Age of Steam, while only having 6,000 copies in existence, certainly has attracted a hardcore following. I count twenty expansions on www.boardgamegeek.com, and most of those have been printed in the last three years. One of these is Age of Steam: 1830’s Pennsylvania/Northern California (Bezier Games, 2006 – Ted Alspach). When Ted first told me about the expansion, I was pretty pleased – mostly because I grew up in Pennsylvania and was glad to see my hometown Allentown on the map.
Both maps are fascinating and have a completely different feel than the original game. This has the dual effect of making them varied and intriguing, but also extremely non-recommended for new players. Both maps are difficult and challenging, and the Northern California map especially has the tendency to drive players to bankruptcy. I think I like the Pennsylvanian map better, if only because of the unique options it presents, but both maps are very interesting and will be of high interest to enthusiasts.
The 1830’s Pennsylvania map is all about one thing – coal. To simulate the industrial revolution, ten towns on the western side of the map have one black cube placed on them with the remainder of the non-black cubes scattered on the other cities on the board – most of which are on the eastern side of the map. The map itself is covered with the Appalachian Mountains, which cost $5 to build through. There are really only two major rule changes. The first is urbanization. Players may only build one track piece if they urbanize a town into a black city, and any “gray” town (one of the coal cube towns) may not be turned into a black city. Because of this, any coal must be transported over the mountains to one of the three existing black cities or any of the new ones.
The reason this is so critical is the power of coal. Whenever a player transports coal, they may either deliver it up to twice the distance of their locomotive OR double income. Honestly, this makes coal such a critical resource that any player who ignores it will most likely lose the game. At initial setup, players can attempt to connect the clustered eastern cities, but once a player pays the heavy price to get rails over the mountains – the special abilities of coal will make their income soar! This is why the game really wouldn’t work for new players, as they would most likely underestimate the importance of the black cubes and get soundly defeated as the game goes by. Because of the terrain, mostly mountains and rivers, players will pay heavily to build almost everywhere, and that combined with the rarity of coal make the map feel very crowded. Competition is fierce – some of the fiercest on any map, and there will be a lot of jockeying for a part of the “coal network.”
Northern California is a completely unusual map –one that really needs to be played to be accurately understood. Full of hills and water, the terrain is interesting enough; but that’s just one small part of the map. There are two bridges across the bay that can be built, which initially sounds very good, but they are fairly expensive. Four of the cities on the map are yellow, two are red, and only one blue and purple city exist, making cube deliveries very tight. San Jose is actually three cities that are adjacent to each other, with no cubes initially placed in it. Cubes can be delivered to an adjoining section for zero income and can even be shipped out of one part of the city and back into another part. What makes San Jose interesting, however, is that it has all six white numbers on it, so piles of goods are going to show up there rather quickly. The map isn’t all about San Jose, however. Santa Cruz has a line of ten cubes extending from it – representing “ships”. After the two goods in the city have been shipped, players can ship the good on the “ship” closest to the port of the city. This matches up with Sacramento – in the upper right hand corner of the map. Sacramento is colored white and only accepts cubes of the color of the closest ship to Santa Cruz. This makes Sacramento a volatile city (reminiscent of the Korean map).
Urbanization is a big deal in Northern California, since San Jose is going to be shipping forth dozens of cubes. With the importance of five key cities on the board, competition is going to be heavily fierce – in fact, while I haven’t played the game with five players, I can see how that would be a nightmare after one four player game. Northern California is certainly interesting, but it can be a rather stressful game, since one small error can lose you the game; and it involves more direct competition than any other map I know.
The boards are thin poster material, with bright, colorful printing on them. Normally I prefer mounted boards, but these work well and actually fit into my bulging Age of Steam box a little better. The two-sided rules sheet (in full color) are very clear and easy to understand.
I would recommend the expansion to those who are seeking new challenges in their Age of Steam addiction. It is NOT for the fainthearted or new players, especially the very evil Northern California map. I personally enjoy the Pennsylvanian map – it’s become my second favorite map to play on (after Korea) in the game – although the coal simply makes it an entirely new experience. But that’s what’s nice about this expansion – it allows players to play a new scenario that actually feels different and isn’t just a variation on the original map.
“Real men play board games”