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Review: Steam Time

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box cover

They say time is the fire in which we burn.  Perhaps the universe is its furnace?!  It’s 1899 and bizarre occurrences are rocking the foundations of the world’s most amazing and mythical achievements.  Luckily, while investigating these phenomenon, Earth’s brightest minds have discovered strange temporal energy crystals.  Not only might they solve the mystery, but they appear to be a source of unimaginable power opening new horizons never dreamed of.  So what do Victorians do with that innovation?  Build airships, of course!

How to Play

In Steam Time you captain one of those airships powered by “borrowed” supernatural crystals, traveling to the world’s most precious human monuments searching for the cause of strange and disturbing distortions in the space-time continuum.  Sadly it seems one might have already been gobbled up as you fly around to not seven, but six different ancient wonders  to investigate the mystery, gather resources and earn esteem in the eyes of your employers – the bureaucrats at the aptly named Temporal Institute of Monument Exploration (T.I.M.E.).

A relatively open-ended design from veteran Rüdiger Dorn, Steam Time is thoroughly standard German fare – a game in which the points really matter and everything else is made up.  Claiming actions via a tight worker placement mechanism and earning points through resource collection and conversion, players will bounce around the board with a care to follow the rules, but nary an eye on the setting.

Are you ready for some space-time distortion investigation?
Are you ready for some space-time distortion investigation?

There’s lots of stuff in this game.  To start with you receive three airship tokens (airsheeples?) and a personal airship board to hold the variety of things you’re about to collect.  There’s a place on your board to store gold, dock unused airships and track the amount of built up steam.  Your vessel is comprised of six compartments, all designated by color.  The colors are important and correspond to crystals you will be gathering.  The bridge is green, the engine room blue, the laboratory black, a pink time portal, the Midas machine grey, and finally the analytic engine is orange.  Each room has between 2 to 5 holes with which to slot crystals.  On either side of your airship board you’ll lay upgrade tiles (to the right) and cards received from missions, expeditions and specialists (at the left).

Elsewhere in the middle of the table the main game board serves as a repository for cards and resources and also has an esteem track (victory points).  Then there are the six monument boards.  These are laid out like a ladder, stacked one atop another randomly to start the game.  Depending on player count, each monument contains between three to five of six possible action spaces corresponding in color to your ship’s compartments.

It's a good ship...
It’s a good ship…

An income phase begins each round.  Players collect any resources as depicted by acquired upgrade tiles – so nothing for you as play gets underway.  Then the main action phase commences.  Captains alternate claiming a free location at any monument and resolving its action.  You have three airships but you can only claim subsequent actions on a monument above that of previous selections.  Not to worry, though, as your choices amount to a veritable smorgasbord.  The colored action spaces generally specialize in a specific resource but it’s also not uncommon for spots to dole out more than one kind of ware.

Green mission locations allow you to take a mission card which designates certain resources to collect for points at the end of the game.  At blue encounters you draw a number of encounter cards of famous historical men (sorry, ladies) and choose one that awards various swag.  The black crystal deposits are randomly seeded with colored gems every round – take one when landing here and place it in a free slot in your ship’s equivalent compartment.  You can buy a ship’s upgrade tile on the pink upgrade spaces.  The grey gold (yeah, that’s an oxymoron) boxes dole out cold hard cash.  Finally the orange expedition boxes allow you to take an expedition card and score its benefits according to how many crystals are currently in your orange analytic engine.

Additional resources often available at these locales include esteem points, building up steam, and advancing your time portal’s disc.  After resolving an action you check the section of your ship matching the action box’s color.  Based on the number of crystals there you earn a little bonus.  For example, if you select the mission card action (green) and take a mission card, you then check your bridge (green).  If you have one or more green crystals there, you earn an esteem point for each one.

Close encounters of the historical kind.
Close encounters of the historical kind.

When purchasing upgrades and expedition cards you must expend a number of your accumulated crystals.  The combination of colors and total amount vary on the tile or card’s designated cost and according to an effort card, which changes each round.  Upgrades and expeditions list a combination of letters from A to F.  Cross reference those letters with the turn’s current effort card to determine which color crystals you need to spend.  If you don’t have any of the requisite purchase color, or would prefer to save one or more, you can let off a little steam, changing a crystal to any desired color per steam resource vented.

From time to time (no pun intended) you will gain clear T.I.M.E. crystals not found in the regular deposits on monument boards.  While generic in appearance they’re pretty significant in application.  These may be slotted in any compartment on your airship.  When placed, they effectively become the color corresponding to that compartment and are considered such for all purposes regarding action bonuses, purchase costs, and end of game mission scoring.

What greater honor for an adventuring Victorian than to be held in high esteem!
What greater honor for an adventuring Victorian than to be held in high esteem!

So each player performs three placements in a round.  However, if one manages to advance their time portal track a cumulative five spaces, she may undertake an extra action with the communal Mr. Time token.  It may not have an imaginative name, but it’s a very powerful bonus, because you can place it at any location along the time stream – meaning you can go to a monument previous to one you’ve already visited that round.  Also, you can choose a location already occupied.  Assuming you can afford to resolve the action fully, if necessary.  When everyone finishes their actions, the boards are wiped clean and the top monument is placed at the bottom, pushing the others up one place, and then new cards, tiles and crystals are seeded to the boards.

Captains accumulate points along the esteem track as play progresses.  After five rounds, the game ends and everyone adds up points according to any mission cards they acquired and can fulfill.  The winner is appointed the Deputy Vice Assistant Undersecretary in the Temporal Institute of Monument Exploration.  The losers?  Well, they can always go back in time and try their luck again…

Your mission should you choose to accept it.
Your mission should you choose to accept it.

Master of Time or Just Procrastinating?

Time itself is a pretty straight-forward concept.  You have seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, eons and, if you’re British, fortnights even.  And thankfully it’s always moving forward so as not to really mess things up.  Or is it?  We all know it’s more complicated than that.  Sometimes we have too much of it to kill, other times we don’t have enough.  It flies, but it drags.  We can save it or waste it.  The times are always changing, but sometimes things never change.  Perhaps it’s a fourth dimension as some say?  Or an illusion as Einstein says?  Maybe that explains why the last few seconds of a sports contest can take half an hour to finish?  Or why the center of frozen mashed potatoes never warm up no matter how many minutes the instructions say to microwave them?  And then you bring in theoretical physics, Star Trek, and e=mc2 and, well, forget about it!  I’m out.

Thankfully you don’t need to ponder so philosophically while playing Steam Time because it really has little to do with its rule book fluff.  At no point does the experience of time travel and dirigible captaincy inform gameplay.  It’s unlikely you’ll address any crystals or ship departments by reference other than their color.  Instead of an “I’m going to power my analytic machine,” a simple “I’m going to put this orange crystal in my orange ship space” will suffice.  You’re claiming and generating points, not sleuthing as a temporal Sherlock Holmes.  Indeed after everything’s wrapped up, you’ve not even “solved” the “mystery” of the space-time distortions, nor even really investigated it.  So we still don’t know if aliens built the pyramids.  (Hint: they did.)

aliens

Despite its setting miscues, you can draw some interesting parallels from the design to ways we think about time – though admittedly not in the thematic way designer and developer where aiming for.  One, in a sense your actions fly by faster than expected.  With only fifteen selections – plus a couple more perhaps with the Mr. Time bonus – the worker placement is limited.  So to some extent there’s not quite enough time to do everything you’d like.  Many games share this characteristic, yet to varied effect.  They’re either well balanced to create tension and reward smart decision-making.  Or it feels like a straightjacket.

Steam Time lies somewhere in the middle.  There are enough options that restraint is never an issue.  In fact, the opposite.  On one hand, you almost always have a beneficial move when placing airships.  On the other, there’s no acute tension.  Even as your action-selection options narrow, it’s not alarming because you earn resources two other ways.  Buying upgrades can reap bountiful stores during the income phase.  And powering your compartments with crystals nets extra swag as you select their associated actions on the monument boards.  Even though the finite action phase is keenly appreciated, you’re not solely reliant on your fifteen choices to collect things you need.

With so many avenues and means of gearing up, the crux becomes how wisely you manage your time.  That requires a plan.  For example, upgrades are critical to earn any manner of extra resources each round.  You need to plan accordingly in not only acquiring crystals to purchase tiles, but also without emptying your generators in the process.  If those go low, subsequent actions will be far less profitable until you can build your stocks back up.  Indeed one compartment, the black laboratory, must be stocked to its maximum limit for the majority of the game.  When full, you collect two additional generic clear crystals every time you visit a monument board’s deposits.  That’s huge.

All the latest bells and whistles.
All the latest bells and whistles.

Another aspect requiring forethought is the mission cards.  When claiming one you’re essentially committing to mini-strategies.  Sometimes a late mission may pop up that just so happens to align with your current progress.  Those can be unexpected boons you’d obviously want to take advantage of.  Taking a card early typically forces certain types of moves, however, which might then start eroding the design’s otherwise liberality.  You don’t get hit with a penalty for unfulfilled missions.  However, if you do fail one, it amounts to a wasted action (apart from the 1 bonus esteem point per green crystal when resolving) and may have been more effective using elsewhere.

The buffet of options with the care of how to pile it all on your plate elicits another reference to how we experience time.  That is, turns can drag.  Even though the worker placement structure is mechanically straight-forward, the amount of information can be overwhelming – and require some thought.  Therefore, it’s prone to analysis paralysis.  Typically that occurs at the beginning of a new round, after new information is revealed and you need to piece together your three actions.  Since the first selection very much informs and influences your subsequent choices, you naturally want to make the right one.  Alas, it generally takes a few minutes to process all of that.  It can certainly let a little steam out of your airship.

Powering up!
Powering up!

A final temporal concept prevalent in the design is the idea of cyclical time.  Admittedly this is the weakest of the bunch, but you experience it with the rotating monument boards and the repetitive worker placement.  Between the changing time stream and re-seeding of cards, gems and tiles, each round changes a little even though things stay relatively the same.  Just like time.

Overall, Steam Time is a medium weight design that tends toward heavier complexity due to its free form and plethora of choices.  Both physically and mentally arresting, it’s not for new gamers or casual players.  In fact, in regards to components, it’s one of the most fiddly games I’ve ever played, requiring you to wipe and reset the board four times during a session.  It’s all about optimization and that tends to favor experienced hobbyists.  If you like efficiency games, this title will reward repeated investment.  Indeed it requires a few plays to really grasp the potential strategies and absorb it all.  Depending on your personality – and resource management skills – you’ll either lament your failures to do this or that, or take pride in what you were able to accomplish in such limited time.

Mr. Time, I presume?
Mr. Time, I presume?

Specialists are a module that toss in yet another resource to juggle.  These are generic shipboard positions that provide some rules-breaking abilities and other special powers.  Each player has an identical deck of nine cards.  You have two in hand at a time and can play one before placing any airship.  That specialist is in effect until another is played.  Once covered, the crew member is done for the game.  So choosing when to utilize one and/or move onto another adds a further layer of planning.

There is very little interaction.  Aside from the worker placement genre’s ubiquitous “passive-aggressive” blocking tactic, the only way to impede opponents is with the game’s second module: sabotage.  If you’d like a slightly more contentious session (and I emphasize slightly), each player receives a saboteur which he/she places on an action space each round.  For every saboteur at a location, a player must pay one T.I.M.E. crystal to claim it.

Even though I personally don’t consider blocking interaction, there is certainly tighter competition over space with more players.  The monument boards are double-sided to scale to player count.  Still, there are more spaces per person in a 2-player game as opposed to 3, and still less with 4.  Therefore I prefer and recommend 3- or 4-player sessions.  Depending on the amount of analyzing and planning, you should still be able to knock out a session in 75-90 minutes.

What good is an airship without an expedition to take it on?!
What good is an airship without an expedition to take it on?!

It’s just as well that metaphysical thinking about time and space is moot in Steam Time, because gameplay works your brain in a more practical manner.  This title is a pure points generating engine.  While some elements and mechanisms toy with the temporal theme, the setting is a nonfactor.  Rather it’s a solid worker placement affair in which players have a good deal of freedom thanks to the number and array of options – still within a condensed time frame.  With so much to choose from and a limited number of actions to accomplish it all, it can induce mental paralysis.  However, the flip side is it offers lots to explore with plenty of avenues to move about the board and different means of developing and shaping your strategy.  New gamers probably won’t give this one the time of day; casual players will probably spend their time with something lighter; but veteran gamers looking for some good brain crunch and fluid strategy should carve some time out for Steam Time.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Thames and Kosmos for providing a review copy of Steam Time.

3 Score and 10

  • Rating 7.0
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Summary

Pros:

Simple structure with lots to explore
Time restrictions, but not restraining
One end goal and multiple ways to achieve it
Outstanding production value

Cons:

Purely mechanical, little soul
Not much interaction
Can induce analysis paralysis
Quite fiddly

7.0 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity…relatively speaking.

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