Kings of Air and Steam, new from Tasty Minstrel Games, had two major strikes against it before it landed on my table. One is that it has a Steampunk theme, which I almost categorically despise, and the other is that it is another Kickstarter title which at this point tends in that particular “movement” to mean an underdeveloped product. I’m very particular about what review copies I request from publishers and I won’t request games that I don’t think have a decent shot at earning a favorable notice, but I gave this game a chance because I love simple rail/transportation games and this one had an interesting combination of a traditional trains-and-tracks scheme paired with a programmed movement airship thing. It sounded kind of crazy and pretty unique.
The game is both of those, but there is a pretty nasty thematic disconnect in the fiction that creates an unusual dissonance. The idea is that you’re tasked with transporting goods from production facilities to cities that demand them (a classic train game mechanic), but the catch is that you’ve got to move the goods from these facilities by zeppelin to your rail depots and from there take them into the cities. There’s some nonsense about how the blimps aren’t permitted to land in the cities, but it’s impossible to play this game without asking the five dollar question “why wouldn’t they just skip the trains and deliver the goods themselves?”
If you can get over that- which is oddly difficult because the entire game is predicated on this concept- what you’re putting on the table is a very nicely done simple rail/transportation game just like I like with some novel gameplay elements, a fluctuating economy, upgrade paths, and occasional airship piloting blunders. The goal over the course of the five round game is making money by dropping off these products and earning current market price for them, and the game has some damn fine paper money to track this- something this paper money lover appreciates.
On a turn everybody locks in four cards from their movement deck to determine where their airships are going to move. There is a mobility limitation keyed to upgrades that controls how many cards with a diamond on them that you can play and upgrades also control cargo capacity. You flip your movement card, move your dirigible, and then take an action. Actions let you claim rail routes with train depots, upgrade your airships or trains to increase their ability to travel over more links, or move goods from your depots to cities. Or, if you’re broke, you can solicit the bank for funds. I like the movement card/one action structure because it keeps the game moving- at least once everyone has their airship movement planned. Be warned that players prone to analysis paralysis may labor far, far too long over picking those four movement cards. Put ‘em on a sand timer if you have to.
The game supports two to seven players thanks to a modular board, but the two player game feels thin and the seven player game runs too long. I really like for this game to be a 90 minute, four or five player game because that length fits the depth and development curve just right. With that said, I appreciate the support for more players because it gives groups like mine that often wind up with six or seven people another choice. Competition is meaningful in the game, with players racing to pick up valuable goods before each other and getting them to market before city demand dries up or changes.
With optional (and very recommended) variable player powers and factional differences along with the dual transportation mechanic, there’s a little more going on in Kings of Air and Steam than in something like Railways of the World, although the turnaround is that it is slightly more complicated to explain- and strategies may seem more elusive for the first few games. It’s not quite as straightforward. The more sci-fi oriented theming and artwork might lure those who aren’t very interested in 19th century transportation into playing what is at its core a well-made and easy to play train game that has nothing to do with tickets or riding.
This leads to a question I’m asking more and more of the games that I play- “what is this game’s argument for itself.” I’ve got to put this game on my shelf next to Railways of the World, which is my all-time favorite train game, as well as Merchant of Venus- my all-time favorite pick-up-and-deliver game. I’ve also got to compare this game to outliers with similar arcs or processes like Fire & Axe, and I also need to consider it in regard to games that I don’t currently own like Chicago Express, Age of Steam, and others that are more squarely comparable in terms of gameplay. In sum, why should you play Kings of Age and Steam over those games?
The answer is, I think, is that this design is one of those that comes dangerously close to packing too much into its box. If you took out the airship movement or the train element and left one of them behind, you’d likely still have a pretty solid and more economically designed transportation game. Without the airships, it would feel almost like a very stripped down Martin Wallace title. Without the trains, it would feel almost like Roborally repurposed as a pick-up-and-deliver game. Yet the game needs both of them to tell its wonky, frankly nonsensical story, and I think the differentiator is that the design pulls of a pretty neat stunt by making these incongruous elements work. It’s one of the better, more complete-feeling Kickstarter games I’ve played.
But more significantly, I think, is that disparate elements in the design work well and without bowling players over with tons of process, rules, or subsystems. It’s the kind of “just right” porridge I like the best, editorial in its design sense and cutting it close in the balance between abstraction, narrative, and context. It’s also worth noting that Kings of Air and Steam is a good-looking, inexpensive game (around $40) with decent curb appeal. But I am going to have to ask you to take the brass goggles off if you’re going to be at my table.