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STEAM TIME

reviewed by Herb Levy

Kosmos, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 90 minutes; $59.95

 

    Rudiger Dorn is back with a new game – and it’s about time!

    Actually, I mean that literally. In this game postulating an alternate history, the year is 1899 and reports of unexplained time bending phenomena at ancient sites such as Stonehenge and the Pyramids have resulted in the creation of time traveling machines and the creation of the Temporal Institute for Monument Exploration (TIME) to explore and exploit time and space. Each player commands one of these time travelling machines, propelled by steam, in the appropriately titled Steam Time.steamtime1

   All players begin with an Airship board which, in essence, is the cockpit of his craft showing “generators” for certain ship effects: the Bridge (green), Engine Room (blue), Laboratory (black), Time Portal (pink), Midas Machine (gray) and the Analytic Engine (orange). There is also room for money and a “hangar” to hold your three nicely shaped airships of your color. Colored crystals are the “fuel” that powers these generators and all players start with five crystals (one each of green, blue, pink, gray and black, all placed in the leftmost slot of each color matching generator). Players begin with at least 8 Gold. There is also a track for charting “steam” (everyone starting with at least one). Players going second, third or fourth receive, based on turn order, additional resources.

   The main board is put together with room for lots of cards (Expeditions, Missions and Encounters as well as “Effort Cards”) but the center of the board is not typical. There is room for six “Monument boards” (so named as they depict various famous landmarks of the world) and these are placed (the specific ones depending on player number) in any order.

   Each round consists of three phases: Income, Action and Supply but let’s look at the Action phase first.

   During the Action phase, players have two options: Take the First player marker OR place one of their airships on the board. (The first player, however, can NOT take this marker on his first turn.) Taking the first player marker allows you to do one of two special actions: Convert 1 “steam” into 1 “Esteem” (aka Victory Point) and do it up to 10 times OR Convert 1 “steam” into 1 TIME crystal. (TIME crystals are clear and are “wild” being able to function as any colored crystal.) The second option is to place one of your airships onto one of the Monument boards.

   There are six different action spaces but not every Monument board has all of them. A Mission space (green border) allows you to take the Mission card there used for end game scoring. The Encounter space (blue border) allows you to draw two or three Encounter cards and choose ONE benefit. (This can be extra crystals or more Esteem or steam etc.) Some cards also allow the OTHER players to take a beneficial action too if they wish.) A Crystal Deposit space (black border) will have been randomly seeded with colored crystals and the player going there may purchase as many of the available crystals as wanted for 2 Gold each. An Upgrade (pink border) allows the purchase of the upgrade on that space in return for specified crystals from your supply. This upgrade gets added to your airship board. Not only does the purchasing player get the benefits the upgrade provides immediately (more crystals, Gold, steam, Esteem) but those benefits are gifts that keep on giving. During the Income phase, the player will get those benefits again as “income” (during the income phase) for the rest of the game. 

   Gold (gray border) will give you money while Expedition (orange border) allows you to spend the required crystals to buy the Expedition card on display there. ALL spaces give a secondary bonus to the player going there based on how many crystals are in your particular with the green spaces giving extra Esteem, blue giving steam, black giving you those clear TIME crystals, upgrades moving you along your “Portal” track (which, once you have completed a full revolution, allows you to place another “worker” (The Time Piece) ANYWHERE on the board and get the benefits it triggers) and Gold more gold. Expeditions, once bought, grant bonuses (of Esteem, Gold, portal movement etc) based on how many orange crystals you have in your generator. Placement, for both airships AND crystals is important.

   On your first placement, an airship can go anywhere on the board with these restrictions: an airship may NOT occupy an already occupied space AND, once placed on a board, a subsequent ship may not be placed on the same board but MUST be placed on a “higher” board. 

   As crystals are accumulated, they get placed in the matching slots in a player’s generator. Crystals are placed from left to right and some spaces farther to the right require a Gold payment to be placed. Clear crystals can be placed in ANY color generator BUT they must always occupy the farthest right slot. (So, for example, if a clear is in the second slot and a color crystal is gotten, that colored crystal takes over that second slot and the clear crystal shifts over.) This is important because of purchases.

   There are five rounds in the game and each round an Effort card is revealed. These cards set the “exchange rate” for the round, that is, which colors are considered A, B, C, D, E and F. When buying Upgrades and Expeditions, the letters on those cards are their cost in crystals and these crystals must come from your generators, going from right to left. Stuck with the wrong color of crystal? Then you can spend 1 steam to change the color of a crystal to the color you need!steamtime2

   Once all players have placed their airships, the round is over. All airships are returned to the players and any remaining Upgrades, Mission cards and Expedition cards as well as crystal on the board are removed. But, most interestingly, the board shifts!

   In keeping with the idea of time “rippling”, the monument board in the top position is moved down to the bottom with the rest of the boards sliding up. Now, new Mission and Expedition cards are revealed, Crystal deposit spaces randomly reseeded and the next round begins.

   At the conclusion of the fifth round, players revealed any Mission cards they have obtained throughout the game. If they meet the various requirements (certain crystals, steam, Gold etc.), additional Esteem is scored. The player with the Most Esteem wins!

   For those wanting a little more, Dorn has provided a few “modules” that you can add. “Sabotage” provides players with a sabotage token which may be placed on any space on the board. A player who wishes to place his airship there must pay 1 CLEAR crystal to supply. “Specialists” equips players with a deck of 9 specialists of which two are drawn and the rest shuffled. A player may play 1 or 2 specialists with the special powers of the specialist (the navigator, for example, can ignore the restrictions of always placing an airship upward) going into effect. Once played, those powers only remain in effect while the specialist card is not replaced (and covered) by another specialist. (Players draw back to 2 cards in their hands at the end of the round.)

   At its core, Steam Time is a worker placement game but Dorn has added a few twists to set this game apart. In the game, nearly every action space triggers a secondary action which can be equally (or even more) important as the action itself. This calls upon the players to always assess the full import of choosing a particular action. The steampunk theme, although admittedly a bit of a stretch, does explain the rippling board (a very nice touch) which forces players to constantly evaluate their moves as the game unfolds and the “dashboard” player boards give a feel for piloting a time machine. The Time Portal piece gives players an added incentive to buy upgrades as the ability to bend the placement rules with that piece (occupy an occupied space, go up OR down the Monument boards) is powerful. (Strangely, the disc used to keep track of progress on the Portal track is the same size as the discs used on the Esteem and Steam tracks even though the Portal track spaces are smaller. This makes progress tracking a little more awkward that necessary. It might be worth it to substitute a plain old fashioned cube in its place.)

   With enough Missions, Expeditions and Encounters – coupled with the variable “exchange rate”, the game has lots of variability.  While you can see who is advancing on the Esteem track, the Mission cards accumulated during the game, can make a huge difference in the final outcome. A player languishing in last place can, in the final reveal (as in Stone Age) can vault ahead by leaps and bounds to claim victory. But this which also requires you to do some planning to make sure you can satisfy all of the Missions you have to maximize that final score, a challenge within the challenge that adds some suspense to the game.

   Dorn is not a prolific designer but when he comes up with something, it is generally of high quality (think Goa and Istanbul). In Steam Time, Dorn has gotten some more mileage out of the tried and true worker placement genre combining a steampunk theme with strong Euro mechanisms, a combination you will gladly want to spend time with. – – – Herb Levy


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