Steampunk Rally Review

What is it? Who needs stock cars or F1 when you can race these fire-belching beasts of steel and steam? Loads 'o dice, loads 'o drafting - can a game that looks this fun actually be well, fun?

Players: 2-8
Time: 45 Min
Complexity: Medium
Genre: Draft, dice allocation
Designer: Orin Bishop
Year Published: 2015

I have a tendency to make comparisons when it comes to reviews. I admit, this isn’t always the most advisable route because it risks both diverting focus and meandering into strictly subjective territory, and because like children boardgames are each special in their own way. But sometimes it simply can’t be helped and in this case it means talking about Galaxy Trucker before I talk about Steampunk Rally.

For most Galaxy Trucker fans, it’s the chaos that elevates the game to greatness. Watching the best laid plans of both you and your opponents laid to waste by the unflinching meanness of space is not unlike Nietzche staring into the abyss – terrifying and rather oddly thrilling. But for me it was all about constructing my ship, building this chimeric monstrosity of lasers and boosters and shields, making sure everything’s in its right place (yes, expect a ton of Radiohead references in the coming weeks). I enjoyed it so much, that the rest of the game always felt like a let down. Fun, but just not nearly as interesting.

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Marie Curie’s cockpit and starting engine part, damage dial, dice and cogs

I had no idea what Steampunk Rally was when I first saw the box, other than that I’d heard a vaguely complimentary comment in passing. But the box art instantly caught my eye (see Concordia? Box art is important) and the synopsis ticked a number of boxes. Drafting? Check. Dice? Check. And even better, not only was this a racing game which might fill a rather shameful gap in my collection, but I could build my own contraption? This might be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Imagine if you will, a world in which champions of cognition are treated as rockstars, where Marie Curie wields a bionic arm and Nikola Tesla wears a portable backpack coil, his angular features lit by crackling electrical arcs. Tesla has designed a devious rally track, winding its way through the alps and alongside 15 of his fellow inventors, will construct arcane machines of steam and steel in the hopes of winning bragging rights. Papers cry out ‘Race of the Century!’, and thousands flock to witness the world’s greatest minds push each other to the limit. And if the Swiss course is not enough to separate these titans of talent, the foreboding Hoverdome awaits…

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The nighttime Hoverdome. Yes, that is a fire jump in the bottom right corner…

Those who backed Steampunk Rally’s Kickstarter campaign were the recipients of some fantastic components, but fret not for the rest of us still get a box filled to the brim with stuff – 108 dice, modular and double-sided racetrack tiles, 16 Inventor Pawns each with two unique Cockpit cards, damage gauges, Cog tokens and the imposing deck of 160 drafting cards. May I take a moment just to praise the plastic standees for the Pawns? All too often, and in fact as recently as Star Wars Rebellion, plastic standees are a blight upon the gaming world, threatening ruination of all they touch. Not so in this case, the Pawns slip in and out with nary a scuff mark. The racetrack tiles are of sturdy card, the Hoverdome side in particular pleasing to the eye with its night rally aesthetic.

And the artwork of the various inventors and the machine cards themselves is fantastic. I can imagine there are some who might frown upon the depictions, but for me David Forest and Lina Cossette have done a sterling job, and what a pleasure to see such a diverse roster of both gender and race. The rulebook itself includes short but informative blurb on each inventor/scientist – as gimmicky as the concept might be it’s clear that designer Orin Bishop has a great appreciation for the source material. Background histories aside, it also does an excellent job of teaching the game with clear, detailed examples and a thorough step-by-step breakdown of the turn elements.

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Ada Lovelace just one space behind Marconi as they race across the Swiss Alps

How do our intrepid inventors propel themselves over mountain and through valley? There is a lot going on in Steampunk Rally and your first turn will be somewhat bewildering. But once you understand how the four phases work it’s full steam ahead. First off, it’s the Draft stage where players will each draw a hand of 4 cards from 4 different decks. Yes, I did say 4 different decks and we’ll pause here to admire Steampunk’s first example of smart design. Each deck offers a specific type of card, from gaining extra movement to special Boost cards. Coupled with the fact that all draft cards can be discarded for dice or cogs, players are never in that too often frustrating moment where a hand of drafted cards offers little strategic value.

If you choose to add a drafted card to your fantastical contraption, the only important rules are that it must be upright and it must share at least one valve connection with an existing machine part which in turn is connected to your cockpit. Can you rearrange parts to fit a newly drafted one? Yes. Can you discard a part in favour of a better one? Yip. The various parts of your machine utilise three different dice (red, blue and yellow) to initiate various effects. Certain machine parts will use dice to generate motion, others will generate additional dice or enhance your armour and still others will gain Cogs.

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Marie Curie’s contraption begins to take fire-spewing shape…

As the various aspects of your creation clank and grind in unison, the dice clog them up in the same way old oil may clog an engine or dirt may clog a filter. The Vent phase is your opportunity to purge your machine of useless dice (used dice from previous Race phases), which is affected by spending Cogs to discard dice. One Cog reduces a die’s value by two, and a die that is reduced to zero or below in this way is expended. Black bordered Boost cards can also be played during the Vent phase, most of which are once off abilities which do anything from giving you a heap of extra dice to pulling the player in front a number of spaces back. The third phase is the Race phase, which is where as mentioned above you will activate your mechanised vehicle. All dice accumulated during the Draft phase are rolled, and the various machine parts can be activated in any order. There are times where you may even be able to activate the same part twice in a phase. For example, the Thermocouple requires one red die to produce one yellow die and one Cog. The Blast Pipe requires one blue die to vent one die of each colour. When activated in that order, you’d be able to produce yellow die and Cogs multiple times provided you had enough in your dice pool.

Gold bordered machine cards provide motion, from the sedate Penny Farthing to the slightly more impatient Ion Thrusters. As movement is generated, players will move their Pawns along the track, sometimes encountering troublesome terrain. If you haven’t installed enough armour, spots marked with the Pyramid icon will cause damage, which is metered out in the Damage phase. Once you’ve activated as many parts as possible and completed all your movement, taking damage if necessary, should your damage gauge be in the negative, you’ll need to discard machine parts in equal measure. As damage gauges can click as low as -7, well you can imagine what discarding 7 parts of your machine might mean. At the end of the round, all unused dice are returned to the dice pool and the next round begins.

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The Ion Thruster can take two yellow dice. Divide the total by the indicated number, five, and the Thrusters will activate twice providing four spaces of movement and venting a two red dice

Once a player crosses the finish line, the end game initiates. One last round, and the player who is furthest past the finish line at the end of that round is declared the winner. There are additional intricacies to the Boost cards which I haven’t mentioned, as well as the differences between Motion and Smooth Motion, activating machine parts with the Lightbulb icon and Challenge tokens for a more advanced game. These are all aspects which add depth but don’t require detailed explanation for purposes of this review.

I think the biggest reason Steampunk Rally clicked so strongly with me, is that its design conveys such a spirit of generosity. It’s generous with its components, it’s generous with its limitations and its rulings. Constraints are often a good thing, when utilised well they add a sense of tension and provide a solid framework to operate within. But I’ve certainly encountered more than my fair share of games, which when asked ‘Can I do this?’ scream NO! before I’ve even fully formed the question. With its emphasis on the card draft, it’s genuinely pleasing to have so many options – it’s rare that you’ll ever experience that all too familiar frustration at being stymied by the draw.

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This Boost card provides a massive movement boost, though the discarded machine parts leave behind Cogs for those chasing

Whilst it’s true that Steampunk will require a full game or two before one starts to figure out just how to win the damn thing, getting there is half the fun. Machine parts can combine in many interesting configurations, and even the contraptions themselves evolve not just in their complexity but in their function. You may gear your machine toward leaping out to a significant early lead, paying no heed to the damaging sections of the track because your intent is to jettison the Ion Thrusters in any event. Once ahead, you draft parts with the aim of repairing damage and building up sufficient armour until the rest of the field catches up, and then morph back into a speed demon once again. Or you might play the long game, your movement initially slow but steady, your doohickey taking the Jack of all Trades approach. Either way, burning up dice, planning the activation of each part and reserving your Boost cards for just the right moment; these are all highly enjoyable aspects even when you’re not quite sure exactly what you’re doing.

¬†With a player count of 2-8, you’ve probably assumed that at more than 5 the game will overstay its welcome. But nope, Mr Bishop has made all the phases simultaneous. It may seems as if this courts chaos a little too closely, but it results especially in the Race phase in a game that feels like a rally. You can’t wait for your opponent to make a move and then react, you can only throw the dice into your Rube Goldberg with wheels and hold on for the ride. If your design is clever enough, you’ll be blasting past opponents in a cloud of heat and smoke.

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Margaret Knight, holder of 87 U.S. patents and member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Even the most intricately built machine will leak oil at some stage, and Steampunk Rally is not without a few small glitches. The Pawns can be a little difficult to differentiate on the racetrack. Although the Boost cards do have some take-that effects, racing is largely without interaction. In fact, the racing part itself holds little strategy beyond looking out for damaging terrain. So for those who were hoping for something akin to Thunder Alley where positioning and slipstreaming are key, you’ll need to look elsewhere. And whilst placing a heavy reliance on the participants ability to follow the rules is nothing new, this is a game where small errors intentional or not are almost impossible to pick up. Lastly, even with the simultaneous play element, this doesn’t completely negate AP. You could be done with the phase and still have to wait for everyone else to finish though the first game I played was with 5 players and taking into account that everyone was equally fresh-faced, the race never dragged and AP was never a major issue. Mileage will vary.

Building improbable gizmos is fun. Rolling dice is fun. Racing is fun. Steampunk Rally could well have thrown those parts together in a game that fails to launch, but fortunately this mechanical rig hits the table running. I’m not sure Einstein would approve of how poorly certain principles of physics have been implemented, but he’d probably be too busy whooping with joy, wind whipping through his moustache and the smell of speed in his nostrils.

Review copy kindly provided by Skycastle Games.

Own

Pros:

  • Excellent drafting
  • Ruleset that promotes low frustration
  • Gorgeous artwork
  • Literal engine building!

Cons:

  • Little racing strategy
  • Aha! moment may be delayed for some
  • Stop/start pacing won’t appeal to everyone
The key to Steampunk Rally is right there in the name - it's a rally, not a race. So if you're one of those need for speed freaks, this is probably not for you. However for those who appreciate the brilliance of engineering more than the thrill of burning rubber, I believe it was Einstein himself who said it best:

"Logic will get you from A to B. Steampunk Rally will take you everywhere."