Fri 27 Sep 2013. I went to OTK (Boardgamecafe.net) because Jeff was doing a Martin Wallace night. He has been doing such themed game sessions frequently for the Friday night sessions, e.g. outer space theme, Kickstarter games, GMT games. Allen was thinking about getting Age of Steam. I have a copy, so I suggested why not try it before deciding. When we arrived, Heng was there, and the three of us decided to try the Korean map. The map in the base game is probably a bit too big for 3 players - not competitive enough. While setting up and explaining the rules, Ivan arrived. I asked whether he was interested to join us. He said yes. He has played Steam before, so we only needed to explain to him the few differences. Then as we were about to start, Jeff arrived, and wanted to play too. I couldn't recall whether Korea was suitable for 5 players. I knew it was a tough and tight map, but I couldn't find anything in the rules that said it could only support up to four. I was too lazy to switch to a different map, now that everything had been set up, so we decided, what the heck, let's just jump in. We'd know soon enough whether anyone would go bankrupt. It would be a fun experiment.
The Korean map is tough because building tracks on hills costs $3 extra, not the $2 extra in the basic rules. This $1 difference is a big deal. And Korea has many many hills. The few plains will be hotly contested and will be claimed quickly. The other important difference is that the demand of cities fluctuate. What a city demands depends on what cubes are on it. In the basic game, every city has a fixed demand for one particular colour. In Korea, a city may demand many types of goods (if it has many different coloured cubes), or it may even accept no goods (if it has no cubes). The demand changes when cubes are shipped away by players, and when cubes are added during the production phase. This demand fluctuation makes planning more challenging. You can easily get screwed by your opponents' goods delivery actions.
These are the tracks built in Round 1. Allen (blue) bid and paid for 1st player privilege. He built on plains, in the south east (upper right of this photo), and also in the centre. Jeff (black) went next, and built tracks mainly in the centre. I think he was hoping to keep his options open, giving himself many possible directions for expansion. Ivan (yellow) was third, and also had the Urbanisation action. That gave some flexibility. He built city E, and he started his railroad company in the south west (lower right). I (green) didn't have many options left, especially due to how the initial cubes were seeded. I wanted to make sure I could deliver something in the first round. I built in the north. Heng's (red) options were worse. He decided to build in the north east. Our networks were connected, which meant we had to compete head-to-head right from the start. I shipped away a purple cube in White City 1, which screwed him up because that meant he couldn't deliver the purple cube from White City 2 to White City 1 anymore. In Age of Steam, every little bit of income in the early game is crucial.
From left: Heng (red), Jeff (black), Allen (blue), Ivan (yellow). When you see people standing up to see the macro view and contemplating their moves so seriously, you know this is not an easy game.
From left: Allen (blue), Ivan (yellow), me (green), Heng (red). I think everybody was thinking "I'm screwed"... (photo courtesy of www.boardgamecafe.net)
On the Korean map there are two special links between Inchon, Suwon and Seoul, the three grey hexes connected to one another. Placing an ownership disk between two hexes is considered building a link between them, and this costs $2. I (green) made use of this, and later in the game it helped me tremendously in making long-distance deliveries. Plus, they are cheap too. I tried to expand southwards, but didn't manage to get far, because I was blocked by Jeff (black). Jeff himself was badly hemmed in too, blocked by Ivan (yellow) who was expanding northwards from the south.
Allen (blue) did not get much competition. I think it was partially because it was hard to try to compete in the south east. There weren't many cities available. Ivan (yellow) did try to block him by establishing a second network along the eastern coast.
Heng (red) connected to Pyongyang in the north. His had little space for expansion, and he was threatened by Ivan (yellow) creeping up along the eastern coast too.
Game end. Heng (red) grabbed the initiative and blocked off Ivan's (yellow) advance towards White City 2 in the north east. After a few twists and turns, I (green) managed to reach that city, and even managed to make a long distance delivery using that city. Jeff (black) eventually did manage to expand towards the south. Allen (blue) mostly stuck to the south, happily making money without being threatened much by others.
End game score. The company incomes were close throughout most of the game. We all struggled and we kept issuing shares. Towards the end I managed to make some long distance deliveries, which helped to push me slightly ahead. I always remember Age of Steam as being about these long deliveries, so I was a little puzzled why others weren't upgrading their trains. I was the only one with Level 6 trains. In hindsight, I think they were less aggressive in upgrading because it was hard to find opportunities for long distance deliveries. If they upgraded their trains too aggressively, they might only end up paying more maintenance fees and not really making use of their tech. The Inchon-Suwon-Seoul links helped me a lot.
I (green) won the game with more than 50VP. Allen (blue) and Ivan (yellow) had the same score, and Allen won by tiebreaker (cash). Jeff (black) and Heng (red) were both quite badly hemmed in, and came in 4th and 5th. Heng issued shares up to the limit of 15. Korea is a tough map!
In conclusion, it is possible for 5 players to play the Korean map, just that it will be brutal. Ideal player count is probably four.
Also see Jeff's account of this game.