Age of Steam: from 0 to 100 plays
This geeklist is inspired by another: The 100 Play Challenge: In Support of Deeper Exploration of Games, created by milomilo122.
Age of Steam (AoS from now on) has been my favorite game since I first played it in February 2011. This is how it happened.
My first exposure to train games took place in September 2009, when I played Steam for the first time. Well, I must admit the game did not impress me. I spent three hours scratching my head and finished dead last. The game system looked good, but was it really fun?
Fortunately, the game was highly regarded by several gamers in the area and thus I had the opportunity to play it again four months later. This second play opened my eyes and I decided to get a copy. I found the game both difficult and worth exploring.
A few of the veteran gamers kept on comparing Steam to another game I had not heard of: Age of Steam. One of them,
, particularly disliked the production role of Steam, and created a system that used AoS production rules for Steam maps. I played another five games of Steam, all of them using his system.
However, people like had piqued my interest in trying AoS, and I finally got the chance in February 2011. What can I say, it blew my mind. The tension, the agony, was tenfold that of Steam... and I loved it. The possibility of bankruptcy was real, and I was particularly intrigued by the goods growth mechanism, which told you what goods were coming, but not when. Before the game was over, I had already decided to sell my copy of Steam and get AoS. Knowing there were dozens of expansions was the ice on the cake.
Now, I have always thought that the whole AoS/Steam system is an acquired taste. I was not ready to appreciate its greatness when I was beginning in the hobby, but my appreciation has never stopped growing with each additional play.
This love of mine with all things related to AoS is the reason for this geeklist. Here I will keep a log of all my plays, as well as my comments for each game. Although I have already played AoS 12 times, I will start from scratch because I still have lots to learn. Hopefully all of us will profit from this experience. Logging 100 plays of AoS is a tall order, though. I will probably need more than 5 years to meet the challenge and my interests might have changed by then (18XX?), but let's not jump the gun just yet...
In this list, I will include each of my plays, as well as my comments. You are more than welcome to chime in!
To finish this intro, I would like to thank all of those who endure my AoS obsession. You guys rock!
It's been a while since I last updated this geeklist. The main reasons were a) discovering Android:Netrunner in late 2012, a lifestyle game that has absorbed much of my gaming time, and b) hitting a wall in my AoS plays. I still enjoy my plays immensely, but I feel like I am not learning anything new, hence the lack of comments.
The map that comes with the base game is known as the Rust Belt map. It can be played by 3 to 6 players. While I have heard some people proclaim it the greatest AoS map ever, I totally disagree. However, it is the best one to teach the system to new players.
Today we played a five-player game. This is how the map looked at the end of the game.
The final scores were: Purple (70) - Blue (66) - Yellow (59) - Red (45) - Black (41). In this game I was yellow (and always will be unless specified).
Turn 1. Blue issued two additional shares and bid $4. I was next and did not want to spend $5 (I had 3 total shares), so chose to be last in turn order. In the end, nobody raised the bid and Blue secured first place with those $4. He chose Urbanization and connected cities W1 (White 1) and B1 (Black1). Purple chose Locomotive and linked cities E, B1 and B2. Black chose Engineer and connected W1, E and W2. Red chose First Build and connected B5 and B4. Yellow chose Turn Order and began building from W1 towards W3.
In any AoS map, initial placements are critical: they usually determine the influence area of each player. When it was my turn to build, I had two options. I could connect E to B2, but I chose not to for two reasons: a) I was at risk of being encircled, and b) being last to move goods ensured me I would not have any deliveries in the first turn. Thus, I chose to build westward. I could not deliver any goods either, but at least there was more room.
In the following turns, Blue and Purple kept extending their networks in the middle. Red used First Build several times to get closer as well. Meanwhile, Black had no cubes to deliver and was forced to issue lots of shares to avoid bankruptcy (he was just $1 away from being bankrupt in turn 2!). I managed to monopolize the North West area, but had one big issue: no direct access to yellow cities.
In the next turns, Blue and Purple were the first players to be profitable. The extra cash allowed them to control the auction. They often shared their own tracks in their deliveries. Red tried not to issue shares, but without money, had to upgrade his locomotive manually. Black had to choose Engineer several times to cover the greater distances between cities in the West. I made a big mistake when connecting cities G and C: I thought there was a town between them!
In the last turns, Blue urbanized city H to stop Purple from delivering the black cubes from cities B6 to C. Neither of them, however, had quality deliveries left, and had to give points to other players for using their tracks. Black and Red had both managed to upgrade to Locomotive 5 and had big reserves of cubes, but not enough time.
As for Yellow, I made a crucial mistake in the penultimate turn: I upgraded to Locomotive 5 thinking I could grab the Locomotive role in the final auction. I should have been more realistic (both Purple and Blue had more money and needless to say one of them grabbed the Locomotive role) and secured another 4-track delivery instead. The irony is that should I have done that, I would have won the game. Sigh.
One final note. Having played AoS more than 10 times, I did not find the map very challenging, or at least as challenging as other maps I have recently played. In summary, I like this map for teaching the game, but given the choice, I would play other maps without hesitation.
Lessons (hopefully) learnt, in no particular order
1. If possible, avoid building last in the first turn. Instead of saving money in the auction, you might have to miss a delivery and lose money nevertheless.
2. Winning the initial auction is very powerful. That way, you are guaranteed to be at least the second player to build and deliver goods.
3. Locomotive and Urbanization are the best roles. Well, everyone already knows that, right? Red delivered a few 1-track goods, but generally it is way more efficient to upgrade locomotive and then make 2-track deliveries.
4. Urbanization is both an offensive and a defensive weapon. See how Blue used city H to transform Purple's 6-track deliveries into 2-track deliveries. Ouch!
5. If you do not choose Urbanization, it is better to build after the player who chooses it. That way, new possibilities will open up and you might make connections for less money.
6. When you build your network, try not to have cities of the same color next to each other and also try to include all colors. Black suffered in the early turns because he could not make long deliveries. Yellow had problems because he could not access any yellow destinations (i.e. without using another player's track).
7. Production is a weak role, but it can be a life-saver. I used it to great effect placing two cubes in cities only I had access to. If you choose Production, however, better do it a few turns before the game ends, or else those cubes might never show up!
8. At the beginning of the game, analyze the map and the production chart. While being highly tactical, AoS rewards players who think strategically. I was cut off yellow cities despite being aware of the possibility, and should have made a stronger effort to avert that situation. Likewise, identify the choke points and make sure you are the first one to reach them if they are on your route.
9. Upgrading your Locomotive is not always the best option. In the final turns, be careful before upgrading your Locomotive. You might not use the upgrade and might miss a delivery instead, resulting in fewer points.
Edit: included item 9.
Two games of AoS in a week but, best of all, two new AoS converts. The idea of having a weekly AoS session starting in a few weeks is catching on. It is simply great when other people want to play the games you love, but playing the game on a regular basis will develop our skills and make for even more interesting games.
Today we tried the Age of Steam Expansion #3: Scandinavia and Korea. The Scandinavia map can be played by 3 or 4 players. A quick glance at the map shows the following features:
- Lots of choke points, specially in the south. This means players must race to build these connections before others do.
- The south is a small area with great potential for urbanization, whereas in the north towns are fewer and farther between.
- There are 4 bridges in the middle of the map. They can be very lucrative, but they are also quite expensive at the beginning ($6).
- There is a new role, the Ferry action, which lets you move one good from one coastal city to another for free. This is not only useful for creating longer deliveries, but also a great way to steal cubes from your opponents.
This is how the map looked at the end of the game.
The final scores were: Blue (90) - Yellow (64) - Red (57)
Turn 1. Blue won the auction and chose Lomotive. Yellow was second and chose Urbanization. Red was last in the auction and chose First Build, building the bridge between Black 1 (B1) and Black 2 (B2). He then also connected White 1 (W1) and White 3 (W3)! Blue built the bridge between W5 and W6 and linked W6 and B1. The last build by Red (W1-W3) completely altered my initial plans, which were to avoid the confrontation in the south and build myself a nice network in the less attractive northeast. In the end, I decided to got for Denmark, linking W5 to B3 and urbanizing City A.
Turn 2. Red kept expanding his network in the north (perhaps he should have tried to connect B1 to W3 first to access those northern cubes earlier?). I tried to stop Blue from getting in Denmark and here I made my first mistake: while I stopped him from building from W5, I let him build from City C. That choke point should have been my top priority, as it secured the south. Although I ended up building that connection, it was at a much higher cost. As you can see, there was a lot of conflict from the get-go.
In the following turns, Blue and Yellow competed for Urbanization and Locomotive, while Red opted for issuing the least shares possible and using the Ferry action to move goods. Blue and Yellow did not compete for the Ferry yet, as they still had cubes that could be delivered by standard means.
The game was decided in the last two turns. Red had finally created a potent network, but was trailing in the income chart. Unable to secure the Locomotive role until then, he had had to upgrade it manually, missing deliveries and income. As a result of not issuing shares to compensate, he lacked the money to build more tracks.
Meanwhile, the confrontation between Blue and Yellow was reaching its head. The penultimate turn was the key. Blue chose not to issue any shares and Yellow, having as much money as Blue, decided not to issue any share either. This was a huge mistake, because Blue spent all his money in the auction to pick the Ferry role, even if it meant leaving tracks incomplete. Without the Ferry role, Yellow shipped goods for a meager total of 3 income that turn! The points differential was simply enough to secure Blue's victory.
In the last turn, Yellow avoided the same mistake, issuing enough shares to choose the Ferry action and recover some of the lost ground. Blue won by a comfortable margin, while Yellow overtook Red thanks to having more points in built tracks.
All in all, this was our first 3P map and the three of us enjoyed it very much. Our initial concerns about the lack of tension in both the auction and the building phases were unfounded. We all agreed that the Ferry role was very powerful, and probably the only way to make 6-track deliveries.
Once again, I made several blunders that knocked me out of contention. Hopefully, writing those mistakes down will help me remember them and avoid repeating them in future games.
1. Keep an eye on those choke points! While trying to hamper your opponents is never a bad thing, it is probably better to focus on moves that benefit you first and foremost.
2. If you go after your direct competitor during the issue shares phase, take advantage of it and do not be cheap. I learnt the hard way not to go cheap in these situations. Yes, issuing a share equals losing 3 points, but the gains of beating your competitor in the auction is worth it, specially when you factor in the points differential. Next time, remember to issue more shares and win the d**** auction!
3. Map-specific rules are there for a reason. When playing a new map, take a few moments to think about the new rules. In most cases, they alter the game in significant ways. In the Scandinavia map, for instance, the Ferry action is very powerful and thus highly sought after.
This time I managed to recruit 4 more people for another AoS game. Two of them were new to AoS (they had played Railways of the World before, though), so I chose one of the so-called introductory maps: Germany (originally published as Expansion #2 along with Western US, now reprinted as Germany/France).
Why is the Germany map a good map to teach new players?
- The rules prohibit building unfinished track sections.
- There is plenty of room and lots of cubes, so it is harder to get boxed in early on.
I explained the whole rules to the two new guys and off we went.
The final scores were: Purple (61) - Yellow (59) - Red (49) - Blue (38) - Black (31).
Despite the fact that I always put a lot of emphasis on the risk of bankruptcy and the importance of estimating accurately how many shares you need when I explain the rules, one of the new guys (Blue) bankrupted in turn 2 (!). Since it was his first game, we decided to let him issue shares out of turn to avoid the bankruptcy. I think this solution is more effective that being eliminated. He will remember the bankruptcy regardless, but at least manages to complete a game and see the whole picture.
For this game, I decided to pursue a very aggressive strategy. I was the player with the most issued shares for the whole game, which let me control the auction. The downside was that I had to work hard to make up for the difference.
In the first turn, Red chose First Build and connected White 3 (W3) with Black 3 (B3) and W5. I was first and chose Urbanization, placing the yellow city (E) and linking it to B2 and B1. The reason for doing this was the good supply of yellow cubes on the map in the first several turns. Purple built afterwards and linked the very same cities as Red. Red's problem was that Purple chose Locomotive and would steal Red's cubes (and a really strong start with 2x 2-track deliveries). Blue (new player) connected Berlin and B5, which did look like a weak move. Black (new player) connected E to W2 and W1, which was a bit of an annoyance for Yellow, even if expected.
In turn 2, Purple and Blue built into or out of Berlin, making it almost impossible for the rest to reach it (Berlin is important because it produces a cube every turn). Red began developing towards the south. Yellow connected B1 and W2 for two 3-income deliveries. Black connected W1 and B1. During the Income phase, we found out that Blue had bankrupted, so we let him issue additional shares to pay the expenses and moved on.
In turn 3, Yellow won the bid again, urbanizing and connecting E - H - F. All that was needed to complete the loop was reaching Wien. Purple also had a strong network along the horizontal axis. Red, Black and Blue were still struggling to find good cubes deliveries and all three lost income at some point.
The last few turns saw a very tight fight between Yellow and Purple. It was very close, but then something not very common in our games happened: Black used one of Purple's tracks, effectively giving Purple 3 points. During the final tally, Purple won by just 2 points!
Despite the small disappointment of not winning because Black had played the king maker role, I felt like I had played well for most of the game (or at least better than the two previous game). I honestly believe that analyzing the games is helping me improve. Maybe I might win once in my next ten games, lol.
1. Do not downplay the risk of bankruptcy, but be lenient with first-time players. If new players bankrupt in their first game, it is probably better to let them finish the game. I think they are probably embarassed enough after being warned several times during the rules explanation.
2. Falling into a pattern can be dangerous for you. After a couple of games, we have discovered that Red always tries a samey strategy: to issue as few shares as possible and select First Build in the first turn. This is a problem in itself, since without money, he can seldom pick the best roles or be first/second in turn order. In this particular game, Purple, who is more aggressive, connected the very same cities that Red had but, having paid for the Locomotive role, Purple managed to steal the two cubes Red was counting on.
3. The replayability of the Age of Steam system does not come only from the variety of maps, but also from the cube distribution within each map. This was my second game using the Germany map, and it resulted in a very different experience because of the cube distribution in the foreign terminals.
4. Controlling the auction from beginning to end is possible... if they let you. By issuing many more shares than the rest of players, I managed to control the auction for most of the game, sometimes spending very little money to win it because my large stack of chips acted as an excellent deterrent. The problem, again, is making up the difference in shares, which can be a problem if cubes are scarce. I did not find the map very demanding, but had to make an effort to get more points than my direct competitor.
5. There is always competition. One of the beautiful aspects of Age of Steam is that, even if you don't share the same area with another player, you can fight with him at the auction. That is what happened between Purple and Yellow until the game's end. Trying to outsmart your opponent and guess what he really needs is what makes the auction and the game so great.
After a failed attempt at organizing a game last week, there were 4 "volunteers" this week. All of them had played AoS several times before, so I chose Alban Viard's Greece map. Viard's maps often include several rule changes that alter the game significantly. In this particular map, shares provide ever less money and income reduction is increased. As a result of those two changes, making profits was harder than usual.
Regarding the map geography, Athens works as three cities in terms of producing goods. Unfortunately, there are not many cities in the south. The north, on the other hand, apparently has a nicer distribution of cities.
The final scores were: Purple (52) - Red (37) - Yellow (34) - Black (33) - Blue (15)
First of all, it must be said that the initial cube distribution was dreadful, as there were hardly any 2-cube deliveries. Purple and Yellow issued 2 shares each, Blue and Black issued just 1 share and Red issued none. Blue made what I think is a capital mistake: bidding high with only one route in mind and then losing the bid to another player who builds said route.
Purple won the bid and connected White 3 (W3) and Black 3 (B3). Blue chose Locomotive, but having ran out of money, could only build one track coming out of Athens. Black was next: he connected B3 and B1 and Urbanized F. By doing this, he created a sort of purple cube monopoly. Yellow used the Engineer role to link W6 to Athens and beginning the route that would eventually connect W6 and W5, blocking Blue in the process. Red was last and connected W2 to W3.
As I said earlier, it was difficult to make efficient deliveries in the first few turns. We are hardly the best AoS players and, in fact, all of us lost income at some point. In my case, I remember losing at least 6 income (ugh!). Issuing shares to avoid losing income was very difficult due to the decreasing value of shares. I ended up issuing all 15 shares and running out of money to build any track in the last two turns. Other players also stopped building around that time.
The game was kind of even until I made a huge mistake: I urbanized New City B (Blue) in the north, instead of urbanizing Kalamai in the south. If I had done the latter, I would have had a nice pool of blue cubes to deliver, but deliveries were longer by urbanizing where I actually did. The problem was that Black decided not to continue his incomplete track leaving from W3, and thus Red could redirect it and connect B and W3. As a result, Red stole the blue cubes I was counting on. I had basically granted Red 2 x 4-track deliveries. Red was lucky to build after Black - otherwise he could not have managed it, but in the end I only had myself to blame.
In the final turns, Purple was the only one getting positive income. He did this by using the much maligned Production role not once but twice. Purple, Red and Black also profited from one another by using each other's tracks to transport Purple cubes. Yellow managed to make a few 5 and 6-track deliveries, but it was too late: he had issued the max. number of shares and could not expand his network nor compete in the auction. Blue had an overall disastrous game (if you look at the picture, you will see he only built three tracks!).
To sum up, the Greece map was enjoyable despite the dreadful cube distribution. The income and share rules meant that we barely built any additional tracks in the last few turns. Final scores were low. Needless to say, this is not a map for beginners.
The first turn is critical. Blue exemplifies what can happen if you do not issue enough shares to back your bidding. He bid too much, barely avoided bankruptcy, and was probably out of contention from that moment.
Are you sure you want to urbanize there? I assumed Red would not reach the city that turn but he did and my slim chances of victory went down the drain.
How efficient are monopolies? Black urbanized New City F (Purple) next to the other Purple city, trying to force other players to use his track to deliver purple cubes. Unfortunately for Black, people were reluctant to grant him points at the beginning and his monopoly only began to work by the end of the game. Still he probably got 4 or 5 free "bumps".
Profligacy is bad. One of my weaknesses as an AoS player is my tendency to issue more shares than my opponents. The consequence is that I always have to make up for the difference with longer cube deliveries, more expensive track, etc. Maybe my next goal ought to be learning how to compete with less money.
In keeping with the spirit of this geeklist, we played a second game of Age of Steam this week. I can now confirm that two of my gaming buddies have been bit by the Age of Steam bug, so I hope we can keep playing this often.
This time we tried the Ireland map, which is probably the first AoS map that was specifically designed for lower player counts.
In a standard game with 3 players, there are too many useful roles, significantly reducing the tension of the auction. The Ireland map tries to solve this problem by tweaking the rules of the two most powerful roles in the game: Locomotive and Urbanization.
- The Locomotive role no longer increases your link. Instead, you can upgrade it a second time during the move goods phase (thus skipping any goods move that turn).
- No new cities can be urbanized. Instead, the De-urbanization role lets you destroy a single cube on the map.
Another feature of this map is the presence of brown cities. They do not accept any goods, so basically they work as repositories from which you obtain goods.
The final scores were: Blue (89) - Red (82) - Yellow (81)
In turn 1, Yellow connected the southern black city to the two brown towns to the right. This meant that Yellow skipped the move goods phase in hopes of creating a strong network in the future. Red linked cities W3, W4 and B2, while Blue connected W2 with W3 and B1 (the top-most purple city, sorry for the picture quality).
In the following turns, Yellow created a network that allowed him to make multiple 4 and 5-link deliveries; Blue built westwards and delivering a wide variety of colors (except yellow), and Red built south- and westwards and increase his link by choosing the Locomotive role once.
During the middle of the game, we realized how powerful the De-Urbanization role could be, and the auction developed into a sort of war over it. While we could always deliver goods over our longest link, we were reducing potential deliveries.
The game was going Yellow's way, but then Blue proved why he has been winning all our games (i.e. because he is a better player). Yellow finished the turn at the 30 income level, so Blue delivered one good over one of Yellow's tracks, pushing Yellow's income to 31 so that its income would be reduced by 6 instead of by 4.
The final nail in Yellow's coffin was a costly mistake three turns before the game's end. Yellow should have stopped Blue from connecting W5 to W6 (the southern black city), because that connection allowed Blue to make two 6-link deliveries.
In the final turn, Yellow's only possibility was to move goods first to steal Blue's last 6-link delivery. However, Red and Blue shared their tracks to boost their deliveries. Blue, for instance, gave Red 3-4 points, while Red gave Blue another 2 points.
The surprising thing is that Red had overlooked the possibility of connecting W2 and W3. If he had built that link, he would not have had to use Blue's track and Red would have won the game instead of Blue!
All in all, we had a great time and the map certainly feels different with its weakened roles, little production, and more cubes at the beginning.
The best player usually wins. So far, the Blue player has won the last 4 games. The conclusion is that Age of Steam rewards good play and punishes mistakes.
Force other players to use your tracks. This can be a bit counterintuitive. I have realized that I tend to protect my area of influence so much that I do not let other people in. This way it is harder to steal cubes from me, but the downside is that nobody uses my track in the final turns, hurting my final score.
Using another player's track to push his income over a limit is a nasty trick. Bumping someone's income is an effective way to reduce that player's score by 3. However, it can have deeper implications for the future, as that player might not be able to deliver enough goods to end in the upper income section next turn.
First Build can decide a game. By letting Blue reach city W6, I effectively gave him the win. In this situations, you really want to win the auction and pick First Build no matter what.
If you play Age of Steam, get some sleep first. I hadn't slept for over 30 hours when I played this game. Needless to say, I was even worse than usual, lol.
Our first intention was to play the China map today, but one of us could not make it in the last minute and the only 4-player map I had brought with me was this one.
The blue player and I had played this map once, so we warned the other two players to the difficulty of this map. In a normal game of AoS, the first couple of turns are critical because you can end up bankrupted unless you manage to get some income. That is why Northern California is a hard map: cities are far from each other, and there are fewer initial cubes than your average map. In my experience, one or two players will not have any goods to deliver in the first turn, so you must plan accordingly.
This is how the map looked at the end of the game.
In turn 1, we issued 2 shares each except Blue, who issued 3. Thus, he won the auction, but Black kept upping the bids and both paid a lot of money ($10 and $9 IIRC). Blue used Urbanization to build New City F (purple) and connect it to B2 and B5. This way he could deliver a 2-link cube in turn 1 and had good control over purple cubes. Black chose Engineer and connected B1 (San Francisco) to B4. Red began a very ambitious and long-term network, from W1-2 towards the towns that would become B and B6 (in the lower right corner). Yellow was last and began to build from B3 to W1-2. Surprisingly enough, he could pick the Locomotive role despite being fourth! Neither Red or Yellow could deliver any goods that turn.
In turn 2, Blue and Black realized they had spent too much in the initial auction, so it was Red and Yellow's turn to fight over the best roles. In this game, Red, who is usually very frugal in the auctions, caught Yellow by surprise by bidding up to $10 and thus winning the auction. Red then chose Urbanization and built the New City B (Blue). Unfortunately for Red, Yellow had a better link and stole one of the cubes Red depended upon. The result? Red's expenses were too much and he bankrupted. Meanwhile, Black decided not to build anything, whereas Blue connected San Francisco and Oakland.
Regarding the bankruptcy, we were torn between letting the Red player issue some shares to keep playing, but in the end we decided against it. Firstly, he has played enough games to know the risks of bidding too much; secondly, that way he will probably be more careful next time and thirdly, letting him issue shares out of turn would leave him in a very good position next turn, which would be unfair for the remaining players.
In the following turns, Blue kept expanding his network. He was in a very dominant position, since Black never challenged his cubes. In fact, Black's expenses were so great that he had to issue the max. number of shares a few turns before the game's end. Therefore, he could not build much and had to focus on survival rather than victory. Yellow used some of the track built by Red and headed northwest to challenge Blue's domination.
Blue seemed in control, other than he needed to find new cubes, but two turns before the game's end, disaster struck for him. Blue chose Urbanization and upgraded Sunnyvale (New City D). That let Yellow use Blue's incomplete tracks to connect Burlingame (New City G) and Foster City (opposite New City F), and opened up the possibility of doing several 5-link shipments for Yellow (Purple cubes from San Jose to San Francisco). The truth is that Yellow did not win this game, but rather Blue lost it.
At the end of the game, the scores were: Yellow (80) - Blue (60) - Black (31) - Red (bankrupted)
What to do when players go bankrupt? This was the first time we had an experienced player go bankrupt. We decided to stay true to the rules, even if it meant he had to sit out for the remainder of the game. He will surely be a lot more careful next time.
Know what your bidding limit is. Black paid too much in the initial turn, and was forced to fight for his life all game long. Red simply bid money he needed to pay his expenses, so he won the auction at the cost of going bankrupt. It could be said that bid wars are usually good for everyone not involved in the auction. Bid too much and you may lose anyway, even if you win the auction that turn.
One mistake and you are out. This is a recurrent idea, but in this game, it is very hard to recover from mistakes. Blue was in a good position to win, but one mistake was enough to hand Yellow the win.
Awareness comes with experience. Since beginning this geeklist, I think we all have improved our play, but in this particular game, I was really aware of where the threats could come from, which auctions I had to win at all costs and which ones I could let go, when it was imperative for me to build first, or when I should build immediately after a certain player. I really enjoyed the game and winning, no matter how, felt great.
Edit: image replaced.
This time, we played the Montréal Métro map. This is a 3-player only map that introduces a series of new rules and tweaks all of which are geared towards making the best possible 3-player experience. After only one play, I do not know whether this is my favorite map for 3 players, but it is undoubtedly one of the best maps we have played so far. Some of those rules are:
- At the beginning of each turn, players build free links for a neutral dummy player who represents the Montréal government. This is both a great offensive and defensive weapon, since you can place the government tiles to hinder opponents' routes or to protect yours. In a normal AoS game, it is usually better to build the track that benefits you the most instead of laying track to hinder your opponents. Thanks to this rule, you can now do both! Hilariously enough, the first few turns the goverment took very lucrative routes but by the end of the game, most of the track was completely inefficient, which we found very fitting (corruption taking hold of goverment officials?).
- In general, the roles have been downgraded (except Production, which is more powerful). The locomotive role, for example, now lets you deliver a good through a government link for free (otherwise, you must use your loco to use goverment links, which earn you no income), but counts towards your expenses.
- All laid track must be contiguous (Master Network). This means nobody can start building in a corner of the map and thus players collide with each other from turn 1.
All of these changes (and some more) result in a very tight game. However, I was expecting an oppressive map and was surprised to find the opposite. Each turn I had to choose from two or three good choices. This wealth of choices was what made the map a great experience for us. For instance, the importance of roles differed each turn depending on the situation, i.e. we would fight over different roles throughout the game.
You can see a picture of the final layout on the right.
Blue won the initial auction and, following the designer's guidelines, built a goverment link from W5 (yellow city) to W3 (blue/red city). He then built his own links, from W5 to the blue city to the north of W5. Yellow chose Locomotive and connected the b/r W3 to the W4 to the north. Meanwhile, Red used Engineer to link W5 to the red W4 to the east.
The only possible flaw of the map is that the first player to build a government link has only two meaningful builds, while the other two players have three such builds. This proved to be true in our game, since the Yellow and Red players used their government links to build routes the Blue player was interested in owning (the north-south link between purple and blue cities, or the east-west link between the two blue cities in the middle).
As the game progressed and available space became scarcer, the importance of the Build First role increased. But so did the Production role (there is no Production phase since all goods are placed on the map at the beginning of the game), the Locomotive role (to maximize your moves), Urbanization, etc. As I said earlier, there were always good options and you never felt boxed in.
Another consequence of the goverment links is that we seldom moved goods over other players' links. Well, except to push them over the income level, of course, something that the Blue player suffered twice.
The outcome was uncertain until the very last turn. Red was behind in points, but had issued very few shares. Yellow was a bit ahead, but had issued the most shares, and Blue seemed like the potential winner, but lacked good deliveries.
The final turn was nail-biting. Blue used Production to get another 5-link move, Red had closed the gap in points and Yellow completed some crazy links (purple W5 city with gray city C, Red city A with blue W4 city) that gave him access to cubes in the middle of the board.
The final score was incredibly tight: Yellow (71) - Blue (70) - Red (66)
Wickedness is increasing. In our first few games, we seldom used opponents' links to bump their income level so they had to face a harsher income reduction. However, we are starting to see this manouvre in every single game, and are even jockeying for position in those key turns. Needless to say, this adds another (awesome) layer to the game.
Flexibility is key. More than ever, this map rewarded flexibility. Always try to have a plan B or even a plan C in case your plan A is (likely) thwarted by an opponent.
Do not underestimate the value of track. In tight maps, such as Montréal Métro, the points you get from your built track can be the difference between winning or losing. The tighter the map, the more important those points become.
The two guys I play with were eager to play the Iraq map when I mentioned some of its rules a few days ago, so I was happy to oblige.
The map depicts modern post-war Iraq. Black cubes represent oil. If you deliver them to special hexes representing the US and the EU, you keep those cubes, which at the end of the game give you points before the final income reduction phase. Oil is usually located in oil fields, for which you need the Engineer role to connect to. Other features include a three-colored city (Badgad), higher building costs (desert), and a new action (US Navy) that lets you omit the first city of the same color as the cube being moved.
According to its designer, the prolific Alban Viard, this map is designed for 3-4 players.
As much as it pains me to admit it, this session was a bit of a letdown. One of the players received an important phone call at the very beginning and could not concentrate very well after that. We also had a runaway leader problem, with the winner all but decided for the second half of the game. Finally, our previous play (Montréal Métro) had been so great that this session was inevitably doomed from the start.
You can see a picture of the final layout on the left.
Blue won the initial auction and urbanized New City E (Yellow) and connected B1 and 3. Red used Engineer to connect New City E to B4. Yellow decided to try a conservative strategy this time and built in the north, connecting W3 to W4.
In the opening turns, Red and Blue created a dense network in the south and both began to deliver the numerous black cubes in the nearby cities. Luckily for Blue, Red inadvertedly let him build the final link to the US. Yellow ignored black cubes in those early turns because the oil field was too far away but also because Production was dismal and forced him to change the original plan and build alternative routes, losing time but at least avoiding red numbers.
The three of us reached positive income pretty fast, and thus we had lots of money. This fact has really convinced me to use the so-called veterans' variant, which decreases the number of cubes on the map, the next time we play this map.
Halfway through the game, it was clear that Blue was running away with the win. Red was not hindering him and Yellow was too far to exert any pressure. I guess this was the reason why Red decided to make a 6-link delivery... 4 of which were Blue's! This was really the coupe de grâce and it was a piece of cake for Blue from then on.
In the last few turns, Blue, who had the most money, kept choosing the US Navy role and making 6-link deliveries. Yellow, on the other hand, kept taking Urbanization so the other players could not block his 6-link black deliveries by placing a gray city on his routes.
The final score was: Blue (137) - Yellow (62) - Red (49)
Consider the number of players before choosing a map. Most maps have an ideal number of players. I would suggest using BGG to find out that number instead of using a trial and error method. While this map worked for 3 players, I think it will be better with 4 players, so that no one is left alone (as Yellow was in the north).
To houserule or not to houserule. Correct me if I am wrong, but nowhere in the rules is said that you cannot use as many links from your opponents as you like. In the game, Red moved a good through 6 links, only 2 of which where his. In the past, however, we considered that this had a terrible kingmaking effect and could result in a huge anti-climax. For that reason, we adopted one of Steam rules, according to which you must own at least half the tracks through which the good moves. What do you think? Do you play with a similar houserule?
Strategy: issuing the fewest shares. For each share you issue, you actually lose one income at the end of the game, plus you increase your expenses by one until the game ends. That is why you want to issue the fewest shares possible. One strategy is to issue as few shares as you can, hoping that the difference in shares will translate into a VP gap. This was the first time I consciously pursued this strategy, and did not like it very much. Issuing few shares means you have less cash and thus you are less of a threat during the auction. Going last in turn order, even in 3-player games, is quite difficult, since you seldom pick the best roles, build the best routes or deliver the best cubes.
One more game; this time we visited one of our neighbors: France.
France was among the first expansion maps for AoS, so some of its rules have been implemented or developed in later maps. For instance, Paris accepts all good colors except Black and receives the production of black cities 1 to 6. Some roles have been weakened (you can only place two track tiles if you urbanize) and others have been strengthened (Production). Additionally, this is the only map that specifically forbids bankruptcies. Should your income level become negative, it simply stays at zero.
As for the ideal number of players, I am not sure. With three players there are plenty of cubes and it is quite easy to become profitable very fast. In this game, Red only issued 5 shares in total (or, truth be told, he only issued 3, since the first 2 shares are always mandatory). However, you can build on mountain hexes only if you choose the Engineer role. This means that, in the final turns, you usually run out of places to build. Therefore, you need to create your loop as soon as possible. In theory, games with four players would make for a more crowded map faster, and probably more interesting games.
This is the final state of the game. I forgot my camera, but took a picture including the charts with my phone.
Red was last in the initial auction but chose First Build, which he used to connect Paris to Nantes (W6). This seemed like a very good, default start. Blue won the auction and chose Urbanization. He placed the New City H on Le Havre and connected it to Paris. Yellow chose Locomotive and used Blue's urbanization to link New City H to Paris and begin a new stub towards the south.
Blue then chose Urbanization again (New City F) and reached Nantes (W6); Red blocked Blue and connected Nantes with Burdeos (W6-W5), and Yellow reached Lyon (W4).
At that point, Blue realized how poor his start had been: he was now enclosed in the northwest of France, and from that moment on he could only try to sabotage the other players' routes. The southwest of France was occupied by Red and the southeast by Yellow.
After six or seven turns, building options were quite limited and most required getting the Engineer role. Yellow made two mistakes: letting Blue connect Marseille and Nice (W2-W1) and bidding $1 too much. He was $1 short from completing the link coming south of Paris, which Blue duly completed. Red made another mistake by urbanizing New City D instead of placing New City A in the town just south of New City H (that would have transformed two of Yellow's 6-link deliveries into two 4-link deliveries).
In the final turns, Yellow had several 6-link deliveries and overtook Red, who remained with a 5-link locomotive. However, Red had issued 4 fewer shares, so the game would be decided by how much track each of them had built.
The final score was: Red, Yellow (115) - Blue (86)
That's right! There was a tie for first place and thus both players shared the win. This is the first time this happens to us in 20 plays. Needless to say, I will be ruing that $1 that would have given me 4 points for a long, long time, doh!
Count your money before bidding. I bid $1 dollar too much and it cost me the win all by myself. Sharing the win is ok, but it does not taste nearly as well.
Use your money: it is worthless once the game is over. Money is worth nothing at the end of the game. Not even as a tiebreaker! Do not forget this in your last auction.
Towns have a maximum of 4 exits. The only way a town can have a 5th or 6th exit is by urbanizing the town and transforming it into a city. Once all the urbanization tiles are used, some connections become impossible. If you take a look at the picture above, you will see there are several towns with 4 exits, meaning that no new exits could be built, limiting the viable track options even more.
Edit: several typos fixed.
Today we had a fourth player. He had just returned from a trip to Mongolia, so he was quite interested in trying the Tibet map, one of Alban Viard's offerings for 2012.
In Tibet there are impenetrable mountains, hexes you can only access with the aid of a sherpa, an action that replaces the Production role. This means that there are as many (or as few) sherpas as there are turns and thus they should be used very carefully to maximize their value. The scarcity of sherpas also means that cubes in mountain cities keep piling up throughout the game. Additionally, players can only build two pieces of track per turn (three with Engineer).
Black, the new player, issued more shares than anybody else, then proceed to win the initial auction and choose Loco. He then built from White City 6 (W6) into and through the mountains (see below for a comment about tile placements). This was definitely a bad start, as he was unable to move any goods that turn and began a downward spiral of income reduction every turn. We warned him about the situation and in later turns we would let him issue shares out of turn or else he would have gone bankrupt...
Purple urbanized New City E (Yellow), connected it to White City 2 (W2) and began a stub towards Black City 2 (B2). This was a gift for Yellow, who was next in turn order. Yellow had chosen Engineer and connected W2 and B2. Since Purple had not reached B2, Yellow could move goods between W2 and B2 before Purple. Red linked W5 and W6, selecting the Sherpa role with an eye on reaching the impassable hexes as soon as possible.
During the game, we had some doubts concerning the impenetrable hexes, and I believe some of our tile placements were illegal. For example, in the picture above you can see a Red link between the mountains surrounding cities W3 and W4. On the lower right-hand corner, Black placed a tile towards the unbuilt town, which I think was also an illegal move. Since those placements involved the new player, we thought it was better not to take them back and keep on with the game regardless. Otherwise, we would have ran out of time and would have had to call the game.
As the game progressed, the experience gap between the new player and the rest became apparent, as he was unable to identify good cube moves or routes for easy access to new cubes.
In the last turns, Yellow was in command thanks to two factors: having a semi-monopoly on purple cities (all three on the left side of the map) and having issued fewer shares than his rivals, mainly due to being the first to receive benefits during the income phase. His only weakness was a 5-link Locomotive, but the points difference accrued during the middle game was enough for him to secure the victory.
The final score was: Yellow (88) - Purple (81) - Red (75) - Black (13)
The map was fun and, oddly enough, I found the rule of only building two pieces of track per turn way more interesting that the sherpas. In fact, I never chose the sherpa role! In any case, I would like to play this map again, this time without breaking any rules. In my opinion, the ideal player count for this map is 4-5 players.
Bid with a purpose. What you need vs. what you want. This is one of the things I always tell new players: know your priorites! New players often fall into the trap of winning the first auction without knowing the role they want to choose. If you absolutely need a role, then make sure to get the money to get it. Most of the time, however, it is better to save the money for when you really need it, and most roles are helpful anyway.
Have a plan. This is related to the previous item. Plan your ideal route (and alternative routes), plan your next turns, plan the turn order and save money for that key turn, etc. This may sound overwhelming for a new player, but believe me, it will become second-nature if you keep on practicing.
Strive for benefits as soon as possible. The sooner you receive benefits in the income phase, the fewer shares you will need to issue. Remember that shares cost you not only money but, more importantly, victory points! In this game, the share difference between Yellow and Purple was the key, and allowed Yellow to win despite having an inferior Locomotive.
For our next game, I suggested Vermont with hopes that it would be easier on the "new" player after the Tibet debacle (see previous entry).
Vermont is a map designed by Ted Alspach, probably the most prolific designer of AoS maps, and several quirks represent the state geography:
- All hexes are forests with the exception of a few rivers.
- There are only two seasons in Vermont: winter and summer. In odd-numbered turns, each piece of track costs an additional $1. To compensate for this, the owner of the last piece of track used to deliver a good also receives an additional $1.
- Each action that is not chosen receives $1 for each player in the game. That means that some actions can accumulate $8 or more, making them more attractive.
Blue won the auction and chose Urbanization. He built New city A (red) and connected White City 5 (W5) to Black City 2 (B2). For the second consecutive time, this was a gift for the Yellow player, who was next. Yellow had selected Locomotive and he too connected W5 to B2, but the superior Loco level meant he would steal the cubes from Blue. Black, the newer player, built up north, connecting White Cities 2 and 6.
Meanwhile, Red had chosen First Build and connected Black Cities 5 and 6 at the bottom of the map. Considering the initial distribution of goods, this was the best starting position, with the bonus of being far apart from the other players.
In the following turns, we kept expanding our networks. Blue was playing much worse than usual, and Yellow took advantage by securing profitable routes. Black descended from the north to reach the middle of the map.
At that point (turn 3), it seemed like Red would ran away with the game. He was all alone, had an efficient route and goods to deliver, and winter was coming. In a surprising turn of events, however, he chose not to continue his network and instead invaded the middle (B1 to F, B3 towards B1). He also chose not to deliver to his maximum capacity and bumped Yellow into the next reduction range instead. In my opinion, he dug his own grave: his invasion not only halted his progress in the south, it also rendered his cubes into gradually less valuable deliveries.
From turn 4 onwards, the auction was controlled by Yellow. Thanks to the early Loco, he was the first player to receive benefits in the income phase, but he kept issuing shares and choosing roles with money on them to keep ahead of the competition moneywise. Even though Black used Blue's track 4 or 5 times, Yellow finished on top at the end of the game.
The final score was: Yellow (95) - Blue (82) - Red (65) - Black (58)
While I was not particularly excited about trying the Vermont map, I must confess I was very positively surprised by how well the rule changes worked. The rules were so easy to deal with that the new player had a better time as a result. My only quibble is that the map probably works better with 5 players rather than 4. With 4 players, I am afraid one or two players will have a whole portion of the map all for themselves. In our game, if Red had focused on expanding his network, he would have made the game a no contest.
Focus on yourself first, not on your opponents. I am convinced that attacking another player does not pay off. All your actions should improve your position. If by doing so you hurt another player, the better. But if you deviate from your plan with the only intention of hurting another player, you'd better hold a huge lead or else you will not win. Age of Steam is a multi-player game, so uninvolved players will benefit from your actions more than yourself.
No risk, no glory: building in the middle. Having a corner all for yourself is great and can give you an easy win. Being in the thick of the action, however, is more difficult because of the higher competition, but it gives you more options in the long run. It is also way more fun.
Money is power. A big pile of cash is the greatest deterrent during the auction. Although I had higher benefits than anyone, I kept issuing shares to maintain that advantage and finish first or second in most auctions. This is specially useful in the late game, where you can choose exactly what you need. Remember you can also get a role to stop others from choosing it (e.g. Locomotive). And if other players attempt to stop you, they will be forced to issue even more shares.
For our last game before some of my friends went on vacation, we chose 1830's Pennsylvania. This map is side B to Ted Alpach's Northern California, and together they make for a terrific AoS expansion.
1830's Pennsylvania is probably the most thematic map we have played so far. Here, we play the role of robber barons during the industrial revolution. Our fledging companies start operating in the heavily urbanized east but then a furious race takes place to be the first to reach the lucrative coal towns. When coal (black cubes) is transported, it doubles the income of each link or can be delivered a distance twice the player's locomotive level. 10-12 income deliveries are thus feasible (up to 24 income in one turn if you deliver two black cubes over a 6-link route!). The consequence of this is that players race at breakneck speed to get the coal. Or at least they should.
Black won the auction and chose First Build. This allowed him to connect cities White 6 (W6), Black 3 (B3) and Black 6 (B6). Considering the initial distribution of goods, this seemed like a really strong starting position. However, as we would discover later, this was actually a deadly trap: being the easternmost player, Black was the farthest from the coal and was easily boxed in. Blue chose Locomotive and connected W6-B2-B5. Yellow had misread the initial turn and having issued only 3 shares, chose Turn Order and connected B2 and B5.
Meanhwile, Red chose Urbanization (Yellow New City, E) and connected it to W5. Suddenly, Red's position seemed the best. He was all by himself in the north and was the closest to coal. In fact, he would later urbanize Blue New City (B) and be the first to ship coal, making his income soar accordingly. Unfortunately for Red, he was later joined by Black, who urbanized Gray New City (D) in the middle of Red's route. Despite this minor annoyance, it was still Red's game to lose, and this he did by beginning to build from White City 2 (W2) instead of extending his network from City B.
In the south, Blue was the first to reach Red New City (A) and complete a 6-link coal delivery that put him out of reach in the income chart. It could have been even worse had not Yellow used First Move to steal the other black cube in City A. In the following turns, the importance of First Build and First Move increased dramatically. Blue's lead, however, was so large that it did not matter that Yellow stole most of Blue and Red's coal. Red could not upgrade his locomotive fast enough and so his coal was stolen. Black, on the other hand, was too far behind due to not delivering a single black cube all game long. He also made a crucial mistake, as a result of which most of the cubes within his grasp were at a distance of 7 links!
The final score was: Blue (125) - Yellow (121) - Red (93) - Black (58)
One of the keys in this game (besides Red's suicide) was Blue's ownership of the track between cities A and F, because it forced Yellow to use one of them every time he delivered a cube. All that income was the difference between winning and losing the game.
I had misgivings about 1830's Pennsylvania, but they were all overcome after just one play. Coal really is critical, and the ensuing race to get it fills the game with tension. Ignore coal at your own peril! Together with Northern California, this is a fantastic AoS expansion that I cannot recommend enough.
Expand, don't jump. As a rule of thumb, always try to expand your existing network. Building somewhere else on the map will probably slow your growth or be inefficient (unless it is a vital choke point you must own).
Deliver cubes when they are at their max. value. In the early turns, you should be upgrading your locomotive at least once per turn and delivering cubes using its full capacity. It is tempting to save 3 or 4-link cubes for later use, but our experience is that later in the game you will want longer shipments. Therefore, ship those cubes now while they are at their max. value.
Comebacks are possible. At one point, Yellow was over 10 income points (or 30 VP) behind Blue and Red, but finished only 4 VP behind the winner. Never stop fighting (praying for opponents' blunders does not hurt either).
Shares: better safe than sorry. Yellow thought that issuing just one share in turn 1 would be enough. Well, it was not and that (bad) decision haunted him for the rest of the game.
This entry is of a special kind. In fact, I have been pondering whether to include it or not for some time...
Two weeks ago, we met to play Republic of Rome at my place. When the game finished, some friends left, but there were still four of us and plenty of time for another game. This was not my regular AoS group, but two guys wanted to play AoS and I was happy to oblige. However, I had misgivings concerning the fourth guy, who had played three games of AoS before but prefers more thematic and Ameritrash games. He assured us he would play an AoS game, although I should have realized he was doing it out of courtesy to me (the host).
My main goal was to make the game as entertaining as possible for the fourth guy, so I chose the "Las Vegas" map for its simple rules. I explained the game rules and gave my friends several tips on how to play and what to look for in the map and in the goods growth chart.
And so we began playing. One turn, two turns... With each passing turn, desperation grew ever larger on my friend's face. He did not know what to do or in which direction to head, and had no qualms about voicing his frustration. I love the tension in AoS, but he was actually suffering. In turn 3, he received a phone call and while away on the phone, the rest of us decided to end the game right there. There was no point in keeping playing for 90 more minutes when one of us was feeling miserable.
Needless to say, I did not even bother to take a picture of the game in progress. Since this entry will not count towards my objective of playing 100 games of AoS, this geeklist will now need 101 items.
Don't force-feed a game on someone. This is obviously applicable to any game, not only to AoS. I was too optimistic when I thought that my friend would stand a full game of Age of Steam. In that regard, the experience was an utter failure. I am positive that he will never ever play AoS again.
A few days ago, I was invited by a fellow boardgame geek to an all-day session. It was decided we would begin the day with a game of Age of Steam: China, since the host had that map and had been itching to try it for some time. Both he and I had played a few dozens games, while the other three players had tried Steam once or twice before with mixed feelings.
As in my previous entry (see item above), I decided that my goal would be to entice the three newbies to like the game. I patiently answered all their questions and kept pointing out moves and possible strategies.
I like the China map a lot and it shines with 5 or 6 players, but an easy map it is not. Despite starting with an additional $10, building costs are very high: not only you have to pay for lots of mountains and rivers, you must also pay the first time you reach a city. In fact, I have played this map thrice and every time one or more players have been forced to issue the max. number of shares. Other features include Russia, a bountiful area you can ship goods from but not to, and only one purple city: Beijing. You are also forced to start building from a coastal city.
In this game, Red won the initial aution and chose Urbanization, leaving Locomotive to the Green player. Yellow chose Engineer and Blue chose First Build. Black had a very conservative start: he issued no shares and chose Turn Order!
Blue connected White City 4 (W4) to Black City 6 (B6), a very strong opening considering that he had access to purple cubes. Red urbanized New City C (gray) and connected W3 and B3. Green linked W6 to B5. Yellow connected W1 and B2 in the south, but made a huge mistake when laying the track: he let Black connect the same two cities without crossing a town. Yellow could only deliver one cube in turn 1 and it was stolen by Black. Worst of all, Yellow could have easily prevented Black's move by using an S-shape track! Black's move was not optimal either, but building last in China is tough, so try to avoid that situation happening to you.
In turn 2, the Blue player made clear his intention to reach Russia, while the rest of the players extended their existing networks. And right there Yellow made a crucial mistake: he built one tile too many without realizing that he would go bankrupt! This was my first bankruptcy ever, and my only excuse is that I was too focused on the other players (which is true, I barely looked at the goods growth chart or the initial goods distribution, as I was answering and counseling instead). That didn't make it any less embarassing for me, as I was the person with the most plays and the owner of the game...
From that moment I stopped playing and became the banker, but fortunately for me the game proceeded at a brisk pace. Black had to issue all his shares to catch up with the leaders, but to no avail. His route was not the most efficient and his Locomotive was weak for most of the game. Blue reached Russia but overlooked the rest of his network, so he only managed to deliver one or two 5-link shipments. Red profited from his link between cities E and C, which was heavily used by the Green player to transport yellow cubes to City E. However, Red had to waste precious deliveries upgrading his Locomotive manually. Meanwhile, Green used his 5-Loco very effectively, even if it meant sharing some of the income with the Red player. His network was also the largest. In the end, it was enough for him to secure the win, even if Blue used New City C to take 3 points away from Green.
The final score was: Green (67) - Blue (64) - Red (62) - Black (29) - Yellow (bankrupted)
After playing the China map three times, it seems like it consistently produces closes finishes. In all three games, three or four players have competed for the win until the very last turn. The funny thing is that this time the two experienced players were last and second to last.
Despite my bankruptcy, I achieved my goal: the three new players all enjoyed the game and some of them even raised their rating of AoS here in BGG.
Be careless and go bankrupt. I was not paying as much attention to the game as I usually do and I paid for it by going bankrupt for the first time. Ah, the shame!
S-shape for building track. Yellow could have stopped Black from stealing his only deliverable cube in turn 1 by building an s-shape track. It might seem trivial, but laying a curve tile instead of a straight tile can have deep implications.
Is Russia worth it? The Russia hex receives one cube in every goods growth phase, so it is a very desirable destination. However, even if you reach it as soon as possible, other players can sabotage your route with Urbanization, or box you in while you are trying to reach Russia, so that you cannot get the most out of it. Going for Russia is a really tricky choice and certainly feels like a trap.
Our next game took place on the surface of the Moon. This was our humble tribute to Neil Armstrong, who died just yesterday (August 27th, 2012).
The Moon map, designed by Alban Viard, is suitable for 3-4 players. It is quite a challenging map for two reasons:
- The map is affected by the Night & Day phases of the Moon, i.e. half the cities are always black, forcing players to constantly reassess their deliveries.
- Track can be built off the edge and connect on the opposite side of the board. Cities on the edge of the map are no longer safe.
Further limitations include building only 2 track tiles per turn and more expensive terrain. There is also a new action, Low Gravitation, that lets you use one of your opponents' track as if it were yours.
Black won the auction and chose Locomotive. He then connected Red City W1-2 to the Landing Hex, to which track must be always connected. Red chose Engineer and connected the Landing Hex to Purple Cities B5-6 and B3-4. Yellow chose Urbanization (Red City A) and connected the Landing Hex to Blue City B1-2. In this first turn it seemed like there were many good choices.
In the following turns, Yellow tried to issue as few shares as possible, using First Build instead. Red kept winning the auction and choosing Locomotive while Black used Urbanization several times.
Halfway through the game, Red was the first player to realize how powerful the new action (Low Gravitation) was. Combined with his powerful Locomotive, he began to ship cubes for 5 and 6 links. What is more, he had the most money, so we could not prevent him from choosing Low Gravitation every turn. At this point we all thought that victory was his. In fact he had so many deliveries available that he reached 50 in the income chart inadvertedly (losing 3VP). And Yellows' longer deliveries usually had to travel through one of Red's tracks.
Black had fallen behind in the Locomotive race, so once Red and Yellow lost interest in that action, he could choose it and began to recover some lost ground. Unfortunately for him, he had issued lots of shares.
In the final turns, however, Yellow and Black used each others' track extensively. For instance, Black gave Yellow 2 income in the last turn. As a consequence of this and the income reduction, the final tally produced a surprising result:
Yellow (110) - Red (108) - Black (77)
Red's silly mistake (reaching 50 in the income chart instead of stopping at 49) cost him the game! To me he was the moral winner; he was the first to notice the power of Low Gravitation (in fact, he skipped some track building to make sure he would control that action until the game's end) and built in such a way that he would benefit in both the Night & Day phases of the Moon.
Black, meanwhile, played much better than in previous games and only his low Locomotive kept him behind Red and Yellow.
All in all, the Moon map is a very good expansion that will make you think even harder, at least until you get the hang of the Night & Day phases and the 'spheric' building. Our game lasted a bit longer than usual due to higher analysis-paralysis induced by those two factors.
Presence in both Night & Day areas. One of the keys for Red's success was his network. He managed to connect multiple cities in both sides of the Moon, so he always had options during the Goods Move phase.
Low Gravitation is extremely powerful. Once Red managed to use Low Gravitation two times in a row, he jumped ahead in the income chart, getting enough money to prevent the other players from choosing Low Gravitation. Therefore, try to stop one player from monopolizing the action before the gap is unsurmountable.
Never count your chickens before they are hatched. We were almost sure that Red would get away with the win, but one silly mistake was enough to change the final result. A good reminder that each turn counts, no matter how far ahead/behind you are.
The South America map is designed by Pierre Paquet and Martin Sasseville, two Canadians who are also known as the Steam Brothers. They have also designed several more maps (e.g. the China map above). Initially published in 2005, this map has now been reprinted, along with South Africa, by Eagle Games.
South America has only a few new rules, making it a suitable map for beginners. Those rules are:
- Buenos Aires is the only Blue city in the game and receives 1 additional cube every Goods Growth phase.
- The Turn Order action is replaced by 'El Presidente'. For every cube shipped from, through or arriving at Buenos Aires, the player must pay $1 to the 'El Presidente' (or the bank, if nobody chooses it). In fact, it is kind of a reverse Turn Order that earns you money instead of saving it.
Possibly the most important feature of the map is the number of mountain and river hexes. Money is definitely tight at the beginning.
In this game, Blue won the first auction and chose Urbanization. Yellow came next and chose Locomotive. Green picked Engineer, leaving First Build to Red.
Red connected Black Cities 3 and 4 in what looked like the best starting place. Blue connected White Cities 2 and 3 and Urbanized New City H. At the time I thought it would have been better for him to connect to Buenos Aires first, but luckily for him nobody blocked the southern entries. Yellow connected Black Cities 3 and 5, with an eye on linking Buenos Aires (B4) and La Paz (B1), which began the game with 4 blue cubes (!). Green, on the other hand, used Engineer to connect cities B6, W6, W5 and W4.
Profits were hard to come by in the early turns, so much so that several players had to reduce their income level or issue more shares than usual. Yellow kept choosing Locomotive in those early turns since nobody seemed very interested in it. By turn 3 or 4, he already had a 6-link engine (at the cost of suffering a 2-income decrease). The initial plans of connecting La Paz and Buenos Aires was momentarily delayed when Green urbanized New City A (Red). That let Red overtake Yellow in the race for La Paz. In the South, Blue kept building unopposed.
By the end of the game, there were still plenty of cubes for almost everyone. This probably suggests that 5 players, not 4, is the sweet spot for this map. Blue won thanks to issuing just 11 shares (to 15 and 13 for Yellow and Green, respectively) and avoiding fights for most of the game (another hint at the map being too big for 4 players). Yellow could not make up for having issuing the max. number of shares, while Green managed to stay close by choosing Production a few times. Red ran out of long deliveries in the two final turns and thus finished last.
The final score was: Blue (85) - Yellow (82) - Green (78) - Red (75)
Long-term planning, but not too long. Green's plan was to own the northeastern corner. However, he faced a big problem: since most of his cities were Purple, he was forced to fight for Urbanization most of the rounds. By the time he completed his network loop, it was too late to catch up.
A big early Loco is a big gamble. Yellow found himself with a 6-link Locomotive very early. This was great in theory, but in practice he usually had to ship over other players' track. This, coupled with an early 2-income reduction, meant that ultimately he could not catch up with Blue.
Do not skip building track. Tracks are often considered small change in victory points, but they are more than that. The bigger your network, the more cubes will be within your reach. Stop expanding it and you might run out of cubes to ship in the last turns.
Next in the queue of unplayed maps was London, designed by J. C. Lawrence, an active user here on BGG. Since I had read lots of positive comments about this map and London is one of my favorite cities, I was eager to try it.
The rules of the London map alter some of AoS core concepts significantly. It is not a map for beginners.
- Players can build up to 5 track tiles per turn. The catch here is that you must pay an incremental surcharge for each tile. The Enginner role now serves as a discount when building.
- Track tiles are worth 50% more victory points.
- With fewer than 4 players, the Lomocotive role is not used. If you want to increase your engine, you must skip one of your deliveries.
- The Production and Goods Growth system has been completely overhauled. Now, when you deliver a good, you can produce either in the city the cube comes from or the city the cube arrives at. This is a substantial change that reduces luck even further.
Yellow won the auction and chose Engineer. Blue was second and took Urbanization, while Black was last and chose First Build. Black connected Black Cities 1, 2 and White City 6. Yellow also built in the middle of the map, linking B3, B1 and B2. The middle seemed like a good place to start due to the many cubes available. Blue, however, decided to do something different and opted for linking White Cities 3 and 4, urbanizing New City H.
The first couple of turns were really tough for everyone, and all three of us had to decrease our income level at some point. We had to keep issuing shares just to pay past shares, building was very expensive and income from shipments was not increasing fast enough. Both Engineer and Urbanization were the most contested roles. Yellow urbanized New City B (Blue) and E (Yellow). New City B was a defensive move agaisnt the Blue player, who could deliver blue cubes from W1 to B1. This move, however, helped the Blue player much more than it hurt him, as he was able to ship 4-link cubes faster.
While Black and Yellow were having trouble to make a profit, Blue was able to expand his network and create some loops that allowed him to stop upgrading the Loco and missing cube deliveries. He was soon out of reach. Yellow, desperate to catch up, dug himself into a deeper hole by upgrading to a 6-link Locomotive and issuing even more shares. The result was a -9 hit to his income level and a guaranteed last place. Black played well, without making any apparent mistakes, but ultimately the Blue player was the best once again.
The final score was: Blue (49) - Black (35) - Yellow (26)
We all had a great time. The map is a very difficult one, where you must balance the speed of your network expansion, your Locomotive level, and your debt. And all that while competing with others for access to cities and cubes! The game really reminded me of my first plays of AoS, were I felt tension was much higher. Needless to say, the painful experience has made London one of my favorite maps and I cannot wait to play it again.
Debt vs. expansion. This map stresses the importance of balancing your debt and the expansion of your network. The faster you expand, the longer it will take you to make a profit.
The 6-link Loco. Think twice before upgrading your locomotive. More often that not, it can be the wrong move unless you can make 6-link deliveries until the end of the game.
Counter-productive urbanizations. Yellow urbanized New City Blue hoping to reduce Blue's deliveries. Instead, he made it easier for Blue to make a profit by making 4-link deliveries earlier.
None of the regular players were available last Tuesday, but the two guys that showed up had played at least 10 times each before, so I chose the Montréal map. My first play on this map was fantastic (see entry 7) and was curious to see how the map would hold up to repeated plays.
The designer, Michael Webb (another active user here on BGG), suggests including Berri-UQAM [White City 5] in the first government link. However, I was first in turn order and decided to build the first government link between White Cities 3 (Purple) and 3 (Blue) in the middle. Blue chose Engineer and connected White City 4 (Blue) and White City 3 (Blue), Yellow chose Locomotive and built southwards to White City 5 (Yellow), while Red chose First Move and connected White City 4 (Blue) and White City 3 (Red).
In the following turns, Blue and Yellow boxed in the Red player. At least in Yellow's case, it was a deliberate action, as that meant exclusive access to the east later on. Red had issued fewer shares than Blue and Yellow, and was reluctant to issue more shares, so he ended boxed in and with shorter deliveries, while Blue and Yellow dominated the northern and eastern areas of the map, respectively.
In the last turns, Yellow was a bit ahead, but had a 5-link engine only, whereas Blue had a 6-link engine. Another problem for Yellow was the income thresholds: at least two times he had to make shorter deliveries to avoid an even bigger income reduction.
In the last turn, Blue would have won if he had urbanized the middle town, taking 4 points away from Yellow. The final score was incredibly close: Yellow (86) - Blue (85) - Red (75)
The Montréal map certainly held its appeal. I was the only one who had played it before and it showed, as I used the government links to my advantage time and again.
The Red player was positively suprised by the map, though he is still convinced that the Rust Belt and 5 players is the only way to play Age of Steam. In his opinion, other maps simply increase complexity. Needless to say, I disagree, but to each his own.
The experience advantage. As mentioned above, I was the only one who had played the map before, and it was easier for me to take advantage of the new rules. Still, the final score was pretty close, which seems like a feature of this map.
Cubes are public property. Some beginners usually take time to understand this, but the truth is you don't own any cubes, they can be stolen by anyone, and sometimes they will even use your own track.
Do not be afraid of issuing shares. Red did not want to issue more shares, which meant he had no access to Urbanization, which in turn would have helped him tremendously in the first few turns. Even worse, he was forced to issue even more shares in the last turns when he was desperately trying to catch up.
For our next game there were only three of us, so we chose the Cyprus map, an Alban Viard's map specially designed for three players.
What is special in this map is that players have different capabilities: Greeks and Turks can only ship goods to cities on their side of the island, while the neutral player, representing the UN, cannot urbanize any new cities. As far as I know this is the first AoS map with variable powers. Additionally, the Engineer and Locomotive roles replace each other each round (i.e. they are mutually exclusive).
Several of Alban Viard's map limit the number of track tiles to only two per turn. This makes the first turns more difficult, since only one or two players will manage to deliver a 2-link good in the first turn (see next paragraph).
The initial auction was won by Yellow (Greeks), who chose Urbanization and connected White City 2 (W2) and White City 3 (W2). Blue was second and took Locomotive. He also linked B2 and BW6 (Nicosia) in the middle of the map. Red began linking W5 northwards, and could not deliver any cubes in the first turn.
The variable powers shaped the following turns. Yellow and Red (Greeks and Turks) fought over the Urbanization role, while Blue (UN) kept picking Engineer/Locomotive. In hindsight, Yellow and Red should have tried to make things harder for Blue, who picked Engineer/Locomotive on a regular basis. It also seemed like the map was kinder to the Blue player, as he did not have to worry about the cities he delivered to.
In the mid turns, all this resulted in a significant advantage for Blue, which led us to think the map could be a bit unbalanced. The gap, however, slowly disappeared due to income reduction, and eventually the victory was decided by the track vp. The final score was: Blue (72) - Yellow (71) - Red (41).
The key to Blue's victory seemed to be the way he laid some track tiles, specially the links between Cities H and E, and between Cities G and W3. Both Yellow and Red had to use them at some point, and that extra income made all the difference. Yellow almost caught up with Blue thanks to having many 6-link cubes. Red had a lot of cubes in reserve, but also an inefficient network that made long deliveries impossible.
As I said above, the new rules added a new, enjoyable twist. I read that Alban even designed a 6-player map based on Dune. I would love to play such a map.
Study city colors. The reason why Yellow chose New City F (Purple) as his first action was that both Purple cities were in Turkish hands. Otherwise, purple cubes would have been undeliverable on the Greek side. Before beginning a new game, it can be useful to take a mental note of the initial city colors, as some colors might be clustered on one side.
Getting others to work for you. Lately the Blue player has won all of our games. I have been trying to understand why, and the primary reason might be his skill to build track tiles that his rivals have to use at some point. It is definitely something I should improve upon.
I have already stressed the importance of playing each map with the right number of players. Therefore, when five of us agreed to play a game of Age of Steam, I jumped at the chance to try the Europe map, another expansion designed by Ted Alpach and published by his company: Bézier Games.
As a result of the European geography, the map can be divided in a central core and several countries in the periphery that seem easy to monopolize (Iberian Penninsula, British Isles, Italia, the Balkans). Additionally, the Europe map has two distinct rules:
- Express links: players can build one express link (double the price of regular track) which counts double when moving goods.
- Goods growth is decided by the player who chooses Production. Otherwise, no new cubes get onto the map.
The Purple player will usually do anything to be the first to build in turn 1. Hence, he issued 4 shares in turn 1 and won the auction. He then connected White Cities 5 and 6 (W5-W6). Red built between W3 and B4; Yellow connected W3 and B1; Blue connected B3 and B2, and finally Green connected W2 and B4 via W3.
After the always critical turn 1, it seemed like Green, Yellow and Red would fight over the center of the map, while Purple and Blue would play without interferences for at least a couple of turns. This resulted in Purple taking the lead very early, quickly making a profit and managing to play in the auction without fear. Blue's situation was similar. Matters were quite different in Central Europe, where Green, Yellow and Red bitterly fought over the available cubes. Green managed to control the access to the British Isles and secured a steady supply of goods, Red improved his Locomotive so he could steal other players' cubes and Yellow bore the brunt: he overspent building track and dug himself into a hole he could not get out of.
The game state did not suffer many changes. Purple maintained the lead without much effort, the rest of the players remained very close from one another, and Yellow finished dead last. We all agreed that Purple had won by remaining isolated all game. The important thing to know is whether the map is prone to such developments or we the players are to blame for what happened.
The final score was: Purple (71) - Green (56) - Blue (54) - Red (52) - Yellow (34)
AoS and groupthink. One of the benefits of playing AoS with different people is that you can see the differences in groupthink. In some groups, some roles are valued more than in others, and viceversa. Being able to read the board state and guess the needs of each player is a very powerful skill during the auction.
If you have a good plan, do not deviate from it. Yellow's initial intention was to build from England to continental Europe, but then changed his mind. When he tried to implement the original plan, it was too late (Green had already closed all the doors).
Game duration and number of players. The more players, the fewer turns the game lasts. Fewer turns mean that you will build fewer track tiles, so your network will not be as big or flexible. Therefore, it is important to keep it simple and effective: you will not have time to build complicated loops. Since I had been playing lots of 3 and 4-player games, I devised a plan that was simply impossible to carry out in the given number of turns!
The Soul Train map is, without a doubt, the weirdest AoS map I have ever played. It too is probably the reason I have been procrastinating with the updates.
Four of us played the Soul Train map in early September. Many things make the map special, but let's begin by saying that cubes are now souls that you have to carry from Hell to Earth in a first phase and from Earth to Heaven in a second and final phase. 2/3 of the game are played on a map representing Hell and Earth, and for the last 1/3 of the game, the board is flipped, Hell disappears and Heaven now appears above Earth. Throughout the game, souls are never returned to the bag: they remain on the board (Earth) and players have to deliver them to the corresponding city in Heaven.
Here you can see a picture of the final phase, with Earth and Heaven. I forgot to take a picture of Hell & Earth, so cannot describe the initial builds. Let is suffice to say, however, that track cost is decremental: prohibitely expensive in Hell, average on Earth and cheap in Heaven. In the first phase, players move souls to cities on Earth. The phase change is triggered when there are 10 or fewer souls in Hell. Then, the track built in Hell disappears (giving a small boost to the owners' economies). At the end of this phase, all four of us were within 1 or 2 points in the income chart.
In the second phase, players have only 2 turns to deliver souls. Following the turn order from the last turn, players place urbanized cities, and then a race ensues for the longest deliveries. It was in this phase where Blue outplayed all of us to grab the win. While Yellow built first, he overlooked the choke point at Black City C, which Blue immediately took advantage of; many cubes were moved through that track. Blue was also able to move lots of purple cubes going south first.
The final score was: Blue (85) - Black (63) - Red (62) - Yellow (59)
The interesting aspects of this map were:
- The lack of the Production action. Cubes remained on the map for the whole game. Total absence of luck.
- Two distinct phases: 2/3 of preparation, 1/3 of execution. I was well prepared for the second phase, but made several mistakes and finished dead last.
While the experience was enjoyable, my jury is still out on this map. I have not made up my mind yet whether it is a brilliant or a wacky design. Probably both.
1 step back, 2 steps forward. While three of us were building track to move cubes northwards, the Blue player came up with the opposite plan: moving the cubes around Earth and delivering them to a nearby city in Heaven. Simply brilliant.
Reality vs. fantasy-based maps. Which one do you prefer to play on? I have found that I usually prefer maps based on existing countries/regions rather than fantastic settings. Some of the mechanisms found in fantasy-based maps would be hard to justify in a realistic map, though.
I have two regular gaming groups with whom I play AoS. Most of the games described up to now (and all of those with a picture of the funny tablecloth) were played with the crew in Alcobendas, a large town on the outskirts of Madrid. One of the differences between my two gaming groups is that these guys love maps with quirky rules. Since this was our last summer meetup, we chose to celebrate it by playing Age of Steam Expansion: The Zombie Apocalypse, by that guy who also designed this map.
Now, there are hundreds of games about either zombies or trains, but as games genres go, it is hard to find two genres which are farther apart that these two. I wonder how Michael Webb came up with the idea of combining both worlds. In theory, it sounds dreadful, but the map does not only work fine, it is also a very good one!
How does this expansion work? These are the main deviations from the standard rules:
- Two zombie outbreaks randomly appear on the map at the start of the game. Each turn, one player will move them towards the nearest cube(s), which represent people. When zombies reach hexes with cubes, they destroy those cubes, and if the cubes are in a city, the city is also ravaged. Whenever this happens, zombies multiply (up to 3 zombies per hex).
- Moving cubes through track hexes with zombies on them will cost you $1 per zombie. This can soon add up to a big sum, unless you use a military caboose (special action), in which case movement will cost you nothing for the remainder of the turn.
- Production has been tweaked too: you now draw three cubes from the bag and place one on them on any city (more of this later).
- There is no Locomotive role, as is the norm in many AoS maps for 3 players.
On the right you can see a picture of the game at its conclusion. Upside down tiles represent cities destroyed by zombies, those lovely plastic miniatures that are included with the map.
In our game, zombies entered play from graveyards 2 and 6. This initial placement is quite important: if you build close to zombies, they will eat your
brains cubes! The Black player built first and linked three cities (purple, yellow and something else in the middle). Yellow urbanized New Red City A in the middle of a route that linked the purple and yellow cities on the left. Finally, Blue took advantage of the urbanization to link the Purple city on the left with the Blue City up north thanks to the Engineer.
In the following turns, we developed our networks with caution, trying to stay away from the zombies, who in turn kept getting closer. This triggered a chain reaction: the map became smaller, competition for cubes increased, cubes began to run low. And now it got really interesting: without cubes, players had to devise plans to obtain new cubes!
Two different strategies were followed: Blue tried to build as far as possible from the zombies and managed to monopolize some cities, mainly New City D (gray), which would provide him benefits over time. Yellow and Black used the opposite approach: they used Urbanization behind the zombie lines (new cities come with goods, à la Steam), and using the military caboose (or not), moved the cubes before nearby zombies would destroy the city again.
In the end, Blue's strategy proved more effective. He had to issue fewer shares, spent less money in the auctions and had a bigger pool of cubes to move by the end of the game. Or, better said, he still had access to cubes by the end of the game. The shortage of cubes was something to behold, and goes a long way to explain Black's woes. The final score was:
Blue (89) - Yellow (73) - Black (33)
You have probably guessed it by now, but I really, really liked this map, even though I am totally indifferent to zombies. The map creates a series of very interesting problems that players must face or else. I heartily recommend it, two thumbs up.
Who would have thought? No matter whether you love or hate zombies, do yourself a favor and play this map. It is very refreshing and challenging at the same time.
More than meets the eye. Sometimes you need one full game to unveil the potential of some rules/actions. In this case, we only found out the power of the Production role as an offensive weapon. Because zombies are drawn to the nearest cubes, sometimes it might be beneficial to place a cube on an empty city so that you direct zombies towards the competition! Definitely something to look for in our next play!
(continued from previous item)
My second gaming group gets together every Wednesday in the center of Madrid, and we usually play one or two heavy games each session. In this group, I am one of the main providers of games. This means I spend the most money, but it also allows me to introduce and push forward some of my favorite games. Race for the Galaxy or Hansa Teutonica are examples of games that have seen extensive play at my insistance. It is a testament to the quality of Age of Steam that I no longer need to suggest it: there is always a small group of people requesting it. And yes, life is good in case you are wondering.
Unlike the other group, however, gamers in this group prefer maps with fewer game-altering rules. For that reason, I chose the Vermont map for our next game (based on my previous experience with this expansion). It does not have many new rules and the risk of bankruptcy seems negligible.
Blue chose First Build and connected Black Cities 5 and 6 at the bottom. This was a strong move with the given goods. Green won the auction, chose the Locomotive role and linked Black City 1 (Yellow) to Black City 3 (Blue). Yellow chose Urbanization and connected White Cities 5 and 6. The unusual build had some logic because the Red player, having issued 0 shares in turn 1, was not a potential threat, and in fact, Red connected White Cities 1 and 4 (Blue & Red, respectively).
IIRC, turn 3 was the pivotal moment of the game. Green managed to deliver two cubes over 4 links (effectively two 5-link deliveries thanks to the winter rules) and got away in the scoring track, while the rest of players had to spend at least two more turns to climb out of the red.
As the turns progressed, Green's victory was taken for granted unless he ran out of cubes to deliver, which almost happened! He had trouble getting long deliveries, while the Yellow player, who had monopolized the northeast, had plenty of cubes but too little time. In the end, Green managed to cling on to his advantage and secured the win.
The final score was:
Green (100) - Yellow (95) - Blue (76) - Red (74)
Like in my previous play on this map, a leader emerged in the mid-game and managed to keep the lead until the end of the game. Not that I complain because trying to catch up with the leaders is exciting too (pity I fell one turn short).
The power of 2+2 in turn 1 (or 3+3 in turn 2). A person delivers 2 goods for 4 income in turn 1, or 2 goods for 6 income in turn 2. I have seen this happen twice and both times it was devastating, resulting in both people winning those games. Here, Green engineered the maneouver perfectly. See the comments below for a re-evaluation of this paragraph.
Invest early or pay later. The Red player wanted to pursue a low share strategy, but his plan backfired: he found himself boxed in and with a weaker locomotive and ended up having to issue more shares than anyone. Sometimes you need to invest to reap bigger profits in the future.
Income reduction as a gap reducer. The income tax reduction at the end of each round is one of my favorite features in AoS. It forces players to keep pushing every turn. In this game, Green was a mile ahead of the pack, but by the end of the game, the poor quality of his final deliveries and the income reduction combined to significantly cut the vp difference between winner and second place.
One of the main things I love about Age of Steam is the sheer number of expansion maps. They keep the game fresh and pose new challenges to the players while the core rules are still recognizable. That way, you do not have to learn lots of new rules and can concentrate instead on playing against your opponents and trying to solve the map itself.
On my journey to get in 100 plays of AoS, it is inevitable to repeat some maps, but nevertheless I am trying to include as many different maps as possible. That is why, when there were five of us, I quickly jumped at the opportunity to play the England map.
Englad was released in Expansion #1, and is one of the few maps designed by Martin Wallace. Intended for big player counts (5-6), there is only one special rule: there can only be one Red city (London), which is the reason why it is recommended for beginners. But as we know, the players you face increase the difficulty much more than the map.
You can see a picture of the final layout on the right.
One of the key aspects of this game was the very unbalanced distribution of future goods. White cities were expecting lots of purple cubes, whereas black cities wanted lots of Blue cubes. With this in mind, Green chose First Build and connected White Cities 2 and 3 (Purple and Yellow). The Blue player, who had won the auction and chosen the Locomotive role, connected Black Cities 2 and 3 (Yellow and Blue). The Yellow player urbanized New City C (Black) and connected it to London, while leaving a stub towards White City 4. The Black player used the Engineer to link Black cities 3 and 4, and finally the Red player connected White Cities 4 and C and left a stub towards London.
A few paragraphs above I said the map is recommended for beginners. However, we found the first turn harder than in the base map due to the larger distances between cities. Only two players managed to make 2-link deliveries in turn 1. It is also interesting to note that Green's build left other players the possibility of building from White City 1 (Purple), a very lucrative spot, but the fear of getting boxed in so early in the game proved a very effective deterrent.
As the game progressed, Blue & Black fought each other in the north, Red & Yellow did the same in the south, and Green created mayhem all over the board. The Green player, who does not regularly play in our games, was very aggressive denying entry to some cities, and once he ran out of purple cubes in the southwest, he began a different network in the northeast. One reason for this was his low locomotive level, but still I found it a very interesting strategy.
The game end was very tight. Black had a shot at it but came just a little short. Yellow had lots of cubes but only a 4-link locomotive. And Green, despite using two separate networks, had issued fewer shares than the rest of players. The final score was:
Yellow (60) - Green (57) - Black (56) - Blue (46) - Red (42)
I was really surprised to win the game considering my meager locomotive level, but other than that, I felt I played a solid enough game, while other players made a mistake at some point during the game.
The map was quite enjoyable, partly because of the initial goods distribution, partly because it was a 5 player game. With that number of players, the beauty is all in the auction; while you can exert influence on your neighbors in many different ways, you usually interact with faraway players here (unless you are like the Green player, of course, hehe).
Thinking outside the box. I love to play games with non-regular opponents, as you can see new strategies put into play. In this particular game, for example, the Green player was a disruptive factor that made the game very interesting, and almost pulled off the win despite what we "wrongly" considered as un-orthodox play.
Ending the game with a low locomotive level. In AoS, upgrading your locomotive level is not a given, but rather a crucial decision dependent on timing and future prospects. In this game, I was able to offset it by making more, shorter deliveries, having more cubes (White Cities B and 6 were exclusively mine) and, most importantly, by forcing other players to use my track.
Age of Steam always, always punishes you for your mistakes. One final note on Red's performance. In turn 4 or 5 I had the feeling that the game was his for the taking. He had a 6-link locomotive and lots of red cubes on the upper right-corner. All he needed was linking that city to London and he would have smoked us. Instead of issuing the required shares to build through the expensive mountains and reach the city as fast as possible, he chose a cheaper, longer route, hoping no one would take the Engineer role the next turn. That is obviously what happened next turn. Someone else took the Engineer role, Green built a stub from the only side that Red could reach and all of a sudden he was out of the game. Deprived of the deliveries he wanted, Red even lost positions in the income track and could not continue laying track next turn (Black then took the ownership of the track paid by Red). A brutal reminder of why we like AoS so much.
Ireland is on the other side of the England map (see previous item) and was designed by Martin Wallace too. Being long out of print, the main reason for hunting down a copy was that I was intrigued by the fact that it was the first expansion map specially designed for low player counts, namely 3 or 4.
While I think there are superior 3p maps nowadays, I wanted some of my gaming buddies to try the Ireland map as part of a chronological journey through the different maps (England had been played the week before). It is quite common to see new maps adopt ideas from older maps, and in that regard, Ireland was the first map to feature ferries (links to faraway cities with a default cost, of which you can build only one per turn).
Blue won the initial auction and chose First Build, connecting Black City 2 (Blue/Red) to White City 4 (Purple) and beginning a rail towards the middle of the board. Yellow chose Engineer and connected the Black City 2 to the White Cty 2 (Purple) via White City 3 (Purple).
It was Red's turn and he took what I defined as a kamikaze build. Considering the initial distribution of goods, it seemed sensible to us to tacitly divide the map in 3 sections: north, middle and south. There were plenty of cubes for all of us and we could grow a little bit before hostilities began. Instead, Red built from White City 2 (Purple) towards White City 1 (Gray), suddenly creating a lot of tension between Red and Yellow and leaving Blue with a lot of room to expand. Unfortunately for Red, he made a mistake next turn, letting Yellow build first for the cost of a few shares. Yellow took control of the ferry to Black City 1 (Blue/Red) and sent Red into a pain spiral.
In the following turns, Red and Yellow kept on fighting and throwing de-urbanizations at each other, until it became evident that Blue would win unopposed unless something was done. Thus, from mid-game until the final turn, Blue suffered the combined efforts of Red and Yellow.
With two turns left, the tables had turned and Yellow seemed pretty confident about winning thanks to his superior engine. Unfortunately for him, he did not foresee that Red would use Blue's track twice in the final turn, which proved enough for Blue to win the day.
The final score was: Blue (97) - Yellow (94) - Red (88)
Reviews and comments about the Ireland map often include adjectives such as brutal, unforgiving, etc. However, if not for Red's initial move, tension would have been less or on par with other 3p maps. I suspect there are many cubes in the initial setup. The next time we play it, we might try the fewer cubes variant (each city starts with one less cube) or 4 players instead of 3.
No standard locomotive role = fun! The standard locomotive role is usually absent in 3p maps, lest one player take it repeatedly in the first few turns and run away with the game. Forcing players to skip a shipment in order to upgrade their locomotives is painful, but lots of fun. Upgrading to 6-link loco is not a given, but sometimes you might find yourself crossing your fingers and hoping that your 5-link loco will suffice.
Kamikaze openings. The highlight of the game was Red's first turns. Firstly, he built right into another player's territory. Secondly, he chose the Locomotive role twice (you can upgrade your loco twice by skipping both shipments). While ultimately things did not pan out for him (he finished last), both choices made the game very interesting for us all.