steam box cover

Steam: Rails to Riches and Its Complicated Family

We all have games that we admire more than we enjoy. Or else games that we only enjoy in a narrow set of circumstances. One such game for me is Steam, originally published by Mayfiar Games in 2009. It was the result of a labyrinthine rights battle around that time. You see, Steam was based on the 2002 game Age of Steam, itself designed by Martin Wallace. Owing to a messy divorce with original publisher Warfrog Games (At least I think so. I followed the whole thing and still couldn’t explain it to you.) Age of Steam somehow ended up fracturing into numerous different titles. One of these was a reprint of Age of Steam reprinted around 2011.  The second was a version called Railroad Tycoon, based on the classic series of PC games and eventually rebranded as Railways of the World when the license ran out. The last was Steam, the version with endorsement of the original designer, and the version that I own.

In all of these forms, the game represented a sort of Euro-style reimagining of the venerable train game. As a genre, train games have almost as rich a history as wargames. There are certain markers that always need to be hit, like laying track, transporting goods, and managing finances. In different measures these have always been the focus on games with extensive product lines, like the Empire Builder or 18xx series. Age of Steam hit all of these elements, but it did so in perhaps the most stripped down way possible. The goods were simply different colored cubes. The finances were mostly handled in a simple system of loans and interest. In general the focus was on abstraction, an embrace of the idea of train games above the minutiae.

(In this Wallace was in sync with another popular Eurogame: Power Grid. Friedemann Friese’s classic has its roots in the route building and economics of trains, even if it doesn’t actually deal with them.)

Martin Wallace’s big contribution to the train game was to put playability above details. This was done graphically as much as it was mechanically. Goods are shipped to any city that matches the color, rather than the cubes representing any real life commodity. The player doesn’t deal with specific historical train models, but rather represents advancing technology through a series of levels, from 1 to 6. Even the goal of the game, to generate income and points through transporting goods, works better in mechanical terms than in simulationist ones. Since the player gets points for each length of track they use, it is more advantageous to use the most circuitous, inefficient route you can. Heck of a way to run a business.

age of steam
The newest version of Age of Steam. The deluxe edition has a price to match.

The upshot of all of this is a game that is definitely thematic, but in that sideways way that Eurogames used to embrace. It’s all mechanical theme with little care for visual trappings. One could make the argument that abstracting so much historical detail misses the point of train games in the first place, and I don’t think that’s completely off-base. But in all its forms Age of Steam is still a compelling title, even as it inches toward two decades in age. The question is of course which version to get. As I said before I own Steam, even though I’m not actually sure it’s the best version.

That sounds kind of silly, but then our game preferences are matters of the heart. In my case, it is thanks to my friend Brad that I own Steam at all. When it hit shelves in 2009, it was after several years of Age of Steam, its predecessor, not being readily available. My friend Brad, always more of a Eurogamer than I was, eagerly bought a copy. We played several times, and my own response was always one of mild enjoyment, edging up to appreciation depending on the day. I also played a game or two of Age of Steam and Railways of the World, but Steam remained my primary point of reference for the whole dysfunctional family. After I eventually moved away I didn’t play it again for years, until I suddenly found myself wanting to try it again. By this time of course I lived in Manila, and the prospect of ever getting a copy was distant. But amazingly I found an old used copy on forgotten shelf at a store here. My nostalgia got the better of me and I bought it without a second thought.

game in progress
Steam has an understated but classy presentation. I actually really like it. (image taken by user killroy_locke on BoardGameGeek.com)

Revisiting the game has been an interesting experience. I’m at a place in my life where I’ve become much more comfortable with games that don’t quite line up with my tastes, and so I think my estimation of the game has definitely gone up. Upon reflection, the design is frankly brilliant. There are a lot of complex economic elements that go into rail games that are all expected to be there, and Steam hits them all so efficiently. In particular, I want to praise the game’s financial system, which revolves around an income track. Your position on the track dictates your income each turn, whether positive or negative. You can choose to move down the track to get a little more money, but if you go negative you will actually owe money to your investors. Or maybe it’s the bank. The real brilliance is that it can be either one. It represents the whole spectrum of financial management in a single system. It’s tough as nails and I love it. I am also a big fan of the way cities on the board grow. Players have the option to develop minor cities on the board, making them produce goods that can then be shipped around the board. It’s a great way to represent the urbanization of minor cities in the age of rail. All of this in a game that wraps up in a reliable 90 minutes if you play the gentler basic game.

But how fun is all of this? Well, pretty fun, but it has a certain stuffiness about it. Steam was born out of an age when Eurogamers were generally afraid of luck at all, and once the board is set there’s none at all in Steam. If you like planning that much then bully for you, but I think it lends the game a sort of fussy quality, altogether too much control for any game that wants to recreate the real world at all. This is in contrast to its relatives. Age of Steam at least lets you draw cubes randomly when new ones are placed on the board, and Railways of the World has cards that inject a little bit of chaos into the system. In a vacuum both of those things would be preferable to me, because Steam definitely favors the more analytical players at the table. It’s the sort of game I like best when played with people around the same skill as I am, because otherwise it’s not much of a contest. I’ve never been one to see extended networks in the abstract, and so I always play games like this at a disadvantage.

railways of the world
Railways of the World is perhaps the most decked out version, with enormous maps, plastic pieces, and take-that cards. It’s fun, but approaches too much of a good thing.

Steam could stand to loosen up, but it’s also the most approachable game in the series. It is somewhat more forgiving for inexperienced players, and provided with both a Basic mode (which I frankly prefer) and a Standard game closer to Wallace’s original release. It has a good deal more polish than the original game, with none of the chromed-out overproduction of Railways of the World. I feel like it’s also shorter than either Age of Steam or Railways of the World, though my memory is a bit hazy there. Most importantly, it’s just the version I know best. Sometimes familiarity lends importance, and that’s definitely the case here. There’s a decent chance I’d prefer the other two games all things being equal, but all things aren’t equal. They aren’t the ones I own, and I’m frankly not inclined to buy another similar title.

Oddly enough, Steam has become the rarest game in this little family tree. It’s become less common recently, still available here and there but far more obscure than its siblings. I think Mayfair determined it wasn’t worth trying to compete with a NEW new version of Age of Steam that has recently become available, or with the Railways games, which are still active as well. It’s kind of a shame, because in its way Steam was pitched squarely at the new gamer. It’s a nicely produced, affordable game, more forgiving than its siblings but still basically the same game. Not only that, but it opened up a huge library of expansions. Of course there were those designed specifically for Steam, but with very little conversion you can also use the numerous maps for Age of Steam. But instead we have the bigger, more expensive editions that are pitched at people who are already gamers. They have much to recommend them, but Steam is the one that to me best fulfills the promise of a train game for gamers of every type.

1 thought on “Steam: Rails to Riches and Its Complicated Family”

  1. Our friend Brad got me to play Age of Steam many moons ago. I also found no more than a “mild enjoyment” with it. But it turns out that I was faced with a very unfair situation, since he and my ex-brother-in-law-in-law-in-law, Chad, were masters at the game. I was the newbie, and I did not do entirely well.

    But I gave the game a [huge] second chance by attending the Age of Steam Con last year. Chad and another friend, Kevin, were running it here in KC, for a second annual year. And I said why not! It was pretty fun, and I don’t consider myself a master at the game yet, but I certainly appreciate its artful workings, as you said here, of transportation finances.

    Like

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