It's the year 1899, and strange phenomena are being observed in places like Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. Time goes crazy, and newly discovered crystals have exhibited strange properties that allow for the creation of fantastic apparatuses.
In a race to exploit these discoveries, the rapidly industrializing nations have used them to construct gigantic steam-driven airships to travel through time and space. In Steam Time, the race is on for long-lost knowledge, vanished cultures, and hidden treasures. Travel to past ages, search for crystals, and use your crystals wisely to stay ahead of your competitors. (KOSMOS)
Designer: Rüdiger Dorn
Artist: Jacqui Davis
Category: Adventure, Economic
Price: $39.95 Amazon
Steam Time is a time traveling worker placement game from KOSMOS. Designer Rüdiger Dorn has created a long list of games including Goa, Las Vegas, and Louis XIV. Other titles from Dorn have been nominated for, or have won the Spiel des Jahres, or Kennerspiel des Jahres, including Jambo, Istanbul, Arkadia, and Karuba.
Thames and Kosmos is a science kit and board games publisher, with KOSMOS being the branch specifically for board gaming. KOSMOS has long published many games, including Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert, Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, and the original printing of The Settlers of Catan.
More recently KOSMOS has published a number of children’s and puzzle games, including Harry Hopper, Dimension, Ubongo, and many more. In addition, KOSMOS publishes a number of hobby/strategy titles, including Imhotep, Kerala, Legends of Andor, Tumult Royale, and the upcoming A Column of Fire.
Brush up on your history books and buckle up, boys and girls. Today, we are taking a quick trip down the slipstream of time to look at Steam Time, from KOSMOS and designer Rüdiger Dorn.
In Steam Time, players are part of some futuristic and important corporation called the Temporal Institute for Monument Exploration, or T.I.M.E. Players must equip airships with powerful crystals to explore various periods in history. The winner will be the player who can wisely manage their resources and gain the most esteem to become the most glorious member of T.I.M.E.
Steam Time is broken up into five rounds. Players take turns placing an airship onto one of six action spaces on monument boards. These actions include:
Missions: Give end-game criteria that must be fulfilled to gain esteem points
Encounter: Draw specified cards and meet a historical figure, then choose one of two actions for a variety of different bonuses or chances to score points
Crystal Deposit: Purchase crystals for your airship at the cost of two gold per crystal
Upgrade: Pay a cost of round-specific crystals, then receive the upgrade bonus immediately and at the beginning of each future round
Gold: Receive the gold bonus on the action
Expedition: Pay a cost of round-specific crystals, then receive bonuses based on current orange crystal count
What sets Steam Time apart from typical worker placement games is how each action space corresponds with one area of a player’s airship tableau. This means players will not only get the action on the monument board, but will also reap various rewards based on the strength of how many crystals are installed in that region of the airship. In addition, players must respect the flow of time from bottom to top of the monument boards. A juicy action space might be at the top, but taking it will revoke a player’s ability to take lower action spaces.
Taking the crystals action will grant one or two extra T.I.M.E crystals, which are basically wild crystals. Another player might take an upgrade, which will move his time track token up a space for each pink crystal, getting him closer to a free action using Mr. Time. Balancing crystals in the airship is key to building an engine in Steam Time. Players must pay attention to available action spaces and learn to plan ahead for future actions based off what they currently have in their ships.
Once all players have played their three airships, the round ends. From here, players will setup for the next round, removing old cards and tiles, and replacing them with more powerful upgrades and more difficult-to-complete missions.
Setup is a chore in Steam Time, because players need to sort a few decks of cards and tiles by era. In addition, players need different colored crystals installed onto their tableaus, and sometimes extra gold or T.I.M.E crystals. Modular setup accounts for both variability in action availability, and differing player counts by simply flipping over monument boards. The assortment of cards and tiles do add replayability. Not all components will be used in each game, which means new opportunities and strategies make themselves known each time the game is played.
Steam Time is the sort of game that gives players many routes to victory. It’s not as simple as only completing missions, or only focusing on expeditions, though one might choose one of those routes. Missions are interesting because resources mean nothing at the end of the game. Missions require players to pay off their costs at the end of the game in order to pay out points. Expeditions need crystals up front, and a high count of stocked orange crystals to get big points. Many missions need crystals, so it might not even make sense to focus in both areas as a strategy.
There are plenty of viable strategies I won’t take the time to discuss here, but the beauty of Steam Time is the freedom to choose a path to victory. Good Steam Time players begin with a path, upgrades for example, and adapt their strategy to the ever-changing board. Like one might imagine the stream of time to whisp and flow however it chooses, so thematically various crystals and cards make themselves available each turn. Competitive players must dynamically evolve to meet the current board state and take advantage of turn order and build their engines toward victory. Taking the time to comprehend the most efficient path to maximum points each round is exhilarating, and it’s the focused planning on victory that makes Steam Time so satisfying.
With all of the thinking involved in Steam Time, it’s appropriate to label this game with an analysis paralysis warning. The rulebook isn’t bad, but feels long and bloated, as the many rules of Steam Time go. This is part of what drags the game out in people’s minds. Steam Time boasts many icons with various equal signs, different methods to obtaining and transmuting crystals, many bonuses to remember, and starkly different costs to pay for cards at different points in the game. This doesn’t make Steam Time unworthy of learning, but it certainly comes with the disclaimer: this game is worth it if you take your time.
Steam Time looks lovely on the table. Ever-moving monument boards change places, crystals hide in a dark, velvety bag, and vibrant airships dot the stream of time. Historical figures are cartoons on encounter cards, and each icon and landscape feel of the same ilk, decorating the artistic vision of Steam Time prominently. Player boards have slots for dropping crystals into, making it easy to pick up and place. One downside is how gold has a location to pile up on the main board, but no one likes a messy pile of gold tokens. We’ll try to ignore that side of the board though, and one might opt for taking gold from a bag or something like that.
Steam Time includes two extra modules: Sabotage and Specialists.
Sabotage adds a weird “take that” element to the game that doesn’t add much. Each round, players can place a saboteur token onto an action space. If a player wishes to use that space, he must pay one of his T.I.M.E crystals back to the bank. For a eurogame so focused on long-term planning and out-actioning opponents, closing off spaces at the cost of a penalty doesn’t make much sense. In fact, it just creates a new part of the game which takes more time than it should. Players look around at others’ player boards and try to make an optimal decision on what to block. Steam Time excels at giving players many options however, so eliminating some of them just doesn’t feel in tune with the rest of the game. I’d ignore this one.
Specialists, on the other hand, is basically an essential. Each player is equipped with a hand of nine specialists, each of which grants rule-breaking abilities when activated. These colorful characters are all uniquely illustrated and come from various nationalities. Some are navigators and allow the player to ignore the stream of time placement rules, while others are engineers and make the cost of purchasing crystals 1 gold instead of 2 gold.
Not only do players draft two of their choice at the beginning of the game, but once played, that player can keep their specialist’s ability until he decides to play a different specialist over the top of it. This means players must think carefully about which specialists to begin the game with, knowing they might need to switch up their starting power as the game progresses. Specialists add extra flair to Steam Time, and help players hone into their strategies. As players play specialists and draw new ones from their deck, the constant theme of dynamic strategy continues. This module an excellent addition after a group has played a few games of Steam Time and is ready to add more to the game.
Steam Time is an excellent strategy game with great art and components. It also plays pretty quickly, sometimes in just around 45 minutes. The only downside with the five round limit is I feel I’m just hitting my stride and activating a slew of upgrades as the game ends. It’s necessary, but I still wish the game went on a bit longer.
I’m a bit saddened that I don’t hear anyone talking about Steam Time, because there is a lot of fun to be had playing it. After other great titles from Dorn, including Istanbul and Karuba, I expect I’ll be looking out for everything else Dorn works on. Here’s a big shout out to KOSMOS for another beautiful game with great gameplay.
A review copy of Steam Time was provided by KOSMOS.
+ Exciting gameplay which rewards both planning and wise, tactical decision-making
+ Great artwork and high quality components and presentation
+ Variety of cards and tiles make for lots of replayability and variable setup
+ Specialists module is excellent and adds more options for strategies
+ Resource management is everything, which makes for difficult and game-impacting decisions
- Rulebook feels a bit smashed together and takes some time to parse because of layout and game complexity
- Setup takes time, and each rounds needs more micromanaging to get prepared
- Sabotage module isn’t worth your time