Review: Steam Time

SteamTime-coverSteam Time is a new worker-placement game set in a steampunk-flavored version of 1899.  Players command steam-powered airships as they race across the world (and through time!) to collect and exploit the supernatural resources of this alternate Earth.

The game was designed by Rüdiger Dorn, a Kennerspiel des Jahres winner (for 2014’s Istanbul) and multiple-time SdJ nominee (for Jambo, Arkadia, and our much-loved Las Vegas).  With such a respected pedigree and an intriguing theme, I was very excited to put Steam Time through its paces.

Here’s a reminder of our review categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: I tend to enjoy very tactile games, with lots of big, quality bits to handle.  Steam Time delivers here, with nice, chunky cardboard central and player boards.  The plastic “crystals” are standard boardgame fare — you’ve probably seen similar ones in Incan Gold or Valdora — but shuffling them around and placing them in the holes on your airship board’s reactors is quite satisfying.  The module upgrades nestle cleanly into grooves on the airship boards, which is a nice touch.  The stock used for the various cards is serviceable, but after about five sessions they were beginning to show slight color chipping on some edges.

Accessibility: I’ve taught the game to several different groups now, and everyone has picked it up very quickly.  The rules are well-written, though there are a couple of edge cases where I had to look up a clarification online.  Play time on the box is listed as 90 minutes, and that feels about right; sessions can stretch out to a couple of hours with newer players, but it never feels like a particularly long game.  I found Steam Time to be best with the maximum four players, but it does scale down well to two- or three-player, with separate timestream boards included for each possible player count.

Depth: Steam Time falls solidly into the “light-to-medium weight Euro” category.  It’s not exactly a brain-burner, but there are interesting decisions to be made each turn, and every action feels important.  There isn’t any direct player conflict, though there’s the standard worker-placement “take that” feeling of snatching up an action that someone else needs.

The game offers several different types of resources such as Steam, Gold, and even Time, but the colored crystals are what really drive everything.  They not only power your airship by adding significant bonuses to their related actions, but they’re also expendable resources for buying airship modules (your production engine) and reward-bearing Expedition cards.  Deciding the correct time to save or spend crystals is the real meat of the game, and it’s a delicate balance.

I made it a point to try completely different strategies each session, and all seemed viable to some degree.  Fortunately, a planned path to victory is not set in stone.  The Mission cards, which act as semi-hidden, points-scoring goals for the game’s end, always require you to collect something, but they come in such a wide variety that it’s usually possible to switch tracks mid-game.

Steam Time also contains two optional mini-expansion modules in the box.  “Sabotage” adds the ability to lock out specific actions on the game board, which enhances the level of player interaction.  “Specialists” assigns the players a small deck of cards that can temporarily bend the rules in various ways until another card is played.

Steam Time boardsTheme: I love the steampunk style of the game and components, and you really do feel like an engineer shuffling steam power and crystals between the airship’s different systems.  Your journeys may take you to famous archaeological sites, and you may even meet some famous discoverers and inventors from the Encounter deck.  None of these details are vital to the gameplay, but it was a nice surprise when Galileo showed up to hand over some victory points.

The artwork and board layouts are hit-and-miss.  It’s all consistent with the time-traveling airship theme, but there are heavily-saturated colors everywhere, and everything appears overwhelmingly busy.  The central timestream boards in particular are a headache-inducing mess of brightly colored icons, board elements, and background art.  Honestly, it looks a bit like a unicorn threw up on the table.

I’m a big fan of heavily-themed Euro-games, but this is one instance where a bit of subtlety would have been appreciated.

Fun: I’ve enjoyed every one of my sessions with Steam Time.  The careful balancing act of efficiency versus future income is engaging, and the very tactile nature of the game’s components adds to the fun factor.  After several plays, the varying paths to victory have kept the game from becoming stale.

Visual issues notwithstanding, Steam Time is a fun and well-balanced worker-placement game.  It may fall a bit short of being an all-time classic due to the lack of revolutionary new elements, but it’s an extremely solid choice for any Euro-game fan’s collection.




4 out of 5

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