Larry Levy: Review of Imperial Steam

Imperial Steam

  • Designer: Alexander Huemer
  • Artist: Andreas Resch
  • Publisher: Capstone Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 90-150 minutes
  • Times Played: 7

If you’re a budding game designer seeking success, the best advice I could give you would be to concentrate on more accessible games.  Don’t make it too hard to learn, too hard to play, or too punishing.  Of course, not everyone heeds this advice.  Case 1 for the prosecution might be Imperial Steam, a 2021 train game which doesn’t fit that description at all.  In fact, it’s kind of the anti-accessible design.  It’s rules heavy.  It takes forever to teach.  Setup time is ridiculously long.  And it’s really unforgiving.  Suffice it to say, it’s not a game for everyone.  Fortunately for designer Alexander Huemer and publisher Capstone Games, there’s a small group of masochistic gamers who actually enjoy the challenges a game like this provides.  And that group happens to include me and my game group.  If I haven’t frightened you away yet, let me explain why I enjoy this game so much.

The theme of Imperial Steam (henceforth shortened to IS) is based on historical reality.  Around 1840, the Austrian government decided it would be a great idea to build rail lines to connect the cities of Vienna and Trieste.  Due to difficult terrain and political roadblocks, this process actually took almost 20 years.  In the game, the players are industrialists who are happy to assist the government with this, while taking every opportunity to line their own pockets.  In fact, the winner is the player who has the greatest wealth at the end of the game.

Components and Setup

Before I explain how this money grubbing takes place, let’s take a look at some of the components.  The large game board shows the relevant part of Austria and includes the sites of 30 cities, including Vienna in the northeast and Trieste in the southwest.  The capabilities of those two cities are set, but the rest vary from game to game.  This is accomplished through the use of city tiles, which are randomly placed (with some restrictions) prior to the start of each game.  The board also shows potential rail links connecting these cities; some of these are color-coded to show they cross rough terrain and will require either tunnels or bridges to be completed.

Each player receives a player board with several areas on it.  There’s room for three trains on it and each player begins with the smallest one, which includes a locomotive and three freight cars.  The unusual thing about trains in IS is that they are the principal way of storing resources.  The starting trains begins with one cube of each of the game’s four resources:  coal, wood, stone, and iron.

Each player also begins the game with two workers.  Workers begin the game at strength 1, but each one can bulk up to strength 3.  Increasing strength takes place via a nicely elegant mechanism.  You need workers to build tracks and for other things.  If a worker is used in a round, it’s exhausted, but it can be used again next round at its previous strength.  However, any workers who aren’t used during a round spend that down time reading Meeple Muscle Mags and permanently increase their strength by 1.  So you have to decide between employing your workers this round or giving yourself a more powerful version for future rounds.

The last thing you do prior to starting the game is to set each player’s initial Influence level via an in-the-fist auction.  Your Influence affects many of your actions, as well as turn order.  So everyone secretly and simultaneously spends some of their starting cash to set their Influence level and that determines the turn order for the first round.  I’m usually not a fan of blind bidding, but the process works well enough here.

Gameplay

The basic gameplay of IS is simple enough.  It consists of up to 8 rounds.  In each round, in turn order, every player takes one action.  They continue doing this until everyone is out of actions.  During the first round, you only have two actions to take (the game comes with cute little hand meeples and each one of these allows you to take an action).  At the beginning of the next three rounds, though, each player is given an additional hand meeple, so that you’ll eventually be taking 5 actions a round.  This continues until someone builds track that connects Vienna to Trieste, which signifies this is the last round of the game.  If that doesn’t happen after 8 rounds, the game ends there (although in each of my games, someone has always hooked the two cities up, usually during Round 6).  You then award a bunch of end game cash and the player with the biggest bank account wins.

There are 11(!) possible actions in the game.  There is no penalty if you take an action that an opponent has taken earlier.  However, taking an action that you have taken previously in the round will cost you some Influence.  This continues a recent trend in gaming—designs that give you incentive to choose a variety of actions, rather than focusing on just one or two (you see it in Ark Nova, Boonlake, and a bunch of other titles).  Most of the time, you’re happy to do this in IS, but sometimes you need to double (or even triple) up during a round, so you’d better have enough Influence to allow you to do this.  I like this design trend; it gives the titles the planning and tough decisions of a Worker Placement game, without having to worry about your best laid plans being destroyed by an opponent who happens to take a critical action.

So that’s the basics of how the game plays.  The core of the game is in the details of the actions, so let me explain.  No, there is too much; let me sum up.  Here is a rundown on how some of the critical actions work:

Hire:  You’re going to need lots of workers over the course of the game and this is the only way to get more of them.  The cost for each worker is cheap at the beginning of the game, but it soon gets more expensive.  The higher your Influence is, the better your chances of not paying through the nose for increasing your workforce.  This action also allows you to buy the two kinds of Engineers that give you the capability of building bridges and tunnels, respectively.

Build Tracks:  This is probably the most important action, since there are so many benefits from working towards Trieste and connecting to cities.  The Build Tracks action allows you to construct one or two tracks; the cost is one wood, one stone, and one iron cube, regardless of how many tracks you build.  In order to build a track that requires either a bridge or a tunnel, you’ll have to spend more cubes (in addition to having previously hired the appropriate Engineer).  You also have to exhaust workers of a certain amount of total strength; the amount of strength needed depends upon the cities that you’re connecting to.

All tracks originally emanate from Vienna; after that, you can build from any city you’re connected to.  Most of the time, no branching is allowed.  You are allowed to build a track that an opponent has built previously, but you must pay them in order to do so.  In a game where money is so tight, you try to avoid this, but sometimes it’s necessary in order to carry out The Master Plan.

Each city you connect to has its benefits shown on its city tile.  Some increase your Influence.  Others give you a site where you can build an industry—more about this later.  Still others are cities you can deliver resources to.  All of these can be highly useful and there’s often a race to be the first to get to a city.  In IS, connecting to the right city at the right time is often the key to winning.

Build a Building:  Usually, this means building an industry.  There are industries which produce each of the game’s four resources.  You need an industry site to build them.  There are some available to all players at the start of the game, but those get snapped up quickly; after that, you need to be connected to a city that has such a site and these are often greatly prized.

Like many other things in IS, industries are cheap at first, but get more expensive as the game goes on.  You also have to give up a worker in order to build one.  But the unique thing about them is that they produce all the cubes of their resource that they will ever make at the moment you build them.  These cubes are placed on the board next to the factory itself (the number placed is tied to the strength of the worker you sacrificed).  They can then be used for a variety of purposes.

One of the things you can do with these cubes is to deliver one to a city.  This is done with a free action (clearly, the game needs more than just 11 action types, so add a few free actions to the list of things you have to learn).  If a city you’re connected to has a requirement for the type of resource that you have available in one of your factories, then you can deliver the cube to that city at any point during your turn.  Note that the cube must come from a factory on the board; it can’t come from your supply.  The cash reward for doing this is substantial, usually several times greater than the cost of the factory that produced the cube.  So this is a welcome influx of money and worth arranging.  However, this is a one-shot deal; once a cube is delivered to a city, the demand is gone.  So it’s first come, first serve and a race to get connected to a city with a demand and get the correct factory built.

Produce Goods:  Here’s the other main use of the cubes produced by a factory.  This action allows you to take one cube from every factory you own that has one and add it to your player board.  You need to make sure you have storage room for them, of course (and storage space is often very limited, so you have to time this right).

Buy Goods:  Sadly, in order to obtain enough resource cubes to keep building track, you almost always need more than what your factories produce.  So this action allows you to buy them from the general supply.  However, nothing in IS is easy.  If you want to acquire cubes you can use this round, you can use the Buy Goods action, but you can only buy one cube.  You can buy more than one cube with a single action, but if you do, they won’t be available until the following round.  Yet more need to plan things out!  Once again, the price of goods rises throughout the course of the game, to the point where a purchase of 3 or 4 of them can seriously deplete your cash on hand.

Buy a Train:  You can add more trains to your player board.  The principal reason for doing this is the additional storage space they provide.  What the hell are you using all those freight cars for?  Soon, all will become clear, grasshopper.

Take a Contract:  Contracts represent one of the major risk/reward aspects of IS.  At the start of the game, a bunch of contracts are randomly chosen from a deck and revealed; those are the only ones which will be available throughout the game.  This action simply allows a player to claim one.

There are three types of contracts (which come, respectively, in Powers 1, 2, and 3).  The easiest way to understand them is to see what happens when one is chosen.  Let’s say I choose a Power 3 contract.  It will list 3 separate factory types—let’s say mine shows two iron factories and one coal factory.  In order to satisfy the contract, by the end of the game, I will have to have built those specific factories.  They will then be allocated to the contract (so the same factory can’t be used to satisfy more than one contract).  For our example, I will have to have built, and allocated, two iron and one coal factory during the game.  Each contract lists a cash value (and it’s a very large one for contracts of Power 3).  If I satisfy the contract, I receive that amount of money at the end of the game.  If I don’t, I’ll have to pay that much money.  In theory, you can take chances with your contracts, in the hope of getting the correct factories built; in practice, the penalty for not satisfying them is so great, that, in our games at least, the players always ensure that they get this done.

The cash reward for satisfying contracts is often a big part of your final cash total, so that’s reason enough to focus on them.  But wait, there’s more!  (Both good and bad.)  The resources promised by the contract won’t get there through teleportation, so you’ll have to dedicate freight cars to do so.  So, in the example we’re working with, I will have to place reserved tokens on three of my freight cars.  That means those cars can’t be used for any other purpose, including as storage or to satisfy other contracts.  Now you see why you’ll probably need to buy new trains, at least once you start grabbing contracts.  You need to be able to store cubes in order to build new tracks and the players in IS are usually like sharks:  if you don’t keep moving (and growing), you die.

Contracts have yet one more benefit and it can be a lucrative one (with strings attached, of course).  When you take a contract, you also take investor tokens.  In our example, I would get to take 3 investor tokens.  Investors can be valuable, but their worth is based on your stock price.  Players have various ways of increasing their stock price.  If your number of investors is large enough, you can take a free action to sell a share.  This allows the player to immediately receive cash equal to their share price, but there’s a gotcha involved:  at the end of the game, for each share sold, the player loses 10% of their total cash.  So selling shares is often a tough decision.  If you can acquire enough investors (that is, if you take enough high-powered contracts) and if you can raise your share price sufficiently high, this is a no-brainer:  not only is the infusion of cash incredibly valuable, but the amount of money you receive per share will be greater than the amount you lose at game’s end—a win-win.  At lower share prices, though, you might have to weigh the value of receiving moolah now versus the pain of losing more money at the end of the game than you received by selling the share.  The whole contract subsystem is very interesting and I’ve never seen anything like it in any other game.

There are more actions that can be taken and a whole bunch of details that I’ve glossed over, but that’s enough to give you a feel for how the game plays.  So let’s talk about how the game ends.  If one of the players places a track connecting to Trieste, the game will be over at the end of that round.  There’s a nice financial bonus for connecting to Trieste and every player who makes the connection will earn it.  However, if the game goes 8 rounds and no one has connected to Trieste, the game ends right then.  (All of the games I’ve played have ended with at least one player hooking up to Trieste, usually around Round 6).

At the end of the game, a good deal of cash is paid out for achieving various things.  For example, having a high Influence will bring some nice coin.  The biggest single factor is the money received for satisfying contracts, but there’s a possible complication:  if the game ended with no one connecting to Trieste, those contracts are considered worthless and they pay out nothing.  (Players who didn’t satisfy their contracts would also lose nothing in this instance.)  In theory, this could lead to all kinds of interesting decisions if you think there’s a good chance no one will visit Trieste, but, as I mentioned, that’s never come close to happening in any of my games—the rewards for hooking up are just too significant.  Still, I’ve read reports of games where players choose not to connect to Trieste, so this is obviously a potential factor.  Anyway, if Trieste is reached, all players who didn’t connect to the city must pay other players to do so, by using the shortest route over their tracks to reach the city (another reason why getting at least close to Trieste is a good idea).  Finally, investors must be paid:  players lose 10% of their final cash total for every share of stock they sold.  The player with the most cash at the end of this process wins the game.

Impressions

As you can see, there’s a lot of rules and teaching them all is not a simple process.  There are all the actions to explain and there’s a bunch of small rules and side cases to cover.  The first two times I taught the game, it took me a full 90 minutes!  I’ve gotten it to the point where it only takes me about an hour, but that’s still quite a long time and requires discipline from the teacher and patience (and concentration) from those learning it.  Setup is also a very long process:  there are a ton of cubes that need to be placed on the board and the city tiles must either be put in a predetermined location or shuffled and placed randomly.  If one person is handling things, it can easily take 20 minutes.  We’ve started to share responsibilities, making setup less time consuming, but the best option is still for the owner of the game to have things set up prior to everyone arriving.  Still, setup time (and, to a lesser extent, tear down time) is something that needs to be factored into your desire to play the game.

There’s also the issue of how unforgiving IS is.  The game is essentially a race to get to key cities and money, resources, and storage are very tight.  Properly timing your actions is essential and it’s so easy to make a misstep; even experienced gamers fall prey to this with some frequency.  Making such a mistake doesn’t destroy your game (there’s nothing like a Death Spiral), but in order to recover, precious actions must be wasted.  I’ve actually seen players come back from some bad positions to win, but it’s not easy to do.  The point is, players need to be focused on their goals at all times; “mailing it in” for a few actions is not a good idea in Imperial Steam.  A lot of players don’t like that kind of constant pressure and they like dealing with the consequences of their mistakes even less.  So this is yet another reason why this game isn’t for everyone.

That’s a lot of negatives, so let me list some of the things that make this design so appealing to the right crowd.  For such an involved game, it plays surprisingly quickly.  The interleaved action sequence works very well and turns tend to be very short.  The semi-open action system (in which you can take any action at any time, but repeating actions has consequences) is also excellent and gives you freedom and tough decisions at the same time.  Everything in the game is closely interwoven and working out the best way of achieving your goals is a fascinating process.  It isn’t so much that money is super tight (certain actions can bring you significant rewards), but money doesn’t come to you regularly (your beginning income is laughably small and there’s no guarantee it will increase over the course of the game) and you almost always have useful ways of spending those windfalls soon after you earn them.  Finally, even though there are a large number of things you need to account for, I don’t find the game to be overwhelming; though you may be skating on thin ice for much of the game, you still feel in control.

As is the case with most Euros, you can’t make direct attacks on your opponents.  But make no mistake about it—IS is far from being multi-player solitaire.  You are constantly aware of where your opponent’s tracks are and where they’re capable of building.  Getting to certain cities first (to make a delivery, build an industry there, or other benefits) is a constant goal and there’s nothing worse than being an action behind the meddlesome player to your left.  Even simple things like buying a good or industry first can be critical and having an opponent claim a key contract before you do could cost you the game.  It’s all the more reason to be concerned with player order, so maintaining a healthy Influence level is usually important (for a variety of reasons).  For me, this is just the right level of player interaction—I care about what everyone is doing at the table and need to anticipate their actions, but they can’t directly interfere with my position, so I’m free to plan as I wish.

Replayability is always a concern with modern games and IS supplies it in spades.  For first-time players, there is a preset arrangement of cities provided for each player count; it’s a little more forgiving and controlled setup and I definitely recommend using it as an introduction to the game.  Once you get a few games under your belt, you’re ready for the standard way of playing.  There are five “scenarios”, if you will, for each player count, in which the location of certain key city tiles are specified and then the rest of the tiles are laid out randomly.  The key skill here is analyzing the setup and figuring out which are the crucial cities to connect to and the best routes to use.  This is not only a fascinating process, but it truly makes every game play differently.  It’s absolutely the best way to play the game.  For really experienced players, the rules give you a procedure for setting things up with even fewer restrictions, although they warn you that some crazy setups may result.  So far, I’ve heeded the warnings and just used the standard rules, but I think the next time we pull this out, I’ll give this version a shot, just to see what it’s like.  Overall, I give major kudos to the designer for putting in the work to make all these methods of play available—both beginning players and experienced ones have been considered and there aren’t too many games that go to that level of effort.

So far, Imperial Steam is my favorite game from 2021, including the much vaunted Ark Nova.  I just love the thought process required, the constant interaction, and its unforgiving nature is a feature for me and not a bug.  It also includes a lot of interesting and innovative mechanisms.  I’ve played it at all three player counts and even though it’s good at all of them, the four player game is my favorite.  With 2, there’s too much real estate available and the two of you will probably stake out different areas of the map and never really butt heads over track building.  3 is better, but often it winds up that one player is left alone, while the other two compete over the same area; that usually helps the isolated player a lot, although I’ve seen games where one of the two competing players wound up with the win.  But with 4, all the players have to deal with competition and there’s the maximum amount of head-butting.  This is even more important when playing with the standard setup; maybe you’ve identified the best area of the map to build in, but will you be as successful as you’d like when you have to share it with another player who judged things the same as you did?  It’s a great mixture of strategic and tactical thinking and I’m always a big fan of that in games.

As far as the rules overhead and setup time go, those are prices I’m willing to pay for a game as good as this one.  My only real complaint is an amorphous, “what if” one.  I have a very strong hunch that this was a designer-led title.  There is no developer listed in the credits, which is typical for Capstone games.  My guess is that Huemer spent a lot of time and loving effort creating this behemoth, brought it to Capstone, and they largely published it as he imagined it.  All of the details, side rules, and edge cases—it just feels like that kind of game to me.  Now the end result is great, so I can hardly argue with success.  But there’s a small nagging part of me that thinks, “What if a talented developer had gotten hold of this game?  Could they have whittled it down to 80% of its size and been left with a game that was 95% as good?  Or even better?”  I guess we’ll never know and it’s probably churlish of me to even think that way.  But every time I teach the game and have to go through all of the rules yet again, I think about this.  I guess if that’s the biggest problem you have with a game, that’s a very good sign.

Capstone mostly did a very good job with the production of IS, which makes the small number of things they got wrong all the more annoying.  The board is very large, but this was a necessary decision to allow it to hold the appropriately large city tiles and clearly display the paths between the cities.  As a result of this, the city tiles, which are the stars of the show, are easy to read for all players.  The iconography used here is straightforward and clear.  There’s a ton of wood included and it’s nicely produced, including those cute hand meeples and little industry-shaped tokens.  The brown pieces (for wood) and the black ones (for coal) can be mistaken for each other, but once you’re made aware of that, it’s not really a problem.  Capstone went all out with the huge number of city tiles provided:  they give you a full set for each player count, so that the game is tailored well for each number of players, a level of effort I appreciate.  And the design of the different player boards are, for the most part, well done.

There are some missteps, though.  In order to show which actions have been taken, they give you a large tile for each action type, which includes iconography to show what it does and its restrictions.  You place one of your hand meeples on it as you take the action.  However, there’s no room for these tiles on the board, so they have to be placed beside it, and the damn board is so big that the tiles will be far away from at least some of the players.  We found ourselves literally throwing our meeples in the general direction of the action tiles and requiring the player closest to them to place them on the appropriate tile.  The icons on the tiles are arcane and close to useless; they’re so far away from most of the players that you couldn’t read them even if they were clearer.  And we were constantly asking which tiles our meeples were on.  The thing is, there’s really no need for jointly available action tiles—after all, you don’t care about what actions your opponents have taken previously, just which ones you have.  Obviously, the proper way to handle this would have been to include the action spaces on one of the player boards, or on a separately included group of personal boards.  After my first game, I quickly whipped up a small sheet that had a labeled circle for each action big enough for the hand meeples and printed out a copy for each player.  It works great and everyone I’ve played with has found this to be the superior solution.  I have no idea why Capstone didn’t think of something like this themselves.

I also have a problem with the paths on the gameboard.  To show which paths will require bridges or tunnels, there’s a colored strip next to these paths:  orange for the tunnels, gray for the bridges.  The orange strips are easy to see, but, for my 60-something eyes, at least, the gray strips tend to fade into the background of the board art.  They just don’t “pop” for me.  Most of my opponents don’t have this issue, but early on, there were multiple occasions where my plan was scuttled because I didn’t realize the key path I needed to build over required a bridge.  After this happened a few times, one of the enterprising players in my group placed a cube of the appropriate color next to each of the difficult terrain paths during the setup.  Voila, no more issue!  I don’t think this is a universal problem, but artist Andreas Resch, who did a good job with most of the other components, could have made these strips stand out more than they currently do (simply outlining them in white would have done the trick) and this wouldn’t have been a problem at all.

There are a few other procedures in which Geek users have suggested alternatives which have been more or less universally implemented.  I wonder if Huemer was too close to the design to see that some of these procedures could have been improved.  None are major problems (certainly not as annoying as the action tiles), but overall, Capstone could have done a slightly better job with the game’s usability.

I don’t have any major complaints with the rules.  As I’ve mentioned several times, this is a rules heavy game and there are lots of side cases and exceptions.  Given that, figuring out the game was always going to be a challenge, but I don’t know if any other presentation would have made it all that much easier to get into.  So the rules aren’t a highlight, but they also don’t detract from the game, which these days, when you have to deal with so many poor rule sets, is almost a win.

So what’s the bottom line for Imperial Steam?  There’s no way I can unequivocally recommend it to everyone.  The huge number of rules, the setup time, how unforgiving it is—those will be genuine issues to a large number of players.  And yet, if you enjoy involved games with deep, complex strategy and lots of replayability, and don’t mind an unforgiving design, this might be a great title for you.  Not only does the action system work very well, everything is tied together so intricately that it’s a great challenge to time things properly to accomplish your goals.  And once you advance to the standard game, figuring out the best way of working with the random city display is extremely enjoyable.  Huemer is not an experienced designer (his only previous design is 2015’s Lignum, which is also well regarded), but this effort makes him someone to keep an eye on.  That’s what happens when you’re responsible for my personal Game of the Year.  So if the issues with Imperial Steam are liable to make you steamed, avoid it like the plague; but if your reaction to this review is “Full steam ahead!”, this is a game I can highly recommend.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dan B. (1 play): It’s an interesting design but feels somewhat rough in several ways. For example, everyone has to get more workers right away – this seemed obvious and I was told by experienced players that this is correct. This is one of my pet peeves, especially in longer games – if some early actions really must be taken, assume everyone has taken them and start the game after that point. (If there’s interesting variance in exactly how much everyone pays or whatnot, assign everyone starting packets.) There are other issues, e.g. upgrading workers will typically happen twice and then you don’t need to think about it again. Overall it’s not bad, certainly, but I have increasingly little tolerance for long games with noticeable rough edges – there are so many long, more complex games available, why not play one that isn’t like that? 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I Love It!  Larry
  • I Like It  Alan H
  • Neutral  John P, Dan B.
  • Not for me… 
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1 Response to Larry Levy: Review of Imperial Steam

  1. cbrandt300 says:

    I also loved IS, but Larry is 110% correct. The amount of time needed to set up and teach the game, especially the first time, is more time than many game groups have to PLAY!!! It’s a superb game, but I think it’s better suited for Board Game Arena or Yucata.de than for playing in real life.

    Side note… Our host had it set up the the first time we played. I think any host worth his salt should always do that with this game. … until it’s on BGA, of course.

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