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I was keen to play Age of Steam after looking at my game played statistics and not seeing many plays. I made a plug for Italy as it was the only board out of the basic 9 that I had yet to play. There weren't any other strong opinions (apart from negative ones about other boards) so I got my way. Italy is an expansion without towns (and hence no Urbanisation), where you can only build one complete link per turn and where black cubes are used to reduce people's incomes. John, Carl and Anne had all played before and they offered various advice, such as:
Sometimes it is worth taking shares just to build track (shares only cost 2 VP and are not limited to 15)
The southern half of the board starts surprisingly close to the top
Beware the red-blue sink-hole of Rome
People might take Urbanisation (which replaces 2 black cubes with random ones) just to prevent someone else taking it
In the first turn Anne (purple) built between Torino and Milano, Carl (red) built from Roma to Firenze, Nigel (black) between Genova and Milano, I (yellow) built from Bari to Napoli and John (green), who lurked at the bottom of turn order for free for the first few turns, built Milano to Trento. John and Anne cooperated to link-up and deliver across each other's network. Anne, John and Nigel followed each other around the cities of northern Italy, while Carl and I built north to Bologna and Roma respectively. He then built east to Ancona (a link I had my eye on) so I went south to Brindisi.
Anne's track linked all the northern cities from Genova to Venezia, John built to Genova at one end and down to Verona and Bologna. They continued their cooperative shipping for one more turn. While Nigel and Carl passed each other in opposite directions, Nigel going south via Verona and Livernoto to Firenze, while Carl built to Verona and Venezia. I built long links down to "verso la Sicilia" and up to Bologna. These links meant that I had a long lead up the share track, a lead I never looked likely to loosing (in fact I threatened to lap the more frugal players ).
There was tough competition for track around Bolognia and Verona. In there end we were running out of viable builds due either to the lack of entry points to cities and the lack of available complex track to build in the crowded north. The lack of a direct, or even a simple indirect, route between Genova and Bolognia frustrated most of us when we were looking around for cubes to move. Nigel and Carl grabbed entry points to cities I wanted to build to by being ahead of me in the turn order at the time. Anne annoyed Carl by moving a black cube four spaces across his track, but none of anyone else's. Otherwise people tended to share around the effects of black cubes.
Given that we are used to subtracting the shares issued from the income track to get an idea how well players are doing we found it more difficult to judge how well people were doing in Italy with its different formula for victory points. So I was surprised to do as well as third and see Carl come last.
I did feel some satisfaction as a railway builder to have built a track from the French border to the tip of the Italian boot and used one of the special complex Italian track tiles.
Nigel black 93+22-18 = 97
Anne purple 90+13-14 = 89
Ian yellow 93+26-36 = 83
John B green 84+10-14 = 80
Carl red 81+15-18 = 78
I can see that the rule that each person can only build one link tends to mean that everyone stays in lock-step on the Locomotive track and builds long routes rather than looping track (at least with 5 players). But I can also see that best play of the black cubes needs all players to have a good idea of how well the players are doing with respect to each other. Poor judgement could lead to someone being unfairly targeted. I am certainly keen to give this expansion another go.