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Review: Steam Park

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Steam Park box cover

The robo-citizens of Roboburg work hard.  Of course, they’re robots… you could say they’re built for it!  However, even robots need to let off a little steam, now and then.  So where do they go for entertainment?  Why, the carnival, of course!  This is an opportunity rife for personal profit.  Here’s your chance to swoop in and dazzle these automatons with gear-powered frills and piston-churning thrills.  Can you attract more visitors than your competitors?  Just keep a tidy park – if there’s one thing these metal, clockwork denizens despise more than rain, it’s trash.

How it Plays

The goal in Steam Park is to earn Danari (money) by building an attractive carnival and fulfilling specific bonus criteria.  You also need to keep a clean park, though, because you lose points at the end for any trash left behind.

There are several elements at play in building and running your park, all based on a Yahtzee-style dice rolling mechanism.  Each round, everyone simultaneously rolls six dice, saving those they wish to keep and re-rolling the remainder.  Players continue rolling until all are satisfied with their results, although the last person can only roll up to three additional attempts.  There is a benefit to finishing first, as well as a penalty for taking the longest.

The purpose of rolling dice is to earn actions.  Each die has six faces – one blank and then five with icons corresponding to different actions.  Which results you keep determine what you’re able to do on your turn.  The different symbols let you build rides, attract visitors, build stands, clean up trash, turn in bonus cards, or you may alternately use any icon to expand your park.

Steam Park starting components
What you start with. Walt Disney didn’t have it any better.

Every amusement park needs rides, of course, and that’s the central element to Steam Park.  There are three sizes in six different colors.  The three sizes require 1-3 tool icons to build and then are placed on your personal park board, a 4×4 grid.  Rides occupy a number of squares equal to their size and there are a couple of restrictions to building them.  You cannot buy two of equal size in the same turn and all rides of the same color must be adjacent, while no two colors can abut, even diagonally.

Rides accommodate a number of visitors corresponding to their size – so 1, 2, or 3.  Attracting visitors is a mixed bag…literally.  You draw them from a bag.  The pouch begins with six visitor-meeples, one of each color.  When taking the attract visitors action, you pick one meeple of any color for each icon you rolled and toss it in the bag.  Then you draw the same number back out.  If you happen to pull out a color that matches one of your rides with an available seat, you place it there.  Any other color meeple goes home – not back in the bag, but into the general supply.

You can also build stands by rolling tent icons.  They only occupy one square on your grid, but you may not build more than one of the same kind in a turn and they must abide by similar placement restrictions as your rides.  There are five different types and each one gives you some special ability to manipulate dice or increase the odds of attracting the right visitors.  One stand helps keep your park clean.  You see, building and operating a carnival creates dirt, which piles up if you’re not careful.  One way to combat trash is by rolling a shovels icon, which lets you dispose of some waste.  Otherwise, you lose points at the end of the game – the higher the severity, the greater the penalty.

Steam Park dice roll phase
Choosing which dice to keep…when they’re on that pig, you can’t change ’em!

The fifth die face shows a pile of coal and is used to play a bonus card.  You will always have three of these cards in hand and they’re dealt randomly, as needed.  In addition to rolling the appropriate symbol, you must also meet the card’s criteria.  Essentially, each one awards a varying amount of Danari for meeting certain levels of a specific condition – like number of stands, number of a certain color visitor, or number of icons in a particular roll.

The final action available is to expand by adding a little 2×2 square on to your existing park grounds.  You may use any icon to do this, but can only expand twice in the same round.  Gaining just four spots may not seem like much, but with Steam Park’s strict building code, you’ll need plenty of extra space – trust me.

After everyone spends their dice and uses up their actions, players collect 3 Danari for every satisfied visitor – that is, meeples on your rides.  The game lasts exactly six rounds in this manner.  At the end of the game, you have to spend Danari to clean up any leftover dirt.  The player with the most money after that wins – a veritable Walt Disney of Roboburg.

Steam Park development of personal board
Mommy, I want to go on the roller coaster!

Go Again, or Get Off This Ride?

I really dig Steampunk.  It is full of so many fascinating contradictions: a sense of genteel rebellion, an attitude of polished roughness, a look toward futuristic history, a look back at progressive tradition, and full of delicately-refined belching monstrosities.  While the theme isn’t necessarily heavy here, Steam Park is like one of those finely-crafted clockwork gadgets common to the genre.  Beneath the surface are a bunch of intricate and seemingly confusing gears and mechanisms, but the working result is smooth and beautiful.

There are several moving parts to Steam Park.  It’s not confusing or convoluted, but learning it at first can feel a tad clumsy.  Beginners should catch on rather quickly, though, thanks primarily to the familiar dice-rolling mechanic which informs the design.  And once they do, the game is a blast!

Steam Park components
Lots of stuff going on…for just a dice game!

The race to finish dice selection during the simultaneous roll phase creates the bulk of excitement and tension.  Not to mention it’s a simple and clever distinction that really sets Steam Park apart from other dice games.  It also forces you to decide on speed or optimization.  As players finish their rolls, it’s first-come, first-serve for the player order tiles.  The one who nabs the first player tile can clean up four extra dirt tokens as a reward.  Second place allows its recipient to discard two.  Meanwhile, third place is a wash, while the last player actually gains two dirt tokens for their sloth.

Do you keep rolling to get the most optimal results based on what you need, despite the risk of getting stuck with extra dirt?  Or do you stop sooner than you’d rather in order to secure the bonus – or just to avoid the penalty?  Or do you even have the will power to stick with your plan as you watch your opponents furiously go for the order tiles?  One of the stands is quite helpful in this conundrum.  The casino allows you to change one die to any other symbol.  So with a couple of those in your park, you have some latitude to keep less than perfect dice and just alter them during your action phase.

The puzzle-like placement also forces you to plan ahead.  Rides of the same color and stands of the same type must always be adjacent and can never touch another attraction.  Even if you concentrate on the three rides of one color and one kind of stand, you’ll quickly run out of room on your starting grounds.  Besides, some diversification is recommended to increase your chances of attracting visitors, fulfilling bonus cards, and utilizing the different abilities offered by stands.

However, expanding uses up an action.  So in a game with at most 36 of them, you need to expand efficiently!  You want just enough extra space to branch out and create spots for new additions, while still saving room to group like attractions together.  But the building restrictions (and having only six dice) still limit you from growing really large in more than but a few areas.

Steam Park purple rides and meeples
Seeing purple. The artwork is amazing!

Obviously, as a dice game, there is randomness inherent to the design.  Besides the dice, there are two other strong facets of chance involved – attracting visitors and playing bonus cards.  In all of these instances, however, there is opportunity to manage the luck.  In the case of dice rolls, the aforementioned casino stand allows you to change one die to any icon you wish.  If you want to switch multiple unwanted rolls, you’ll have to build more than one casino, but even owning just a couple gives you a lot of freedom.

There aren’t any stands that influence bonus cards.  You essentially try to fulfill the most lucrative categories as best you can.  You’ll get some that conveniently match your park’s progress perfectly to score big points, while you’ll struggle to meet the criteria on others.  It is definitely swingy.  The only mitigating factor against the random deal is that you always have three in hand, increasing the chance that one will be useful.  That, and when drawing a new card, you actually take two and pick which of the pair you’d like to keep.

The third prominently unpredictable element in Steam Park revolves around attracting visitors.  You can stack the odds a bit in your favor but dumping meeples in that match the color of your rides.  But, in the end, it’s still a blind draw.  Plus, players before you are likely pulling out the meeples that you need, which don’t return to the pouch.  It’s not uncommon that you’re starting from scratch because there aren’t any meeples in the bag of a color you want!

Thankfully, there are three stands that let you manage this part of the game.  One stand allows you to count a visitor icon as double, so that you can throw two meeples in the bag and draw the same number.  The second stand lets you throw one unwanted meeple back in the bag and then gives you an extra draw.  And finally, my favorite, the third stand lets you place any meeple on one of your rides even if it doesn’t match its color – but only through the end of the round.  That way, you still receive your 3 Danari, but then the patron returns home.

Steam Park stands
These five stands give you some good control over the design’s more arbitrary bits.

All five of the special ability stalls give Steam Park a greater depth than one might expect from a dice game.  Most of the strategic – or maybe more so tactical – decisions players make will rest with which kinds of stands to build, how best to use them, and in which order during your action phase.  Especially given the fact there is limited space and dice with which to accomplish what you want – it’s not enough!

One aspect of Steam Park that may prove problematic to some gamers is the dirt mechanic.  It is a completely compulsory component.  Players are forced to address trash by spending valuable actions to combat against it – actions that could be used for building your carnival and/or attracting visitors.  I think it’s actually thematic.  Theme parks with thousands of daily visitors amass quite a lot of trash…and get unhappy when the place is over-run with garbage or the bathrooms are disgusting.  In the game, it provides some tension, too, since you know you have to account for it with at least part of your measly six dice!  However, some gamers will see it as an arbitrary punishment system.

The only facet I find wanting in Steam Park is a lack of player interaction.  The race for order tiles during the roll phase is all that constitutes directly influencing any opponents.  I personally like messing with other players or throwing a wrench into their plans’ cog-works.  An opportunity, mechanically, to incorporate interaction is already there through the use of special stands.  So the missed chance is unfortunate, even if to add just a teensy discord.  As such, the game is pretty much a solo affair.  It works fine with two players, but more is better, especially to take maximum advantage of the excitement which the simultaneous roll phase offers.  The game is fast-paced – even during the individual action phases – so the time commitment doesn’t suffer for extra players.  And overall game length feels just about right for what it is.  Four is the sweet spot.

Steam Park visitor on ride
The riders actually fit inside the ride!

The production value is off the charts.  Visually Steam Park is stunning, much of the reason it will appeal to casual and fringe-gamers and will always attract attention when set out in a busy room.  The rides themselves are creative 3-D stands with sunken tops in which the visitor meeples physically sit – intuitively thematic.  They do take both time and extreme care to assemble, but the finished product is uniquely fantastic.  The special stands are also little cardboard standees.  As your park comes together with the various attractions, it’s an impressive site to behold, exuding a sense of accomplishment and fun.

Marie Cardouat, of Dixit fame, imaginatively renders the evocative artwork.  It does have a Steampunk vibe, but is decidedly more whimsical in style.  I think it matches the game’s nature, perfectly – light and inviting, but still layered when explored deeper.  It’s a shame they didn’t seem to have time or money to illustrate the bonus cards.  They’re just a plain white stock with “pipe” borders and generic text.

All the rest of the bits are well-done and sturdy.  The dice are lightweight and wooden (like those found in Stone Age), but the icons are thankfully indented.  The only quibble I have with components is that the five denominations of Danari all have the same backs, making it difficult to sort through the pile when needing to distribute points.  I believe they’re made that way to keep scoring secret, ala Small World, but we cared less about hidden points.  But I feel bad even bringing that up when considering that the witty rule book is an absolute hoot to read and that all of the assembled rides and stand fit perfectly back inside the box – although there’s little room left for expansions…?

Steam Park bonus cards
Some will just fall in your lap…

Steam Park is not a true “gateway game,” since it has a few more intricacies than an introductory design ought to.  At the other end, there’s too much randomness to appease dedicated strategy gamers within strictly peer sessions.  However, beyond that it should have a wider appeal.  It is extremely accessible and attractive – a great choice for any game night, perfect for families, and especially fitted for casual players sitting on the fringe of the hobby.  Dice games have increased in the last two years, and Steam Park successfully builds upon that popularity.  It combines the excitement of rolling dice – amplified by doing so simultaneously – with interesting decisions and meaningful ways to manage its unpredictable nature.  The result is a fun, light, fast-paced romp with a truly unique and enticing theme that gamers of many stripes will really enjoy.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Iello for providing a review copy of Steam Park.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • Easy to learn, but not overly simple
  • Fast paced and satisfying length
  • Simultaneous rolling is exciting and tense
  • Still provides meaningful choices
  • Ways to manipulate dice rolls
  • Fantastic production

Cons:

  • Some may not favor forced trash mechanism
  • Attracting visitors relies heavily on luck
  • Bonus cards can be unbalanced
  • No player interaction
9.0 Excellent

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

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