Age of Steam (2002) by John Bohrer and Martin Wallace has a long and storied history, but I’m not privy to the details. The game has been reimplemented by Railways of the World and by Steam: Rails to Riches. There was also a lengthy legal battle between Martin Wallace and John Bohrer as to who owned the trademark for Age of Steam that seems to be resolved now to both Bohrer’s and Marin’s satisfaction.

But let’s not talk about that part of history, let’s talk about the actual game. Age of Steam is a train game in which you and your opponents are trying to develop your train company and delivering goods in the longest way possible. Efficiency will not be rewarded on the free market.

Gameplay begins with players selling shares of their company into the ether. You earn $5 per share you sell, but you’ll need to pay one $1 for every share you’ve sold per round for the rest of the game. You can sell as many or as few shares as you want, but just be aware that you’ll be paying for it every round.

After selling shares, players bid for turn order. It’s a classic rotating bid where players either up the ante, or pass. The first player to pass doesn’t have to pay anything, they get the privilege of going last for free. The final two players will need to pay their full bid, regardless of who actually wins the bid, and all other players will need to pay half their bid rounded up. Around and around players bid until the player order is decided. This is the first point where you’ll regret the number of shares you sold. You lost first place because you ran out of cash, why didn’t you sell more shares??

Once player order has been chosen, players then choose a special bonus for the round. Only one player can choose each action, which makes the player order fairly consequential. The actions are as follows:

  • First move – the player who chooses first move will get to move a good first, regardless of player order
  • First build – just like first move, but with the build action
  • Engineer – Allows the player to build 4 items instead of the usual 3
  • Locomotive – Moves the player’s link disk up the engine track one space. This allows goods to travel over more stops, and will earn more money in the end.
  • Urbanization – Allows the player to place a new city on the board, creating a new hub for goods to be delivered to, and possibly spawn from
  • Production – Allows the player to put two goods cubes back onto the production board, which may have them be placed onto a city during the production phase
  • Turn Order (pass) – Allows the player to pass once during the next bidding phase.

Every action has the potential to be useless, or, extremely important, depending on the current state of the game. If only you sold more shares, so you could go first and get your pick of the actions

Once all the actions have been selected, the build phase begins. Players can build up to 3 railway tiles leading out from any city. If they connect to another town or city, they own that rail link for the rest of the game. If the rail link just ends in the middle of nowhere, they’ll need to progress it during the next round, or they’ll forfeit ownership of that line, possibly letting someone else claim ownership. This is the second step where you’ll regret the number of shares you sold. You don’t have enough money to build what you want to build! Why didn’t you sell more shares??

After everyone has built, the move goods phase starts. Players take a turn moving a cube from a city, over rail links, until the cube arrives at a city of the matching colour. Every town or city the cube moves through is a new link, and when the cube is delivered, the player earns perpetual income based on how many rail links the cube passed over. Players are limited by their Engine track, which at the start of the game, is only 1, so direct sales only. But as the game goes on and players improve their engines to 5 or 6, a cube can snake through the entire board before landing at its destination, netting the player 5 or 6 income points. And here’s the hook, players don’t have to use their own rail links, you can move a cube over someone else’s rail line. But the player who owns the line will earn the money for that stretch of the journey. For example, if I move a cube over two of my links, then over two of Bigfoot’s rail links, and finally, over one of my own to deliver the cube to a city, I’ll earn 3 income, and Bigfoot will earn 2.

After the goods have been delivered, all players collect their income, based on their location on the income track, then debts come due. For every share you’ve sold, pay $1. For every space on the engine track, pay another $1. This is the third time this round you’ll regret the number of shares you sold. Why did you have to sell so many??

Then, taxes show up. If your income is over 10, it gets pulled back 2 spaces. If the income is over 20, it gets pulled back 4 spaces. This forces players to be cognizant of the growth of their company. It can also lead to a player giving another player a single income space to put them over the threshold of the next tax bracket, pushing them further down the income track.

Finally, dice a rolled and goods are re-seeded onto the board. At the start of the game, goods will be flying out, but by the end, if no one took the production action, players will be scrapping to deliver the last few, possibly unprofitable goods.

And that’s the game! Play continues round after round, regret after regret until after a specific number of rounds (depends on the player count), the game comes to an end. Players earn 3 points per space on the income track, plus one point for every track tile they’ve placed. Players also lose 3 points per share they sold throughout the game.

I quite enjoyed playing Age of Steam, it was tense, interactive, and at times, cutthroat. This was all of our first time playing, so we definitely missed out on some efficiencies. There were a couple of times when we were scratching our heads wondering why someone would ever do something, like take the pass action. Then a few rounds later, had a lightbulb moment where we realized just how powerful that action can be. I think Age of Steam would really shine if we played a few more times, the nuance of track design and understanding how to utilize the towns wasn’t obvious during our first play, I can absolutely see the potential for mastery here.

The first two rounds are tense and tricky as you’re playing with a deficit. You don’t have the ability to increase your income track to break even, let alone earn a profit, forcing you to sell shares next round. Around turn 4 things pivot where suddenly cash is flowing in, and skipping a move good phase to increase your locomotive starts to make sense. It’s mildly painful to make that choice though, do you deliver a 2 link good now, or upgrade, so you can deliver 3 link goods next round? Taking the low-hanging fruit is tempting, but as soon as you see someone deliver a 5 link good and leave you in the dust, the regret in your stomach will double.

I haven’t played any 18xx games, but after playing Age of Steam, I find myself wanting to explore those as well. During this play of Age of Steam, I found myself wishing I could buy other players stock, so they’d have to pay me at the end of the round, instead of buying and selling to the bank. Then I realized, that’s kind of the whole thing with 18xx games. Players generally don’t own a rail line, but they can invest and make decisions based on how many shares they have. I know each game is different and has their own nuance, but I find myself more intrigued by the genre than ever before.

The copy we played was the third edition, published by Eagle Games in 2009 I think? Some things were great, I loved that each player got little plastic locomotives to play with. The map was functional, with plain colours and very little texture to confuse the eyes. My big gripe came from the side boards. The Goods Display and Selected Actions board, and the income track and score board were on good quality cardboard, but were completely grey-scale! The colourful cubes and player disks quickly covered most of the boards, but still, what an eye-sore.

In the days that followed our Age of Steam play, our group chat was pretty enamoured with the game and expressing interest to go back and play it some more. I realized that I owned the Android app version of Steam: Rails to Riches, developed by Acram Digital, so I gave that a play to satisfy my Age of Steam cravings. If you’re interested in the app, you can find it on Android and Steam (and yes, I do appreciate the irony of searching for Steam on Steam).

I’m looking forward to returning to Age of Steam. There’s a level of mastery to be achieved, and a plethora of fan-made maps to explore. I enjoy the anguish of needing to sell shares at the top of the round, then regretting it for the rest of the game. The cat and mouse of bidding for player order, egging on two players locked in a game of locomotive chicken.