Monday, May 14, 2007

Railroads, Wiener Style

Eric's pick last week was a bit of a surprise for me - a pleasant one, but certainly not a game I anticipated him selecting. We played a 2-player Age of Steam expansion map set in Austria, and specifically designed as a 2-player game (with associated rules tweaks). Given my interest in 18xx games, this was right up my alley, for the most part.

The most important rules-tweak from my perspective was the total removal of the ability to issue shares - in the Austria game, each player started with 15 marks, and had to build from there.

My major gripe with the AoS system is the shares decision being so huge - and potentially ruinous to make a mistake on - that it frequently leads to a massive case of analysis paralysis. One can't really blame people for spending time on a decision that may well have such a massive impact on their success for the rest of the game, but I don't have to like it! Railroad Tycoon's allowing of share issue at any time during a turn largely solved this particular issue, but seemed to simplify the game just a bit too much. I'm hopeful the next release for this game hits the sweet spot of elegance that I think both AoS itself and Railroad Tycoon just miss.

That being said, I really enjoyed the Austria map - it worked quite well as a 2-player game, and we managed to get in two playings in the course of about 2-2.5 hours or so. The Austria map is interesting - lots of impassable terrain (as one might expect for a country in mountains). Building is constrained - links must be completed on the single build - unfinished track is not allowed - and the fact that urbanization is only allowable on the edges of the map makes this interesting.

The actions most chosen in our game were Urbanize (in order to select an appropriate new city where it will do you the most good), Locomotive (bumping your train distance) and probably the Move First action. I've not played enough regular AoS to have a good feel for how this compares to the main game.

In our first game, our rail networks developed quite differently - Eric was able to get the main east-west corridor going (from Wien to Salzburg, mainly, but including the spur to Innsbruck). My network was primarily north-south, from Klagenfurt to Wien, but including a connection to either Linz or Salzburg (I don't recall which). This first game turned out to be a pretty close fought affair, with the final scores being just a few Marks apart.

Our second game we probably should have aborted and reset, as very early Eric got himself in cash flow trouble - and the lack of shares limited his options to dig out of this hole. By the time he had a decent amount of cash, I had been able to lock up most of the major routes, including the east-west run from Wien-Salzburg-Innsbruck, but also including connections down to Klagenfurt and the foreign market beyond. I don't recall the exact scores here, but the end result was not really in doubt from early in the game. So - we really should have hit the reset button and started over.

So, with all that, what did I think of the game? Given that I'm not super familiar with Age of Steam, I found it quite fun. The first game especially was enjoyable - I actually thought I was running a bit behind, as it seemed Eric's routes were more flexible - but somehow I managed to squeak by in the end. The second game was . . . well, it's fun to win, but it's not so much fun to win by such a margin that toward the end, it seems like there aren't really any big decisions to be made.

I guess what this all boils down to is this warning - make sure you spend your initial 15 marks wisely, and in such a way that you are able to generate immediate income (otherwise, don't spend would be my advice). Getting into a spiral of . . . debt isn't the right word, since you can't issue any, but lack of revenue . . . puts you behind the eight-ball from the start, and you'll be hard pressed to get out of the spot unless your opponent stumbles enough for you to take advantage of it, and the Austria game is so quick that you may not have enough time to take advantage of any such mistakes.

Age of Steam can be an enjoyable game, and I found the Austria map to be quite good as a 2-player game. Especially given the company, and the fact that we were able to get in two games in three hours!

It's my choice this week, but I've not yet made my choice. I hope to be able to post a comment tomorrow with it . . .

Until next week - happy gaming!

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