Steam: Rails to Riches Review

Steam Rail to Riches game in play

One of the games that I had the privilege of playing again this week was Steam: Rails to Riches.

In Steam, each of the players take turns building tracks, delivering goods, increasing the power of their locomotive, and even improving or building new cities (so that there will be more goods available and more places demanding goods). Any given round the players will get to choose an "action" tile, which will give them an advantage for that round as well as determining turn order for the following round - if you take one of the more powerful actions like improving your locomotive outside of the normal improve locomotive phase, then you will go later, but if you take something more innocent like delivering goods first, then you will go earlier the next round. (Of course, if you are desperate to go first in the following round, one of the actions doesn't help you at all this round but guarantees that you go first in the following round.) After players choose their actions, they are able to build track - this helps the map have inter-connectivity between different cities, and how much your track costs to build depends on what type of terrain you are building onto and how fancy of a track you place. Next, players deliver goods by moving goods along completed tracks until they get to a city with a demand matching the good available (assuming their locomotive level is high enough). Finally, they will collect income or pay expenses and set up for the next round. (Note: I played the basic and not the "stanard" game, but after investigating the rules to the "standard" game, the game works essentially the same way, but the standard game is made for more experienced players and forces them to plan out their turn earlier in each round.)

There are several pros about Steam. First, I like how the money and victory points work. There is both a victory point track and an income track. During the game, whenever you score points from goods being delivered, you must choose whether the points you score are added to the victory point track or to the income track. The income track will help you much more during the game, but it will be worth half as much at the end of the game, so players must balance between how much they make and how much goes straight to victory points. This is a neat mechanic that I have not seen elsewhere.

Another thing I like about Steam is the intricate strategy of the game. Whereas players can attempt to plan out their turn and what exactly they want to do, this does not mean they will have he opportunity to do it because other players will have the opportunity to affect their decisions. One of the actions allows a player to deliver goods first, and another one allows a player to lay track first. This means that, even though you are the first player of the round, you may not actually do anything first other than pick your action - and the only person guaranteed to be able to do what they want on a turn is the first person to get to take that action.

Another balancing aspect in the game relates to the goods on the board. Once the goods are delivered, they are removed from the game. This means that you will not be able to abuse a really impressive connection that you have had to make. Once you deliver all of the good using your nice connections, you will have to decide if it is more valuable for you to add more goods to the board (thus more goods that you can deliver) or whether you need to perform other actions - like making sure that you deliver goods first so that if someone else adds goods to the board, you will get to use them first.  In fact, you will even have to decide earlier in the game if it is worth it to deliver the goods quickly along short tracks (not many points), or if you want to risk waiting and hoping that you can deliver them later along a longer connection.

Another thing that I like about Steam is in how the price is determined for placing track. It has found a way to be both realistic and simple. To determine the cost of laying track you add the number of track connections that are on an edge of the hex with the number of things that you are building on top of (river, city, hill), and if it is built on a hill, add an extra dollar. Whereas I may have not made this sound simple, it is much easier than mechanics that I normally see for calculating costs for things.

A final aspect that I enjoyed about Steam was the finances of the game. You were never (ok rarely) unable to build whatever you wanted to build, regardless of your money level. Instead, whenever you needed to build something that you couldn't afford, you "sold more stock" and thus your income level went down by $1 for every $5 that you needed. (If you were already at -$10 income, then you started losing victory points, and if you had neither left then you are in the scenario in which you were unable to raise more funds.) This mechanic allows players the flexibility to do whatever they want to do each round, but makes them weigh the pros and cons of whether it is worth it to reduce their income to perform that action.  (Note: this is the main place where the basic and standard rules were different.  In the standard rules, players had to take out all of the loans they wanted to take at the very beginning of each round instead of as they needed the money.)

One thing to note that is neither a pro nor a con - the rules are very involved. This will be viewed by many players as a great thing, since rules without examples and that do not cover each situation that a player may encounter during a game can be incredibly frustrating. On the opposite end, however, it means that it is hard to pull the game out of the box for the first time and immediately start playing. It will take a while to go through the rules and understand them - I recommend playing it with someone that can just teach you how to play if at all possible (of course, I always recommend this).

There were only two minor cons that I found with Steam.  First was the pace of the game. Because of the fact that you would often have to rethink your turn based on what other players had done, the game could sometimes slow down quite a bit to where each player was taking quite a while sitting around and thinking between turns. Obviously, this will be affected by who you play with (if they are slow in other games, they will be slow in this one, too) and what experience level the different players are. I just felt like the pace of our game was slow enough a few times with players who normally play fairly quickly, and so it was worth noting.  Secondly, because Steam had so many different types of track that you could purchase, it could take a little while  to look through the pile of 136 two-sided hexes to find the one you needed.

Overall, I give Steam a 9.0/10. I really enjoyed the game, and I think it is the best "train focused" train game that I have played.  (I still prefer Chicago Express in a very tight race for train games, but Chicago Express is really a stock based game where you happen to have trains.)  I would recommend Steam to anyone who enjoys more complicated strategy games. And, as one final note, this game reimplements Age of Steam, which has tons of expansions. So, if you love the game, it may be worth picking up that version if you are interested in having different potential expansions.

If Steam sounds interesting, you might also consider Glory to Rome, Le Havre, and Power Grid.

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