Kings of Air & Steam
Designer: Scott Almes
Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
Time: 60-120 mins
Just before leaving for Essen, I had the opportunity to preview Kings of Air & Steam, a new design by Scott Almes which is planned for 2012 production by Tasty Minstrel Games. While I am usually not into playing games at this stage of development, the theme and mechanics of the game really caught my eye, and I am glad to have had a chance to play this one early. The version that I played was an earlier prototype version, and I know that some changes have been made to this for the final version offered on Kickstarter. So far, the game has met fairly good initial response – the project has already met its initial funding goal with more than 30 days remaining!
The game is set in the Steampunk Era – and the backstory as outlined on the Kickstarter page:
After a narrow defeat in the War of 1812 America fell back under British rule. Industry grew quickly and clumsily. Dangerous factories churning out more smoke than product were isolated in the plains, far away from the overcrowded cities. The steam locomotive was invented and steel tracks webbed across the country.
It wasn’t until 1856 when Samuel Diamond, a basement tinkerer, developed the Diamond Engine and gave the world an alternative to the traditional steam drive – an alternative that sent airships screaming across the sky.
An entrepreneur named Lawrence Golding had a vision, and the Diamond Engine was his muse. He spent every last penny to build an airship with one of Samuel’s prototypes. Factories continued to pop up seemingly out of nowhere, and Lawrence was the first one there to make their deliveries.
Before a railroad company could snake tracks to a new factory, Lawrence would already have an exclusive contract. The Golding Empire grew and grew, and the competition rusted in his wake.
The Diamond Engine made airships faster, but also more dangerous. Soon, airships were banned from city limits due to disastrous explosions. Golding saw this as a simple setback and learned to balance his fleet of airships with the existing railroad network.
Soon, it was an American rule: your shipments moved by Golding, or they didn’t move at all.
In 1870, the industrial world was shaken by Golding’s death. His eldest son, bitter and jealous, sold the entire business off piece by piece – shattering the mighty Golding Empire. With the very essence of how things moved around the country destroyed, the stage was set for the next candidate…
This story has been accompanied with an appropriate Art-Deco-ish logo and sample card art which also evokes the Steampunk setting.
If this had been part of the initial email sent to me, I would have surely been interested in the game. I’ve always been interested in Steampunk-themed games, and have been known to support games that no one else in my group really liked (Edison and Co., Modern Zeiten) because of the theme. However, the request that came in my inbox had none of that. It only had a description of the game. And it’s that description that really caught my eye. The short blurb that Michael Mindes from Tasty Minstrel games sent me was: “”Kings of Air and Steam” (KoAaS) is a pickup and deliver game, but in 2 steps (1st by airship and 2nd by railroad). It is a steampunk themed universe, where goods are picked up by airships, dropped off at rail depots, and then transported to cities for money. The game is 2-6 players and has 6 different teams with unique airships and 2 unique pilots. So there are 12 different people you could play as in any given game of KoAaS.”
Amazing as it might sound, this little description hit many of my gaming buttons.
– pick up and deliver mechanic
– steampunk theme
– Unique characters that (hopefully) lead to high replayability
As such, I went ahead and requested the offered copy of the game to see what it was all about. I’ve played it twice, and it is definitely an interesting and complex game! Let me briefly try to describe the game first…
The game is played over six rounds, and the goal of the game is to have the most money at the end… Money is earned by transporting colored cubes to cities which demand that color. Those cubes initially start in factories, and you pick them up from the factory with your blimp. Your blimp transports those cubes to your warehouses, and you then use your rail network to deliver the goods to the cities that want them.
Make sense? OK, I’ll admit that this isn’t the easiest game to distill down into four sentences… And I had to leave a bit out in order to make it fit. Let me expand on that description a bit:
The game is played over six (and a half) rounds on a modular board which is constructed in setup – so each game will have a slightly different layout. The map which is created has a number of factories scattered around the board which each produce cubes matching their colors (5 different colors in the game) in each round of the game. A network of railways is also created by the modular pieces that connects the different cities to each other. Each city is one of the 5 colors, with the color indicating which color good needs to be delivered there. The cities can each initially accept 5 goods of that color, and then their demand changes once based on a semi-random draw which might change the color of demand.
Players have to manage two different transport systems: their blimp and their rail network. Each player has a single blimp which can fly across the board. The purpose of the blimp is to pick up cubes from the factories and move them to the player’s rail depots. The rail depots are part of the rail network, and each player starts the game with a single depot which can be placed on any rail link on the board. During the game, players will expand their rail network by placing down more depots (on different rail links) and then use this network to move the cubes from their depots to the cities that demand them. Delivering goods to cities is the way to make money (which you need to win the game), and the value of each color of cube increases throughout the game.
Phew. That’s the longer description. But – that still doesn’t cover all the aspects of the game, and I’ve left out all sorts of stuff still. To fix that, I’ll have to go through the five Phases in each turn.
1) Market Adjusts
In this first phase, three city chips are drawn out of a bag and placed on the demand board. There are 4 chips each of the 5 different colors, so in each game, you will see 15 out of the 20 chips. These chips serve two purposes. First, as the chips are drawn, the commodity of the matching color has its price increased by $1. All colors start out at $4 and max out at $8 (if all its chips are drawn during the game). The second purpose of these chips is that they will form the pool of replacement city tiles that could be used later in the game.
2) Plan Airship Movement
In this planning phase, players take their deck of 13 cards (each player has an identical set of 13 cards) and chooses which movements he would like to take. Each of the cards specifies a number and pattern of hexes that the blimp will move (i.e. 3 spaces total, two straight ahead, one at 60 degrees the the right). Each card also has a “diamond rating” – the more complex cards have one or two diamonds on them. Finally, each card has a “speed rating” which roughly corresponds to number of hexes moved that turn. The players need to choose four cards in this planning phase, and they place them in order onto their planning board. The diamond rating comes into play because during your turn, you cannot play cards with an aggregate total of diamonds higher than your allotment. At the start of the game, you have no diamonds to use, though you can increase this capacity via Actions.
3) Movement and Actions
Once all players have chosen their four movement cards and placed them facedown on their planning boards, they simultaneously flip over the first one. Each player will move their blimp and then take an Action based on their current turn order, which is determined by the Speed Ratings of the cards played. In general, the fewer spaces you are trying to move, the higher you are in turn order. You move your blimp as many spaces as the card says, but you cannot move off the board nor end your movement on a City. If you pass over a factory or one of your depots, you can pick up or deliver goods to that space. The number of goods your blimp can hold is on the planning card.
After your move, you can then chose one of the six actions
- Build a depot – place a depot down on a rail link – this must go in an empty hex on the link, and costs increase for each other player’s link already on the link
- Increase your diamond rating – allows you to choose from more cards each turn
- Upgrade Rail Link Limit – increase the number of rail links you can move cubes over
- Ship a good – send a good from a depot towards a city.
- Route Adjustment – move your blimp to any one adjacent space. You may still not end your movement on a city
- Pass and take $3
Most of the Actions above are self-explanatory. The one which needs a bit more explanation is the shipping of goods. This is probably the most important Action in the game, as it is the one where you earn money – essentilly victory points in the game. To ship a good, you must first have a good on one of your depots. With the Ship Goods action, you are able to transport goods of one color across as many links as your Rail Link Limit allows. If the goods make it to a city of matching color, they are “delivered” and you receive an amount of money equal to the current price of the cube – remember that this price increases for each matching colored city tile that came up in Phase 1. As you ship goods, you would like to use your own depots, but you are not required to use only your own depots. If you do not have a depot on a link that you need to use, you can use your opponents depots, but at the cost of $1 per cube per link.
If a city is filled (with 5 cubes being delivered) – it gets a new demand chip placed on it. This chip is drawn from the pool of chips that had been set out in Phase 1 of each turn. These new chips only have a demand of three cubes – and the color of the demand may be different from the original color that was on the city! If this new demand is also met, the city does not get a new tile – it simply cannot accept any more cubes in the game.
In the upkeep phase, players pay $1 for each good they have in their depots and in their blimp. The start player token also moves clockwise.
5) Factories Produce Cubes
Each factory generates one cube of their color. In addition, for each demand tile that was drawn in Phase 1, a good of that color is also added to each factory of that color.
This pattern repeats for six turns. At the end of the sixth turn, there is a special endgame shipping phase. In this phase, all cubes delivered yield only $4. However, there is no limit to the number of cubes which can be delievered (i.e. the City demands are never fully met). If you use opponent’s depots, you still have to pay $1/cube/link. After this special shipping phase, endgame scoring occurs. Players receive $10 for each depot they had built, and then scores are tallied. The player with the most money wins!
So what do I think about the game?
It’s definitely a complex pick-up-and-deliver game, as you have to figure out how to move your blimp around and get goods at the start which figuring out how to spread you rail network, increase your blimp carrying capacity, and blimp movement ability. I was neutral about my two games thus far, and I definitely feel like it is the sort of game you’ll have to play a couple of times to really get a good feel for the strategy needed. My first game was a 3p game which took about 2 hours go through the rules and play. In my group, I think a 3p game would likely come in closer to 60 minutes once we’re familiar with the rules and flow of the game. My biggest problem with the game was that it was very unforgiving with the movement rules – there were not a lot of options available to you if you needed to alter your turn’s plan AFTER the cards had been played.
The game starts out as a bit of simultaneous solitaire as the blimps tend not to move very far. However, as the game progresses, the players definitely interact more. Blimps get increased movement capacity as players gain diamonds to use, and the cards with diamonds on them tend to allow further movement. Also, as the players rail networks expand, there are more factories and depots which can be reached by the blimp. The level of interaction was satisfactory for this sort of game though I wish there could be a bit more. Though I haven’t played enough to be sure, I think that certain board layouts could allow a player to stay off in their own world for the whole game and still compete for the win. I’m less thrilled about that possibility, but at this time, I don’t have enough experience with the game to know if that is truly possible or not.
The use of the “diamond ratings” on the movement cards is a nice way to give graduated movement capabilities. The diamonds give you flexibility on two different fronts. First, you have the option to move further — up to 7 spaces at most – while the furthest basic card only lets you move three spaces. Additionally, you have more cards to choose from and that’s pretty much always a good thing. One thing to be careful about is making sure that you don’t overspend your diamonds. There isn’t really a good way to do this other than being vigilant about counting up the diamonds with each card play. The penalty for playing too many diamonds is simply not moving for that card, which can be a significant penalty – and thus it’s important not to miss applying it!
You definitely have to have a long term plan in the game watching the changing prices of the cubes as well as the availability of those cubes and your chances of delivering them. You should probably always have a backup plan as well. In both of my games, I have been surprised at least once during the game when an opponent made a move that I hadn’t planned on, and I had to change my plans at the last minute because the cubes I had planned on picking up weren’t there any more! If you get sidetracked, it can really suck. There are only 6 turns in the game, and you pretty much lose any chance at winning if you spend 1/6 of the game flying around in circles not picking up cubes because your planned movement was borked by your opponents.
[NB: the version that I played had much stricter movment rules which made it easier to have your turn disrupted – the rules have apparently been updated to give the player many more options… However, these movement rules changes have not yet been implemented in the “final” rules on the Kickstarter page, so I’m not entirely sure what the movement rules are. There are also a number of rules questions which came up in my two playings of the game which have not yet been clarified in the “final” rules. I hope that this is remedied by print time.]
There is definitely the chance of having your turn be disrupted by being beaten to a cube pickup or cube delivery. There are a couple mechanics that allow you to mitigate this risk and salvage your turn
- Speed rating of cards – if you move earlier in turn order, by moving fewer spaces, you can usually guarantee that you can take the action you want.
- Sub-optimal movement – you have to move the number of spaces indicated on your card, but the rules now say that you can take whatever path you want as long as you don’t take sharp curves. Thus, you can use a “4” card to move 3 spaces straight ahead by adding in a jink along the way. This gives you a lot of flexibility in your planning as you can add in extra spaces in your flight plan in case your plan A is thwarted. (This is the change which I was told would be made to the rules, but are not yet changed in the “final” rules)
- The Adjust action – if all else fails, you can use your action to move your blimp one space in any direction. While, this certainly doesn’t have the same positive effect as building up your blimp or rail network, it can help keep your turn on track.
Having spoken with the designer and the guys at Tasty Minstrel, being able to mitigate a unexpected turn was one of the bigger obstacles in the development of the game. The developer, Seth Jaffee, has had a number of really interesting blog posts on the course the game has taken over the past year.
Like many other games that I like (such as Princes of Florence, for instance), there are a set number of actions in this game, and part of the puzzle that I like is figuring out how to maximize my game within that fixed number of actions. Good blimp movement planning is essential in maximizing your game as each time you need to use a “Route Adjustment” action takes away a chance to do something else… Of course, you might have to use the Route Adjustment to save a turn from being a complete disaster!
I feel that the game is a solid, fairly complex game that has mechanics that appeal to me. I am definitely looking forward to seeing the finished product with nice art and components, and I think that this has the potential to be a permanent edition to my game collection. Tasty Minstrel Games has produced some high-quality games through the Kickstarter route in the past, and I’m hoping that Kings of Air & Steam can match the production quality of Eminent Domain.
The version that I played still had a number of rough patches in the rules, and I’m sure that my group (as well as others that had the chance to play the game early) has given useful feedback to the team to help clear up any confusing parts. However, there is still a lot of time left between now and when the final rules are due, so I’m sure that this will be right by printing time. Though I haven’t played the game yet with the kindler, gentler movement rules – it certainly looks like it would be much improved with the proposed changes.
As it stands, the version that I played was OK, but it was extremely frustrating to have one-sixth of your game wasted when your planned cube pickup was stolen from underneath you, and you couldn’t modify your blimp movement enough to do anything else. If it remained like that, KoAaS would not be a game I’d be looking to play again. However, my largest misgiving of the game would be remedied with the new movement rules. Of course, with all Kickstarter projects, buyer beware. I’d make sure that the “final” rules have been updated before I pledged money towards it. (Version v.5.0.4 are what are currently “final” – and it is this set which I think could use some/a lot of work.)
If you’re interested in this kind of game, it may still be worth your while to look at the Kickstarter page. As I mentioned at the start of the column, the game has already met its initial funding goal (Congratulations to TMG!) – but there are some overfunding levels which, if met, could improve the components of the end product.
- 7th Team the “Mafia Guys” – $25,000
- Molded plastic airships (one type only) – $40,000
- Molded plastic thematic crates instead of boring cubes – $50,000
- Molded plastic airships (unique to each team) – $80,000
(The current pledge total was just shy of $17,000 as I was writing this piece up – you can find the updated total on the Kickstarter Project Page)
Finally, if you’re interested in seeing the game firsthand, a prototype will be available for play at BGG.con. There is a thread where you can express interest in playing the game: