The genesis of Steel & Steam came from numerous playings of the Avalon Hill classic, Rail Baron. Rail Baron was a favorite of my son and his mother and we enjoyed playing many games together. However, over time, it became apparent that the game experience was not as rich as it could have been. Under the name Rail Baron Express, the first attempts to improve the game began as a few simple house rules to control the variability of the dice rolls. It soon became apparent, however, that a complete overhaul was needed to improve the player experience.
Steel & Steam is a game of railroad empire building that puts the management of risk into the hands of the players. Instead of relying on dice rolls to drive the heart of the game, player decisions will drive the fortunes of each player.
Instead of rolling dice every turn to generate a random number of movement points, each player’s locomotive, depending on model, will move a set number of spaces. Entry models can move 8, intermediate models can move 10, advanced models can move 13. However, each player can add variability to movement by applying risk. Using a game mechanic called “highballin’“, a player can choose to roll dice to attempt to increase their locomotive’s movement rate for the turn. Depending on the roll, and their locomotive’s maintenance level, their locomotive may move a lot faster, a bit faster, gain no additional benefit, or break down. Their locomotive’s maintenance level may also be adversely affected, which will affect any subsequent highballin’ attempts.
This mechanic give the players more control over the running of their locomotives during the game.
The generation of cities is a fundamental mechanic of the game. Players move their locomotives from city to city to generate income with which to buy properties or upgrade their locomotives.
Instead of simply rolling on a table, city selection is handled by a city deck of 144 cards. On the back of the card is the name of a region served by the card and on the front is a table for generating a city within that region. The regions served consist of either one of the nine specific regions on the Steel & Steam map ( Western Canada, Eastern Canada, Northwest, Plains, North Central, Northeast, Southwest, South Central, Southeast ) or one of seven regional groupings ( Canada, Northern US, Southern US, West, Central, East, Any ). Except for determining the starting city of each player, which uses a different game mechanic, to select a city, three cards will sit face down in a tableau on the map, one of which must be selected by a player when they are departing a city station. Once selected, the player will then roll for their city.
This mechanic gives the players more control over the management of their income stream during the game. Longer runs make more money, but take more time. The selection of specific region cards give some predictability over the distance to travel as compared to the cards which serve regional groupings. However, the regional grouping cards contain cities which have higher “deck probability” and are typically served by more than one rail property. Selecting a specific region card also increases the chance of having to go to a rare city within that region.
Another consideration is that, over time, regions of the map may become “toxic” as properties are purchased by other players. With the fourth “on deck” card showing on the city card deck, players may try to manipulate the tableau via their selections to drive one or more players into toxic areas.
The main point to take away from this mechanic is that player decisions are driving the risk factors inherent in city selection. The game is not forcing random cities onto the players.
At any time in the game, players may freely mortgage one or more of their properties in order to generate income. Most of the time, this is done to pay off outstanding usage fees. However, an enterprising player may mortgage one or more of their properties in order to purchase another property before another player has a chance to do so. When a property is mortgaged, the player will only receive the property’s mortgage value in cash, which is ~40% of the original purchase price of the property. Even so, the generated income may be used for whatever the player wants or needs.
There are risks and effects to doing this, however. The first effect is that usage fees on mortgaged properties are reduced with only $1000 going to the owning player; the bank, as holder of the lien, gets the rest. The second effect is that it costs 200% of the property’s mortgage value to pay off the lien. That means that the player will have paid 140% of the property’s original value for that property.
The risk is that the mortgaged property is also vulnerable to a hostile takeover. Another player, while they are conducting business, may assume ownership of the mortgaged property by paying the bank 100% of the property’s original value and by paying the property owner 100% of the property’s mortgage value. The overall effect of this is that the new owner will have paid 140% of the property’s original value for the property and the ex-owner will have lost 20% of the property’s original value.
At any time, an owner of a mortgaged property may choose to give up controlling interest in the property. When a player does this, they receive a second payment equal to ~30% of the property’s original value. However, the property is then owned solely by the bank and available for sale to anyone at its original price. The overall effect of this is that the player loses 30% of the property’s original value.
This mechanic gives the players more control over how their property is managed. At risk, they can raise money to purchase properties they wouldn’t otherwise be able to purchase. If low on funds, they can also raise up to 70% of a property’s value to stay in the game, albeit while taking a time / opportunity cost hit in the long term.
A major optional, but highly recommended, rule is the Fluctuating Economies rule. When this rule is in play, a random element is added to the game, which is outside of player control, but not completely. Whenever doubles are rolled on the dice, the economy may move to a worse or better state. There are five economic states: ( Bust, Bearish, Normal, Bullish, Boom ). These economic states affect the payoff amounts that each player receives when they complete a journey between cities. Additionally, usage fees may be affected. When this rule is in effect, it can impact quite a few player decisions, such as when to highball’ or how far to travel for their next journey.
Short Game vs. Long Game
Steel & Steam supports two sets of victory conditions, one for the Short Game and one for the Long Game. The Short Game ends when the last property is bought. When this occurs, all players total up their Net Worth, which is the combined sum of cash and unmortgaged property’s values. The winner is the player with the highest Net Worth. Ties are allowed.
The Long Game ends when a player collects $200,000 in cash. The first player to do so wins.
Each style of game supports different player strategies. The Short Game favors asset acquisition and is well suited for tournament and convention play. The Long Game favors network efficiency giving the player with most efficient network the advantage over time.
These are the primary game mechanics of Steel & Steam. Through the use of these systems, players have control over their destinies as they build their railroad empires.
I will discuss other aspects of the game’s design in later installments.