Friday 27 May 2022

the joy of light games

I recently organised a game night for my BNI community of friends, and these were the games I brought. It was a mix of light and medium complexity games. I had played with a few of the friends in this community previously, and they seemed to want a bigger challenge, thus the medium complexity games. I also brought a few of my game prototypes. Most of the attendees were new to boardgames, so this was an introduction to the world of boardgames for them. They mostly came for spending time together and not all were specifically interested in boardgames.  In the end, we didn't play any of the medium weight games. We stuck to the light games all evening. We had great fun and lots of laughter, and this wonderful experience made me appreciate the beauty of light games. I told my friends I hadn't laughed this hard for a long time. Originally I didn't intend to play. We had about 15 people, so I had expected to be just teaching different groups to play while I watched and stayed on standby for rule clarifications. However they asked me to join, so I did play a couple of games.  

I started with Category 5 (a.k.a. 6 Nimmt), before we had dinner. This is a classic from Wolfgang Kramer. It works for up to 10 players so this is very good for big groups. 

Heng (middle) is a gamer friend and since he was there, he helped in teaching some of the games. That helped tremendously. Otherwise some of the groups would be waiting for me while I taught other groups. They played Pickomino, a dice game by Reiner Knizia about taking risks and eating worms. No kidding.

Janette (right) is an avid chess player and brought her chess set. They looked rather serious. Well, this was one game I didn't need to teach.  

We played Werewolf. I don't have a copy. Yik Weng brought his copy. I only know the basic version of Werewolf so I taught them that. The werewolves were Danny, Tommy and John. The young lady in school uniform is Danny's daughter, and she happened to sit between Tommy and Danny. One funny moment in the game was Danny's daughter singling him out. She said to the room she was sure her father was a werewolf, because when he was nervous he would stutter. She caught him stuttering. Danny was not able to weasel out of this. 

Another funny moment was when she voice her suspicion that Tommy was a werewolf. Her explanation was that when she spoke to bad guys, she had an urge to cry; and when she was speaking to Tommy just a moment ago, she had that urge. Tommy is normally quick-witted and eloquent. He was caught off guard by this reasoning and didn't know how to respond. He turned red, and when Vivian pointed that out, he became even redder. The room roared with laughter. Being a werewolf is not easy! Surprisingly during that day phase the villagers did not pick Tommy to be lynched. Somehow the werewolves managed to divert attention to another innocent villager. 

This was our dinner, prepared by Clifford. Classy! 

Dyan (centre) was the youngest at the Halli Galli table and completely slaughtered the rest. This is a game of speed and reflexes. She was undoubtedly the quickest. 

Hanabi is a cooperative card game with communication restrictions. You can't see your own cards, but you see everyone else's cards. Angela (3rd from left) was not familiar with games and struggled with grasping some of the concepts. This led to some funny moments. In Hanabi you give clues to your teammates to help them play or discard the right cards. There is an action cost to it so you have to give clues efficiently. As you play, you will develop some conventions and mutual understandings. If you tell your teammate a certain card is a 4, and on the table only green has progressed to 3, he would know that 4 which he cannot see is likely a green 4. He wouldn't need another player to tell him it's green. There was one moment during the game when we quietly worked out something like this in our minds. I knew a certain 3 in my hand was blue, through a few steps of reasoning. When Angela's turn came, she solemnly pointed at that card and said to me, this card is blue. That was when Tommy and Clifford started laughing. We felt bad for doing that. Angela chided us for teasing her and we totally deserved that. 

Many enjoyed Ticket to Ride. It was good to have Heng there. He helped to teach some of the games. Janette won this one. Next time I'll probably bring Ticket to Ride: Europe. Ticket to Ride is almost a guaranteed hit with newbies. It amazes me. 

I brought Qwirkle because it was like Scrabble. So it would be easy to learn. Seet Han had played this before so they only needed minimal help from me. 

We should do this more. It is a joy to spread the fun of boardgames to friends who are new to them. The beauty of light weight games is everyone gets to participate competently and confidently, and the time spent is on actually playing the games, gaming the people and bonding with friends, as opposed to struggling with learning rules. Simple rules are a joy. 

I didn't bring out any of my own prototypes. I wanted to give them a more proper experience with real published games and professional art work. Art and components are part of the playing experience. However I am hopeful in future sessions with this group of friends I will be able to get my prototypes playtested, because most of them are light games. 

In Malaysia the COVID-19 restrictions have only been lifted recently. Well, most of them anyway. Getting back to having a bit more face-to-face boardgame sessions feels great. 

I continue to teach the HABA Learning Program. My group of kids is lively and energetic. It is like going back in time to when my own daughters were at that age. That's more than 10 years ago. If you are interested in this learning programme for children, whether you are a parent, a teacher or an education business, reach out to us at Play With Purpose

Saturday 21 May 2022

Hands in the Sea

The Game

Hands in the Sea is a 2016 game. I have heard of it for some time, but only managed to give it a go recently. It is described as A Few Acres of Snow transported to the First Punic War. Now that I have played it, this is indeed apt. The core engine is exactly the same. The map is completely different. There are many elements unique to this different era and theatre of war. This is a wargame with deck-building as its core. One player plays Rome and the other plays Carthage. They fight for supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The map covers the Italian peninsula, part of the north African coast, Sicily and Sardinia. The Romans are red, and the Carthaginians blue. The seas are divided into just four zones, corresponding to the four main land areas. The game is played over at most 12 rounds. The definition of a round is a little different here. It is more than just every player having taken a turn. Here, a round is complete only when Carthage exhausts their draw deck. At the end of a round you do some scoring and you make money. Both players will certain play more than one turn within a round. As they buy more cards into their decks, a round will take more turns. It also depends on how quickly Carthage plays their cards. 

That yellow town is Syracuse. It starts the game as an independent town, but it's right next to the Roman Empire, which means it will normally fall into Roman hands shortly. The island of Sicily is a major battle front between Rome and Carthage. 

The core game mechanism is deck-building. Both players have their own decks of cards. The default hand size is 5. On your turn you perform 2 actions.  Some actions require playing cards. At the end of your turn, you draw up to your hand limit. You do not discard your hand before drawing. This is one difference from typical deck-building games. You need to spend actions to discard or permanently remove cards from your hand. If there's a weak or useless card in your hand, it will be stuck there until you spend actions to get rid of it or you find some way to use it. 

The two cards on the right are location cards. They list neighbouring locations that can be reached by road or by sea, i.e. locations you can attack or settle. For example when you have the Neapolis card in hand, it means you can attack or settle Rome by land, or you can attack or settle Cosa by sea. You need specific location cards to expand your empire. Cards of locations at your borders will be used for expanding, but cards of locations deeper inside your empire won't be useful for this. However they still provide abilities, shown as icons at the bottom. E.g. the Thurii card can be used to settle a new location or to earn $2. As your empire grows, you will get more location cards, bloating your deck. This can be inconvenient and make your deck less efficient. You may have many cards that are less useful, or downright useless. 

This is the player board, mainly used for organising your cards, not so much for gameplay. At the bottom left you have your empire-specific cards which only you can buy and add to your deck. Your opponent has his own set of empire-specific cards. These cards give character to the two empires. Some cards are available to both players. They are placed at the common board. 

This is the common board. The two stacks at the bottom right are cards which can be bought or claimed by either player. The top row are the strategy cards. Three are always available for purchase. They get cycled periodically. You may own only one strategy card at any one time. Strategy cards give you a unique advantage. 

The deck at the bottom left is the event deck. Before starting a new round, you draw a card and resolve it. Usually the event affects one of the players. You roll a die to determine who is affected. 

The coins are pretty! 

Each empire has one naval fleet. You can have at most 8 ships. The number of ships is marked on a track. You don't get 8 ships on the map. You only get one navy token. 

There are many types of actions you get to perform. The list is long and intimidating, and it takes time to digest. It is not as scary as it sounds when you sit down and play. I'll just talk about the four main aggressive actions in the game. The first one is attacking an opponent's location. That means marching from one of your locations to a nearby opponent location to start a battle. A battle can last up to 6 turns. During battle both parties add strength to their armies until there is a significant enough strength difference which the opponent is unable to or chooses not to close. If the attacker wins, he captures the town or city piece and may even immediately settle the location, placing his own town piece. If the defender wins, he retains control of the location. 

The second aggressive action is raiding an opponent's location. You do this by playing cavalry cards. This takes less effort and also much less time, but you can also capture you opponent's town or city piece. These pieces are worth points at game end. 

The third aggressive action is using your navy to pillage your opponent's coastal location. Most locations in the game are coastal and are thus vulnerable. When you pillage successfully you steal money from your opponent. The fourth aggressive action is initiating a sea battle. Both parties may lose ships during a sea battle. 

There are many other actions in the game, like settling a location, developing a location and buying cards. Settling means placing a town at an uncontrolled location. Developing means upgrading a town to a city. Cities are worth points. The game has a peaceful, constructive aspect, but it's not a very big part of the game. 

If you capture the opponent capital or the whole of Sicily, or you create a point gap of more than 25 victory points, you win immediately. However these are all hard to do. There are a few other ways the game can end, e.g. completing 12 rounds, one player exhausting all town or city pieces, one player achieving 8 Prestige (usually through battle) and one player capturing 10VP worth of cities and towns. In such cases, victory is determined by points. Many points will come from success in warfare, e.g. battles, raids and controlling your opponent's start locations. Hands in the Sea is a wargame. 

The Play

I played Rome and Allen played Carthage. I picked Rome simply because I was sitting near Rome. Carthage started with 2 ships while Rome had none, so right at the get go Rome was already under threat of pillaging. However Syracuse was right within reach of the Roman Empire. I had the right cards in my starting hand to attack it, and it soon fell. Capturing Syracuse is very much scripted. It is just a matter of sooner or later. 

In the early game both of us were clueless what we should be doing. We weren't sure what cards we should be buying, and what types of actions we should be taking. I know my navy was weak so building ships was one of the things I decided to do. Once I had some ships, Allen stopped the pillaging. He didn't grow his navy much so pillaging wasn't highly profitable anyway. With more successful pillaging he could have forced me to lose points. However since the monetary reward wasn't attractive, he didn't put much heart into it. Had he allocated funds to boost his naval strength to 8, pillaging would be much more lucrative, at $4 per success. 

We did much settling in the early game, since we had many uncontrolled locations just beyond our borders. Our frontlines were Sicily and Sardinia. We primarily fought over Sicily. Allen did spend some effort settling Sardinia, but I never allocated resources there. Rome had more settle icons on its cards, so it was easier for me to upgrade towns to cities. I did this frequently. If I were able to upgrade 10 locations, I would exhaust my city pieces and trigger game end. This was an important control lever. I could decide to end the game when the situation was to my advantage. 

We both did much raiding. We purchased both the cavalry cards from our personal card pools. Raiding seems like a sweet deal. Low effort and potentially high rewards. Raiding becomes ineffective once your opponent builds fortifications. However we were both impatient and never got around to building fortifications. We were busy buying troops. It was an arms race which both of us were wary of falling behind in. There was one cavalry card in the common pool which neither of us bought, mainly because it was a mercenary, which meant it was vulnerable to bribing. Both of us had two cavalry cards. If one of us had three instead of two, that should be a distinct advantage. However neither of us had the stomach for handling bribery. We didn't buy any other cards which could potentially be bribed away. So bribery was an aspect we didn't get to experience at all this game. In hindsight, that third cavalry would probably have been worth the risk if we were doing this much raiding. 

Eventually our focus rested on standard warfare, i.e. attacking locations. We both invested heavily in troops. Allen bought some elephants. I bought enough variety to put together a combined arms bonus. When light infantry, heavy infantry and cavalry fight together, they enjoy a bonus of +1 strength. We made good use of the reserve area to stockpile combat cards, so that once a battle started we could quickly bring our forces to bear. The standards battles went better for me than for Allen. Since I had also been doing much development, I was down to only a few city pieces. I quickly rushed a few more development projects to use up my city pieces and ended the game while I had the advantage. 

After completing scoring, we found that I didn't win by much - fewer than 10 points. Allen's settlement activities on Sardinia won him some points. My advantage mainly came from battle victories and cities. 

Sicily was our main hot spot. Our navies congregated here too. My navy was later destroyed by Allen. However he didn't press his advantage at sea to pillage my coastal locations. He was too busy preparing to fight in land battles. So I never bothered to rebuild my navy. 

When you attack a location, you place a marker like this, with a number pointing at the target location. The blue marker means Carthage is attacking this time. The number indicates how many more turns the battle will last. Normal battles last at most 4 turns. Sieges, i.e. battles at locations with fortification, last up to 6 turns.  

The Roman town Messana was successfully raided by Carthage. Allen even managed to settle Messana. If you lose any starting location to your opponent, your opponent will score points at game end. Thankfully I managed to raid Allen's town at Messana later, denying him valuable points. 

Allen (blue) managed to settle three locations in Sardinia (top right), and that gave him points. 

North Africa never had any battle and was never threatened by pillaging from the sea. Carthage had a stronger navy. 

When the game ended, Allen and I controlled the same number of locations in Sicily. We were still pretty equal. Despite a few more victories, I was still far from dominating Sicily. 

The Thoughts

I remember when I played A Few Acres of Snow, I really liked how the deck-building mechanism represented the difficulty of managing a distant colonial war. You may set a directive or strategy by purchasing certain cards, but they only go to your discard pile, and you will only draw them after the next reshuffle. Also you don't have precise control over when you will draw which cards. There are delays and incoherence you have to deal with. Hands in the Sea is no longer about a colonial war between the British and the French. However I find the deck-building mechanism still relevant in an ancient age war where communication and transportation are real challenges. 

Since the two games are very similar, if you have played one do you need to play the other? I would say they are still rather different experiences, despite the identical core engine. The maps are completely different. The characters of the combatants are different too. Unless you don't like the core mechanism at all, playing the other game will be an enjoyable experience. 

Although the main battleground will be Sicily, I think the two empires can pursue several different general strategies. You have some freedom to explore what combination of cards to buy and build your abilities on. There are different strategy cards to experiment with. Your choices in building your deck can create both strengths and weaknesses (e.g. the deck being bloated and the risk of bribery). You must also react to your opponent's strategy. I find there is ample strategy space and variations. 

Monday 16 May 2022

Crowdstorming: Dancing Queen

I am now working towards self-publishing my first game, Dancing Queen, which won the Best Overall Game at the 2021 BoardGameGeek 9-Card nanogame competition. I aim to do a limited print run. I am engaging a local printing house. I'm also engaging a professional artist and graphic designer. We are aiming to get the game released by November 2022. 

Now here's where I am asking for your help. Each of the 9 cards in the game has two halves, a girl half and a boy half, and each half has a name. In the first print-and-play release of the game, I did not have any consistent theme or convention for these names. I picked any name which I felt was easy for me to remember. I ended up with a rather random set of names. Now I am thinking whether I should rename them all. We are still at the stage of discussing theme and art style. 

Here are the original 18 names and the card powers. Numbers 1 to 9 are the girls, and 10 to 18 the boys.  #1 and #10 are on the same card, at opposite ends. #2 and #11 are on the same card, and so on. 

  1. We're Even - both players have an even number of cards in play
  2. You're Even - your opponent has an even number of cards in play
  3. Girls' College - all cards in play are girls
  4. Girl Power - more girls than boys in play
  5. Rainbow Parade - all cards are same-gendered pairs (boy + boy or girl + girl)
  6. The Romeo - a single boy among girls
  7. Perfect Balance - the same number of boys and girls
  8. ABBA - 2 girls and 2 boys
  9. Spice Girls - 5 girls
  10. We're Odd - both players have an odd number of cards in play
  11. You're Odd - your opponent has an odd number of cards in play
  12. Boy School - all cards in play are boys
  13. Boyzone - more boys than girls in play
  14. Ballroom Dancing - all cards are opposite-gendered pairs (boy + girl)
  15. The Rose - a single girl among boys
  16. Competition - gender imbalance (regardless of more boys or girls)
  17. Queen - 4 boys
  18. The Cranberries - 1 girl and 3 boys

You can see I have some cards which describe the game situation based on even and odd numbers, some cards which describe the mix of boys and girls, and also some cards which are band names. The band names are from different eras. You can probably tell my age from the choice of bands. 

Sticking with these names is an option. I don't rule that out. The names should ideally be related to the overall theme and setting, and should also help players remember the powers of the cards. It would be best of the names are easily understood by most people who buy the game, i.e. they get the reference. E.g. if the people who would buy this game are mostly below 20, they may not know the band ABBA or the song Dancing Queen at all. If I can come up with a better idea, I will change the names. 

Here are two ideas I have been thinking of. 

The theme is prom night or dance party. We invite friends to an evening of dancing. Each card can be either a boy or a girl, so I'll simply give them human names. That's straight-forward and consistent with the theme. Here are the potential names. 
  1. Evelynn - both players have an even number of cards in play
  2. Eva - your opponent has an even number of cards in play
  3. Angel - all cards in play are girls
  4. Karen - more girls than boys in play
  5. Priscilla - all cards are same-gendered pairs (boy + boy or girl + girl)
  6. Juliet - a single boy among girls
  7. Christina - the same number of boys and girls
  8. Anna - 2 girls and 2 boys
  9. Mel - 5 girls
  10. Todd - both players have an odd number of cards in play
  11. Rod - your opponent has an odd number of cards in play
  12. Charlie - all cards in play are boys
  13. James - more boys than girls in play
  14. Raphael - all cards are opposite-gendered pairs (boy + girl)
  15. Romeo - a single girl among boys
  16. Bucky - gender imbalance (regardless of more boys or girls)
  17. Freddie - 4 boys
  18. Neil - 1 girl and 3 boys
I won't explain in detail why I chose these names. There are reasons behind most of them, but not all. Some names were picked just because it sounded like that kind of name. If more most cards you understand why I picked that name, that's good news for me. It means I'm doing something right. If you have no idea why I picked the names, then my choices are poor. 

The second idea is thinking of the card names as song names. In the days when cassette tapes were common, cassettes have sides A and B. So imagine a cassette tape with a girl side and a boy side. 

Early concept art
The list of song names I have come up with are as follows. Some are not real song names. I made up names which sounded like pop song names. 
  1. Getting even - both players have an even number of cards in play
  2. Two by two - your opponent has an even number of cards in play
  3. All the girls I've loved before - all cards in play are girls
  4. Uptown girls - more girls than boys in play
  5. Siamese twins - all cards are same-gendered pairs (boy + boy or girl + girl)
  6. Bachelor boy - a single boy among girls
  7. You're perfect - the same number of boys and girls
  8. Dancing queen - 2 girls and 2 boys
  9. Spice up your life - 5 girls
  10. Are you lonesome tonight? - both players have an odd number of cards in play
  11. The odd boy - your opponent has an odd number of cards in play
  12. Boys in the hood - all cards in play are boys
  13. Love me for a reason - more boys than girls in play
  14. The last waltz - all cards are opposite-gendered pairs (boy + girl)
  15. You are the one - a single girl among boys
  16. Heartbreak high - gender imbalance (regardless of more boys or girls)
  17. We are the champions - 4 boys
  18. Zombies - 1 girl and 3 boys
Let me list the questions which you can help me with: 

  1. Would you change the names of the cards? 
  2. Which naming convention do you like? Or do you have some other suggestion? 
  3. Any suggestions for specific card names? 
  4. Any thoughts on the early concept art?

Friday 13 May 2022

Skulls of Sedlec


The Game

Skulls of Sedlec is from Button Shy Games, and they specialise in card games consisting of just 18 cards. These are called pocket games. They come in a wallet which is easy to carry around. Skulls of Sedlec is for 2 or 3 players. On every card there are two skulls. You collect skulls and stack them into pyramids. With two players, you make a pyramid with 9 cards. With three, you use 6 cards. There are 5 different types of skulls and they score points in different ways. Whoever scores the most points wins. 

At game setup you lay out 6 face-down stacks in the middle and flip over one card. On your turn you have only 3 options. You may flip over two cards and draw one of them, you may draw a face-up card, or you may play a card from your hand. Your hand limit is 2 cards. When you hold 2 cards, you must play one of them because you no longer have the option of drawing another card.  

Lovers (red) when paired score 6pts per pair. Nobles (purple) score 1pt for every noble and peasant (yellow) at levels lower than them. The noble in this photo scores 4pts for the four peasants. Criminals (grey) placed next to priests (blue) score 2pts each, because it means they get pardoned. Skulls are considered adjacent when their sides touch, but not when only the corners touch. The criminal in the second level (from the top) is not considered adjacent to the priest in the first level, because they are only touching at the corners. The first criminal on the fifth level is considered adjacent to the priest in the fourth level because their sides touch.  

The Play

This is a 5-minute game, light and breezy. There are some tactics to consider, but it is not taxing. Your hand limit is two, so you can't hoard cards and plan far ahead to play them in a perfect manner. You have to make decisions based on limited information. You adapt as you go. You try to avoid being the one revealing cards, because that helps your opponent. Sometimes you count turns to try to avoid this. You might take a card your opponent wants for the sake of denying him, even though it may not help you much. 

The Thoughts

Skulls of Sedlec is novel. Relaxing but not brainless. Being portable means this is a convenient travel game. You can play a game or two while waiting for your food at a restaurant. This is the kind of target audience I'm aiming at for my design Dancing Queen too. 

Friday 6 May 2022

Imperial Steam

The Game

Imperial Steam is a heavy Eurogame for 2 to 4 players, about developing the railroad network in Austria. Everyone starts in Wien (Vienna), and in general you develop your network towards Trieste in the south, which is a city in North Italy. There are many cities along the way. You will lay tracks, buy trains, upgrade trains, build factories, sell goods from your factories to the cities, and sign contracts. When the game ends, the richest player wins. The game ends either after 8 rounds, or when any player reaches Trieste. 

This is the main game board. At game start every player has a station at the bottom right of this photo where Vienna is. Everyone starts there, and generally builds towards Trieste, which is at the top left. 

This is the player board. At game start you have one small train which can pull only three carriages. The engine stores one coal. Each carriage can store one resource. Those at the bottom left are workers. You use them for laying tracks and building factories. When you build factories you expend workers, which means you need to recruit again to replenish. 

There are four types of resources, and also four types of factories producing them. The four colours represent wood, stone, iron and coal. Resources produced at factories can be sold to cities. This is an important source of income. Money is tight in this game. I say this a lot when I describe games, but with Imperial Steam I really mean it. Okay I sound like the boy crying wolf. I swear this is a game where it gets drilled into you that being poor sucks big time. It is downright tragic. 

This is the progress track. The golden token is the round marker. Those hands are players' action tokens. In rounds 2 to 4 you collect a new action token, which means you get to perform more are more actions per round. Eventually you'll have 5 actions per round. The trains set up on the progress track indicate what are available to you at what time. Improved trains become available in Round 4. Those white numbers on the river tokens mean something. They tell you how many resources you may preorder when you perform the action to buy resources for the next round.  

That city at the top right with two station tokens, yellow and green, is Vienna, i.e. the starting city for all players. Those rectangles above it are the limited slots for factories. You will notice only some other cities have such slots. You need to be connected to these cities to use their slots. Cities offer different benefits and you need to connect to them to use them. The city at the top left is a major city which has demand for resources. If you can connect your network there, you may sell resources to the city to make money. This is important for your cashflow. 

The hexagonal markers are your reputation markers. They determine turn order and also where you may recruit workers and engineers. The four shields represent four major cities where you may recruit. For example, the yellow player may now recruit at the brown and the green cities. The shields will advance when resources are sold to the corresponding cities, which means you will need a higher reputation level to be able to recruit at these cities. 

These are the 11 different actions you may perform on your turn. Place your hand token to perform an action. This is not a worker placement game. Your hand doesn't block other players' hands. However if you place your hand on a spot which already has your own hand, you will lose reputation. This discourages you from performing the same actions within the same round. 

This is the recruitment board. These are the four cities where you may recruit engineers (those along the top) and workers. Recruiting an engineer always costs $30. Workers start cheaper at $10 but they get more and more expensive. 

These are contracts. They are set up randomly before the game starts. When you sign a contract, you attract investors to your company. They will be willing to buy shares. However by signing a contract you must reserve some train carriages, and thus lose storage capacity. Completing a contract requires having built factories producing specific resources. Also, someone needs to connect to Trieste. If no one connects to Trieste, contracts are ignored. If someone does connect, and you complete your contracts, they grant you a handsome profit (top right corner of the contracts). However if someone connects to Trieste but you fail to complete your contract, there is a steep penalty. 

On the board there are some special features. Routes with crowns are imperial routes. You need to pay for a permit before you can lay tracks on these routes. That rectangular token represents the Semmering Railway. If you are first to lay tracks here, you claim the token. At game end, your basic income is doubled. These are little quirks added for flavour. 

White routes are regular routes. Orange routes are tunnels. Black routes are bridges. To lay tracks on the tunnel and bridge routes you need to pay more resources. You also need to have recruited the right engineers. 

Building a factory consumes a worker. You will put that worker on the main game board like this. This is permanent. The factory immediately produces resources, and it will only produce just this once. When the resources are used up, you'll need to build a new factory to produce new resources. 

When you recruit, you get junior workers and place them at the bottom left box. Your workers who are idle for the round attend short courses to improve themselves. They move right and become more skilled. They can go up to Level 3. Those who are put to work will move upwards. When the next round starts they move back down, i.e. they will stay at the same level. Higher level workers work more efficiently on railroads and also produce more resources when building factories. 

When you sign a contract, you attract potential investors (the little green men). They don't immediately hand you money. This side board shows the current market price of your company shares. It's $40 now, which is not a lot. The position of an investor indicates how much they are willing to pay, but they will still buy shares at the current market price. So it is better to increase the market price before you sell shares to these investors. Selling shares is one way to get cash. You need cash to run your business. Every time you sell shares, you are selling 10% of your company. You place the investor in the box at the top left. When the game ends, you hand over a percentage of your final score to them. Every investor costs you 10% of your final score. Bringing in investors is not a decision you take lightly. Yes, cashflow is always a pain in the neck, so sometimes you have to rely on investors.

When you sell resources to a major city, you place them onto the city like this. This particular city only wants one wood, one stone, one iron and two coals. You make money from wood, stone and iron, but you only earn victory points with coal. 

Your final score is the cash you have in hand. You start the game with a little money. The whole exercise in Imperial Steam is how you turn that little capital into a large sum of money. You must spend wisely and manage your growing business meticulously. You need to keep expanding and monetising the next opportunity. Your factories will run out of goods. Your clients will run out of buying capacity. You have to keep moving forward to survive. You must keep finding opportunities and upgrading your capabilities. All this while you must carefully plan whether to let the game end by completion of 8 rounds or having someone connect to Trieste. 

The Play

I think of Imperial Steam as a carefully managed marathon. You are always short of money and you are constantly worried about how to maintain your cashflow. It is quite high stress. You need money to expand, and you want to make sure you are expanding into the right areas which will get you more money for the next cycle of expansion. Money seems to run out very quickly. When you are short on cash, you find that your actions become highly inefficient. One particular action you can take is to earn $10. At first I thought this was pathetic. This was not much better than begging on the streets. Demeaning! It was like asking the boss to do part-time Grab Food delivery to earn some spare cash. I said that too soon. In the game I turned out to be the boss who needed to do Grab Food delivery. There was one round when I was precisely short of $10 to perform an action I had planned. It was either I waited until the next round, or I spent one precious action for that measly $10. I was desperate enough to do it. 

Due to how scarce money is, player interaction can be brutal. Everyone needs cashflow. If your opponent's action disrupts or delays your plan to make money, you can be royally screwed. If you ask me how much player interaction there is, I would say it's complicated. Sometimes when you are developing in different directions, it doesn't seem you can interfere with your opponents much. Yet at critical moments a little got-here-before-you aggression can cause a major setback. 

Han (yellow) expanded west. I (green) decided to head south to avoid too much head-to-head competition. Unfortunately later there was a major city near the centre of the board which we both wanted to get to, and he beat me to it. He was able to supply resources to the city before I could, and that messed up my plans. 

I signed a contract, and three of my carriages were reserved. Emblems were placed on them to block them off. I had less space to store resources. Some carriages had been converted to passenger carriages, and they gave me $10 each at the start of every round. These also could no longer store resources. 

When I signed my second contract, I blocked off two more carriages.

I would have been able to complete both my contracts, and they would earn a total of $510, a tidy sum. Unfortunately I failed to manage my cashflow well and could not reach Trieste before the game ended. Han held off signing contracts. He did build quite a few factories, and if he signed contracts he would likely be able to complete them all. He had the ability to connect to Trieste. However since doing so would help me, he decided not to. He was giving up the opportunity to make money from contracts, but he hadn't spent actions signing contracts yet. He could spend his actions on other ways of making money. 

I wasn't doing so well, and decided to go for the Semmering Railway. It wouldn't help me all that much, other than making me feel a little better, like I've achieved something noteworthy. 

By late game I had both types of engineers (grey and orange figures), so I could lay tunnel tracks and bridge tracks. I was short on cash and couldn't afford many workers. I wasn't able to replenish them. 

The Thoughts

Playing Imperial Steam is like walking a tightrope. You have to be constantly careful with how you spend your money and you are always worrying about how to earn the next month's income. You are always struggling for survival. You watch your opponents because they may create potholes in your highway. How tight money is creates a kind of despair I rarely see in other games. This is a little like Splotter games. If you don't manage your finances, you will suffer the consequences. The system is unapologetic and won't pity you or help you catch up. This is certainly a gamer's game, not something you want to traumatise newbies with. 

One thing about the game gives you an idea how brutal it is. The rulebook specifically recommends a set up for your first game. It advises that the normal random setup should only be used after you are familiar with the game. The newbie setup is to give you a gentler introduction to the game, so that you won't die too spectacularly. 

Initially I wondered whether one game would feel similar to the next once you play a few more times. After all you always start in Vienna and you are generally heading towards Trieste. Now I realise the random setup will create different problems and different opportunities. The cities will be different. There are a few other randomised elements. I think even after you learn to handle the tough economy, Imperial Steam will still give you replayability.