I’ve done an incredible thing! After years of hard work, I’ve finally cracked the time-space continuum and I’ve gathered the greatest minds in history in one place. The amount of human ingenuity contained in this room is simply astounding. To what aim, you may ask? I’ll admit, world domination did cross my mind, but I quickly changed my focus to more important matters: multi-day, high speed racing. Think of it! World class inventors taking curves at top speed in vehicles of their own making. Not only will we test their racing chops, their intellectual might will be put to the challenge, as well, as they construct and repair their racing machines. The winner of the race will go down in history as they greatest thinker of all time. I call it the Steampunk Rally.
How it Plays
The good thing about racing games is that the goal is fairly self evident: get to the finish line before anyone else. How you get there is entirely in your hands. Players take on the roles of a historically significant scientist and create their own racing machines in order to navigate the difficult terrain of the track. Every round begins with players constructing their racing machines and gathering fuel. Afterwards, players vent any pent up steam from previous turns and power their machines to move along the race path. The round ends with some cleanup that includes resolving the effects of damage that may have occurred during the turn. If no one has reached the finish line, play continues.
Building your machine is done via a card draft. All players will receive 4 cards of machine parts. You will select one and pass the rest to your neighbor and continue drafting until you’ve selected 4 cards. Cards will represent different parts of a racing machine but can also be discarded for fuel or cogs. When a card is selected it must be immediately added to your current machine or discarded for resources. There are some restrictions on machine part placement and some cards can be saved for later to use as a special ability, but that’s the gist of it.
Next, you’ll have the opportunity to vent any previously pent up steam from your machine by spending cogs. Whenever fuel is used to power your machine it is stored as steam, limiting your options to power it in the future. Venting the used up fuel allows for the necessary room to power your machine again in the future.
Next comes the racing. Roll any dice you’ve collected in the drafting phase and then assign them to the various parts on your machine to power it. Each part requires a certain number of pips to activate. So if a part requires 2 pips, placing a die with 6 showing will activate it 3 times. You can use cogs to reroll and modify your dice in order to get the number of activations you want.
Activations result in various results such as moving your machine forward, increasing your armor, and even providing different types of fuel. All players execute this phase simultaneously and move their pawns on the race track to reflect the performance of their machines.
There are particular spaces on the track that will do damage to your racing machine when encountered. Damage and armor is tracked on a disc counter. If at the end of the round, you have a negative damage number there will be repercussions. For each number less than 0 you must discard a part from your machine. If you are ever required to discard all of your parts you will fall behind the person in last place.
Any dice you have left over are discarded unless you have storage spaces on your machine. If anyone has crossed the finish line, this signals the end of the game. One more round will be played and whoever is in the lead after that round will be declared the winner.
The Amazing Race
Steampunk Rally makes a strong first impression. From the attractive cover art to it’s playful, if absurd, premise it exudes the confidence that comes hand in hand with a high quality production. Opening the box is no disappointment. With over 100 dice, nearly 200 cards, and dozens of tokens and tiles, there’s no doubt you’re getting your money’s worth in bits alone. The sheer amount of items in the box also bodes well to the variability of the game. Multiple racers with their own unique cockpits, a large assortment of machine parts, and double sided race track tiles ensure that each game will take on a different flavor.
The machine cards meant for drafting are divided into four types and laid out in four separate decks. Each deck of cards provides a certain benefit. Gold cards provide movement. Silver cards generate dice and copper cards add connectors to your machine to more easily expand your vehicle. The last type of cards are called Boost cards and provide one time abilities such as venting your racing machine, free movement or messing with your opponents.
The draft is typical draft fare. Take a card, play it, and pass the rest on. It’s nothing spectacular, but there are a few wrinkles to consider. There’s a spatial element to the cards you choose. On every machine part there is a connector on either 1 to 4 sides of the card. When placing a new machine part, you have to match connectors so cards that have multiple connectors can prove valuable even if they don’t provide much else.
Like most drafting games, it’s possible to get a hand of cards that doesn’t fit your plan. A dead hand, as it were. The ability to discard cards for dice or cogs is an elegant solution to the problem. Even if you have to discard for dice or cogs, don’t think of it as a consolation prize. If by some chance you are able to add every card you come across to your racing machine you will still, at some point, need to collect dice and cogs to fuel and vent your racing machine. It’s a satisfying balancing act and plays into the two distinct strategies that I came across.
On one hand, you can spend your time crafting the perfect racing machine over multiple turns, eschewing dice and cogs for a hulking beast of a ride. You can try gathering parts that synergize well with each other and pump up your armor in order to blast through the course in just a few turns. On the other hand, you can create a svelte racing machine and move forward at every opportunity, losing parts along the way due to damage from the rough terrain. You can inch your way forward and hope that you reach the finish line before your opponents can surge past you with their hulking machines. Of course these are the two extremes and you can try a more balanced approach. It’s a testament to the game’s thoughtfulness that neither approach feels too strong.
So how exactly can you synergize racing parts? Well, you can add a Firebox to your machine that produces heat dice which you can use in your Boiler to create steam dice. With those steam dice you can power your Propeller to jet forward and power your Auger to break through any rough terrain that may be in your way. This is just one example. Many more combinations will reveal themselves to you throughout the play of a game.
No matter which approach you take, you’ll eventually have to power your vehicle with dice fuel. This happens every round when you roll every dice you’ve collected and assign them to the various parts of your machine. Higher numbered dice can activate machine parts multiple times so it might be easy to assume that the winner is decided by the fate of the dice. Luckily, the designers thought of that. Not only do the cogs allow you to re-roll and readjust dice you’ve already rolled, the game includes machine parts that are activated with a die of any number and because of the venting phase, you’ll want to use lower numbered dice on them.
Every cog spent during the venting phase lowers the pip value of any die on your machine by two. Only once a die’s value is decreased to zero is is removed from your machine which frees up the part to be used again. So rolling high is balanced by the need to vent and parts that can use lower numbered dice. Very clever.
Figuring out how to best lay out machine parts and assign your dice is the best and most satisfying part of Steampunk Rally. It allows you to take the inherit randomness that comes with drafting and dice rolling and bend it to best fit your needs. It’s a puzzle that pays off with a burst of movement. And the puzzles keep coming and they’re generally fun to play with and figure out. But a series of puzzles can only capture my attention for so long.
What I craved was some meaningful interaction with the other racers. There are some Boost cards that let you mess with other racers on the course, but it never feels earned. It’s just a thing that happens because someone happened to draft that particular card. You can be moved around a bit or have obstacles thrown in your way by the play of these Boost Cards. These “take that” cards never rubbed me the wrong way, but might bother the more sensitive players and isn’t the type of interaction I desire. What I wanted was something more substantive. I wanted positioning to matter, drafting, cutting people off…. something else. The fact that multiple racers can occupy the same space with no consequence is a little disappointing. The race felt more like players setting a pace for the game end more than an actual race. In this way, there are plenty of games where players set the pace for the game’s end and I wouldn’t quite call them racing games.
I also wish that the machines you construct were a little more permanent. During the drafting phase you can rearrange your vehicle parts any which way to make the part your draft fit. It offers flexibility, but it also lowered my personal attachment to my machine. Damage also causes you to lose parts at a pretty quick clip (at least the way I play), further lowering my attachment to my machine. It could have helped to have the less repeated cards in the deck. I know it would have been a feat to make every card unique, but it would have went a long way towards making me feel like my vehicle is my own special snowflake. It might seem like a silly complaint, but I always get a kick out building cardboard contraptions in my games. I start to care about them and build a story around them. It says something when I am more than willing to shed vehicle parts if it meant gaining any extra space on the board.
Steampunk Rally is a fine game. There’s enjoyment in rearranging your machine and more so in figuring out how to power it with dice. If you like a barrage of puzzles, then this is surely a game for your, it just isn’t enough to excite me long term. It’s a well put together product with some clever design. Figuring out how to assign your dice is met with immediate results which offers a nice little rush of satisfaction. We had a fun few dates, Steampunk Rally, but I just don’t see us having a future together.
For another opinion, Ruel chose Steampunk Rally as his pick for Game of the Year in 2015.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Roxley Game Laboratory for providing us with a copy of Steampunk Rally for review.