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Age of Steam - For Heroes!

'Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.' Dr Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)

The good Doctor was not a boardgamer (at least Boswell makes no mention of an Advanced Squad Leader habit in his biography); he spent his time writing his dictionary, winding up Boswell and getting all weepy about London, however had he ever played boardgames his dictum would surely have been:

'Ticket to Ride is the game for boys; Railroad Tycoon for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must play Age of Steam'.

Age of Steam' ,the brandy of boardgames ,reverses my usual boardgaming preference - that they should be social affairs, preferably cause some laughter at the table and leaving everyone at the end of the evening feeling that they had a good time. Age of steam is brutal, there does not seem to be any other way to describe it. It has player elimination - almost unheard of in a modern board game. It punishes bad play, requires 100% concentration for two hours just to survive let alone win and leaves you feeling that you have just sat through a school exam - which you have not revised for.

Have i put you off yet? No - let's carry on then. My first game of
Age of Steam , to borrow from Hobbes, was nasty , brutish and short. I went bust after five turns. Embarrassed, I sat and watched the rest of the game whilst four, normally, pleasant and gregarious gamers became fractious and paralysed by analysis. I was hooked. In my next game i managed to last the course, watching my opponent, normally a gaming bon-vivant, turn a shade of grey,reduced to mono-syllables. The game requires you to keep three plans in your head simultaneously because you will not be allowed to achieve the your preferred choice, if any - to be successful at the game you need to deny your opponents easy points. It's the sort of game where you watch other player's moves , praying they don't do something nasty to you. Your prayers are seldom answered.

How does it play? You own a railroad company and need to build links between towns and cities over which you ship goods. Victory points are awarded for net income and completed sections of track. Each turn players build track and ship goods - sounds simple doesn't it? You start the game with $10 and a level one engine - you are going to have to service your debt every turn and pay a $1 in engine expenses per level. So at the end of the first turn you have to find a minimum $3 in expenses

Each turn sees players issuing new shares, $5 per share ($1 interest per share per turn ), then bid for player order. The only player who does not have to pay for their bid is the first person to pass in the bidding. The top two bidders pay the full value of their bid, everyone else half rounded up. So if you issued a share to fund building and turn order bidding you are looking at turn end minimum expenses of $4 and you have no income. Yet.

Once player order is decided in order each player selects a role for the round. The selections include 'first build' - this allows you to build first your track first, 'First move' this allows you to move goods first, 'Engineer' - allows you to build four sections of track instead of the normal three, 'urbanisation' allows you to upgrade a town to a city, 'Production' allows you to add two random goods cubes to the goods board, 'Locomotive' this allows you to increase the level of your engine and thus ship goods further and 'Turn order' which allows you one free pass in the next round of turn order bidding.

Once the roles are decided then players take it in turn order to build track(whoever choose 'first build' builds first). Each player builds up to three sections of track, usually these will link towns or cities. A player puts their marker on any link they have just completed to markt heir ownership They might also cross over other players track, the cost of the track depends on the terrain and complexity of track placed. Space is limited on the board so players often use there builds to block out other players. The player who choose 'Urbanisation' can upgrade a town to a city. The new cities (8 of them) come in different colours. The next part of the turn players ship goods - all cities start with two random coloured goods on them. Players move goods twice during this phase, being able to forgo one move to upgrade their locomotive by one level. Goods must be shipped to a city of the same colour and must stop as soon as they reach a city of the same colour. You can only ship goods over as many links as you have an engine level, so at the beginning of the game you can only move goods over one link. Moving one good one link gives you a $1 boost on the income track. If you have an upgraded engine you can move goods further and receive a bigger income boost, one per city/town passed through. The highest level of engine is 6. You can also move goods over other peoples links - givng them income points. Why on earth would you want to do that? Sometimes it's necessary to give you the maximum income boost and deny it to your opponent the other ,reason is that each turn, once a player has got past to an income of $10 they see their income reduced. As if it was not hard enough to just break even as soon as you start to make money your income is reduced. So if your opponent is nicely placed on an income of $9 give him an extra point and then watch his income go back $2 at the end of the turn to $8. It's a nasty game - surviving requires elbowing people out of the way, winning trampling on their face. Income reduction is a catch up mechanism, somehow it feels more like an instrument of torture than a method to stop a runaway leader.

After moving goods players receive income, pay expenses and reduce their income if necessary and If you can't pay expenses your income is moved backwards for every $ you missed. Down to zero and you are bust and out of the game. Getting in to the black in this game feels like an achievement in itself. After income comes goods growth. Each of the cities on the board and cities available through urbanisation either has a number or a letter. These correspond to a table of goods which is randomly populated at the beginning of the game. A number of dice equivalent to the number of players is rolled and then the goods in the top row corresponding to the column of the die roll are moved to the cities. If a player has chosen 'Production' earlier he can
take two random cubes and place them any where on the goods table before the dice are rolled for goods growth.

At the end of the game players incomes are multiplied by three, three times their shares issued is subtracted and one point is for each section of track in a completed link is added. All players then need a stiff drink to calm their nerves.

This game is not for everyone. If
Ticket To Ride is your favourite game then you will might hate this game. However, if you love Railroad TycoonCanal Mania then this might well be the game for you - it's a step up in complexity but is hugely rewarding once the initial shock is over come. Now I'm off to bury my head in an ice bucket..and clear my head for another game of 'Age of Steam'

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