If you've ever wondered in the long sleepless hours of insomnia "Who would build the best racing car: Nicola Tesla or Albert Einstein?" then Steampunk Rally may well be the game for you, because far from the ingenious imaginations of just these two intellectual titans, you actually get to choose from 16 great inventors of the industrial revolution (some of whom will have you leaping to Wikipedia for more info).
I always like to start a game's description with an idea of what you'll be doing in a game as I think it's often handy and gives players a sense of mechanisms they may or may not enjoy. Don't panic however, in Steampunk Rally, if there's a mechanism you're not keen on, just wait till the next phase, another one will be along very soon.
At its heart, Steampunk Rally is a racing game. Players will portray the aforementioned inventors who will build ever more elaborate contraptions, gather upgrades, weapons and generally ludicrous devices that will either help you, or hinder your opponents.
However, as well as being a racing game, it is also an engine builder (literally), card drafting, deck building, dice chucking, worker placement game. In fact, the only major mechanism it misses is probably area control, but I'm sure I've just missed how it does that too.
Now, that may paint a picture of the game as being cumbersome and over-complicated, however, far from it. Steampunk Rally actually makes perfect sense and plays very smoothly and quickly. Let's have a closer look at how.
Playing Steampunk Rally
Once players have selected their inventor, they will then take the cockpit and machine part cards for their racing machine and the pawn which will represent them on the track.
The track tiles are satisfyingly chunky and three of the available five are selected, choosing between the Alps or Hoverdrome side, and then the start and finish tiles are added forming a five-tile track. The aim of the game is to be the first inventor to clank across the finish line (at which point a final round takes place).
The track itself features squares of hazardous terrain that will damage your vehicle, bonus spaces that allow you to swap 'cogs' for dice (more later), and can be further modified by other players during the game.
The game is played across four phases: Drafting, Venting, Racing and Damage. There are no individual player 'turns' as such as all players do each phase together. This means very little downtime in the game, however (and the rule book warns of this) this can also mean that unless players clearly communicate which phase they are in, things can get missed, cards not played or effects overlooked. An additional card with a marker might help, but my advice would be that the most experienced player acts as 'umpire' and ensures each phase is completed before moving on.
In the Drafting phase, players will take a card from each of the four draw piles - three machine parts (movement, dice creation, & expansion) and one bonus card. They will then select one card to either add to their machine, squirrel away for use later, or discard for the dice or cogs highlighted in the top right corner. The remaining cards are then drafted to the next player in the direction decided by a flip of the direction token.
The two main currencies in the game are the power dice (blue for steam, red for heat and yellow for electricity) and cogs which help restore damaged parts, re-roll dice or change the value of dice in your machine.
Once everyone is happy, they will reveal any machine parts they have taken and add them to their contraption. The parts cards have an ingenious matching system of half cogs on the edges which must be matched to allow placement. This means players may well be reorganising their machines several times in the game to allow more parts to be fitted.
Next up is the Vent phase. Cogs can be spent here to reduce the pip number on a die in your machine. The reason this is important is that you might have initially only rolled a three on a power dice and placed it on your machine part.
Unfortunately, that under performing dice is clogging up that dice space until you can get rid of it. Once a dice reaches a value of one, it can be removed from the part, making way for a better die. This is a clever little mechanism as it is the lower value dice that you are likely to want to get rid of and therefore won't cost you too many Cogs, meaning it's a tough choice between using Cogs for damage limitation and dice reduction. Each Cog reduces two pips (one on two dice or two on a single die).
Certain Bonus Cards are phase dependent and it is important that whoever is monitoring the phases allows players time in this phase to play any relevant cards. Once everyone has stuffed up each others' plans with bonus cards (this happens a lot), players move onto the Race phase.
Players will roll all the dice in their pool (formed during the Draft Phase) and choose which machine parts in their vehicle to activate. This can be as simple as mechanisms like "three steam dice = one movement," but many parts will work in multiples (making pip reduction often quite important to get rid of lower value dice) e.g. "three steam dice = (3) movement" i.e. if your three dice total 12, you would gain 12/3 movement = four.
Cogs can be used here as well: discard one cog to re-roll a die; or discard one cog to increase a die value by one.
Dice only count for that round - so for instance if you have three dice slots and one is filled, you only get two slots available this round. This gets complicated to track to be honest, and the game offers no easy way of differentiating. We have taken to skewing the dice by 45deg to show it is from a previous round. It's not perfect but it works.
Some inventor specific machine parts are not activated by dice, meaning you can always do something in a phase. These are marked by a light bulb icon, and if used, the player flips their light bulb token its used side.
Players then move their pawns on the racetrack dependent on the effects they have generated.
Finally, we reach the Damage phase. The game has a very nice rotating damage marker for each player which allows easy damage tracking. Damage may be taken from effects on the track, or bonus cards played by other players. For every one damage taken, players must lose one machine part. The dial is then reset to 0.
If you reach the dubious honour of having no machine parts left - you explode (no sense in sugar-coating it) and move your pawn to the space directly behind the current last place player, leaving you just your original cockpit.
At the end of the round, players reset light bulb tokens, return dice from any storage cards to their pool, return unused dice to the supply and flip the direction marker.
Just because a player crosses the finish line first, various effects in the race phase may well mean that this player does not, in fact, win. Once a player crosses the line, it merely signifies that the next round will be the last.
Thoughts on Steampunk Rally
Steampunk Rally can seem complicated at first, and if it suffers from any faults it is that sometimes important rules can be a little hidden in the slightly muddled rule book. At times it can read a little like a stream of consciousness. However, we found the best way to learn the game was to try what we call an 'open play' - i.e. we have open card hands and explain to each other what we are doing so we can check we've got the rules sorted. The game does also have a few handy summary cards.
In actual fact, apart from a few subtle and easy to miss rules, it plays a lot quicker and simpler than trying to explain it! I really like games where a random element leaves you with choices to make. There is always something you can do in Steampunk Rally, the trick is in working out the best solution based on what's happening on the track, what's likely to happen on the track, and how much damage you are likely to take versus the progress you will make.
Steampunk Rally delivers this in spades. The balance between progress and over stretching has been very cleverly calculated by Orin Bishop, resulting in a game where there is seldom a runaway winner and even when it seems like there is, something will likely happen to topple that lead.
It can be cruel at times, but frankly, it's probably your own fault if it is. Runaway leaders can find themselves taking a lot of damage and end up at the back of the pack thanks to evil bonus cards played by those behind. But the game is not all about making life difficult for opponents, it's as much about keeping your own house in order whilst keeping tabs on everything else going on around you.
The simultaneous play can be a little pressuring at times for newer players and that might be something to bear in mind. Just be nice and don't hurry folk. The game supports up to eight players and I promise you, you will still be sat at the table for far less time than if the game were strictly turn-based so just be patient Mr 'Impatienty McImpatient Face'.
It is one of those games that if you haven't played it in a while or infrequently, you WILL need to refresh yourselves on the rules for. We made the mistake the other day of thinking "Yeah, we've got this" at a games day and forgot a stack of little rules that probably made quite a difference. And the pawns are a little tricky to identify from the side or in low light.
All that said, with the right group, Steampunk Rally can be a hilarious, madcap romp of a race game. There are few non-casual games that support up to eight but still play in a reasonable time and Bishop is to be applauded for that. It's great for bigger groups (though my partner did just say that she'd like the board to be a bit bigger for that reason) but plays just as well with two.
We really like this game in our house. The artwork is lovely and though we are big fans of the steampunk aesthetic, it doesn't feel wiped over with a brush suitable for painting bandwagons. The theme works properly with the game. It is my great hope that someday, papers will be found in a dusty box that talk of the time Edison and Tesla actually settled their greatest arguments in the foothills of the Alps in the craziest of steam-powered tin-bath based creations.