Age of Steam Con: Day Two

Here’s where we’ve been playing. Last year, the con was at one of our hosts’ houses, but this year we have this nice space with some kitchen facilities, and a beautiful bank of windows through which we’ve enjoyed thunderstorms, snow, and some sun.

The thunderstorms and snow seem to have taken some of our Los Angeles friends in attendance as something special, but today Jon arrived from just south of Bergen, Norway -a city which experienced more than a 100 consecutive days of rain in one stretch in the past few years- so it was also very familiar to others.

At some point, I may come to a conclusion that the history of Age of Steam maps take an arc not unreminiscent of the arc of designer board games over the last 15-20 years. I don’t know how to convert a sorta of feeling I have along those lines into words for you, but for now, (and now is _after_ Day Two, or maybe it occurred somewhere in the middle) I’m going to skew towards trying to play older maps that have minimal rule changes, where the innovation(?) comes heavily from the geography of the map.

To that end, one of the maps I had requested ahead of time was the Bay Area.

Prior to this weekend, and, well, even now, Bay Area is one that I connotate in my head with being a brutal map. Just holding up a sign that says “Bankruptcies Ahead”. (And, while yes, we did have one in this game, there were 4 in the 6 games I played today.)

The city in the lower left there is special, as it has a chain of cubes that must be delivered in order, and San Jose is special -that trio of red hexes which will receive all cubes from the first half of the goods display, and are the only red cities other than that lower left corner.

That’s largely it for the special rules, but the map is enough. One consistent thing among maps I played today was turns with no deliveries. For better or for worse. Intentionally or accidental. I was one of those in this map. There are few deliveries available on the first turn, and I was crossing my fingers that I could invest strongly in track, do something awesome in the second auction, and then put something together, and it mostly worked. This map was a treat.

Up next, Dale had recommended the Netherlands map to me, which I was surprised to find out was originally a SpielBox release. Talking to Chad and Kevin, this map was the original impetus for the XL version Kevin made as there is too much to track on the SpielBox board.

The other thing about this map is, uh, it plays 7.

I mean, one of the reasons I had only played 3 times before this weekend is, in my head it takes longer than it does. “Age of Steam” still defaults in my head to a drawn out experience with more down time than I enjoy and thought processes that I don’t enjoy.

But it is none of that. Next Monday I’m going to rattle on about how much I love games where you take paths through things, and, well, I’m at a con about that. If 18xx breaks down into games that focus on market shenanigans and games that specialize more in map theatrics, well, I’m a map person. That’s why I’m here instead of an 18xx thing. (It’s actually listed as a feature of this con: No 18xx.)

Which is all to say, even here, getting 7 folks to agree to sit down with this was a little tricky. How long is that going to take? If you’re following along closely, you’ll remember that we’re scheduled for 4 games a day, but I mentioned above playing 6 today! The trick with 7 is, the game lasts only 5 turns.

Netherlands helps this along as you can only issue 5 shares, rather than the normal 15, the track you can build is much more limited, and things are cheaper, so the math is easier. With my mind on the time, I kept us on task and at a fairly brisk pace, and we were all surprised how quickly it went by.

Other changes on the map is that the cities are randomly assigned colors at the start of the game, and one of the special actions swaps the colors of any 2 cities. The cities will also refill up to a specified number of cubes each turn from random pulls out of the bag.

I liked it well enough, but probably wouldn’t seek it out to play again. (If you’re really following along, this might be better at home in a contemporary art exhibition, “Is this an Age of Steam expansion map?”) Though, as always, I’m grateful for how willing folks are to going along with whatever I slap on the table.

After a little hemming and hawing, four of us sat down to Iceland. The geography of this one is tough as there are no towns or cities in the center of the board, and the cities on the edge are also sparse. The towns on the coasts double as ports, until they are urbanized into a city. You can ship port to port as part of your movement, but it costs 2 of your locomotive lengths.

There is some shenanigans with the red “steam” cubes coming out of the volcanoes in the middle, which can be delivered to any city and then condense into blue “water” cubes which can then be shipped out to a blue city.

The trick is there are limits to how far the steam can be shipped, and the ports are essentially not functional until someone can ship length 4. A game where you just skated by for 4 turns or so and then hoped to turn a corner. Another game with a bankruptcy, another game with some turns where folks didn’t or couldn’t ship.

It did turn a corner, but I’m not sure it was an interesting one. As with many things, take first plays with a modicum of forgiveness, but by the end we had an embarrassment of long deliveries and had stopped building track as all interesting things were taken. We were just going through the motions. This map did some things, I’m just not sure they were interesting.

Hey, I skipped breakfast! No, I actually ate twice. I just forgot to tell you about it. OpinionatedEaters break to say I went to a local breakfast joint for an omelet and some vegetables only to come in and find that Kay had outdone herself again, though it won’t be the last time today. Biscuits and gravy. Bacon. Raspberry danishes. Almond danishes. A new bowl of chocolate cookies. Lemon bars. How is this real life.

In Day Two, this was mid-meal break, and I took a break from the con for a bit, but made it back just a few minutes late for the 5:00 start of the 3rd session. I thought about getting this started; I thought about one of the solitaire maps. But soon enough Christopher came back too and I found a 2 player map for us to try, Antebellum Louisiana.

This was one of my favorite maps. The map starts with no towns, and only the red city in the upper left, and the blue city in the lower right. There are only two actions available in the auction: Locomotive and Urbanize. We’ve removed the yellow and purple cubes, and there are only 2 black, 1 red, and 1 blue city to add. For towns, you can place them on any piece of track for $3, provided it is not adjacent to a previous town or city.

For some context. In a standard game, you want your delivery to go through many cities or town in order to achieve the most income from the delivery. As you can’t take a cube _through_ a city that matches its color, towns can be nice as they don’t have a color –and you can urbanize offensively by placing cities in your opponents’ area to interrupt their route. In a standard game, urbanizing is “free” once you’ve won it in the auction –simply pick a town spot on the board and replace it with the new city, regardless of if there is track already there or not.

Here, instead, this is what happens. You pay $2 to $4 to lay track, depending on the terrain. Then $3 to add a city disc to it. Then you can win urbanize in the auction and replace it. You can only build 3 track on your turn, so if you wanted to urbanize a new hex, you must take that into account as well: you’ll only have 2 others.

This was a tricky and creative map. A near bankruptcy. A turn where I made no deliveries. (OK, both of us had some bankruptcy scares in this one.) I lost the first auction, and so was unable to deliver the first turn, as he urbanized in a manner that I could not access the new town. What’s worse? As he took urbanize, I was forced to take locomotive, as it is the only other available action –further increasing my expenses when I was unable to deliver any cubes.

I liked how the lack of pre-printed towns allowed you to be creative with the shape the game would take. With only one other red and one other blue city, where will you place them? Will you even have access to both colors of cubes? Very enjoyable.

And it turns out, short! I doubled up the 5:00 block also. We played “First decision is the best decision” and Matt chose a map by opening the catalog to a random page and pointing. (“First decision is the best decision” is from a TV show that my friend Jason’s son watches, and is our guiding mantra in co-op games. Don’t throw out a suggestion lightly, because if someone calls FDITBD, we’re doing it.)

Now he landed on Disoriented Express, so I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader on how random that was after you take a gander. This one “just missed” my list of requested maps, but let’s just say: you can only bid prime numbers in the auction. All track costs are doubled, and you can use that track that is preprinted on the board.

This one also had a bankruptcy.

I thought this would be a sorta joke map, but I found it very engaging. I think I *prefer* the prime number auction, as I liked the stratification of “if I bid 7, the next person would have to bid 11 to stay in”.

And I never got used to the map. Everything seemed to connect to everything and to nothing at the same time. You were in everybody’s business and they were in yours. As Matt suggested, it’s sort of “Age of Steam: …but that doesn’t connect to that, oh– yes it does”.

We took a break for a mini-ceremony where the crew gave away a copy of the new Eagle edition of Age of Steam being released around Essen -won by Jon from Norway; some beautiful silk-screened cube draw bags; and some door prize games that Kevin no longer wanted.

After that, Bev and I finally got on the same page to play Secret Blueprints of Steam. I didn’t deliver one turn. Somebody went bankrupt. (None of those have been me today, but in nearly every game, I’ve been convinced early on that it would be.)

In Blueprints, each player has a hidden board, and you can see mine below. Each player starts with 3 of the 4 colored cities, and 3 of the 12 production numbers. The shares, auction, and special actions largely work as the base game, but there is no first build or delivery, as those happen simultaneously.

After you pay for your track and deliver your cubes, everyone announces how much they spent and any cube deliveries, and the game proceeds as normal. (Production is the other odd one, as it is a game of “Go Fish!” of a sort: a player declares a color, and the other players must remove a cube of that color from the board and give it to that player to add to the goods’ display.)

“That’s it?” Yeah, but there’s a lot of nuance there. You can see some of it if you look closely at my board above. I don’t have a pre-printed yellow city, so I must either win an auction and urbanize the sole yellow city, or I can wait for someone to go fishing. Look closer. I have 2 blue cities. That means someone doesn’t have a blue city at all. Keep looking. What am I going to do with those 2 purple cubes that are on a purple city.

The lack of map interaction is what makes it _more_ difficult, not less.

I enjoyed this quite a bit, but one player had some issues. He was the player I had sniped the blue city from, and he ended with several un-deliverable blue cubes. That’s unfortunate, but the issue was, well, take my purple city for instance. It refills during production on the roll of a “5”. If the goods display was filled with purple cubes, none of those would help me. The production action is tweaked to help with this, but for this player, all three of his cities were setup with this issue, and that meant he couldn’t spend his auction actions on things like locomotive, as he needed to focus on production and urbanizing, but urbanizing was in too much demand for that to be a way out.

Uh, did I mention Kay’s dinner? Your other OpinionatedEaters break is mostly these 5 pies she baked for us. There were deviled eggs, roasted carrots, red beans & rice, cornbread, a vegetable tray, garlic bread, ham balls, and, well, ice cream. The peach was good, the berry (blue+rasp) was great, but that blackberry was sensational. I hope there is some left for breakfast.

Last day is the best day! More tomorrow.

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