Review: Steam: Rails to Riches30 Nov 2015 4
There is a school of thought that you should judge a game by how much the mechanics immerse you in the theme of the game. By this standard, Steam: Rails to Riches is a runaway success. Navigating the loops within loops strategy feels like piecing together endless tiny cogs inside a steam engine. Playing the game is akin to being tied to a track in front of one.
This is not a criticism: it's a warning. Some people love this stuff. Martin Wallace, who designed the original tabletop version of Steam, is their patron saint. His games can be brutally unforgiving on those who don't play to the best of their ability. If the other players don't hammer you, the mechanics will let you do it to yourself.
Each turn of Steam starts with players getting loans to pay for their purchases in the turn ahead. Once taken, each loan is a permanent drain on your income, until you can pay it off. So if you overspend and under-deliver, you'll be permanently crippled throughout the game. If you're not careful, you can do this on your very first turn.
Of course, I fell into this trap of my own making over and over during my initial games. It's frustrating yet, at the same time, oddly addictive. With no randomness in the game at all, you know there's no-one but yourself to blame. That's a big driver to stand up and get right back on the train again.
You'll need your loan money during the remaining phases of the game. First everyone bids for turn order, which turns out to be yet another trap. Going early is important, and the player going last can be at a fatal disadvantage, especially in the first couple of turns. So it's tempting to bid hard. But go too big, and you'll as surely have shot yourself in the foot as you will by going last.
Next everyone gets a special action for the turn, like the ability to found new cities or build extra track. These abilities get used during the next segment where everyone builds track to try and connect cities on the map together. Track costs money, of course, but in the final phase of the game you can use the railroads to shift good around. That makes money which you can use to pay down your loans or, later in the game you can take victory points instead.
Building track is the best and the craziest bit of the game. You can use other people's track for delivery but doing so reduces your profit. So everyone tries to make their own links between cities, and it's all-out war between players trying to claim the shortest links first.
Sometimes it's worth leaving one of your own routes unfinished just to claim the first tile in another, to deny it to someone else. Sometimes it isn't. The wheels of strategy and logic go round and round until your head starts to feel like there's a locomotive running through it.
Routes aren't the half of what there is to think about. You need to get the right special ability card at the right time, as their relative utilities wax and wane with the progression of the game. Then you need to consider how to get the right routes to the right destinations via as many cities as possible to maximize your points each turn. Often, this involves circling the end point in hilarious and unlikely gyrations. Eventually, your brain spins in sympathy.
It's challenging, demanding and can feel like a lot of work. Yet it's work than can feel a lot like entertainment. There's a fine blend of playing against the mechanics and playing against your opponents. Unlike a lot of modern heavyweight strategy titles, interaction is everywhere. From the auction at turn start to stealing freight under your enemies noses at the end.
There are a variety of AI personalities to stand against you and even the easiest ones will destroy inexperienced players. Given the smooth interface and faced-paced play this is a great way to practice. It's a fine introduction to people who might want to play the game face to face with friends.
Sadly face-to-face is, at the moment, the only way to enjoy Steam against other human beings. There's no online play included in the game, although the developer says it's coming. We can't review promises, however, and the fact is that, in this day and age, board game adaptations without online play just aren't good enough for top marks.
Everything else on offer here is up to scratch. The graphics are clear and the ambient sound soothes overworked neurons. There's a fine interactive tutorial to teach you the game. There are extra maps to buy.
Overall, it’s a lot to enjoy. But you need to know what you're getting into. There are dragons here. Sometimes they are logical ones, sometimes iron. Either way, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in slaying them.
Steam was played on a Samsung Galaxy S5