Sunday, 14 March 2010

Planet Steam

Planet Steam is one of the games I received for doing some rules translation work. It comes in a huge box, which I find quite unwieldy and unnecessary. The game is quite expensive, and I probably wouldn't have bought it myself at the normal price. But the components are quite good. The artwork and theme is steam punk. The game is a medium-high complexity economic game with a supply and demand mechanism. You set up your production infrastructure, you produce, and you try to earn the most money to win the game.

Comparison of the Planet Steam box against some other popular games, Carcassonne, Agricola, Dominion and Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition. Planet Steam is about double the size of Dominion. It is narrower and slightly shorter than Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition, but it is thicker.

Samurai Swords's dimensions were the closest that I could find. They are about the same thickness and width, but Planet Steam is obviously longer.

Planet Steam is almost exactly as long as Carcassonne and Agricola added together. The difference in this photo seems to be big only because of the height difference and the angle at which I took the photo.

The Game

The setting of the game is in the future, on a newly colonised planet. Players are companies setting up shop on the planet to mine various resources. The central part of the game board is a grid, on which players can build platforms, and then buy tanks (as in water tanks, and not the armoured military vehicle) to be put on these platforms. The tanks allow you to extract different types of resources (water, energy, ore and quartz), depending on what upgrades you buy for the tanks. You use the resources for building more tanks and other equipment, or you sell them for profit. At the end of the game, you count your cash, the value of any resources you are still holding, and some of your assets; and whoever is richest wins.

That's the gist of the game, but of course there are many more details. There are carriers in the game, which are basically storage facilities. They limit the resources you can hold, and you spend resources to upgrade them to allow you to hold more resources. There are special characters in the game, which give unique abilities and are auctioned off to the players every round. One important part of the game is the market mechanism. The resource market starts with some supply of all 4 types of resource. As the players buy and sell resources to the market, the resource prices change, depending on the scarcity of the resources. There is a bit of a stock market manipulation feel to the game.

What a colourful game board. This is actually just the central part of the game board. The coloured platforms belong to the players. The silver balls are tanks. The plain ones produce water, the ones with a grey attachment produce ore, the ones with a black attachment produce quartz, and the ones with a white attachment produce energy. Those with a red dome produce one extra unit of resource.

The four cards on the left are carriers, which are basically your storage facilities. The picture and number on the top left show the resource type and quantity that the carrier can hold. The number on the top right is the carrier class / level, which range from 1 to 4. The plastic chips do not come with the game. The game has paper money, but I prefer using my own plastic chips. The card on the right is one of the special character cards. The number on it is turn order.

Two reference cards that come with the game. The one on top is the important one, listing all the things you can build / buy in the game and their costs, the special characters' abilities, and the end game scoring method. The bottom card is a quick rule summary.

The full board and the playing area around it. The board is quite big. The long track on the left is the supply of tanks (currently empty). The short track beside it is for tracking the number of rounds. Then you have the grid representing the geography of Planet Steam where the companies (players) can develop. The chart immediately to the right is the supply chart of the resource market, which tracks how many of each resource are still available in the market. The last chart is the price chart of the resource market.

A close-up. The brown platforms are neutral platforms, which players cannot build on.

The Play

We played a 5-player game, which is the max configuration - Han, Afif, Sui Jye, Jing Yi and I. The rules explanation took some time, as there were quite many points to cover, and also quite a number of special cases to point out. We didn't have much idea what was going on, since you really need to see the game in action to appreciate the nuances, especially the resource market part. We very quickly depleted the initial resources in the resource market, and very soon all the supply and demand was driven by what we were producing and consuming. There were quite a few extremes - some prices hit the ceiling, some hit rock bottom. We were rather clueless business people.

Sui Jye was burnt in the early game, because he came last in turn order. Tanks and other resources became very expensive for him by the time his turn came around. Afif got burnt a bit by the special character auctioning, spending too much on them. I was the first to start buying deeds. Deeds are one type of asset in the game which does nothing, but are worth $50 each at game end. I didn't have a good production capacity, and decided to try something which others were not doing yet. Han was probably first to do big scale selling to the market to earn money. He had good production capacity. Later Jing Yi also had good production, and also made much money from selling to the market.

At game end, Han won at $641. Jing Yi had more cash, but Han had one dome more (worth $50). Domes are a type of tank upgrade which lets the tank produce one more resource. Jing Yi came in second. The rest of us were in the $500's. I had the most deeds (three, worth $50 each), but I lost out in other areas.

The Thoughts

One play is not enough to say anything conclusive about the game, so these are just first impressions. I think Planet Steam is a very interactive game, because of how closely woven the players are through the supply and demand system. You need to watch what your opponents produce and what they consume. And this is not just for the current round. You need to guess and plan for what may be happening in the next round. Guessing the consumption and demand of resources can be tricky, because each resource can be used in different ways.

I was quite surprised how the initial resources seeded in the resource market was depleted very quickly. The players are very soon "on their own". I am not sure whether this is normal, but I would not be surprised if it is, and I think it is a good thing. The game centres around the player dynamics, around supply and demand. There is a tension between spending resources to develop your company for the longer run vs starting to cash in.

With 5 players we played 4 rounds, which felt a little too short. Our game lasted only 2 hours including rules explanation, which surprised me a little. I had expected a first game with 5 players to take longer. I think in 4 rounds there is barely enough time for a story arc - the initial rush depleting the starting resources, the build up of production and storage capacity, the maturing of the resource market, and eventually the cashing in. These all still happened in our game, but it happened so fast that we weren't really able to do much. Perhaps it felt that way simply because we were all new to the game.

Many compare Planet Steam to Power Grid, in particular the resource market part of it. Indeed there are similarities, but Planet Steam is more complex. It has more moving parts, is more fiddly, and the interactions in the game are more complicated. But it is not difficult to learn. The various steps in the game are quite logical and easy to understand. It doesn't really remind me of Power Grid. It reminds me more of Container, because of how the players create the in-game economy together.


Han said...

The box cover art is ugly!!

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Ha ha... normally I only take photos of the game itself and I rarely post box covers in my blog posts. I'm posting some for Planet Steam only because I wanted to show how big the box is. I swear I didn't do it to annoy you. :-D