Dale Yu: First Impressions of Imperial Steam

Imperial Steam

  • Designer: Alexander Huemer
  • Publisher: Capstone Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 90-120 minutes
  • Played on review copy provided by Capstone Games

imperial steam

As 2021 comes to a close, I’m still mostly stuck in my basement – unfortunately unable to make the trip to Essen this year.  However, I was still able to get a decent stock of SPIEL 2021 games, including a nice bundle of games from Capstone.  Imperial Steam was one of the first to hit the table (in fact, getting its initial play prior to the start of the fair) – and at least in this way, I was able to travel back in time to mid 19th Century Austria.

Per the publisher: “You are in need of more workers for your factories, and you also need more workers to build railroad tracks to expand your railway network. This, in turn, will enable you to deliver the goods from your factories to cities with high demand — but be sure to earmark goods for fulfilling profitable public contracts because when the connection to Trieste is made, your net worth is all that matters.”

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The board shows 30+ cities with Vienna (Wien) in the upper right and Trieste (now in Italy) in the bottom left.  The many cities are connected by a maze of railway lines.  The board is seeded with 23 city tiles (you can either used a fixed beginner setup or a more random distribution for advanced play). Business tiles are set up on city tiles that have a circled number on them.  Each player starts with a station in their color on Wien.  Three connections will be designated State Railway connections and have crowns placed on them.  

The Round Track is found at the top of the board.  Shipment tiles are placed above Rounds 1-7.  Steam Engine tiles are placed in the large rectangular areas, and some goods are randomly placed on top of rounds 4-8.  The influence track is found at the bottom of the board.  Players place their influence marker in turn order on the 0 column.  The Hub City Influence markers are placed along the track.  

The shipment Market board in the bottom right of the main board, filled with cubes corresponding to the 4 types of goods.  The Factory board for your player count is chosen and all slots but the leftmost one have a matching factory chit placed on it.  Finally, the Worker board for your player count is placed on the table, and a Growth tile is placed on each of the four city crest banners.  Finally, the deck of contract cards is shuffled and a display is placed face up on the table.  The 11 Main Action tiles are also placed in a display on the table.

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Each player gets a player board. On this, near the top, you will see your trains, you start with a single IS-3 train and 3 train cars behind it.  Your workers go bottom left, with 3 areas of Experience.  Your money, Main Action hands, track pieces, other engineers and what not are all placed near your board.  You also get a Share Board, with a share value marker on the left and a Investor marker on the right – both starting in the lowest position.  

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The initial turn order is determined by a blind bid.  Using some of your starting money, players make a secret bid of money cards, and once all have chosen, the bids are revealed.  The players’ Influence markers are moved to the column on the Influence Track that matches their bid.  The turn order goes from the most expensive column (from top to bottom) down to the least expensive column.  At any time in the game, when you have to move your Influence marker, you put it in the topmost available slot in the column you are entering.  Be sure to compress the markers in the column you vacated, if necessary.

The game is played in 8 rounds, with 8 phases in each round (except the initial round, which starts at the 7th of 8 phases).   All of these phases are nicely summarized in the row at the top of your player board.

1] Retrieve your Main Action hands from the Main Action tile display (and get an additional one in rounds 2-4)

2] Shipment Arrives at the Market – in Rounds 4-8, add the cubes found above the Round track to the Market board.

3] Take Ordered Goods – if you have goods off to the right of your player board – which you would have done in the previous round’s Phase 7 – then add them to the empty spaces on your player board.  If you have more than you can store, you can freely reorganize them and decide which ones to discard

4] Collect Income – Get 10 guldens per passenger car in your trains and get 10 guldens per train station you have on the map (max 3).

5] Train Workers – If a worker didn’t work in the previous round, it is trained instead and moves to the next higher level of experience on your player board.

6] Determine Turn Order – Based on the Influence Board, the player furthest to the right goes first; if in the same column, the higher up in the column goes first.

7] Perform Actions – This is the bulk of the round, and I’ll go over the actions later. In this phase, you place one of your Main Action hands on an action tile, do the action, and then the next player goes.  You can place your hand on any action tile, but if you place on a tile where you already have hands, you must move your influence marker backwards one space for each of your hands that was previously on that action tile.  You have 11 Action choices, which be explained in gory detail shortly.  To further complicate things, there are also 3 free actions that can be done at any time during your turn.

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8] Check for the game end – If this is the end of Round 8, the game ends.  In any other round, if anyone is connected to Trieste, the game ends immediately.  If the game ends, go to final scoring – otherwise advance the round marker and do it all again.

The 11 Main Actions

Build Tracks – build up to 2 tracks, each track connects 2 cities. You must pay 1 wood, 1 stone, 1 iron for the action, and assign workers equal to the Effort number on the city tile. Also, pay 10 guldens to each player already on that link. Track must be contiguous with your network, you cannot branch in a city without a station there, and you cannot build into a State Railway crown city without having access.  To build a bridge (a gray link), you must have a Bridge Engineer hired and you must pay 1 extra stone.  To build a tunnel (an orange link), you must have a Tunnel Engineer hired and pay 1 extra iron.  When you build into a new city, look for the bonuses on the tile – such as increasing your influence or possibly being able to deliver a good.  If there are business tokens on the city, discard the top one and use its value to increase your influence, increase your share price or convert a freight car to a passenger car.  There is one special link that has the Semmering chit near it, if you are the first to build this link, you get the token which gives you bonus scoring at the end of the game.

Hire – choose any one column/source to hire, it must be in a hub city whose marker is at or below your own influence marker standing. Pay the price for the row of the cube, gain a worker, move the cube up one space.  You can buy as many workers as you can afford (max 15 in the game).  You can also hire engineers for a fixed cost of 30.  You can only have one of each type of Engineer.

Build Buildings – Build a train station on an appropriate spot on a city tile in your network, cost is to the right.  You now can have unlimited connections to this city, you free up a space to store a good on your player board and you will get 10 more guldens each income phase.  You could also choose to build a factory from the Factory board. Pay the cost (usually on the factory board), take the next available factory piece and place in on your player board.  Take any worker from your board, place it on the board, and take a number of goods (variable based on experience) of matching color and place it next to the worker.  The cubes can be used to pay later costs; the factory can be used to fulfill contracts.

Produce Goods – Each of your workers on the map that has goods next to it MAY produce 1 of its goods. Steam Engines hold coal; freight cars and empty warehouses can store any 1 good.  You can rearrange at any time, so if you have too many goods, you can choose what to discard

Buy/Order Goods – You can buy a single good from the Shipment market by taking the topmost cube and paying the cost as listed. You can also order gods for next round (but you do not get until Phase 3 of the following turn). The number that you can order this turn is determined by the shipment tile above the current Round on the Round track. Take the cubes you want, choosing the topmost available and paying the cost as listed. Place all cubes bought this way to the right side of your board on the Landing.

Buy/Upgrade a Train – you have access to all trains to the left of the current Round on the Round Track.  If you do not yet have 3 trains, you can but a new Steam Engine, paying the cost on the tile.  Place Rail cars behind in equal to the value on the tile, and possibly change your influence as shown on the tile. A new train comes with a Coal cube.  You can also choose to upgrade an existing train to a newer model by paying the difference in costs, and then modifying the rail cars accordingly as well.  Upgrades do not come with a Coal cube.

Secure a Contract – Take a contract card from the display. Take Reserved tokens as shown on card and place them on freight cars – if they have goods in them, they must be discarded – these freight cards will be unavailable for the rest of the game. Take the Investor meeples shown on the card and place them in the lowest empty Investor spaces on your Share board.  When possible, place matching Factories on the card.  At the end of the game, you will earn guldens in the upper right if the contract is complete; you will lose that amount if the contract is not complete.

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Philanthropy – Pay 10 Guldens to increase your influence by a step.

Manipulate Share Value – You can either increase your share value by 1 step (causing you to decrease your influence a number of steps as shown in the new space) or decrease it as much as you like (with no change in incluence). 

Fundraise – Take 10 Guldens from the supply

Pass – Do nothing.  Often only chosen when you can’t afford to do anything else.  Note that you still must decrease your influence if you have other Main Action hands here.

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The 3 Free Actions – These three actions can be taken at any point on your turn

Sell a Share – You can sell shares from your Share Board; the current value listed next to the marker.  However, the Investors to the right are only willing to pay as much as the number to the left of them.  For each share that you sell, move the Investor marker into the Shareholder area.  At the end of the game, you will pay them dividends.  Take the money now from the Bank.

Deliver a Good – This can be done once per turn at most. Deliver a good to a city that you are connected to. You must spend a coal to deliver anything, then take a good from beside one of your workers and put it on a matching empty Demand space. If you deliver coal, take a Golden or Silver key from the city; if you deliver wood, stone or iron, take payment in Gulden as shown on the tile.  If you deliver to a Hub city, change the influence based on the Growth marker chart shown on its crest on the Worker board.

Access a State Railway Connection – There are 3 designated State Railway Connections – if you are the first to build there, pay the higher price of the two cities on the line.  If you are not first, pay the lower price of the two cities to EACH other player who has already built there.  Once you pay the fee, you immediately place down the track on that connection – you do not and may not use the Build Track regular action for this connection.

Game End

Again, the game ends at either the end of the 8th Round or the end of a round when at least one player has connected to Trieste.  There is a final bit of scoring.

  • Collect income as per Stage 4.  If you have the Semmering Token, double your income
  • Sell all goods on your trains and in your warehouses for 10 Gulden each
  • Sell your City Keys – Golden Keys are worth the large number under the city marker on the influence track.  Silver Keys are worth the closest small number on that track.
  • Earn money for each Hub City whose influence is less than or equal to yours:  1/2/3/4 cities for 10/30/60/100 Gulden
  • If someone has connected to Trieste, earn money for all completed contracts and pay money back for all incomplete contracts.  If you are personally not connected to Trieste, you must use other players’ rail connections to get there, paying 20 Gulden per connection link to the owner of that link. (You only pay this once for final scoring, not once per contract)   If no one has connected to Trieste, simply discard all contracts and neither gain nor lose money
  • Pay your shareholders – total all your money.  Now see how many shareholders you have, and pay each one 10% of your total.  For instance, if you have 3 Shareholders, you pay each 30%, and thus your final score is 70% of the total of money you had.

The winner is the player with the most money.

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My thoughts on the game

Phew- if you made it thru the rules review, you can clearly see there is a lot going on.  And, from my initial plays, all of the mechanics are interwoven nicely.  While it may feel from the rules that you have too many options to consider; it is really quite manageable when playing the game.

The rules make a strong point (and I will as well) – that you really should make sure that your initial bid lets you reach at least 2 cities and you really want to buy workers in the first round.  In one sense, the game is somewhat fragile that if you don’t do this, you might find yourself in a disadvantageous position for the rest of the 2+ hour long game. You’ll need a few more workers to be able to build track and make factories, and they’ll never be as cheap as they are in the first round…   So, I’ll mention this at the top before it gets lost in my other thoughts.  I don’t necessarily mind being told what to do like this – but man, if this is how it’s going to be, why not just make it part of setup.  Why not just script out the first round of a first game to help explain rules and make sure people don’t screw themselves…

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The game starts fairly slow.  You don’t have a lot of money (after bidding the requested amount to access two cities and then spending more money on workers) – it’s lean times for you … Also, you have very few hands at the start of the game.   We pretty much were stuck up in the top right corner through round 3; though the game did open up nicely after that.

This is the sort of game where everything is scarce.  You never feel like you have enough money. You usually feel like you don’t have enough cubes.  More often than not, you don’t feel like you have enough actions… until you get to the point where you feel like you have too many, and it’s painful to take an Influence penalty just to pass!  Oh, and you never feel like you have enough money. 

Managing your early actions is key for this – I think trying to get to a hub city and figuring out how to deliver a cube (while the prices are still high) is a great way to fill the coffers.  The income at the start of each round is nice, but really isn’t much more than 20 or 30 early on; so it’s not enough to do anything great with.  The other way to get money is the super interesting selling of stock.  You may even need to spend a few turns to massage your stocks and investors to get a high enough payoff.  The catch with this method of fundraising is that you give up 10% of your final score per sale – so this shouldn’t be taken lightly.  In our games, scores have ranged from 800 to 1200; so you need to consider that each shareholder will likely reduce your final score by around 100 (just to give you an even number to think about).  It’s a neat mechanism which I don’t recall seeing in a game before.

Depending on your situation, it might make sense to take a low payout, say 40 Gulden early on when you really really need it, and take the penalty at the end.  It also may make a lot of sense to sell shares at the end when you might get 180 or 240 per share; thus making a little profit on each sale at the end of the game.

The game will constantly pull you in different directions.  Should you be making cubes in order to generate track?  Should you be making factories to give you those cubes – or should you just buy them from the market?  If I’m going to make more factories, then maybe I need to buy more workers – because each factory requires a worker to the board, and then this takes away from your ability to build track.  Also, do I use an experienced worker to get more cubes out of my factory cost?  While I’m doing all this, do I need to worry about where I stand on the Influence track?  First, turn order might be important.  Maybe I want to build before everyone else next turn or maybe I want to be able to buy a factory or market cubes at the lowest possible price.  Second, maybe I just need to move on the Influence track so that I can access a certain hub city’s workforce to hire workers from… And, man, I need to watch the market to make sure I can get the card I want – as some of them can be worth over 300 Gulden at the end of the game!  But I can’t go too early on the cards because they will slap reserved tokens down on my trains, thus shrinking their effective size.  This paragraph is just some of what the running commentary was like in my brain as I tried to choose the right move.

Oftentimes, on my turn, I simply started at Action Tile #1, asked myself if I could/should do that action, and then moved onto #2, and so on.  Most times, there would be 3 or 4 viable candidates, and then I would try to figure out what to do.  As our group mostly trusts each other to take care of their own things; I would spend a lot of the downtime between my turns trying to work on my next options so that my next turn wouldn’t take so long.  Of course, there were more than a few times when the board changed enough between my turns that I had to wait for the start of my next turn to really adequately evaluate the next play.

Given the name, a few people have asked me if it is like Age of Steam (which is maybe a reasonable question given the name and the train on the cover).  I would say – it’s nothing like it at all.  Unlike AoS which is a networking and good delivery game, this is more a logistics and engine game.  While you do deliver goods in Imperial Steam, it is not the main focus of the game.  Heck, in our game, I think there is only the possibility for 23 total deliveries (5 at each hub city and 3 individual boxes).  There is a similar tightness in the finances, but whereas AoS deals with this with the loans each round; the money machinations are much different here.

The game worked really well with 3.  There was a decent amount of competition for resources and for track spaces; the penalty of having to pay people to join them on a track segment can be mighty – especially early on when the money is tight.  I do wonder how it will work with 4 – we have yet to play in that player count.  The 4th player doesn’t get any more money, and at least in my thought experiment, that player will have no choice at which worker market to buy, and will most likely end up having to build on a route where someone else is.  I suppose this might be balanced out by having a little more money if they had bid lower – but it could certainly work out that all players bid the same amount, and the 4th player ends up last by happenstance with no compensation.  And as the rules remind you, if you don’t bid high enough to access two cities, you’ll risk getting shut out of workers in the first round and thus shut out of the game – so a truly low ball bid may not be a viable option, at least not in the starter game.

The rules are fairly well laid out, but the book is a 32 page beast.  The round phases are summarized at the top of the player board, and the action tiles are big enough that you can generally see them from wherever you are sitting.  We did decide to place the hands near the tops of these tiles so that the icons depicting the actions were visible.  The free actions are hidden on the back of the mini player aid card, but once you know they are there, you can leave that side of the card face up to remind you.  

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Once you play through a round or two, most of the actions are easy to parse and remember. We did miss a few things on our first play, but we were able to find most of them in the rules (Eventually…).  It did take us awhile to recall how to flip cargo train cars over to passenger cars – only thru the business token action.  We also missed the way in which to increase a hub city’s influence when a cube is delivered, but we were able to catch our mistake before it made a lasting effect on the game.  As with any game of this length and complexity, it’s pretty natural to have a few rough edges with a learning game.

In our first 3p game, it took me about 40 minutes to set up the game (in part due to my inexperience with the bits) – and I did this before everyone arrived, and then about 45 minutes to teach it to the other two.  We did take awhile to answer some questions that came up – especially the flipping of train car question.  Once we started to play, our learning game, using the basic fixed setup as stated in the rules, took 140 minutes.  It was then an additional 20 minutes or so cleaning up the table and bagging everything up.  I’d think that experienced players should be able to get the whole thing, setup to teardown in 2 to 2.5 hours.

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The game takes up a LOT of space; filling up my 9 foot table to the brim.  The board is fairly large, and then you still have to make space for the factory board and worker board as well as the action tiles and the contract cards.  Each player’s area is also not small with the sizable player board and then the smaller share board.  In short, don’t try to play this on a card table. It’s not gonna happen.

For now, it’s too early to give a rating – it’s clearly not possible to understand the game fully after just a few plays.  However, it’s Essen week, and people are excited about the new games and want to learn more about them – thus these first impressions…  I certainly did a bunch of things “wrong” in my first games, so I’ll try to remember them when we get this to the table again.  At this point, I’m leaning towards wanting to play it again – so I’ll hopefully report back with more experienced thoughts then.

Capstone Games has a number of great titles coming out this fall – we have already looked at Savannah Park and Juicy Fruits.  I am definitely looking forward to Boonlake, Ark Nova, and others!  From this early vantage point, this year’s fair could belong to Capstone!

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2021, First Impressions. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dale Yu: First Impressions of Imperial Steam

  1. Boonlake & Ark Nova are both on my MUST PLAY lists.

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