Steam Works Review

Steam Works Review

Picture the scene: you’re at a large convention at a popular UK site and you see through the crowd a man wearing a metallic owl on his shoulder, together in Victorian getup and an extendable spyglass fixed to the side of his head. On the streets, this kind of behaviour would usually result in a swift recapture followed by a series of injections and perhaps a straightjacket. In the safe and womb-like environment of the UK Games Expo however, it’s worthy of perhaps a gently raised eyebrow before being distracted by another miniatures vendor. Unless you’re me of course, where Steampunk holds a particular fascination ever since I donned the light gem and began a career as a thief in the PC game… er… Thief.

The chap in question was Alex Churchill, fully costumed designer of the Steampunk game, Steam Works. Needless to say I made a beeline for him during the weekend and was treated to a demo of his tile-based creation about the building wondrous and fantastical machines in search of those ever elusive victory points. After playing the 2 player version and roundly beating the man at his own game, I vowed to buy the game and I did. Sort of. Well, ok, it was bought for me as a present. Money changed hands in his favour. Close enough.

But enough reminiscing, Steam Works is set in a typical Steampunk/Electropunk Victorian setting where mechanical devices are created to gain the favour of the monarch (we are still British after all) and become grand high inventor of the land. Tis the stuff of fairy tales, if your fairy tales are written by H.G. Wells and Lewis Carroll with a dash of Jules Verne chucked in. Each player takes the role of an inventor and the aim of the game is to score points by building these fabulous contraptions and enticing your opponents to use them by making them produce effects that are of benefit. That in itself is a slightly obscure statement, in the same way the UK’s plan for Brexit is “slightly obscure”, so allow me to elaborate.

Steam works worker placement steampunk board game

Machines are fashioned from one of three kinds of power supply – Steam, Electrical or Clockwork – onto which you can bolt on different parts which can be powered only by certain types of power supply. So like Indiana Jones with the Holy Grail, you need to choose wisely. There’s loads of different parts to choose from and each performs a different function, for example, you can generate money, additional parts, upgrade other engines, etc. The game is split into three Ages, each one unlocking more powerful machines, so there is a certain evolution to the game, driven by the progress the players make.

There’s no limit to the number of machines the players can build, but there is a limit to the size of each machine, so you need to be careful how you balance your power supply to component ratios. No power means no machines, but too many parts and you’re wasting time. There are a few clever ideas within the game – the central one is that you need to be unique and combine abilities to make your machines more desirable than your competitors. You score according to whether people use your machines so using someone else’s machine may get you what you need, but it’ll also give them points, so act wisely. It’s like subscribing to satellite TV – it allows you to watch your team win (or in my case, almost always lose) but you’re giving money to a billionaire and you’ll feel dirty for doing it.

Steam works board game review machine elements

I’ve been quiet on the actual play mechanics thus far as it’s actually a worker placement game where you choose build, upgrade or restock actions or put your meeples on a machine of your choosing to get its benefits. The mechanics of the game are rather straightforward which makes the game accessible and easy to get into – the tough bit is learning what all the machine parts do as there’s more bits to sift through than 5x5 Kallax shelving system.

The manual is reasonably well written, although there are a couple of glaring omissions including one of the more prolific machine components, which is unhelpful to say the least. The iconography isn’t entirely intuitive, but it’s fine once you get used to it – although the icons are quite difficult to read and once there’s a lot of machines on the table, things start to get a little cluttered. Steam Works actually needs quite a lot of play space once machines start getting built – this isn’t the sort of game that can be played on a packed commuter train – you’re better off on a large banqueting table, ideally with some kind of powered reaching arm to pass the meeples about.

Steam works worker placement steampunk machine parts

It’s also not a quick game – even a two player game can take 60-90 minutes; throw in 4-5 players and you’re looking at 2-3 hours, especially if some folk get stuck in analysis paralysis like a dune bug in molasses trying to figure out if the use of someone’s Librarifier is a better use of their meeple than their own Monetiser or bagging the use of an Automaton to give them an edge in the next round.

If I’m honest, it’s a tad on the expensive side at around £50 – despite the components all being very high quality and the artwork being eye-catching; in fact, I’m doing the game an injustice, the artwork is amazing! The game is just punched cardboard and a few wooden meeples. There’s not much else to it. To me it sits in the £35-£40 bracket, not the £50 “we’ve got a few minis” category. There’s a lot of cardboard in there, but it just feels a bit on the pricey side for what you get.

Steam works board game review wonderous machine

Despite me having whinged continually for 3 paragraphs, I actually quite like Steam Works – it has a certain charm to it and what impresses me the most is that it’s quite a clever game. Because of the myriad of options and combinations available, you’ll never get the same game twice and it’s almost impossible to formulate a “winning strategy” ahead of playing. There’s not too much randomness to prevent it from not being a Euro but enough to make it interesting and challenging. Think of Steam Works as a game that you build and shape as you go along so it’s made very much in your own image. Provided that image involves levers, gears and steam. So quite a lot like a 1980s Rover Metro.

Like a rubber catsuit, Steam Works isn’t the easiest thing to get into, but once you’re there it’s flexible, comfy and lets you arrange your bits where you like, although your friends may object if you spread them over the table too much….
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