Thursday, October 6, 2005

Age of Steam Scandinavia, Palazzo

Long-time readers of this blog will know that my feelings for Age of Steam have been a moving target. Initially, I was caught in the headlights of the game's significant failings – mainly the ludicrously wonky endgame. While these failings mean I just can't consider it a top-tier game, I have come around to be fond of it nonetheless. As a rail-building game, it's a nice middle ground between the simpler crayon-style games and non-rail games like Ticket to Ride, and the slightly more involved 1825 and 18xx games in general. I like the difficult financial management decisions and the fact that most of the game is simply fending off financial disaster. I like how tough the early game is. And the route-building is interesting. With these strengths, I can live with the problems, even if I'm not happy about them.

This was the first time I've played an expansion map. We had 3, and I had heard that Scandinavia worked well with smaller numbers of players, so we gave that a try. Interestingly, the early game was even harsher than usual – with the expensive sea links, you'll need to re-calibrate your instincts on how much debt you need early. Being in the middle, the sea links also provide an interesting choke-point, and if you don't get one, you'll get stuck on one side or the other. This worked well with 3 players; I was developing on the Germany/continental Denmark side of the ferries, which Rich and Kim were on the Copenhagen/Norway/Sweden side. Not sure I'd want to play with more than 4 players on this map, though, as I think some players might get hosed based just on how the players' areas of operation worked out.

Still, I liked the map, maybe even more than the basic map given the small number of players. The constrained areas and heavy competition for the central Danish cubes seemed to put more emphasis on the Producer action, and I liked the Ferry action which allows you to easily move cubes between coastal cities.

We still ended up brainstorming how to fix the endgame, though. Even after only one game it was apparent to Rich and Kim that this could have been done a lot better. Rich had one of the better suggestions I've heard, I thought: add another action, the Financier, which would allow you to buy back one or two shares for $5 each.

Still, all told, I've enjoyed Age of Steam, and hope to be able to get it on the table somewhat more often in the future, maybe experiment with more of the maps. It's never going to be a game I play more than a handful of times a year, but for its flaws it's still got good stuff.

After finishing Age of Steam, we had time for a quick closer, so we went with Palazzo. I've decided this is, in fact, a very good game. So many tough and interesting choices, and like a lighter version of Ra, the randomness of the auctions means you're never looking at the same situation twice, but it rarely feels arbitrary. I was worried that the quest for homogeneous buildings would drive the game, but I've now seen people win both with small numbers of huge-point buildings and with a more diversified collection. I also find the game has an interesting pace to it, with a slow start building up to a high-pressure endgame. And despite the apparent chaos, the evidence is that like Ra, skilled players reliably win, and win big. All in all, I now think this is one of the best games of the year. While Tower of Babel is a little more appealing to me because it's a bit more unusual, Palazzo has been a reliable winner in my groups.

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