The Steam Theme

Last week I talked about games that share a system, a set of rules designed for a specific game that later on came to – officially or not – spawn other games, and in some extreme cases, create a new genre. But it’s obviously not the only way to create a group of games some people are fans of, as equally – if not stronger – ties can also come to exist between games that share a common theme. Very much like the ties that exist between different train games.You might say that there’s a little bit of a stretch here, as games were you deal with trains vary a great deal. And sure enough, it would be folly to expect someone who enjoys Ticket to Ride will also automatically enjoy 1830 on a regular basis. But apart from their theme, there are other elements that link these two games, which many gamers come to expect from every game with a train on its cover.

Image Source: BoardGameGeek
Image Source: BoardGameGeek

Technically, Alan R. Moon’s smash hit was my first train game, although in truth I came to be fascinated with the theme after I played Martin Wallace’s Age of Steam for the first time. Since then I added a sizeable stack of train-filled boxes to my collection, almost every time being fascinated with what seemed a new twist or a new approach to what I first came to be fascinated with.

For many people (myself included) Age of Steam came to be the first, and in a way the prototypical game of network building and pick up & delivery, although it was surely not the first game to be built around these two mechanisms. In fact, it is probably the Empire Builder series that forever fused the idea of taking a token representing some sort of a commodity, and creating a way to transport it from point A to point B on a board filled with player built connections, to score points and/or be able to create more connections.

A lot of time has passed since the early days of train gaming, and although many games came and went (with an impressively large number coming and staying), the expectations towards train games solidified. Those who jumped deep into the 18XX series would want network building and stock market as elements of their train games, and those who started by the Railways of the World series (or Age of Steam, its spiritual father) would want their train games to simply build their network and outmanoeuvre their opponents.

Image Source: BoardGameGeek
Image Source: BoardGameGeek

And in this the “steam theme” (a name I’m using here partly because of its catchiness, and partly as an homage to the game that got me in on other train games) differs from many other themes in Eurogames. While I’d wager it would be hard to find a straight up “trading in the Mediterranean” fan out there, there are more than a few gamers who will play a game more likely (or only) if it has a train on the cover. And as much as having a ship and a sad individual on your game box only vaguely suggests what you might find inside, a train is much more specific – and specific enough to have fans of its own.

I’ve played a lot of train games over the years, many of which used very varied mechanisms to simulate some of the staple elements of managing your own train company. But be it rolling custom dice in Rolling Freight or drawing lines between dots on a white game board, I always felt that underlyingly these games have something in common. Something very well depicted by a mighty locomotive puffing smoke as it hauls a set of coaches filled with goods or people. And something that warrants the steam theme to actually be a steam genre.

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