Steam Works: Surprisingly strategic worker placement

I recently played a game I knew nothing about, that through the randomness of a Christmas White Elephant gift exchange in December had been sitting in my stack of unopened games. Upon initial inspection, TMG’s Steam Works looks like a whimsy board game that had a steampunk theme. But what I learned from getting it on table last weekend is that it’s actually quite a heavy worker-placement game. I was surprised, and the guys I was playing with (who are all heavy gamers) were, too, and we had a lot of fun!

Steam Works ended up being a pleasant surprise, and a much heavier game than I thought!

Steam Works is a 2-5 player strategy game that has tile- and worker-placement mechanics. (I initially grabbed it at the White Elephant because it played 5 players, as I’m always on the hunt for 5-player games). Players are collecting energy sources and components in order to build devices that will net them victory points. Players can also use opponents’ devices, but in doing so, the device owner will be getting a victory point.

Each player gets their own board and mechanics, which increase in costs as you use more.

Players start with their character board, $5, two mechanics and starting components and/or energy sources. The cool thing about this game is that there are a lot of characters to choose from, all with different abilities and starting tiles. People can also decide to play on the A side, which gives everyone the same abilities. There’s also a central board. In each round, tiles are laid out on a “conveyor belt” corresponding to ages that have been unlocked. As more ages are unlocked (which I’ll explain further below), each player gets another mechanic, maxing out at four in the last stage of the game.

I flipped over tiles from each age. Normally, they’d be phased in as clocks get depleted.

On your turn, you deploy your mechanic. The first mechanic is free, and future mechanics have a cost to deploy, each one getting more expensive. If you can’t afford to deploy your mechanic, or choose not to, you can instead pass and receive the income. Players take their turns deploying their mechanics until everybody is out of people, and then the round ends.

The mechanics have top hats on, naturally. I love that the first-player marker is a blimp.

So what do your mechanics do? Each player has four available action spots on their board, in addition to activating devices. The basic actions are take the right-most component on a conveyor belt into your supply, take an energy source, build a device, or activate one of your power sources. There are three types of energy sources: clocks, steam and electrikal. On the B sides of the player boards, the basic actions are all different depending on the character.

There are three types of power sources: clocks, steam and electrikal.

To build a device, it needs to have at least one power source and one component, and they have to match, meaning if a tile only takes steam power, then it has to be built with a steam source. Tiles also will activate differently based on what power source you give it. This completed device is now yours in front of you. On your turn, if you activate your device or an opponent’s, you place your mechanic on a power source. All the components connected to that source are activated, triggering cool effects. This is where the game gets really interesting and complex in the best way possible. People can create all sorts of devices and combinations. If you plan ahead, you can create a powerful device that’ll make you way “Whoa!” (True story.)

This fantastic device gave my friend a blimp-load of victory point!

Case in point, my friend created this device with Amplicondenser and two Distillers, all powered by one source: electrikal. When you power up this device, you can choose which tiles will activate first. Naturally, you want the Amplicondenser to go first, giving you three source tiles. You then turn a source tile for 5 coins, twice because there are two distillers. Bam! This machine was used a lot by all of us, netting my friend many victory points. It was too good to pass up! Sadly, he ended up winning because of that awesome combinations.

A steampunk game isn’t complete without clocks and more clocks (which are work VPs).

When you use somebody else’s device, he or she gets a clock from the center board. Clocks are worth one victory point each. As clocks get used up from the board, they unlock each Age in the game, putting more tiles down. The game ends when all the clocks have been distributed, or when there aren’t enough Age III tiles to fill up the conveyor belt. You then count up your victory points, clocks and VPs from the devices you built. The person with the most VPs wins the game. If there’s the tie, cash is the tie-breaker.

Warning: this game takes up a lot of space, and this game had three of us playing.

The game has some elements of Le Havre and Keyflower where you’re using other people’s buildings. The key is to build compelling devices that your opponents want to use it — a lot. My only gripe about the game is that the rulebook could be a little bit clearer, and there’s even an entire tile that isn’t explained, but nothing that a quick search on boardgamegeek.com can’t fix. Lastly, the game takes up a lot of space when people start building devices, so make sure you’ve got room! Anyway, can’t wait to get this back on table soon.

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