If you were to look at my profile, you would see Steam at the top of my Top 10 list, so when Ted Alspach announced a new set of seven Steam-compatible mounted maps for Essen this year, I jumped on the opportunity an ordered them. Last night one of my friends uttered the magic words "I like train games", so I quickly pulled out the new maps. We settled on California Gold Rush.
The changes in California Gold Rush do not look big. * Remove the yellow new city tile. * Place all the yellow cubes on the indicated mountain spaces on the board (see image below). * Instead of delivering a good, you can mine gold if you have track on a gold space. Take the gold cube and put it in front of you. * Each gold cube is worth 5 points/income at the end of the game. * Easy!
At the start, the game plays as per normal, with everyone trying to get a profitable railroad running. While you can claim the gold cubes early in the game, they don't give you anything until the end of the game, so they won't help you improve your income, and therefore they tend to be ignored early. What you do notice, however, is that with one fewer colour of cubes and cities, it is harder to make longer runs as you are more likely to hit matching city early in your run. The game does compensate for this partially by having some grey cities pre-printed on the board allowing you to use the grey cubes without urbanising.
As the game progresses and players try to convert their income production into points production you really start to see the impact of the changes. You can earn five points with an incomplete link that goes into the mountain and collects gold. You don't have to set up long inefficent routes or upgrade your locomotive to a high level. Just build that little piece of track and claim the easy points. This makes actions like first build and first move more valuable than your normal favourites, urbanise, locomotive and production. It also leads to a lot of aggressive track over-building as people build a second piece of track in the same hex to get access to the gold cubes. As the gold cubes are in the middle of the mountains, it is also common not to bother finishing the link as the cost outweighs the benefit.
This map is the only one I have played where most players finish up around a level 4 locomotive, rather than the normal 5 or 6.
Overall, this is a great expansion map for Steam (and I assume Age of Steam too) that shakes up the game. I wouldn't want this to be the normal rules (I like building large inefficient track networks), but it's a lot of fun for an occasional play. And given how many expansions there are for these great games, it's really hard to play any of them regularly anyway - this set alone gives you seven new maps (well actually eight, but one of them is not intended for people to actually play).
Highly recommended for Steam fans, and this year's set is definitely a better deal than last year's as the maps are mostly mounted and you aren't stuck with any 2-player only maps.