Steam Works: Review

Fairway’s a lawyer, not a mechanical engineer. But this week, he takes on the machine-building, worker-placement game, Steam Works, by Tasty Minstrel Games and manages not to make any machines explode.

Steam Works is a worker-placement masterpiece by Tasty Minstrel Games for 2-4 players. This game can take well-over 90 minutes to play even with just a couple players.  Set in a Victorian-era, steam-punk world, players build machines to earn money, build larger machines, and score points. The machines draw power from several different power sources: clockwork, steam and elecktricity (typo intentional). In a fantastically Adam Smith way, the machines can used by the builder or rented by another for a fee.

Initial Impressions ^

  • This game is heavy both in components and strategy.
  • The create-your-own worker placement actions by building machines is ingenious.
  • Interesting characters and thematic art work abound.
  • The rulebook has some issues and there’s a somewhat high barrier to new players.

Game Play ⚙ ^

In Steam Works, players take on the role of one of a number of Victorian-era inventors who build machines for fame and money. The game is played over a series of turns through three eras.

There’s not really enough space to give a detailed rundown of the game play. But, at its core, Steam Works is a worker placement game. On a turn, you take your available “mechanic” meeples and select from a series of action: either a set of pre-defined player actions or ones performed using a constructed machine.

Machines are constructed from conveyor belts full of component parts and various different power sources.  Each different part enables a different type of action such as letting players build bigger machine, upgrade existing machines, earn money, earn prestige points, and so on.

The game is played through three eras of increasingly interesting machines. With each passing era, the types of machine components available changes enabling the construction of even more machines.

These machines earn you prestige. The player with the most prestige at the end of the third era wins.

On the Green ⚙ ^

Steam Works is an example of a worker-placement game done right. Since the actions in Steam Works evolve over time, it avoids players becoming bored of their choices. Steam Works deftly avoids this most tedious aspect of most worker placement games. What’s more, as the game progresses, it gives players reason to evolve their own machines to create better, more interesting actions.

Selling your machine’s actions (and buying time on others’) is a very neat mechanism. The interesting strategy that results in specializing in specific machines, or expanding a popular machine, makes for good fun. This option lets players plan their own actions around the needs of other players too.

The power source connections are intuitive. They line up just so and guide players to valid machines: if you can’t line up the inputs/outputs it’s not a valid machine.

The art is incredibly thematic and detailed. One of the most striking things about Steam Works is how rich the art for the machine tiles and character is. Everything about the art keeps you in the game even during the long play times.

The components are fantastic. The machine components are all heavy cardboard tiles. The top hat meeples and automaton meeples are nicely sized for easy manipulation and easily recognizable even when spread across the table at various other player’s machines. The blimp/first-player maker is similarly great.

Aside from the things I note below, the rulebook is  well-written and illustrated for most of the basic aspects of the game. Without it, this game would be very easy to play incorrectly. Anyone learning this game for the first time would be wise to read it first before trying to teach it.

The unique player personas are great. Each has different abilities and lend themselves to different strategies and paths to victory. In one game, I played as Dame Permelia Taylor who is a coin-generating behemoth. I was able to buy my way onto other people’s machines and plan long term to turn those coins into points in the third era.

Where it comes up short ⚙ ^

Steam Works is nearly a perfect game, but it does have some issues worth noting.

Iconography. The iconography is nearly impenetrable without the help of the rulebook.  Because there are so many fantastic machine components, with a wide variety of actions, the rules are indispensable. Even for machines I created myself, I often had to double or triple check what the components did.

The Rulebook. The version of the rules also was sent without an explanation of one of the key components: the Librarifier. An update to the rulebook has been posted online. And you can print of the Librarifier page and keep it handy (good idea).

There are some other things that are definitely unclear in the rules, but somewhat intuitive when playing. There are so many potential head scratchers that Board Game Geek has a fifteen page list of rules clarifications. We referred to it a number of times when we reached the same edge case in our play throughs.

Machine Sprawl. Over the course of the three eras, players end up building so many machines. Most of those machines outlive their utility after a very short period of time. This has two real consequences: 1. table space becomes very crowded, and 2. there is a lot of action choices by mid-game.  The latter means that it’s very hard to keep track of who has machines that do what and players spend a lot of their time thinking about the most efficient way to take those actions.  With up to 5 different actions to select, this can be a real time hog.

One solution we used was to let players either put out a request for specific needs or verbally sell their services.  In the first case, it was very common to have a few machines with an “Upgrader.”  So a player needing an upgrader would ask for the short sales pitch about which of another player’s machines he or she should use.  This expedited the “what machines do you have?” exercise.

A note about Building the Machines. In our playthroughs, more players got hung up on how to build more complex machines, and wasted more time trying to figure out how to extend their existing machines, than any other aspect. Unlike building simple machines, making the bigger machines is less than intuitive. There’s no simple upgrade a machine mechanism like there is to build a simple machine. It involves using other machines with the proper power sources to upgrade to a machine of proper size and then to have the proper sources.

What this means is that the ability to make more complicated machines is dependent upon the right tiles turning up at the right time and that the person acquiring that tile powers it with the right sort of power source.

In the hole. ^

Steam Works is one of the great worker placement games out there. It’s combination of machine-building, customizable actions, and economics engine make it a great addition to any gamer’s library. The vast combinations of complex machines available to the players makes Steam Works and the wide array of varied starting personalities makes it highly replayable.

Steam Works makes it into the hole for a birdie. ^

Note: Fairway was sent a copy of Steam Works for this review for free, but was otherwise not compensated for the content.

This post was originally featured on The Inquisitive Meeple.

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