Year Published: 2015
Designer: Orin Bishop
Publisher: Roxley Games
Playtime: 45-90 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: Conceive. Invent. Build. Race. Explode!
“I’m givin ‘er erything sheh’s got, cap’n!” my imaginary assistant Scotty yelled down from the top of my towering contraption. Three stories high with two locomotive front ends, four boilers, a steam hatch, and all sorts of connecting sections all balanced precariously on top of a humongous unicycle wheel: yes, this was the invention that would propel me to victory. I was sure of it. I JUST NEEDED MORE POWER! The spokes on the main wheel became a blur as Scotty stoked the furnaces and my machine surged forward towards the finish line. The whistle of the steam valves screaming filled my ears as we picked up more speed, accompanied by the metallic popping of bolts starting to give way to the pressure buildup throughout the system. We were ahead, but it didn’t matter who crossed first. It mattered who ended up the farthest past. I needed more speed. We blew past the checkered line at full steam and I hit the rocket boosters for an added burst of acceleration, cackling maniacally as the afterburners pressed me back against my captain’s seat. The machine jolted forward, lifting the unicycle off the ground before crashing back to the earth a few hundred meters from where it took off, shattering the wheel’s frame and sheering off part of the bottom-front locomotive. Furnaces buckled and joints tore open as the entire contraption bore itself into the ground, throwing up a huge dust cloud as it came to a shattering halt.
I emerged from the cockpit and stood on what was left of my machine to survey the wreckage. Off in the distance, just a spec on the horizon, I could see our competitors creeping across the finish line. “YIIPEEEE! We’ve won!”
Steampunk Rally from Roxley Games released towards the end of last year after a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and has since become one of my favorite racing board games. Donning the conductor’s hat of a famous inventor, players draft new parts for their steampunk inventions and dice to fuel them, and attempt to build the most effective “engine” (both in the literal and mechanical sense) that will shoot them the furthest past the finish line. Once a part’s ability is used, however, players have to work on venting the dice to reuse that section’s ability, and higher dice values are pricier to remove. Its light/medium-weight mechanics and relatively easy rules help Steampunk Rally fit a great niche spot for me in the genre in-between Formula D, which plays fairly light even with the advanced rules and takes about an hour, and Lewis & Clark which is heavier and can be a little tedious to teach new people, and takes 2-3 hours to play. Games of Steampunk Rally will generally take a little over an hour, and since the most involved phases of the game are taken simultaneously it scales extraordinarily well up to its full player count of eight without adding much additional playtime or boring down time (though be ready to bring an extra table or two).
Players start the game by determining which race map to use on the double-sided map tiles, and then arranging a total of three randomized tiles, plus the start, finish, and end track tiles to create the racetrack. You can adjust the number of tiles to affect the length of the game, but I’ve never really felt the need to lengthen or shorten my sessions. The three decks of machine parts and one deck of boost cards are also shuffled and placed near the board, along with all the money(cogs) and the pool of 100+ dice that come with the game. Overkill? Nope! Dice are king, and you may need them all.
Each player then chooses their famous inventor from the plethora available, taking the appropriate inventor and invention cards along with the accompanying standee. The standee goes on the starting line, and the player gets to decide the starting configuration of their cards by lining up their attachment points.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say characters in Steampunk Rally have varying abilities that heavily differentiate each one throughout the match, but they do have unique starting points which may affect how you start to think about building your engine. Marie Curie, for example, is dependent on red dice at the beginning of the game to generate either a movement or a defense, but she can only do so once per activation regardless of the pips displayed on the dice being used. Her inventor ability lets her generate a red dice and store a dice for the following round, however, so it’s possible to save some higher value dice for use on other cards as the invention expands. Nikola Tesla, on the other hand, can either generate a yellow energy dice or remove a previously spent yellow dice from his invention, thereby freeing up the slot for use again. His induction motor starting card also allows for very rapid movement forward, but with little protection from the terrain. Each character thus has different starting points, but they don’t necessarily dictate your strategy as things progress.
Setup is completed by each player receiving a light bulb token which is used to activate any invention parts displaying the icon in their upper right corner once per round, as well as a rotating counter to track any incoming damage or defense.
Steampunk Rally is played over a series of rounds, each consisting of four phases: Draft, Vent, Race, and Damage. The initial phase, Drafting, is when players acquire new parts for their inventions, get boost(action) cards for use at a later time, and/or stockpile dice which will be used during that round’s Race phase. Players draw one card each from each of the four stacks, giving every person a hand of three parts cards and one boost card. Cards are passed in whichever direction the Play Direction token indicates after each person has determined which of the cards they’re going to keep, and drafting continues in this manner until each person has chosen a total of four cards and there are no more left to pass.
Since the cards you take will generally dictate how much you’re going to be able to do in subsequent phases, your strategy for the round starts during this phase. Boost cards, which function like actions and can be used at the time specified on the card, are saved for future rounds/phases and either help the player, or hinder others. Helpful actions include instantaneously generating additional dice, allowing the player to remove dice, or possibly allowing the player to move a certain number of spaces depending on the conditions met, so these cards become hugely important when combined with normal actions in later rounds when everyone is trying desperately to optimize their final couple of turns. The cards that really negatively impact other players are pretty few, but the ones included do have the potential for some rather nasty results. In my last game I used the Disintegrator Ray pictured to more than halve the size of another player’s invention, which basically meant they had wasted multiple turns worth of drafting. If you don’t like take-that elements in games just be aware these cards exist, and consider taking them out of the boost deck if you think the game sounds enjoyable otherwise.
Invention cards, on the other hand, are used to expand your engine and open up new abilities for use during the Race phase. Each of the three parts decks have different borders indicating different specialties for those cards: gold border cards generate motion, silver generate more dice, and copper have lots of connecting points to ensure you have enough available spaces to actually expand your contraption.
There’s no cost associated with constructing new parts on your machine, but each card (including boosts) can also be discarded at this point instead of played in order to generate either the dice value or the cog value in their upper-right corner. Dice are used to actually take actions, and cogs are used to clear spaces on previously used actions or to increase dice values, so you’ll have to carefully balance expanding your machine with generating resources which will let you use what you already have.
The amount of customization the different invention cards give is pretty astounding, and it’s rare you’ll end up with machines that look or function anything like what’s sitting in front of other players. Some players may build a huge machine that’s focused on generating and using lots of dice of just one color, or one that relies on multiple dice colors to fuel one main color that generates all their movement, whereas others may opt for more streamlined machines that really focus on maximizing the efficiency of one energy type and being able to constantly remove dice for more consistent movement.
The second phase, Vent, is taken simultaneously by all players allowing them to spend any cogs they have to reduce dice pips showing on dice already on their invention, with the goal of reducing their values to zero so they can remove those dice from play and gain access to the card’s ability again. Some cards have multiple dice slots meaning a player may be able to take the action multiple times before needing to vent, but once the slots are all used the only way to regain use is to get rid of the die. Players can reduce two pips per cog spent, and can do this as many times as they choose as long as they have enough cogs.
Racing is the third phase and is also done simultaneously, with players rolling any dice generated during the Draft phase and then using abilities on their cards to generate more dice, remove dice, move forward, etc. Each machine part with a dice indicator between the dice slots and the race effect indicates what dice value is necessary to activate the card’s ability one time. For example, the induction motor will activate its ability once for every three dice pips on it. So, if I placed a four and a five (nine total), I’d get to generate three movement.
Cards can be activated this way as many times as a player likes as long as dice slots remain, which is important for any cards with a star in the activation cost instead of dice pips. Those cards can only be used once per activation regardless of the dice value placed on them, so it’s generally good to activate them more than once with very low value dice to make venting them in future rounds much easier.
Different abilities and activation powers mean sequencing becomes hugely important to maximizing the potential of your machine. This is especially true with larger machines, which may find the player adding and removing dice on the same card due to effects on different cards multiple times during the same race phase. For example, the Wright Brothers player below has expanded on their initial starting abilities of being able to generate two red dice or one normal forward movement, and their Flyer IV’s ability to use one red dice of any value to move forward once space and ignore terrain damage(the golden wheel), and created an invention that’s really focused on creating and using red dice. Starting the Race phase with just a couple of red dice will enable them to use the rear firebox to possibly generate many more red dice, and as long as they generated some blue dice during the Draft phase the player can use those dice to then remove a couple of the red dice already used for forward movement and utilize those parts again for even more movement.
Well optimized machines like the one pictured/described above can make for some hugely successful turns movement-wise, potentially allowing the player to move across entire tiles in one go. The normal end result of those turns, however, is a massive amount of dice the player will need to vent before being able to really do much again during future Race phases. This can make for some odd game pacing as it will seem like nothing is really happening for multiple rounds and then all of a sudden people will blast forward 6+ spaces followed by needing to take some turns to recoup again. The game is always moving along, it just doesn’t necessarily always feel like it is, and some players may be put off by that surge-like aspect of Steampunk Rally’s pace.
Shortcuts throughout the track can really help players make up for lost time, but almost all of them include higher value mountain icons. Players take damage in the Damage phase for traversing over any terrain with a mountain icon and number, so generating defense is also important for maintaining forward movement without your machine falling apart too quickly. Some spaces also have icons which let players spend cogs to generate extra dice, which may be important to consider taking advantage of while making forward progress.
The final phase, Damage, makes player discard one part of their invention for every unblocked damage accrued during the Race phase. If an inventor completely blows themselves up they go to last place (or back one space if they were already last), and start the next round with a new inventor and invention.
The first player to cross the finish line initiates the final round, but the player who ends the game the furthest past the line is the winner. This for me is actually one of the most enjoyable aspects of the entire game because it generates situations like the one I described in the review’s introduction. Other than tiebreakers there’s literally no reason to finish the game with a larger invention than anyone else, so everyone’s final turn almost always consists of pushing your machines to the absolute limit and watching them fly to pieces as you throw caution to the wind to eek out a few more spaces without regard for terrain damage. Games that looked like they had a runaway leader can often end with everyone within a space or two of each other. While that’s exciting, I’ll admit it does have the potential to create some frustration; the essentiallness of being able to really go all-in for the final turn combined with the uncertainty of where people actually stand due to the uneven pacing certain engines may develop, means it’s actually hard to plan ahead in some instances and the final round of the game may sneak up on you. Someone who looked like they were out of contention could blow past you and one space over the finish line, and if you were in the middle of venting dice it may mean your final round is basically a non-turn. You could, of course, approach actions in a more leveled or cautious manner, but if you don’t like surprises (e.g. if you don’t enjoy people receiving a windfall of points at the end of the game for hidden objectives), you probably won’t be too fond of this aspect of the game. However, I for one really enjoy watching someone completely destroy their machine in a valiant effort to close the gap right at the end.
As far as learning the game Steampunk Rally’s rules are actually pretty light. The complexity comes from the invention synergies players develop as each game goes on, but its reliance on iconography and players’ unfamiliarity with the push/pull mechanic of needing to use high value dice while balancing that need with having to take them back off may make it seem more difficult at first than it really is. Player reference cards are of huge help towards this end, and once players have the icons down and understand how the machine optimizations work the game flows very smoothly from phase to phase regardless of player count, with only small hangups during the drafting phase which may find newer players taking more decision time. The rulebook itself is laid out very well with lots of the game’s excellent artwork and very helpful gameplay illustrations interspersed throughout, and the bottom of each page includes small excerpts regarding each of the famous inventors as a great finishing touch.
The production quality itself is also outstanding. Thick tiles/chits, good quality cards that so far seem to hold up to shuffling, and TONS of very pretty translucent dice. Everything also fits very neatly into the box if you store the dice under the insert’s flaps, so no destroying your box trying to squeeze 108 dice into the slot.
As for cogs, the normal game comes with cardboard cogs which have good color and size differentiation, and have artwork that matches the style of the rest of the components. The deluxe edition comes with metal cogs which I really like, but it only has two sizes rather than three which I found kind of odd (the texture on each side is different, but that really doesn’t help). If you’re looking to upgrade your base game there are metal cogs available online or at your local hobby store for a reasonable price, so don’t feel like you’re missing out on something extraordinary if you don’t pick up the deluxe version.
COG Takeaway: Steampunk Rally’s 2-8 player count, reasonable 1-1 1/2 hour playtime, and light/medium weight make it an extremely versatile title for anyone looking to add a strategic racing game to their collection. The mechanics are integrated flawlessly with the Steampunk racing theme, and the huge number of options for invention customization throughout each playthrough gives the game a huge level of replayability. There are some potential pacing issues and take-that cards which may preclude certain player segments from really enjoying it to its fullest, but for me Steampunk Rally is a good-natured family game that has enough depth to still satisfy gamers looking for something with a reasonable amount of thoughtful strategy involved.