Train games are a tough genre to sell to your friends. But what if you added a splash of colour, a dose of magic, and wrap it up in board game that you can setup and play in 90 minutes?
Designer: Trey Chambers
Publisher: Lvl99 Games
Empyreal Spells & Steam is a game that’s had me stumped for the last 6 months. Everytime I’ve sat down to write a review about this game several times, I’ve given up. Because it’s not your usual train game, instead it’s a roundel-tableu-building-route-building-pick-up-and-deliver-race game. And I didn’t want to write a review that drowned in words that only those deep in board gaming would understand.
So instead this is my attempt at a non-board gaming speak review of Empyreal Spells & Steam.
Empyreal Spells & Steam is a train game that breaks the formula and goes for fun and fantastic instead of a traditional economic simulation. Instead of making a contiguous track across the country, you’ll have trains using portal-like mechanics jumping from place to place, ready for you to make a delivery.
To make a delivery a success you need to be thinking about where you’re placing your trains. As what hexes your trains are on, determines if there are goods you’re going to deliver. An example of this is if I’m delivering to lava city, then only my trains on red hexes – that still have goods on them – will deliver to that city. If I were to deliver to ice city, then only my trains on white hexes.
That’s happening every 2-5 turns.
Longer term you’re then thinking of how to upgrade your engine. Do you need more mana to pull off more funky moves before you need to rest? Or do you need more spell cars? Which gives you more options to play each run through of your actions. Or do you need a specialist? Who will give you that extra oomph.
Even though each of these factors are powerful and playful in their own right, it’s the specialists that elevate this board game above other similar train games. These specialists are incredibly powerful and break the game in a unique and satisfying manner tying into the fantasy theme. But powerful as they are, they never seem unbalanced. Of the many games I’ve played it always comes down to a handful of points separating first and second place.
Another important factor of Empyreal Spells & Steam is tempo.
Turns move fast, but you’re actively conscious about how close everyone is to delivering – and players get to choose how fast they can go through all of their actions. If another player gets their delivery before you they will most likely will steal your goods, or snag a specialist you had your eye on. From the word go, everything feels impactful because you’re constantly racing to the next objective.
This focus on tempo provides a whole dimension to think about. Do you go fast and collect the minimum amount of goods, or do you stack up and collect as many as possible. Do you power up one action, or do you power up your whole set of actions. What strategies you end up sticking with really depends on the flow of the game, and I’ve seen players doing well regardless of which strategy they choose. Which to me, is a sign of a great game.
Now even though I love this game, Empyreal Spells & Steam doesn’t get a free pass. The board gets waaaaay too cluttered towards the end of the game. There’s so much visual information to take in that you can get lost in it all. I feel like this could of been helped with some cleaner graphic design on the tiles.
Secondly, even though this game is straight forward and easy to understand. What makes it difficult is that it’s icons on icons on icons. I have yet to play a game where I haven’t had to make quick reference to the rule book to help me out. Which makes the game a bit overbearing to new players. Fortunately, most of the icons are the same or similar and by the time you’ve finished your first game it’s only the specialists that really require the rulebook reference.
I had a blast with Empyreal Spells & Steam in 2020. It was my most played game by a long margin. And it wasn’t until a late entry in December that it was pipped for my best game of 2020.
Thanks for reading my review, I’m currently ranking all my board games in one colourful list. You can see Empyreal Spells and Steam’s initial ranking below.