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.
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.
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.