Essen Preview #27 – Age of Steam: African Diamond Mines & Taiwan Cube Factories

Age of Steam Expansions – African Diamond Mines /Taiwan Cube Factories

Designer: Ted Alspach

Publisher: Bezier Games

Like the other AoS expansions in the Bezier Games’ Essen pack, this is a double-sided board intended to work with either the Age of Steam or the Steam base game.

Underground Rails in Diamond Mines

In African Diamond Mines, players build tracks connecting various underground diamond mine deposits (light gray hexes, each starts with 2 random cubes at the beginning of the game) to the mine entrances of a specific color to enable the most efficient extraction of the diamonds. There are only 5 delivery cities (diamond-shaped areas at the very top of the board), each with 2 (dark gray hex) mine entrances (the black/gray one in the middle has 3 entrances).  There are links already established between the mine entrances and the delivery cities (white lines with white dots). No one owns them, and everyone can use them. Initial track building must start from one of the mine entrances. In general, the mine deposits closer to the delivery cities are shallower than the ones further down on the board. Each mine deposit cluster has a number indicating its depth. There are no cities or terrain differences, and each simple track costs $2 to build.  If one has tracks leading to a mine deposit cluster, that player has access to all cubes in the cluster so there’s no need to build tracks into a specific hex in the cluster.

Because there are no cities, the urbanization action is replaced by the depth action. The player(s) choosing the urbanization action will instead increase the depth capacity by 1 (to the maximum of 4 from the starting position of 1). There are two reasons to take the depth action. The first is to enable delivery from a deeper mine deposit. In order to deliver a cube to a connected delivery city, the player must meet the following requirements:

  • Have the locomotive number greater than or equal to the number of links used – This is the same requirement as in the base games, but in this game there can be no 1-ink deliveries because the link between the mine entrance and the delivery city counts as a link so in order to deliver anything, you need a minimum of level 2 locomotive.
  • The sum of locomotive and the depth capacity must be greater than or equal to the mine deposit depth from which the cube is being extracted.  So in order to deliver a cube from a mine deposit of depth 5 across 2 links, you must have a minimum of level 2 locomotive, and the combined locomotive and depth capacity has to be at least 5.

The second reason to increase depth capacity is to improve delivery income. Income for delivering a cube is now based on the mine deposit depth. Instead of trying to go through many short links, players are rewarded for the speed of extraction.  For each link used in the delivery, $1 is deducted from the base income (mine deposit depth). The delivery links income penalty can be offset by the depth capacity. So as long as the links used is less than or equal to the depth capacity, the player making the delivery will get the full income. The depth capacity can only be used to offset the income penalty, and a positive differential between depth capacity and delivery links cannot be used to increase delivery income above the base income. It’s all a bit confusing but luckily the income calculation formula is printed on the board next to the depth chart for reference.

As is in the base game(s), players may use one of his/her two actions each round to increase the locomotive level, or the depth capacity (urbanize), but not both.

As diamond mining companies are not known for collaboration in real life, deliveries made across tracks owned by other players are very costly. All players involved will share the income evenly, regardless of the percentage of tracks each contributing to the delivery.

The last major difference between this expansion and the base game is that the production action allows the player to take 2 random cubes from the bag and place them in a single mine deposit. There is no cube in the city growth areas of the Steam game, and the production chart from Age of Steam is not used.

This expansion can accommodate 3-6 players, and I have played the game with 3, 4, and 5 players, mostly with Steam but a couple of times with Age of Steam. While the track building on average is cheaper than in the base game, money is very tight in this game, especially in the beginning of the game when players all have to increase their locomotive (no 1-link deliveries) and depth capacities and vie for board position all at the same time. Track building pattern is also counter-intuitive from the typical AoS/Steam game. It’s not unusual to see a mine deposit that doesn’t generate as much income get bypassed by all players with tracks built all around it but not through it. Furthermore, it is more likely to see players building tracks from different mine entrances instead of extending one’s network, in order to minimize links used in a particular delivery. Since delivering using someone else’s tracks gives a huge advantage to the player not making the delivery, I initially thought that trying to own all the links to mine entrances connected to a single delivery city would be a valid strategy.  I never got to try that strategy but another player did in a game, and it turned out to be a losing strategy. It is very difficult to have a monopoly of the tracks leading to a particular delivery city, and even if you were to manage that feat, the other players can still deliver to that city by using the pre-established links. The income loss in that case is probably 2 or 3, which is less than what they’ll have to pay you if they were to share tracks. As a result, no one would make a shared-track delivery unless that is the only delivery they can make.  As I like optimization games, I really like this map. The key for the game is to get an efficient engine for a single color going as soon as possible, and at the same time building for plan B and C (the other colors).  The one down side (I feel this way about the AoS and Steam base games as well) is that it’s very difficult to catch the leader in the last 2 rounds of the game so the game sort of loses steam towards the end…

Delivery to Cube Factories

The Taiwan Cube Factory expansion is very different from the African Diamond Mines. The setting is a long, narrow island, with mountains running north south through the middle of the island and several rivers flowing east or west from the mountains, so you know building tracks would be expensive. To makes it worse, all tracks cost double (than the base game cost) to build. Going across the mountain may very well cost a player $24/turn just in building cost alone.  Selecting the ‘Engineering’ option allows tracks to be built at the normal cost but only maximum of 3 tracks per turn may be built. Just like in African Diamond Mines, the City Growth spots in Steam are not used. Players choosing the ‘Production’ option may take 3 cubes of choice from the supply immediately.  As it is a 3-4 player game, 2 cities (black ones) are removed from the game, and each player is given a random cube at the beginning of the game to seed the cube ‘factories’. When a cube is delivered, instead of placing it back to the bag or out of the game, it is set in front of the player making the delivery. At the end of each round, in player order, players may choose to create any number of cubes by combining cubes in front of them according to the production formula on the board and placing those new cubes in any city connected to directly by their tracks.

This is a harsh game. I have only played with 3 players. It is likely that the fourth player may go bankrupt before the game is over. Money is tight and fighting for board position is fierce. Because track building is so expensive, and getting a diversity of cubes is a critical part of getting the ‘factory’ running smoothly, both ‘Engineering’ and ‘Production’ are very viable options, in addition to ‘Locomotive’ and ‘Urbanization’. In fact, ‘Urbanization’ is devalued somewhat because the new city doesn’t come with cubes (but you do still save on track building cost).  As a result, there tends to be not as much fighting for turn order, as going 3rd or even 4th can still have good action options. That makes the game slightly more manageable to me, as I often have to estimate conservatively and go into more debt than I want to just to have enough money to go through the bidding part in case I end up in a bidding war with someone. The difficult twist in the game (other than the outrageous building cost) is instead of always taking the most profitable delivery, players have to think about the different color cubes they need to combine with what they have to generate more cubes in the most profitable color. If your delivery engine is too specialized, your cube factory will be less efficient (4:1 ratio rather than 2:1 ratio). Because there are two engines (delivery and cube factory) to plan for, there are a lot more unexpected player interactions, and the game can be tense from beginning to end. I think it’s a great map for 3 players (and some day, I will try it with 4), and I look forward to playing it again soon.

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