A game isn’t very much fun if you’re just doing the same thing every turn. Games don’t set out to do that, of course. But if it isn’t well-designed, it can turn out that way. There’ll be an obvious strategy, an action that’s so much better than all the others. Puerto Rico, for years the top-ranked game at Board Game Geek, dipped a bit when players claimed to have “solved” it, mapping out the actions you could take to win the game regardless of what the other players did. When a game lacks that element of choice, of having to make a hard decision as to what to do, well, you’re no longer playing a game. You’re basically programming. Then again, offer up too many choices, and you risk the dreaded phenomenon of analysis paralysis. Players will stare at the board overwhelmed by what to do next. They’ll second guess everything. And a game whose box says it should take ninety minutes stretches out to two hours or more, and no one is having a good time. So it’s a balancing act between essentially putting your players on rails or letting them meander all over the place. Fortunately, our game last night was right in the sweet spot.
Steam Time seems to be trying to single-handedly corner the genre market. It’s got steampunk and time travel all mixed together, along with the ever-popular worker placement mechanic. It’s 1899, and weird stuff is going on at famous sites like the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Strange fields of displaced time are forming, and mysterious energy crystals are appearing. This kicks off a race to travel to the past and unlock ancient, forgotten knowledge, gather these mysterious crystals, and become the most prestigious explorer in the present.
The way this translates in the game is that players take turns sending their workers, in this case three dirigible tokens, into the time stream, represented by five boards with a series of actions on them. These involve gaining resources (coins or crystals), improving your airship, taking on missions that resolve at the end of the game, meeting famous historical figures (some of whom help only you, others who help everybody), going on expeditions to historical sites (which provide various rewards) and increasing the strength of your time portal. The trick though is that you can only move forward through the time stream, meaning once you place a dirigible on a board, you can only place above that particular board on your next turn. So if for some reason you decide you really want to go to the top board with your first action, well, that’s great, but you can’t do anything else the rest of the turn. And so the first crucial decision of the game rears its head; you may have two actions on the same board you want to take, but you can only take one of them. And while you do that, someone may jump ahead and take the action further along the time stream you took your action to set up for your next turn. The time portal on your ship can give you access to a special action that lets you ignore the placement restriction, but do you want to concentrate on powering that up at the cost of some other action that might be more useful?
And that powering up comes via energy crystals. They come in different colors that correspond to different engines on your airship, plus powerful time crystals that can be any color. When you gain crystals, you place them in their corresponding engines in order to power them. Because each action on the board has a color corresponding to one of your engines. And when you take an action, you gain a bonus based on the number of crystals you have on its engine. For instance, every crystal on the Midas Engine gives you an extra two coins when you take the action that gives you money. So there’s your next decision: what engines and bonuses do you want to go after? And what crystals do you need to do so?
Oh, but this game doesn’t make it that easy. Because in order to purchase upgrades and go on expeditions, you have to spend crystals. And it’s not like you can just ignore these actions. Upgrades give you income every turn, and expeditions can score you massive amounts of points and provide all kinds of other bonuses. You will not be competitive if you steer clear of them. Thus, yet another decision: which engines’ bonuses are you willing to sacrifice in order to take these actions? There’s a mechanic that allows you to spend steam (another resource you can collect) to transform crystals from one color to another, so you’ve got some flexibility, but you are definitely going to face moments when you have to choose between a really great bonus or a very tempting upgrade.
The game plays over five rounds. At the end of each round, the board is reset, with the top board moving to the bottom and the others moving up accordingly, so the sequence of actions is constantly changing. The available upgrades, missions and expeditions also resets, so if you didn’t grab that upgrade from Round 1, too bad, it’s lost into the time stream forever. At the end of the fifth round, you add points from any missions you can complete, which involves paying back resources you’ve collected during the game. Look! Another choice! Do I spend my resources to score points during the game, or do I hold some back to score points off of missions?
If you haven’t guessed yet, I loved this game. Every decision is a perfect balance of reward and penalty. To get something good, you likely have to give up something just as good. You’re going to have two actions you’d love to take, but they’re on the same board, so you can only take one. You’re going to have a mission you’re close to having the resources to complete, but then the next round reveals a must-have upgrade you’d need to spend those same resources to get. There’s not one action you can just bomb and run away with the game, but there’s also not one you can just forget about and expect to do well. This game is exquisitely balanced, and it has just the right amount of decision-making. Things did slow down a bit at times because we were all new to it, but it never felt like a slog. And, of course, we managed to get a couple of small things wrong with the rules. But I have a feeling we’ll have plenty more chances to get them right.