There’s something I really like about the steampunk aesthetic. The mix of exquisite Victorian age garments augmented with steam-infused mechanical bits has fascinated me since I learned it was a thing. As a mechanical engineer, I enjoy the idea of building crazy contraptions without someone worrying about “scope creep,” “cost,” and “why the hell do you need legs and a giant drill on that tracked vehicle?” Steampunk Rally, and the standalone base game/expansion Steampunk Rally Fusion, allow me to do just that. And then race it down a racetrack until it explodes into a figurative, yet glorious, mushroom cloud of fire and cogs. Because, as the old engineering adage goes, if it isn’t broken—it doesn’t have enough features yet.
Steampunk Rally Fusion is a race played over five phases and lasts until the turn after the first player crosses the finish line in a mechanic that will make a bit more sense later.
The game starts with the Draft Phase. When a card is selected it can be added to your machine or sold for colored dice or cogs. Boost cards can either be similarly sold or tucked under your damage gauge for future use.
Once everyone has selected a card, the remaining are passed to the next player. This continues until all cards have been selected, used, or sold. Parts are attached by connecting at least one of the valve connections on the card. Your machine may also be rearranged at any time to fit new parts or because you have discovered the innate joys of tinkering.
The next phase is the Vent Phase in which cards can be played and cogs are spent to reduce pip counts and/or remove dice from your racing machines.
The Race Phase is where the magic happens. And by magic, I mean beautiful and chaotic racing. Players roll their dice and assign them to available slots on part cards allowing them to take actions. These activations can be spread across multiple dice, as long as there’s enough slots for each of them on the part. Each inventor also has a unique part that has a special ability that may be activated every round.
Where the beautiful chaos comes into play is all the players, up to eight of them, are doing this and the vent phase simultaneously. And this is why the race lasts until the turn after the first player crosses the finish line and becomes a race of distance instead of time—it doesn’t penalize the player methodically thinking through how to maximize their turn. It also rewards consistency over just Lightning McQueening yourself to the finish line.
And once everyone has finished assigning dice, moving, and doing generally horrible things to their inventions, it’s time to pay the piper. In the Damage Phase for every negative number showing on the damage gauge, a part falls off your machine. You can’t lose your cockpit but if you’re supposed to; you explode and move to the space behind the player in last place. The rules don’t specifically mention it, but you should feel some shame at this.
Lastly is the Upkeep Phase where unused dice are moved to their respective pools, event cards are activated, and lightbulb tokens are reset.
And the draft is on for the next round of mayhem.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this game and I’m pleased to report that the rulebook is very solid. It’s large, easy to read, and laid out well. The overall production of Steampunk Rally (and Fusion) is incredible. From gorgeous art by (the talented couple) Mr. Cuddington to the translucent dice, sturdy damage dials, and metal cogs, it’s a delightful tactile and visual experience.
Both versions/games are a lot of fun, especially with the right group once they get mechanics. This probably also means one person should be pretty familiar with how things work before trying to teach others. Fusion also has a shorter track and some recommendations for a first play which could be critical to helping this game land, especially with a larger group, with the main one being sequential turns for the first few rounds. There’s quite a lot to take in but it’s not overly complicated once you have a few turns under your belt and you see how the mechanics mesh together.
Steampunk Rally and Fusion are a nice fusion (sorry, not sorry) of drafting and engine building. There are boosts that reward small machines and ones where the more parts you have to lose, the better. I really enjoy trying to make an invention that generates movement, shields, cogs, and vents dice efficiently. I feel clever when my machine can prepare itself for rough terrain and come out unscathed. Others may prefer a devil may care approach where venting is for chumps and just break off pieces that are full of dice and use future rounds to build back up.
If building an engine in either version is what makes this game purr, Fusion injects nitro with the fusion dice and overcharge parts. Being able to intentionally destroy parts for big effects and roll big dice can move you pretty far in a race. But those big moves can lead to some significant damage if you’re not careful so there’s a balancing act, which sometimes you don’t realize until you’ve moved your damage meter to negative five. Timing when to unleash your secret project can propel you forward four or more spaces. These are the moments where people start cheering or jeering and it’s why I like this game so much. I’ve had a comfortable lead only to see it disappear in the last turn as someone all but demolished their vehicle to pass me by as I pictured their burning cockpit skidding past my own jalopy’s smoldering wreckage.
A friend once said if you’ve ever been playing a board game then jumped up and yelled “hell yeah!” you’re probably not playing a Euro. Steampunk Rally, much like the steampunk genre itself, is a mashup of genres. It mixes Euro mechanisms that reward careful planning while still having luck dependency and an immersive theme like a lot of Ameritrash games. You have to be okay with lady luck ruining your best laid plans and a little bit of take that from some of the boost cards. NASCAR fans talk about rubbing is racing. Just wait till Alan Turing whips out a freakin’ Disintegrator beam like Doctor Evil on your Ambulators.
In a way, Steampunk Rally is a bit like Galaxy Trucker where destruction can be amazingly fun if you can come to terms with that aspect. But unlike Galaxy Trucker, players have a lot more agency in their own destruction. Another difference, for me, is a game of Galaxy Trucker feels like a dud if nothing bad happens to anyone. Meanwhile, a game of Steampunk Rally where everyone is maximizing their turns can still be an electrifying racing experience.
Steampunk Rally Fusion is clearly not a game for everyone but it’s a very solid game for those who want to embrace the chaos and bask in the glory of the insanity. It’s a game that plays a large range of player counts with a sweet spot being dependent on how well people know the rules as well as how much of theme they embrace. For me, Steampunk Rally Fusion is ridiculous fun when things go badly and I feel clever when they go well meaning I enjoy myself regardless of the final outcome.
Final Score: 4 Stars – Steampunk Rally Fusion elegantly combines card drafting, engine building, and dice allocation to build imaginative racing contraptions in an alternate future.
• Randomness and chaos laugh at your careful planning
• Not the easiest learning curve to teach
• A game that lives in two worlds may not appeal to everyone