One of the pieces of swag brought back from the gathering by local gamers was a copy of Planet Steam. The hype engine has been strong for this one. It currently goes for around $130, and sells out in the USA wherever it appears. My friend was able to get a ding and dent copy for $45, and we played it at game night shortly after the gathering. I have only played it once, so this game is going to be one part review, one part session report, and 2 parts baseless speculation.
There are two kinds of confusion about a game. First, sometimes the rules are explained poorly, you do a shitty job of listening, whatever, but you don't understand the rules and how they work together. Second, you have confusion where you understand the rules completely but you still have no clue what you are supposed to be doing or how to go about playing the game.
Planet Steam confused me through method number 2. The rules aren't bad at all, especially considering it is a translation. I understood all of the rules and how to play before we began. Unfortunately although I understood the process the substance was basically beyond me for the first two turns or so..... in a five turn game. Thinking about it, my brain still hurts a little.
Planet Steam owes a lot of its mechanics to an old computer game which has inspired a lot of subsequent video games and board games: M.U.L.E. Basically, you are a miner on a space colony who is mining resources, using those resources to upgrade your mining operation, and selling the resources to get money (which serves as victory points). It is clearly a very complex eurogame, but one that does capture the feel of a number of old computer games from the 80s. M.U.L.E. was a little before my time, but I remember being thoroughly addicted to at least one of it's offspring, a multiplayer drug dealing game that came out in the late eighties/early nineties sometime. I also played Outpost a couple of times several years ago, and enjoyed it, and google tells me it was also based on M.U.L.E.
If you are going to pay $130, and expect $130 worth of components, think again. Much like Through the Ages, you are paying for game design, not quality components. The fact that this game's bits have received rave reviews shows you just how low the standards for good game bits are these days. Of course, if you paid $130 for a game, you aren't going to go telling your friends the components suck. These people are in denial. Anyone who thinks this game has nice bits is in very deep cube confusion.
The tiles are your basic not very thick, not nicely finished tiles. Very few of the wooden pieces were cut correctly. You will find yourself swapping out tanks because the upgrades don't fit into the slots correctly. The wood looks like it was spraypainted, especially the tanks. The rubium-like plastic crystals are of average quality, but I don't like the choice of the color black, as they are difficult to count and see on all the dark surfaces of the game. A bunch of the pieces were stuck together with paint, which tells me they weren't dried properly. A number of them were also defective or malformed, which isn't a big deal to gameplay but not what you would expect.
The board is not very attractive, with an odd contrast of dark and drab colors and brightly colored player tiles. My single biggest complaint with the board is that the numbers on the markets for the different items are small, dark, and impossible to read from the other side of the table. This is not just a component preference bitch but an actual physical design flaw. I sat on the other side of the board from the markets and spent the whole game asking people what things cost and how many there were because I simply could not see the numbers. I am not a fine print whiner or someone who typically complains about being able to see components, and I had trouble, so I suspect that when this game hits the mainstream, you will see a massive bitchfest about this from the various almost-blind geeks out there.
Ostensibly, you are futuristic miners on a planet, placing your purchased and upgraded tanks over mineshafts to collect resources, which are bought and sold on the market. Also, Chess is a game about small scale skirmishes, Hive is a game about bugs battling each other, and Tetris is about building the walls of a russian palace. Not buying it? You won't buy the theme on this one either. Planet Steam is an abstract resource management game. The designer didn't even use strong tacks to tack on the theme here.
I've only played once and not read the rulebook, but here is a quick and dirty rundown of how it plays.
Step 1: You bid for characters. Each one of the characters has a special power and they also determine turn order. One lets you move a piece that boosts the production of mines, another gets you a free building license (which lets you ignore a random die roll when placing your new shaft cover), another lets you place an extra shaft tile and gives you half price when it is auctioned off, and lady steam goes first. There was another character who you don't use in four player games.
Step 2: You place a new shaft cover. This is the colored tile that marks a space is yours. You buy the tank to make it produce later. A random die roll determines if you get the space you wanted or if you "miss." This doesn't make any sense thematically.
Step 3: Buy stuff! You spend the resources you have collected to improve your mines. You purchase tanks to place on your shaft cover so your mines will produce, upgrades to those tanks (making them produce more or different goods) and upgrades to your storage facilities.
There are four different resources in the game. Energy, which is used to power tanks, water, which is spent to activate your purchasing phase, ore, and crystal. All four resources are used for different things you can buy, but are also used to manipulate and profit from swings in the market.
Step 4: Your mines produce their resources according to how you have upgraded them and then you buy and sell resources on the market. The market is the driving force of the game. It has two tracks for each resource. First is a track which keeps track of the current price of each resource. This price is used for both buying and selling. Second is a supply track which keeps track of how many units of each item is in the market. When you sell, supply goes down and when you buy, supply goes up. As the supply goes down, the price goes up and as the supply goes up, the price goes down. The market changes after each player's buy/sell phase, so price can changed drastically during each turn. This leads to runs on cheap resources, occasional hoarding to increase price, and similar behavior. This is the meat and potatoes of this game, easily the most interesting mechanism.
Step 5: Upkeep. You replenish the new tanks and do a couple of other things.
That is the game, most money at the end wins. You also get VPs for a number of other things, like shafts covered, tanks, etc. It lasts a variable number of turns based on how many are playing. Our game was 4 players and lasted five turns. That felt a little short and I think the game would play better with 3 and worse with 5.
1. The market mechanic is absolutely fascinating and very deep. Although there is little direct interaction, the indirect interaction through the market is the principal force in deciding who wins and loses the game. If you are savvy enough to realize that Energy will be cheap next turn by looking over everyone else's mines, you can take advantage. Ditto for anticipating a run on crystal, or whatever. Hoarding things to fuck with the market is a blast. Watching the havoc caused by everyone buying a bunch of the same thing on one turn is also great, as a market crash totally changes the dynamics of the game. This may sound boring and spreadsheety, but it is actually a lot of fun and is by far the coolest thing Planet Steam has to offer. The market mechanism and how the different resources interact definitely has a learning curve. I felt a little bit like I was drinking from a firehose on the first turn as I watched the markets move up and down but by the end of the game, I started to get it.
2. Screw you factor is in full effect. This game has one of the best uses of indirect interaction I have seen in a game. Although the interaction is indirect, you can really hose people via the market. Say you are going first, and you notice the person going fourth is short on energy. If you have extra room, you buy up a bunch of energy. Players two and three see what you are doing, notice the rising cost of energy and realize they can make a few bucks back if they follow your lead and buy some too. By the time player four goes to purchase energy, it costs double what it did when your turn began. Of course, he needs it to power his tanks, so he has to buy it anyway, driving the price up even further and setting whoever goes first next turn up to unload a bunch of energy at a very high price! Once you realize what you are doing, manipulating the market can be a lot of fun and if you get a few players colluding a little bit you can see some really whacky swings.
3. Juvenile dirty joke central. The translation of the rule book reads like the instructions to a condom wrapper. If you take a shot every time the rules explainer says the word "shaft" you will be passed out before the game starts. "If you win the auction, place your tile over the head of the shaft." Jesus, who translated this thing, Ron Jeremy? Paying credits to auction the services of Lady Steam feels a bit like prostitution, too.
1. Costs $130 - over triple what it should in my opinion. My friend who bought the game got a ding and dent one for $45, and I think that is a fair price. This is not a $60-$70 dollar game and it is definitely not a $130 dollar game.
2. Bits are overrated crap - can't believe people are going bonkers over these. You can order the same off brand rubium crystals online and the wooden and plastic sticks, cubes, and upgrades don't even make sense when you consider what they are supposed to be representing in the game. The fact that this stuff is getting rave reviews elsewhere shows you how low standards for game components have gotten in the age of the wooden cube.
3. Totally abstract, but at least they pasted on a new theme with the space mining thing. Honestly, it could be themed any number of other resource related things, such as plowing fields or whatever.
4. Spreadsheet / Analysis paralysis city. The whole thing is fairly calculatable, and the longer you spend doing that on your turn the better off you will be. This can lead to a boring game if played with the wrong group. I am the king of the knee jerk decision, but even I had to stop and think a few times in this one. For some people, this brain burning aspect of the game is a big bonus, for others it will be a negative.
5. Implements several overused crappy mechanics - tile placement for the shafts, worker placement for the tanks and upgrades, role selection, combined with the classic euro-design crutch of auctions! Nothing like adding twenty minutes to the length of a game just to have people say 1 - 2 - I go 3 - 4 and so on until someone gives in.
I'm not sure what I think about this one after only one play. The market fascinates the shit out of me, and the indirect interaction is very rich with a lot of potential to mess with the other players and set yourself up for big payoffs, both in terms of resources and cash. On the other hand, repeated plays might take the shine off those mechanics and the game is very dry and abstract. The tile placement, role selection, and crutch-like use of auctions are typical disapponting eurogame cliches. Right now, I am anxious to play again because the market fascinates me and I think there is definitely a good game here. On the other hand, I am not sure that that one great mechanic can continue to carry the load here - there is a lot of junk weighing it down. Maybe someone who has played it a few times can answer that one for us.