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The second title that Martin Wallace aims to have ready for Spiel 08 -- formerly listed under the temporary title Kansas Rails -- is a simplified type of 18xx game in which players bid for shares in six railroads over five rounds, with one share available each round.
The winner of a share gets to decide what that railroad does, netting any income earned that round for himself rather than having it go to the player who controls the most shares overall -- but the amount of money he has available to spend that turn is based on his bid, so winning low won't differ much from not winning at all. "You must build as much as possible each turn," says Wallace, which puts the onus on the next share holder to throw his own money into the railroad in order to build. Players gain the same amount of money each round to be used for bidding, and all money earned during a round is converted into victory points, so scoring well in one round won't boost your chances of winning more shares later.
The share payout at the end of the game is affected by how diverse a railroad's network is; the owners of the railroads take turns pulling cubes off the map, with different colored cubes in different parts of the U.S. and the points being scored depending on how many colors you collect. This endgame bonus pairs with the midgame build-until-you-pass-out dictum to encourage you to balance short- and long-term growth. How much do you want to profit now if you're giving someone else a big payout down the road?
Description written by W. Eric Martin and used with permission of BoardgameNews.com
Confession time: I’m a Martin Wallace fan. I tend to really enjoy most of his designs, particularly those he has created over the past six years or so. Struggle of Empires, Liberty, Princes of the Renaissance and Age of Steam are all among my favorite games. I make it a point to acquire any Martin Wallace design that is aimed at gamers – no questions asked. I have rarely been disappointed.
At this year’s Spiel in Essen, Wallace had two new designs to whet my appetite: After the Flood and Steel Driver. Of these, Steel Driver is clearly the least complex and seems poised to appeal to casual gamers and folks seeking a game on the lighter end of the strategy scale. Set at the advent of the rail system development in the 19th century United States, the game has players competing to grab control of six major rail companies, develop their rail system, and reap the profits.
The map depicts the continental United States and a variety of its major cities. A wide variety of routes connect these cities, and companies will expand their rail lines along these routes. Cities are differentiated by one of five colors, which is important as companies will have a greater value if they manage to expand their routes into cities of all five colors.
Each company has a control token and five shares. Each turn, players will bid for control of these companies, which earns them a share in the controlled company and gives the controller he right to use the company’s funds to expand its lines. Control is temporary, though, only lasting one turn. The player controlling company is not necessarily the person with the most shares in that company, but rather the player who wins the auction for it on that specific turn.
Each turn, players receive eight investment cubes. These cubes are the currency used in bidding for control of the companies. In turn order, each player places one company up for auction, with the high bidder taking the company’s control token and one share in that company. The winning bid is placed into the company’s treasury. After all six companies are auctioned, track will then be constructed.
Companies alternate constructing one section of track at a time. The order is based on when the companies passed on the previous turn, which is a very important consideration as each route can only be built by one company. It is not only possible to snatch a coveted route, but a company can actually be completely hemmed-in and rendered unable to expand. Each company begins life at one of a handful of cities, and is free to expand in whatever directions the controllers desire. The cost for each route is indicated on the board, and is paid in investment cubes from the company’s treasury. Profit is earned from the route’s construction, and is equal to the value of the city connected to the company’s rail network by constructing that route. These values range from $20 - $60, and are recorded on the profit track. Companies continue alternating constructing one track segment at a time until they deplete their supply of investment cubes or do not have enough cubes to construct a route. When a company passes, its token is moved to the first available space on the turn order track for the following turn.
After all construction is complete, the current controller of each company collects income based on the company’s position on the profit track. Additional income is earned for players controlling the companies comprising the Trans-Continental route: New York to San Francisco. Income earned equates to victory points, so players have an incentive to not only connect to a variety of different-colored cities, but to also earn healthy profits each turn. Markers on the profit track are re-set to zero at the beginning of each turn.
This process is repeated for five turns, after which a final profit determination is performed. This is a rather quirky mechanism that, while entertaining, seems to be out-of-place in a strategy train game. Cubes of the corresponding color are placed on every city on the board. Then, in turn order, the controller of each company – which at this stage is the player possessing the most shares – removes a cube from the board that is connected to that company’s rail network. These cubes are placed in the company’s treasury. The idea is to collect cubes of as many different colors as possible, as this will make the company’s net worth greater. This process continues until all cubes connected by rails have been removed.
At this point, the final value of each company is determined, which is done by tallying the value of the cubes collected. Cubes are arranged in sets, with the value ranging from $10 for a single cube to $150 for a full set of five cubes. The final value of each company is marked on the profit track, and this is the value of EACH SHARE in that company, which is paid to the players. The player with the greatest amount of accumulated cash is victorious.
This final value determination method is a driving force of player actions during the game, as they should try to build routes that will allow the companies in which they have an interest to connect to as many different-colored cities as possible. Of course, this is no guarantee that a company will be able to collect all of those cubes, as other companies may scoop the cubes instead. As mentioned, this may be an entertaining aspect of the game, but it just seems out-of-place.
For me, the bidding mechanism is the most intriguing aspect of the game. One impulse is to try to gain control of two companies per turn. The problem is that this will usually force a player to divide their investment cubes, severely limiting the number of cubes the companies have in their treasury to expand. Unlike most auction games wherein players attempt to gain the desired commodity for the least investment possible, in this game it is often wise to bid high in order to have more investment cubes in the company’s treasury. Deciding how to accomplish both of these goals is a challenge, and sometimes a player can take advantage of the turn order to accomplish this objective.
Overall, Steel Driver falls on the lighter side of Wallace’s designs. It is certainly far less complex and strategy-laden than titles such as Age of Steam or Struggle of Empires, and seems on par with games such as Ticket to Ride or Union Pacific. It seems well-positioned to appeal to a fairly wide audience, with its relative ease to learn and speed of play being additional assets. Wallace fans seeking a deep, strategy-laden game, however, should look elsewhere.