Type: Euro / 18xx

Time to play: 120 – 150 minutes per game (Teaching: 20-30 minutes)

Best played with: 3-5 players (Best with 4)

— Review is Base game only ; a “Standard Game” rule set is also include in the box —-

There is perhaps an overwhelming number of board games now that are based on Trains. From Ticket to Ride, to Russian (and German) Railroads and that group of games loving known as 18xx – typically hard to get hold of and even harder to play euros! So why find space on your shelf for another one – well because they each do something a little bit different and for some gamers they scratch a very particular itch…

Steam: Rails to Riches is for those seeking a moderate weight euro with an ability to block opponents but normally a very manageable second best option available. What I mean by that is that Steam is a simple tile placing / goods trading game with very little theme enriching it, but it’s an exceptionally well crafted and tight game. Sure in your turn you might lay down three train tracks and move two goods and yes your opponent might edge you for this route or grab one more point by trading that good, but there are usually many things open and available to you. However, you will find that when you reach the end of the game – that player has edged it by a small but significant margin. Every step you took was a finely crafted groove that drove you to the inevitable outcome of your score and that harmless bit of path building your opponent did was actually a genius block!

So how does this game play? Well it’s a fixed number of rounds, and in each round you pick a tile bonus – the tile bonus you pick determines both a special rule for you this turn (like placing a new city or building extra track) and determines your turn order next go. Special bonuses decided, it’s time to go about the core mechanics: laying tracks and trading goods (in that order). Firstly, lay three pieces of track (four if you choose the special tile!). Once everyone has done this you can start to use your own (or other people’s tracks) to deliver goods. Delivering goods across your tracks scores points for you (as you are the railroad company shipping the goods). As you gain that income from trade the resources on the board deplete. Trying to consistently score trades is very difficult in the game, and back to the above – this is where your move in turn two suddenly turns out to have lost or won you the game!

Trading goods is also not as simple as it sounds. You must move a good from its starting city to a city of it’s colour and you can only trade them as far as your trains can deliver (starting at 1 link, or one city to the next). Building from 1 to a max of 6 city moves is key in gaining higher value trades. However, to increase your delivery distance you must sacrifice a single trading turn (you get 2 per game turn) and that means that a player who consistently trades at 5 shouldn’t choose to lose a trading turn (worth 5) for the ability to do two future turns that are each worth 6 – they didn’t make back the loss.

Of course, this all depends on your opponents’ strategies too. If they are short haul goods traders depleting the map and reducing your opportunities, perhaps your only way to compete is to get that slightly less frequent, but much more valued long haul trade. Likewise, if you can see your opponent building across to you – perhaps its time to trade away that good even at a lower return just to stop him!

Trading is after all both the way to earn income and the way to earn victory points – knowing when to switch between taking trades for income and taking trades for victory points will be key to winning the game. Negative income at the end is double costly but excess income is only half as valuable!

There’s no cards, no dice and no luck here. This is a deep thinky game with lots of meat to each decision, but where responsiveness to your opponent and seeing paths others have missed is key. The downside of this is that it can begin to feel very similar game to game – there are certain things you should do every time. Yet at first this is also a game made of small differences 1-2 points at the end and this can lead to analysis paralysis where players try, but take time, to calculate or approximate the benefits of different actions. In other words, this game starts of taking you much longer to play but in the end probably comes down to a few rules of thumb that you will regularly apply and it’s tough to dislodge the usual winner.

The good news is there’s two maps in the base game, expansions available and the random seeding of goods has some small effect on each game’s out come. However, you won’t escape the fact this will have themes / trends and likely a regular winner in your group. That said, the decisions are real – where you seed new town, or expand old ones, and with what goods does make for 20 hrs + of variance from this game.

Of course in modern terms this game lacks theme and some of the nicer design elements that some players like. However, that’s probably because this game is really an intro into 18xx and if you are heading towards those games, this still retains a much higher production value.

Last notes;

  • If you like a deep and complex point scoring game, where the end scores will be very close; this is worth exploring before diving into the heavier games
  • If you want a game rich in theme, or with plenty of variety either commit to expansion boards or make the early pass
  • If you win, watch out for others changing their tactics and trading for victory points earlier in the game!