The great strategy game Steam on your mobile devices
Android & iOS
# of Players
1 - 5 (6 w/IAP)
Steam: Rails to Riches is the classic route building delivery game from designer Martin Wallace. Two to five players must navigate economic hurdles to build routes between cities and use them to deliver good for points or economic gain. After a set number of turns, based on player count, some final scoring takes place and a winner is declared, this usually takes about 20-30 minutes.
Steam has two game modes: Basic and Standard. I will describe the Basic mode first and then a brief mention of the differences Standard mode adds. Steam is a fairly weighty game, I won’t be describing every detail here, but hope to provide a decent overview of the gameplay.
The game begins with players bidding currency on the right to go first on the first turn. All players bid, then bidding for the second turn order takes place, and so on. Once player order is determined, a turn in Steam has four stages: Action selection, building, moving, and income and expenses. There are seven actions to choose from, each player selects one which provides some bonus for the remainder of the current turn. These actions range from being able to to build an extra track to turning a town into a city. After actions are selected, building occurs. Building for most players will be in the form of tracks that are placed as hex tiles on the board with a variety of railroad track routes on them. The goal of tracks are to connect cities and towns, each connection is known as a link. Players who took certain actions in the previous phase of the turn are able to build cities or add goods during the build phase. Moving is when players transport goods between cities to earn points or income. Players can only move goods over links, half of the links for any one move must be their own, but they can use other players’ at a cost. During the move phase, players may pass on moving goods in order to upgrade their locomotive which will increase the number of links across which they may move a good. Finally, income and expenses takes stock of your current income (which can, and will, be negative at times) and either generates your money or pays your debts. The player order for the next turn is determined by which action each player selected on the current turn, so turn bidding only occurs once at the start of the game. These four stages are repeated for the number of turns in the game, which varies by player count, until the game ends. At which point some additional scoring takes place and a winner is determined.
Games of Steam tend to play out in two distinct phases; income building and point scoring. The income track is crucial, especially early in the game. You must borrow from the bank whenever you don’t have the money to pay for something (usually tracks to build). In borrowing, your income level drops one for each $5 you borrow. Note: borrowing and income adjusting takes place automagically in the app whenever necessary, making the bookkeeping substantially less than it is in the physical game. At the end of a turn, if you have a negative income level you lose money. This is a vicious debt cycle that players will generally rush to escape from. However, as you start building more links and upgrading your locomotive, you can make longer deliveries. Each link of a delivery allows you to earn one victory point or increase your income level by one (note: you can’t split the delivery rewards, it’s all VP or all income). Once you start completing four, five, and six link deliveries, you will be able to permanently escape debt, hooray! Once players are debt free, they shift focus to taking the VPs from their deliveries. This is a classic engine building scenario, a mad dash for points at the end.
The above all applies to Basic mode. The basic mechanics of Standard mode are the same, but there are a few key differences. First, turn order bidding occurs before every turn, instead of just the first. Next, players must borrow their money at the beginning of the turn and cannot add more for the duration of their turn. The same $5 per income level rule applies, but you must plan up front what you will need on a given turn. Finally, players must all pay for maintenance on their locomotive at the end of each turn equal to the level of your locomotive. These are seemingly minor changes to the Basic game, but they really add up to providing a much deeper game once you have a firm grasp on the Basic game.
The crux of Steam is being able to deliver goods over as many of your own links as possible. This is accomplished by strategic placement of goods in cities and smart track placement. The former is accomplished by using city growth and urbanization actions. City growth allows a player to add a set of good cubes to an existing city, while urbanization allows you to turn a town into a city, placing goods when doing do. Goods can only be delivered to cities matching their color. The real hiccup in this process is that a good must stop at the first city it reaches that matches its color. You might be able to send a yellow good to a yellow city six links away, but if there is another yellow city as the second stop along the way, the good must stop and you must take the two points rather than six. This makes track planning incredibly important. Getting the most links into your deliveries is crucial, but not an easy task. Steam rewards well thought out strategies, but opponents can easily foil these strategies by using goods you had planned on moving.
Steam is a great game, I really enjoy the mix of planning and engine building it offers. It has a fairly large barrier to entry, but if the mechanics and theme interest you, Steam provides a fantastic payoff for those willing to dive in.
Barrier to Entry
Steam offers two tutorials, one for Basic mode and one for Standard mode. The app links to a PDF download of the physical game rulebook. Steam is a tough game to learn. There are a lot of moving parts to understand. Playing through the tutorial once will likely leave you totally lost, at least it did for me. I tried an AI game after that and couldn’t figure out what to do. I set down and read through the PDF which allowed some things to sink in, then I replayed the tutorial. At this point, I finally felt like I had a grasp on what I was doing and could play the game. After a bunch of games, I went back to the tutorial to see what it might have been missing. To my surprise, it really isn’t missing much, if anything, at all. All of the rules are there, but they are usually only explained once and then they move on to the next. The real flaw is the lack of hammering home the basic game points. To this end, one feature that would absolutely improve the new player experience tenfold is to have the in-game error messages tell you why you can’t do something, not just that you can’t. I remember my first AI game I missed the point that goods could only be delivered to cities matching their color. The game’s error message was something like “you can’t deliver that good to that city.” A simple “...because the colors don’t match” would have solved a lot of my problems learning this game.
The bottom line is that Steam is a deep game with a fair amount of rules. The tutorials walk you through what you need to know, but don’t hammer home even the most basic points which can leave new players lost. Be prepared for a bit of learning curve just in learning the rules, then another one to start to understand some of the strategies.
Setting up a local game
Start of a game on the 2p map
Look and Feel
Steam is a functional app. The visuals won’t jump off of your screen, but they do the job quite well. Controls mostly work really well, and the menu system is intuitive and well laid out. The only really nitpicks here are in some of the small details on the controls. For example, the lack of an “undo last track” button. If you accidentally lock in a track in the wrong position (an easy thing to do on phones), your only option is to undo your entire building turn thus far. This is a nuisance that will pop up even after playing a lot of games. Related, some of the drag-and-drops can be a bit touchy and appear to fall in the wrong hex spot at times, nothing major but another small nuisance. Otherwise, everything on Steam looks and feels just fine.
Steam offers asynchronous online games which are created and joined via a lobby system. Users who create the game choose the map they wish to play on and can optionally lock the game with a password. The game offers both email and system notifications when it is your turn. My experience with Steam as an online game has been pretty good overall. I’ve found that players tend to play slowly, with no apparent time limit on turns this leads to games which play out over the course of weeks. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you should expect it going in. If you wish to play quicker games, the ideal situation would be to jump on with a friend or three who you know will play their turns at a faster pace. The online implementation is good, I haven’t seen any issues in my games. If you have some dedicated people to play against, Steam will offer a very strong online experience. If you want to play against random opponents, be prepared for a leisurely pace.
Steam does offer local pass-and-play games. This works out pretty well as there isn’t any hidden information to worry about, players can sit around a mobile device and take their turns without having to hide the screen.
Single player allows you to play against AI opponents on any of the maps you have available. The game comes with two base maps allowing 3-4 or 3-5 players. A two player map was originally an in-app purchase but is now free so you can now use that right out of the gate. There are six AI opponents in Steam and they each have an overall skill rating along with separate ratings for their risk and aggression tendencies, each of which is one, two, or three stars. The one star skill AIs are fairly easy, I was defeating them almost every game after I understood the rules. The two and three star skill players are much more challenging. Out of the six AI available, three are one star. The three tougher AIs provide me with a good challenge, but it is an interesting choice that half of them are easy bots.
Single player in Steam is a good experience. The easier AI levels are there to help you learn the game against a few different AI strategy types, then the upper levels are there to challenge you as you get more familiar with the game. Steam succeeds in providing a range of difficulties to play against which should give most players a fun single player experience.
Bidding for turn order
The board is filling up
Victory over easy bots!
Steam has four additional maps available as in-app purchases. They can be bought individually or in bulk at about a 50% discount. The maps provide new layouts for the game board, but also may introduce new rules to the game. The USA-Canada map, for example, expands the game to allow for six players while also adding a new good/city color along with some other changes. If you like Steam, the maps here are a treat. They will greatly expand replayability with drastically different layouts and rule variations, and they can be had at a decent price for the whole set.
Note that the Southwestern France map was an IAP at one point, but has since been made free, it allows for a two player game with some changes in the action selection rules.
The Wrap Up
This is a pretty simple one to wrap up; Steam Rails to Riches is a fantastic implementation of a great game. There are a few nitpicks in the difficulty for new players to learn the game, some of the controls, and lack of online game timeout options, but these really are just nitpicks. The app is short on bells and whistles, but the game is strong enough to hold up on its own. If you are a fan of the board game, Steam should allow you to jump right in and enjoy a great digital version of the game. If you are new to Steam and curious to try it out, you will need to put in a little work, but the app will help you learn the game and give you a fun AI challenge to hone your skills.
Steam Rails to Riches is a great strategy game which has been given a fantastic digital port, we highly recommend the app.
What we like
- Great, deep strategy game
- Good range of AI levels to play against
- Expansion maps add substantial variety to the base game
What we don't like
- High barrier to entry, might frustrate new players
- Some small, nagging control issues that could use cleanup
- No options for online game timeout lengths