Saturday, January 28, 2006

Age of Steam and Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame

I've been on what (for me, anyway) counts as a bit of a game binge with Age of Steam. I've recently played Age of Steam on the Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany, and new France maps. And I also had a chance to try out Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame.

Age of Steam has always been the ultimate "bubble game" for me. On the one hand, I like its money management elements – you are caught between needed big capital improvements and the debt required to finance them. On the other hand, the game lacks the polish we've come to expect from games these days. The sub-par graphics and rules are one element of this, but the main thing is the serious systemic imbalances: the fact that so many of the special actions are worthless or almost worthless in most circumstances; and the fact that the late-game bidding is so weird because money doesn't count for anything at game end (it isn't even a tie-breaker). And let's not forget the awkward victory conditions, which encourage all sorts of odd tile-laying so you can turn money you can't use into track you can't use – the track at least being worth points.

I do still sort of like Age of Steam, but I think with all the imbalances, it's now on a terminal downward slope for me after about 10 games. In the great German-style games, like El Grande, Settlers of Catan, or Puerto Rico the players have resources that they have to make tough choices about how to spend. Because many of the resource "sinks" in Age of Steam are so unbalanced, the choices are more about figuring out which options are viable at all. This just isn't all that entertaining, and misjudgments can have seriously debilitating effects. As a player of German-style games, I have come to trust the designer, in that if he or she puts something in the game, it is a viable choice. Such is not the case here, and it requires an attitude adjustment. Still, even with all this, I think Age of Steam is close to being pretty good. If the roles were re-developed, and the victory conditions re-thought, and the role of randomness reconsidered, some of these issues could be resolved, and the income vs. debt balance (the really good part of the game) could shine. As it is, though, it's just not there.

When Railroad Tycoon came out last year, I went over to BoardGameGeek and surfed people's comments and opinions, and read some online reviews. In general, I wasn't that optimistic, because most people seemed to think of it as a simplification of Age of Steam. At the end of the day, though, I was somewhat more impressed with Railroad Tycoon than I ended up being with Age of Steam.

The reason for this is simple: in Railroad Tycoon, the role selection is gone. Instead, you have three actions per turn to spend on a variety of ways of improving your corporate empire: building track, making deliveries, improving your trains, developing cities, and so on. This leads to consistently more interesting choices than you face in Age of Steam, where your options are a lot more constrained. Between the rich turn-to-turn choices (including a lot more ways to spend money) and the fact that Railroad Tycoon retains the interesting debt-or-development choices, I think it is the fundamentally superior game.

Railroad Tycoon still has some significant issues. It seems to have played a shell game with the imbalances of Age of Steam. It hasn't gotten rid of them, although it has moved them into areas where they do less damage. The game features a lot of special action cards. These can be of two types: cards with one-time or recurring powers available for draft, which you can take as one of your action choices; or cards which offer an income bonus to the first player able to fulfill their conditions (getting a 4-train, making a 3-length delivery, connecting Baltimore to Toledo, that sort of thing).

The first serious red flag are cards like the one that gives you a 20-income bonus for connecting New York to the West. After playing, I find it inconceivable that this could ever be done short of colossal debt that would be suicidal. The game is too short and the cost of making the Western connection too high. On further inspection, there are many cards in the deck that are too weak to even consider taking outside of very, very specialized circumstances.

Obviously, cards that are too weak aren't a critical problem. They aren't exactly desirable, but in this case you can ignore them and focus on the many other action choices. The more serious question is whether there are cards that are too strong. This, I am not sure of. There are a few cards (the first to make a 3-length delivery, the first to upgrade a train to level 4, and the first to deliver to certain cities) which offer potentially unbalancing payoffs when scored very early in the game. Normally, players are making one or two income points at a time until they've build out their network; these cards can give you easy 3-4 point income bumps, and getting one or two early can make a big difference to your chances.

So, I'm not generally enamored of the cards, and find it hard to believe that any effort at all was spent balancing them. But in general, I think they do a lot less damage than the unbalanced and constraining roles in Age of Steam, and I think by opening up the flow of the turn sequence to more player options, Railroad Tycoon presents a more interesting game. But like Age of Steam, this inability to get the balance right is what keeps game companies like Eagle, Warfrog, and Fantasy Flight from operating on the same level as the Germans.

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