steam, like M.U.L.E., is a moderately complex multiplayer economic game themed around the colonization of the planet Irata. Players work to produce some or all of four different goods, with each of the goods needed for a variety of functions in the game. Food is required to take actions. Energy is required for developing any good except for energy. Smithore is used to create M.U.L.E.s (the multiple use labor elements) required to produce anything. Finally, Crystalite is mined solely for cash; supply and demand for the good are not modeled. Planet Steam replaces these goods with water, energy, ore, and quartz, and adds some additional functions for each good; energy is also required for the tanks that play the same role as M.U.L.E.s, for example. At the end of the game, the player with the most wealth including cash, land, and equipment holdings wins the game. In M.U.L.E. there was also a rating given based upon the overall health of the colony, adding a small cooperative element to the game, but Planet Steam has not attempted to replicate this element. Planet Steam has also changed from a theme of colonization to steampunk, where water and the other goods are collected via various shafts to the 6500 degree Celsius core of the planet Steam.

So what does one get with a copy of Planet Steam? First, and most notably, an enormous box. It’s easily the largest game box I own, though I suspect it’s similar in size to those for Descent or Tide of Iron. The reason for the large box is the similarly expansive game board; the other components don’t fill the space. The various goods in the game are represented by a variety of irregularly shape wooden and plastic components. The tanks are wooden spheres, with the top and bottom cut off so as to not roll and three notches in the sides for the wooden upgrades needed to extract goods other than water. Cardboard tiles are provided to track ownership of the spaces on the board and large cards are used to represent the various roles in the game and the storage ships. Thin paper cash and certificates round out the components.

Planet Steam is played over a fixed number of turns in the game, from 4 with five players to 7 with two players. Players start with a small storage ship of each variety and a free upgrade of any one ship, along with a set of goods and starting cash determined by the number of players. Each turn is broken down into four phases. The first phase is the character auction and special action phase. The characters are one of the few notable differences from M.U.L.E.; in Planet Steam each player gets a role each round, allowing her a special ability as well as a position in the turn order. The Engineer receives a building license, the Fireman chooses a column on the board for added production, the Venturer chooses a plot to auction, and pays half if he wins, and Lady Steam goes first in all actions. The Venturer now chooses the additional location to be auctioned, followed by each player potentially receiving her own new location. Each player must either use a building license (received when choosing the Engineer or purchased from the marketplace) or roll a die. On three of the rolls, the player receives the plot chosen. On the other three, the player must choose a plot in the same row or column if available. If no plot is received, 15 credits of compensation are received. Finally, the Fireman selects one column on the board for extra production for the turn.planetsteampcs

The second phase is where players, in turn, build equipment. Each location requires a tank for production, which can be outfitted to extract any of the four goods at different costs. Players also have the opportunity to build compressor domes, which increase the production of the tank they’re connected to by increasing the concentration of the goods that can be recovered. Finally, players can upgrade their ships to hold more goods.

The third phase is where the most time is spent: production and marketplace. After producing goods (limited by the size of their ships and the required energy), each good is bought and sold in the marketplace, with an adjustment to the prices after every player’s turn based upon the available supply. The final phase is a bookkeeping phase. The most interesting aspect of this phase is the development of additional tanks, vital to the players as tanks are required for continued growth. These are created automatically, utilizing energy and ore left in the market.

After the appropriate number of turns, players determine their wealth. Production sites are worth 25 credits without a tank, 50 credits with a tank. Compressor domes are worth 50 credits. Investment certificates (purchased at the end of the market phase) are worth 50 credits. Each player adds to this their cash on hand and the value of any remaining goods. The player with the highest total wins.

The very first time I played Planet Steam, I played it with five players and, on the whole, we were not particularly impressed. First, the pace felt off; not much too slow, but definitely not fast enough. More importantly, the markets were subject to wild swings. Four turns also made for an abrupt game. There was not enough time to carry out interesting plans or to come back from weak turns. Finally, the fifth role in the game is not particularly interesting; the player taking it receives one extra good and goes last in the player order, making it easily the least popular option. While the special abilities received with the roles are usually not a major factor in the game, the player order is nearly always critical.

Still, there were a number of appealing elements in the game. The roles seemed to be a nice addition to the base that came from M.U.L.E., other than the fifth role. The fact that the feel of M.U.L.E. is well reproduced is a huge advantage. And the game is just the kind of reasonably complex economic game I most enjoy. So, while I wasn’t certain about the game, I decided to order it, and give it another try.

And I was very glad I did. With three or four players, the game works much better. The ability of players to choose the goods they produce leads to significant variance from one game to the next. The roles are definitely not balanced but the lack of balance works well, causing interesting auctions and balancing in different ways over the course of the game. The markets do have swings but only so much as to serve the purpose of making for interesting choices, and to make the ordering that goes with the role selection sometimes more important than the abilities.

I discovered many years ago that I most enjoy games with lots of options; Planet Steam definitely offers this. This has a strong advantage in terms of replayability; I haven’t seen games go at all the same from one to the next. But it also means that a player has every opportunity to run off the rails, torpedoing his own position through his actions. There are no guardrails in place here, though the game does offer enough incentives to avoid a player having nothing left to do.

Those who are bothered by elements of luck will have only one thing to be bothered by: the die roll that players usually must make to determine if they receive the plots they are interested in. The difference between success and failure seems a huge difference, but my experience with the game suggests that it’s actually even smaller than the 10 credit difference between the cash and the plot, as the cash can be invested immediately. The only other chaotic element that players must deal with is the actions of the other players.

One complaint I have heard about the game is the unbalanced starting positions. Everyone starts with the same materials, but the board positions are not equal. There is a production benefit to having adjacent spaces which fuels this concern but, as a practical matter, players are almost always extracting more than one good so having less room for immediate expansion isn’t a major concern. I’ve also heard concerns around the length of the game; whatever the reason, I’ve always found that the length of economic games of this type is particularly dependent upon the players. I’ve always seen the game take two to two-and-a-half hours but it wouldn’t shock me if some groups take upwards of five hours. I must admit I wouldn’t want to be playing the game for that long.

While I have played Planet Steam five times now, I’m not yet certain whether it’s a very good game for me or whether it’s an all time classic. I am certain that it’s a game I enjoy playing and enjoy playing a little more with each successive play. The basis of this enjoyment is clearly the economic game underneath but what really sells it is the theme. The steampunk theme works very effectively, and the Czarné artwork really helps to sell the theme. The components – nice wooden pieces mixed with oddly shaped wood and plastic counters for the various goods – don’t do much to emphasize the theme, but do help the game to feel unique, almost giving it a hand-crafted feel.

The biggest issue with the game, for most, will be the price. The game runs 60 Euro from the German online stores or nearly $80 exclusive of shipping and well over $100 from the few US retailers who carry the game. While the production is nice (LudoArt has some of the most beautifully produced games on the market), for most gamers $100 can be better spent on other options. I’d recommend that any fan of economic games work to give the game a play, particularly anyone who remembers M.U.L.E. fondly. But as much as I enjoy it, I can’t recommend it as a game to purchase without having played it first. I’ve seen mixed reactions from those I’ve played it with, particularly those who hadn’t tried M.U.L.E. As I have many fond memories of M.U.L.E., the game is right up my alley, and it cost me closer to 60 Euro than $100. I do not regret my purchase in the least.- – Joe Huber


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