Monday, May 14, 2007

Moving Goods in Austria

This week, I decided to break off the wargamey path we'd been trodding for a while and chose the Austria expansion for Age of Steam as our game of the week. This is a 2-player only expansion, and as such tweaks the basic Age of Steam rules a bit to make it work for only two players.

Age of Steam is a game I don't get to play nearly enough. It's not popular in our gaming group as it's a bit too much of a thinker for most people to suggest on a weeknight, and it's not long enough to pull out on a weekend. It's right in the middle. Perfect for Tim and I.

We both needed a refresher as it had been a while since either of us had played Age of Steam. The Austria changes made the refresher a tad more complex. Here's what Austria does to the basic game:
  1. There's no auction for player order. Instead, over the eight turns you to what I call a “long switchback.” First player in each turn goes ABABBABA.
  2. There's no shares. You start with $15, and cannot raise more capital. All income is purely from operations.
  3. You pay $4/tile. In every case, unless we got the rule wrong.
  4. Towns cannot be urbanized. Instead, there's 10 or so spaces external to the map where you can urbanize. These can be built to as normal.
  5. You cannot build incomplete links.
  6. Production is slightly tweaked in that Vienna always gets two more cubes every turn, and each of the other cities is both a black and white city. Graz, in fact, produces on both 5s and 6s.
  7. Cash at the end of the game is worth 1 VP for each $20.
The results of these changes tend to restrict building early as you're short on cash, and restrict building late as you're pretty much out of places to build. This is probably good, as it's a very small map.

We stumbled through our first couple turns as things started clicking. Tim had a little bit of a lead on me in income, but I was building more track. It was pretty tough to determine who was going to come out ahead, though. I was building mostly across the north edge of the map, and Tim was building from the south into the middle. I eventually caught Tim in income, and it was even more unclear who was going to win. The final score was 153-152. Tim pulled it out by a single point. If I remember correctly, it was due to final cash on hand.

One pattern emerged – in almost every case, the player going first chose Urbanization and built to the new city.

The game took just over an hour to play, so we gave it another go.

This time, however, I completely botched my read of the opening board. I ended up making my first build in such a way that I had nothing to deliver on the 2nd turn. This put me in a huge hole and I never really recovered. The drawback to this in the 2-player game is that Tim was able to build pretty much wherever he wanted and receive all the benefits of my slow start. In a multi-player game, this likely would have been split among the other players, reducing my deficit. In the end, Tim nearly doubled my score. Every now and then, you lay a clunker, and that's certainly what I did here.

So, in the end, what did I think?

I love Age of Steam – it's an unforgiving game that rewards planning. I may not play it often, but I've greatly enjoyed it nearly every time. The Austria expansion, though, left me a little underwhelmed. The two-player rules are a good change, but I think the map led to some automatic decisions. In particular, it seemed nearly automatic to choose Urbanization if you were the first player. Other than the first turn of each game and once when my financial distress in the second game caused me to make another choice, Urbanization was chosen (I think) every time by the first player. On the first turns, Locomotive was chosen instead. The only angst in action selection was when you were the second player and was deciding whether you felt you needed to move or build first.

Perhaps it would get better with more plays, and some subtleties would reveal themselves, but I don't see that happening any time soon. As it is, I'll probably have to rank Austria at the bottom of the expansions I've played. Disappointing, as I was looking forward to this two-player version. Perhaps another two-player expansion will appear in the future.


It's Tim's choice this week, and he was completely undecided when he left my place. So I have no idea what I'm in for this week.

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