Welcome to the future. The earth has frozen over and humanity is struggling to survive. You will take the lead of a nomadic clan in this post-apocalyptic Europa. The goal? Control the mysterious steam columns. These pockets of warmth randomly appear around the land, allowing your clan to grow crops and squeak out a meager existence. But they are also a double edge sword as with them, comes the sickness.
Get ready to enter the world of Steamwatchers from Mythic Games. An area control game for 2-5 players that takes about 90-120 minutes to play Can you lead your clan to victory?
Steamwatchers takes place over 5 rounds, with each round broken up into 5 phases. During the conclave phase, each player will lead the game in a unique action. The watchers will draw 3 steam cards and choose one of those locations to spawn a new steam column. The archon will draw an archon card and choose the event for the round. The legate gets a free ice flow movement contract for the round, while the Primus can recruit a soldier and reserve one of the other roles for the next round.
Next, comes the order planning. Each player places a face-down order token in each area they control. Orders will either be Move, Defense, or a Bluff. Then players reveal all the tokens and take turns activating an order token (bluff tokens are removed immediately).
A move token lets you move any number of units from that area to an adjacent area. A defense token gives you a bonus to defense if you are attacked before activating it. As your action, you can spend it to build a turret in that location. You can also spend it to do one of 2 special actions: Recruit troops or make a contract to gain access to crossing the iceflows.
When two or more player moves into a location controlled by another player, a battle immediately happens. Players total up their strength: units, turrets, defense tokens, and morale cubes all add to a player’s strength. Players may also secretly choose up to six agrofuel to spend in combat, increasing their strength by 1 for each fuel spent. The player with the highest strength wins the combat. The loser must remove two units and retreat the rest.
Once all order tokens have been resolved, players move on to the Steam Subsides phase. Each steam column’s level is reduced by one. If the last column token is removed, the player that controls that area can spend 1 agrofeul to build a farm there. Players also increase their incubation level every time a steam column they control is reduced in level. If your incubation level gets too high, you’ll need to permanently block off areas on your player board or even remove units from the game.
Finally, during the Whiteout phase, players must check their geothermal level. They get one point for each farm they control and also a point for each level of steam column they control. This determines how many units they can have on the board in the next round. If they have too many units, they must remove the excess.
The game ends at the end of the fifth round, unless a scenario’s unique goal is met before then. The player with the highest geothermal level is the winner.
Even though Steamwatchers is not a hard game to learn, I think it’s definitely the type of game where you’ll really need a learning game to wrap your head around the strategies. In our first game, we all played kind of defensively and cautiously for the first few rounds. Boy was that a mistake. In Steamwatchers, it pays to be aggressive. That’s because controlling the steam columns is vital. Not only are they your victory points to win, but more importantly, they are your supply lines.
You may be living high off the hog one round, with multiple columns under your control, only for them to dwindle down, leaving you with nothing but a few farms. This means that you will have trouble supporting your troops and areas around the board. Remember, an army marches on its stomach.
It was managing that kind of supply levels that I found to be the most interesting part of Steamwatchers. You have to protect multiple territories, all of which will fluctuate in your supply levels. And to keep things extra interesting, players can quickly move across the board thanks to the ice flows. Kind of how is super easy to get around the board in Kemet, making your away across the board in Steamwatchers can be quick thanks to the careener’s contracts. While going across land might take 4-5 move actions, you can skip across the ice flow and move from one side of the board to the middle in a single move action. This will definitely keep players on their toes.
On the other hand, I wasn’t a huge fan of combat. It’s mostly personal preference, but I tend to prefer combat with a little bit of randomness. In Steamwatchers, it can sometimes be deterministic. Your strength is a known quantity, so it really just comes down to how much agrofuel you can/want to spend. If I have 3 barrels and you have four, then you know you can win the combat and there is literally nothing I can do to stop you.
That being said, there are still decisions that need to be made. You have to decide if actually spending that fuel is worth it. Especially if you think you will be in other battles that round or need to build some farms later. This could lead into some bluff scenarios where a player will think you are spending high, but you don’t, causing them to waste their fuel for nothing.
One other thing I noticed in Steamwatchers is that the timing of things can be really important. If you peak too early in the game, you’ll become a target and get beaten down. That fifth and final round can really make or break the game for some players. This is especially true if you get lucky with a high-level steam column spawn. If you are a watcher in the 5th round, you get to choose the location of the steam column. If you happen to draw a card that contains a territory you solidly hold, it’s going to be hard for other players to dislodge you from there. I wasn’t a huge fan of that kind of randomness affecting the outcome of the game.
For the clans, Steamwatchers does have some nice variety. Even without the expansion, there are 7 different factions to choose from. They range from a plague-infected clan, to highly mobile ones, to clans that don’t have to worry about the incubation level very much. While the gameplay isn’t asymmetrical at all, the clans special powers do help keep the interest levels pretty solid. However, for the core gameplay, I think it could have used a small bump in the variety of actions. For the most part, you’ll just be moving, fighting, and shoring up your defenses. This isn’t a game where you’ll build up your clan from round to round, pretty much what you are doing in round one is also what you’ll be doing in round five. Maybe the expansions help with that, but I’m not sure.
Overall, Steamwatchers is a good game that has a nice flow to it. I’ve noticed that the leader can swing from player to player as steam columns rise and fall. However be forewarned, if a player gets lucky in the first few rounds and has a good amount of columns appear in their core territories, they are going to jump out to a lead that might be hard for the other players to stop them. So luck definitely plays a factor in Steamwatchers… except for during combat. Regardless, it’s still a solid area control game that wants gamers to play aggressively. If this sounds like something you might enjoy, give it a look.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – Great production values and interesting clan variety, however it could definitely use a bit more action variety.
• No randomness in combat
• Core actions could use a bit of a buff