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Musings on Steam and it's cousins

Boardgamers and trains seem to go together like ...train spotters and platforms. We do love a train game - all the way from Ticket to Ride to 18xx. I thought i had the train part of my collection sorted - Age of Steam, Railroad Tycoon, Ticket to Ride ,Steel Driver, Chicago Express, Canal Mania and Jet Set (the last two are train games masquerading as other forms of transport and 18xx a bit beyond me).

So when Steam was released i wished it well but assumed it was too similar to my other train games to be an essential purchase. Now i've read the rules i have changed my mind. It seems to fill a (small)gap that sits between Age of Steam and Railroad Tycoon (and it's expansion Rails of Europe). Actually the gap is small but quite important. Railroad Tycoon is lovely to behold, and in it's capital structure is forgiving enough for most boardgamers. However, the operation cards make it a bit of a lottery - especially in the base set. In a close game it can be very frustrating if the luck of the draw favours one player - whether a completed route bonus in the base set or a charter, hotel or build bonus in Rails of Europe that is more valuable to one player than another. In Age of Steam the game can be just too brutal to beginners. Goods growth, decided by dice, seems to to throw an element of luck into a game that demands crystal clear planning.

So Steam looks like the synthesis of design ideas and practical observations. For a start the prohibition on taking Locomotive as an action when maxed and the requirement to ship goods over at least half of your own track takes out two of the 'gamey' elements of Age of Steam. The change from Goods growth to City Growth also seems like an improvement of Age of Steam.

In basic Steam the brutality of the auction process and lottery of the operation cards has been replaced with an separate auction for roles - and this looks like a great middle ground for those of us who struggle with AoS but find RRT too simplistic and lacking some tension.

The other area i'm not unhappy to see changed is income reduction, again it seems too gamey. Having worked for eight years capitalisng the 'real' railways i have seen enough game playing at the expense of economic reality to want to see it in a board game. Instead we have a division in steam between victory points and income. This causes me a thematic problem - surely an economic game needs to reward money earned and invested? However, if i see the Victory points as the Net Present Value (in the same way that the final movement of goods cubes in Steel Driver is the Net Present Value of the companies networks) of my railway a the end of the game then it works.

I wonder how well my musings will stand up to actual play of Steam, but now having made them i am compelled to find out. There has been a lot of debate about the number of track tiles - that i most certainly can't comment on till i have played.

The Real Railway

The whims of government are the key to the real railways today. We can't do without a rail network but they can't survive in a free market. Hence vast public subsidy, a regulatory environment and decisions made on political expediency rather than the best movement of real cubes over a net work you have built. In fact there has been virtually no new track routes laid since the 19th century (CTRL excepted) - capital investment has been in signaling, renewals and systems to improve performance. Ownership of infrastructure and train operations have been separated into separate ownership and control. I wonder if there is a game to be made there?

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