Age of Steam Con 2021 Recap

This last weekend, John and I drove to Kansas City for Age of Steam Con. I’ve talked about the convention before, when I went in 2019 (Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3), and was thrilled that the timing worked out for me to make it again. This will likely be a little bit of a travelog, a bit of map overviews and impressions of what I played, some food coverage, and ramblings about why it is such a brilliantly executed convention.

Kansas City is a long drive, and the distance is at the awkward spot for me where I’m torn between flying and driving, but I let the driving win-out for a number of reasons, such as what I’m able to pack and where I’m able to stop.

We took off around 6 AM, as while I don’t plan out all of my meals and what not when travelling, I do a bit of research to locate the top-tier bakeries in the area, and for this trip, we’d need to be in Indianapolis by 8 AM – and no sooner as we’d be waiting for it to open.

This trip’s bakery of choice was Amelia’s. It’s just down the street from Milktooth, my previous bakery stop of choice in the area, and while it doesn’t have an espresso machine or restroom (those are available at a coffee shop next door), it does have a small grocery area – with fresh local persimmons – and a homemade gelato selection I had not been prepared for.

I grabbed a kouign amann, which I’ll never be able to pronounce, a cinnamon roll, and a chocolate chip cookie. I ate one right away, another at our first pit stop, and took bites of the cookie here and there during the drive. As is the case most times I see it on a menu, the kouign amann hit the spot.

It was a midwestern U.S. road trip, complete with small town quirkiness. I had an envelope I needed to mail to California, and while I was leaving before my local post office would be open, I figured it wouldn’t be much trouble to mail it along the way, and, well, it’d be a little closer to California when I mailed it!

Fortuitously, somewhere in the middle of Illinois we saw a billboard for The World’s Largest Mailbox, and so we stopped off in Casey, IL to experience the joy of The World’s Largest….lots of things: tacos, knitting needles, rocking chair, wind chimes, mousetrap, and more. While we couldn’t _mail_ the envelope in the world’s largest mailbox, we could climb up in it, and there was a post office just around the corner (on the other side of The World’s Largest Birdcage).

We had other distractions to break up the drive too. Mattel has recently released an intriguing set of “escape room” games, Isabel and Kira. We’ve talked about some of their “Escape Room in a Box” releases in the past, and while the puzzles are a just a tad easy, they have a lot of _fun_ in them, through both the puzzles and the physical mechanisms. While I’m fairly jaded on Exit and Unlock now, this is the series I currently look forward to the most.

So what’s new here? Well, it’s broken into two boxes. You can get one box. Your friend can get the other. When you’re finished, you can video chat to solve an extra set of puzzles that uses a little from one box and a little from the other. This drive was on a Thursday, a day one of my weekly groups usually meets, and so we talked to the folks at Mattel and they recommended we might be able to do one of the boxes while driving. John would read or describe the puzzle, and I would keep my eyes on the road, and together we made a bit of progress – though one puzzle he saved for me until a lunch stop where I could responsibly do it while not also trying to drive.

When we got to our lodging in Kansas City, we set up a call with Dale and worked through the joint puzzles, as he had done his box earlier in the week. Both the individual box and the joint puzzles were a lot of fun, and I imagine we’ll have a full review of them up soon.

We made a few other stops along the way, a bookstore, a game store, a detour to see the arch in St. Louis, and learned a bit about what was going on around us – such as Missouri’s peculiar state-route lettering system. One town’s largest road side attractions were a prison and an inexplicable chamber of commerce sign in front of it that said if you lived here, you’d be home by now.

But it was a drive that was over sooner than a clock would’ve implied, and we headed to the site of the con, a 163 acre retreat center with cabins of various sizes, camp sites, some creeks, hiking trails, and plenty of deer. We play in the brown building below, and the white buildings off to the right are some of the smaller cabins available.

Like many cabins, the brown building has a nice stone hearth, and a projector that plays a loop of steam engines rolling through the country-side.

It’s a casual convention. You won’t find an official hashtag to use to follow coverage on Twitter or a formal check-in process. You sort of wander over to the table, find your badge, and see what else is going on. In this case, the attendees helped create a crowd-sourced con-exclusive map. One set of papers represented a slate of rules the players could vote on, and how many we should use; the other had guidelines about applying stickers for terrain, towns, and cities to the map.

There were also more…intentionally designed con-exclusive maps, Double Base USA (which requires 2 copies of Age of Steam to play) and Pacific Electric (which is in the same family as the Kansas City Interurban map). Each attendee received a copy of each map, and they’ll be for sale later somewhere.

But like I said, this is a casual convention. Another step of signing yourself in is assembling your map tube packets at this station.

We had arrived Thursday evening, just in time for dinner (chili and potato soup, but more on that later), but also to get in our first game of Age of Steam. We started out with Southern U.S., a map with only some relatively minor rule tweaks -my favorite kind.

The towns are each seeded with a white cube to start the game and can be delivered to 4 specific coastal cities, granting an extra income. Atlanta also will receive a bonus cube each of the first 4 turns.

It was a map I had played in August and was somewhat familiar with. The spread of the white cubes gives players a little different focus at the start to spread a bit, while clustering at the ports, and the flow of cubes into Atlanta also incentivizing some concentration. A solid map I’m happy to play, but likely wouldn’t request.

The next morning, we started off the convention proper with the Hungary map, which was new to me, but I probably own through the recent Deluxe edition. One of the great things leading up to the convention is a spreadsheet for organizing things. Who is coming when? Where’s the list of maps and their ideal player counts? It also has a sheet where you can request a certain map you want to play, and another sheet will matchmake you with other folks that want to play that map.

Hungary was one of my map requests. Age of Steam maps are somewhat notorious within their own corner of the hobby for their player count sensitivity. A map that’s great with 4 may be too loose at 3 or too punishing at 5, though most tend to have 2 player counts that seem ideal.

Which is my segue to say that when I pulled out the Hungary map from the folder, I looked at it and guessed 3, but it turns out its ideal count is 5. How! It’s so small! The lesson is in the special rules of the Hungary map, which, again, are fairly simple. Each player starts out with a level 2 locomotive, and when you deliver, you must use at least one link belonging to another player.

It was a great time and a map I’ll be returning to.

Speaking of maps to return to, here’s my friend Matt wearing a shirt Rand designed of a devastating set of track I laid against Matt at a previous Age of Steam Con in the Four Corners map – while playing the Four Corners map at this con.

The con this year was around 60 folks, so quite a bit more than the 20 something when I first came two years ago. Did it feel different? From the attendee side, not too much. There were more games, but we also played more 5 player games, and less 2 or 3 player. There was this room with the fireplace and the train show….

… and this room which had the library, and a standing table for folks that like to stand or pace while playing. You can also see the maps for the XL versions hung up around the edges of the room.

The food has also not changed much. Chad’s mother in law still fixes all the food and has a sort of 24 hr buffet. This location has a full kitchen that would be used for breakfast casseroles, soups, fried chicken, pies, brownies, cinnamon rolls, breakfast burritos, and more.

I won’t run out of reasons this is my favorite convention, but one of them is the schedule. As we all know we’ll be playing the same game, and, within reason, we can estimate similar play times, the day is broken up into 4 sessions, so your expected play count for a full convention is 12 games of Age of Steam.

It shines because it gives you built in downtime to chat, snack, run to the restroom, and what not. It paces your experience such that you can enjoy yourself and aren’t trying to shotgun game after game, and it also means that other groups will be breaking up around the same time, and you can rotate through different groups like a square dance.

So as I finished the morning Hungary session, a friend asked what I would recommend and did I want to play it, so I chose Disoriented Express, one of my favorite maps, though a bit quirky.

It’s an expensive map, with all track costs doubled. It’s a brilliant map, where you can only bid in prime numbers (I just love the way this adds pressure to the bids because of the jump on values.) It’s a dense map, that’s visually hard to process.

Specifically, the pre-printed connections. It gives the map a sort of non-Euclidian feel, as effectively, not every space is a 6-sided hex. Some of the connections are easy to see, and some are not. You may find yourself with eureka moments as you discover a simple way to make a connection that has been obscured to you. If the topology of the map is annoyingly constructed or if it inspires creative ways of looking at the map is an exercise left to the players.

(While we’re on how great this convention is, and what a pile of spaghetti Age of Steam routes are, checking out this charging setup at the end of the buffet. Something like 8 of every plug you desire. Oh, and spoilers. There are some labels there for food to come later.)

Up next was one of 2 maps I had scheduled, a new map of Osaka from a Japanese designer who had sent me files a few weeks ago, and Chad and Kevin, the organizers of the con, were gracious enough to print for us. (I have added the map to BGG and will upload the files there once the designer finalizes a few things.)

The conceit of the map is that the players are running local comedy schools and sending out their comedians to put on shows. Each of the colored cubes represents a different type of comedy, and the black cubes represent support staff. If there is no staff at a destination city, the player receives less income, but they also get some cash if the comedian is able to consult and commiserate with others in their niche along the way.

We played at the full complement of 5, and it was a tight map, with more than one bankruptcy scare -so just the sort of thing I’m looking for. The geography of the map gives you a few points of congestion in track lays, staff-stealing, and auction desires. I hope more folks will get to play this soon.

Let’s check in on that crowd-sourced map, “Sticker Map 2021”. The map is no longer on the check in table….because we’re getting ready to play it, after one last minute mountain.

The rules we voted for were that you could keep the blue and black cubes you delivered in order to later deliver a cube through a city of its own color, and that cubes could be delivered by river.

Uh, how’s that going to work? Haha, well, that was much of the first few turns! There was a lot of ramifications of getting cubes into and out of the rivers that weren’t fully explored when we voted on the rules, so as we played, we tried to do what made the most sense. As I said to Chad at the time, that we could have such a great time with such a preposterous design is a testament to how awesome the convention is.

We played with second edition track and deluxe track. Mini poker chips and full size poker chips. Tiddlywink money where the silver were $1 and tiddlywink money where the silver were $5 (different players…in the same game!). Discs for track and trains for track. A bag for cubes and, the superior choice, a cup for cubes.

But you might be wondering about the track tiles we’re using above on the Sticker Map and in the Hungary map previously. Inspired by some clear track that a friend in Japan had made, Daniel Newman laser cut a set of Age of Steam track tiles for me. They were clutch for this map, as we needed to see the rivers under the tiles. He did an awesome job with them!

The Sticker Map finished early in its time slot -and was the last slot of the day, so we squeezed in another map, putting me at 6 maps after the first 4 sessions. This time with Trisland, a map for exclusively 3 players.

The map has an interesting symmetry to it, with 3 yellow cities in the center, and one of each colored city at the end of the peninsulas. But it also includes a fascinating auction twist where players are only allowed to take each action a set number of times, and engineer is obligatory: if you have the cash for 4 builds, you must do 4.

This was the first game I had this con where a player went bankrupt. The photo above is after a bit of scoring, but we used most of that map, and the engineer obligation adds an interesting wrinkle to auction and cash management. I enjoyed the many 5 player maps I played this con, but for me there’s something special about 3p maps that pleases me.

In contrast to 3p maps, a convention dedicated to a single game is a great way to get in 7-8 player maps, like the combined VT/NH map, or the new Double Base map, and I think I saw 2 such games of each this weekend. The “XL” set works great for this, and you can see by the size of the map below -it may require you to walk around the table to lay track, but you can also brag that you made 6 foot deliveries!

One of the categories of maps I’ve always wanted to try, but hadn’t yet, was a “team” map, and we started out Saturday morning with a 6 player game of Spain & Portugal. In this map, the players are randomly matched up in teams of 2, and the highest scoring player, from the highest scoring team (sum the two scores) will win, with the other teammate taking the next position.

It’s an expensive map, with the Pyrenees running through things, and has a twist with the blue cubes. The only blue cities that will be on the map are in France, and delivering to or from those cities requires the player to spend $2. My partner and I sort of decided to skip blue cubes and see what would happen if we stayed largely in the cheaper southern regions. Oh, and all cities start on the board – the urbanization action destroys cities, turning them into colorless towns.

It almost worked! We lost by the slimmest of margins, but it was a wonderful time, with shenangians around what discussions happened at the table when both members of one team took food/bathroom breaks at the same time, turn order manipulation such that one player could start track only to abandon it next turn and have their partner pick it up (…or would they?), etc. It was a game of sharks and set the mood for some tactics I would use in games later this day.

Up next was the other game I had specifically scheduled a time for and one that had been in the back of my mind since I first came to the convention 2 years ago – what if: Age of Steam, but with a chess clock. We played on the base map, 5 players, with the guidelines of 14 minutes or so per player. Each 15 seconds you went over would lose you 1 point. You needed to complete your entire action before pushing the color of the next player – so if you were making a delivery, you needed to grab the cube and finish adjusting your income before being finished. If you were issuing shares, say the number, move your token, take your money, and then push the button. Expenses and production happened on a neutral color’s turn.

It was great fun. Most of us rushed the timer quite a bit more than necessary, finishing in the 8 to 9 minute range, with the whole game clocking in just under an hour. Did we play optimally? Certainly not, but sometimes people wouldn’t see your mistakes or the opportunities you left them. I abandoned some track I had started one turn and didn’t pick it up for 2 or 3 more, but the pace was so hectic that no one seemed to notice it was available. (I also managed to build two distinct networks in my haste…) There was also a bit of shenanigans around bidding and the clock, as if I bid a number and it was your turn – with you on the clock – I would refuse to say what I had bid if you asked. You could try to bid something and I would have had to tell you if it was valid – of course there were also 3 other players that could tell you the bid.

In an attempt to play the opposite of the speed game, I sat down to the Beer & Pretzels map. It does away with income, expenses, shares, and track points, and turns money into the victory points, with players earning $5 per link they deliver over.

The game proceeded like molasses compared to the speed game we had just wrapped up, and the auction incentives didn’t seem to fit quite right with the adjusted victory conditions. It felt like it could’ve used some tweaks to the actions. It was “fine”, but not a map I’ll be returning to.

In one of the more unexpected moments of the convention, the next group’s first two map choices were in use! (Well, technically the reverse sides were in use.) That hadn’t happened at my previous con, and while it happened here, it certainly wasn’t a problem. Chris Wray had just arrived and he had one map that he’d been trying to play at the last 3 cons, but hadn’t gotten to the table yet. Rather than making _that_ the tradition, we grabbed it to play.

In Reversteam, no cubes are delivered to black cities, and otherwise, cubes are delivered to any city that doesn’t match their color. That makes choice turn 1 and 2 deliveries abundant, and longer 5 and 6 length deliveries almost impossible.

The predictable conclusion to those simple rule changes is to build your track with a lot of black cities and towns in it – but make sure you don’t let the other players urbanize the towns on your track, otherwise your 5 deliveries will be come 2s or 3s. But that didn’t occur to me until I saw Chris’ east/west route ready to deliver nothing but 5s and 6s for the rest of the game. So I dropped a colored city in the middle. Then I did it to Chad the next turn. John the turn after that. The lessons of my Spain & Portugal game.

Somewhere in the middle of the next map, the room started to smell like someone was baking something fresh, delicious, and chocolate. This was my view of the kitchen where things were happening, as I went about my bidding and track laying and delivering. What was she making for us?!

As best I can tell, you have around 4 options for hosting a board game convention. There is hotel/conference room space; the benefit being housing is on site, capacity is large, and you don’t need to deal with room assignments, etc. The downside being food rules, food quality, and poor ambiance. There is renting a large house; the benefit being the intimacy, staying on site, and a kitchen. The biggest downsides being limited space, how do you price for locals vs. out of towners, where can locals park, etc. There is crashing someone else’s con – just arrange to meet in the corner of some already happening convention.

And there are retreat centers. The significant drawback of which is the food situation – it’s really the only hurdle that needs solved. They are typically remote enough that restaurants aren’t quite as practical as other options, and you sort of need a full time chef. The Hollis Center, where the convention is held, has a full kitchen, and Kay, who grew up cooking for the farm hands who were around and large groups at church, relishes the occasion to feed us and loves the joy we exude when eating her cooking.

(It was brownies by the way.)

Oh, and one of the perks of playing in the room near the food, you can just lean back in your chair and grab something when you want.

Up next was one of the maps we weren’t able to play in the previous session, Congo Wildfires. I had marked it as something I wanted to play based upon some feedback from friends at the previous one of these I attended. However, the rules are a bit wonky – so much so that when the teach was finished I went into the other room to confirm that the folks who referred me to this map weren’t kidding because it felt like it had to be a joke.

Roughly, the left edge of the map starts on fire. Each turn, it moves inward, and takes up 2 to 3 entire columns. As a game effect, you want to deliver water to the fire, so the fire is treated as one large blue city (and any cities adjacent to the fire are blue.) Track inside the fire is unusable, and any cubes left in cities when the fire reaches it turn into black cubes. (It doesn’t come with those blue tiles; we salvaged that from used bits of the Sticker Map.)

This photo is from turn 3 or so, and if you’re asking yourself, what is happening with the purple player, well, they were too. It was an audacious start, as by building on the left, you know that in turn 2, you will have nothing to do, but in turn 3 it will be past you, and you’ll never have to worry about it again – just deliver black cubes. Sounds like it could work.

Two other players started in the middle, and I sort of had the right side to do with what I wanted. The fire did eventually take me over and the game ended closer than it appeared it might at some points, but purple did go bankrupt, and I don’t think the winner was ever truly in question.

Sunday morning started off, appropriately, with the Soul Train map, where you are delivering souls from Hell to Earth and in the second phase to Heaven. Initially, the Heaven board isn’t on the table, and part way through the game, the Hell board disappears, taking all track on it with it. You then have 2 turns to deliver cubes into heaven – a board which will start with only the colors of cities that were urbanized in Hell.

It…was a slog. Another player and I were nearly bankrupt near the beginning and while we did well enough to make it through, we were never going to be competitive. It was an interesting enough map, but I don’t feel compelled to try it again.

But, maybe that’s just how I was feeling. I woke up that day with a bit of Sunday-Con-Brain. For me, that means I’m not really in the mood to play much, and certainly not learn anything. However, Sunday-Con-Brain me loves to teach people things and watch folks play. But, uh, there’s not much to teach people when we’re all playing the same game for the 8th through 12th times.

So I went to sit in the creek, well, some rocks in the creek. When we arrived on Thursday I was hoping I would have time to walk the grounds some, but I couldn’t see how it would fit into my plans. Even with the casual pacing of the convention and the space between slots, when could it happen? I have too much fomo to stop.

However, at this point, it’s Sunday morning and I’m at 13 games of Age of Steam! That’s a full con+1. Maybe I take a break.

It was just what I needed. I flipped over some rocks to look for salamanders, got hit in the head by many falling sycamore leaves, and mostly sat still for 20 or 30 minutes. It was just the bit of forest bathing I needed to clear my head.

When I returned, I got in my second game of a prototype map about Zimbabwe hyperinflation designed by the same friend in Japan who uses transparent tiles. (Not coincidentally, the designers of the Zimbabwe and Osaka maps had their own mini-Age of Steam con this past weekend at one of my favorite board game cafes, Korokorodou.)

In the map, designed exclusively for 3 players, track starts out costing 3 each, but when the players have collectively issued a certain number of shares, that costs rises to 4, then 5, and then 6. You do get 3 deliveries on your turn, but you must also pay an extra expense equal to the round number and after income reduction, you lose half your money on hand! Each share issued, also grants $10 instead of the normal $5.

So, there’s a lot going on there. (So much so that we played again because in the first game, we only had done 2 deliveries each turn,) It’s a solid map, with a tight competition for cubes and deliveries. The halving of money on hand each turn is one of the keys to the map – as our scores ended up in the 150s!, yet we had little money on hand. We were making more, but costs were also going up, and our money wasn’t worth as much.

There’s also a nice twist with the increased share revenue. Sometimes on a turn if you need 2 extra dollars, sure, you issue another share, and you’ll still have the $3. But! Here, if you need 2 extra dollars, you have to issue $10, and are going to lose $4 into the ether!? That’s a different story. I look forward to seeing where this map goes.

At dinner, we finally got to one of the highlights for me, Kay’s berry pies. This blackberry pie had been calling my name for two years, and it was worth it. (I also had a salad with dinner and some other vegetables.)

But…that’s pretty much it for maps I planned to talk about. I ended up playing 16 total games of Age of Steam, and so I did allow myself some non-Age of Steam gaming this last day, as we played some Cat in the Box, Catty, and some rollicking games of Lum Lum Party.

A few last special things that make this convention stand out that I wanted to highlight. Inside our name badges this year (which, well, that alone is an upgrade from two years ago), was a handy chart of each of the maps for tracking what you had played. There was also a space for notes, a space for local BBQ recommendations, and an overall con schedule.

But we also had a lot of fun with the scavenger hunt. The crew had been logging interesting things that happened in their online games over the past year and put them together into a list of things you could look out for to see if they happened. The joy of filling this out was so much greater than it seems like it should be. It was a lot of fun.

The people who had the most checked off got first choice from a prize table of sorts – though the real prize table winners were the handful of people who attended and did not own Age of Steam – Eagle-Gryphon gave them each a new copy of the Deluxe Edition!

That would wrap it up, but, as always, or, well, like the only other time I have experienced, Kay doesn’t rest. We were playing a game of Four Corners Sunday night when Chad’s alarm went off around 9 PM. It was time to get one last pie out.

Two years ago it was cookies – the old location didn’t have a full kitchen, but she arrived with warm chocolate cookies, just a few hours before the convention should be over, my heart just melted. Now, even though she wasn’t here, she’d left instructions and one last pie – a mixed berry one with raspberries…. and it was the best one yet.

Thank you so much to Chad, Kevin, Kay, and other folks behind the scenes for once again putting together the best convention in the hobby. I just love it.

James Nathan

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