Review: Steampunk Rally
March 25, 2017 /
Designer: Orin Bishop
Publisher: Roxley Games
Category: Racing, Card Drafting Game
Player Count: 2-8
Price: $49.99 MSRP
2015 was quite possibly the biggest year in board gaming to date. We got a new #1 Game of All Time at BoardGameGeek (Pandemic Legacy: Season One), a party game that has since sold over a million copies (Codenames), and a slew of other critically acclaimed titles (Blood Rage, Mysterium, 7 Wonders: Duel). Honestly, it was a terrible year to start a new company, with that kind of competition. But it didn’t stop Roxley Games.
It did, however, mean that it took me well over a year to discover Roxley’s first forays into the board gaming world, Steampunk Rally and Super Motherload. Both of these games are made with an immense amount of care and consideration, with some of the most wonderful art and graphic design I’ve seen from any board game company, particularly a new one. The themes are also extremely clever. Today, we’re taking a look at Steampunk Rally, which has players taking on the roles of famous inventors as they race crazy flying machines against each other. It’s literally a game of “engine building” while engine-building!
The game is mostly tongue-in-cheek as mad scientists build crazy racing machines. However, players often attack each other within the mechanisms of the game, and there are plenty of explosions. That’s about it.
As I mentioned above, Steampunk Rally was clearly a labor of love. The components are beautiful, and particularly functional. This game comes with lots of cards and 108(!) dice. The cards are meant to fit together to make each player’s engine, and they do so very nicely. The gears that interlock the pieces are noticeable while still subtle, without taking away from the overall picture. The icons are clear and distinguishable. And it could have been very easy to go cheap on the 108 dice, but instead, they’re the perfect size and quality, and brightly painted. I haven’t even mentioned the actual modular board or character pawns, thick cardboard tokens, and so on—you’re getting your $49.99 MSRP worth, that’s for sure.
Despite the wonderful components, and in particular, the wonderful iconography, Steampunk Rally’s main flaw is that it isn’t so easy to teach. The game is played largely simultaneously, which means you can have fluid, interesting games with as many as eight players, but it also means players can’t observe experienced players take “sample turns” before their own. Additionally, Steampunk Rally‘s gameplay is a mash-up of several interlocking systems—the draft gives both action cards and engine cards, which in turn need dice for activation (which cards can also be discarded to do, initially), which in turn is all meant to actually move your pawn along the race track, which has its own benefits and obstacles. Experienced gamers might scoff at me calling this game complex, but this is not a game for beginners, and casual gamers need to be forewarned that it’s a fair amount of investment. I have a friend who adores this game, and he is primarily the one who always explains it, and neither of us have found an ideal way to do it, and it always takes about 15-20 minutes to explain. That’s a serious investment for a 60-75 minute game. Even then, another issue with the simultaneous play is that it’s very easy for newbies to “cheat” and make rules mistakes without anyone ever realizing it, and sometimes (but rarely) those can ruin the flow of the game for everyone else.
Fortunately, the learning curve is a one-time difficulty for an otherwise truly excellent game. Sometimes my reviews have larger blocks of text dedicated to problems than positives, simply because the problems are easier to articulate. Here, it’s again difficult to say just why Steampunk Rally works so well, but let’s give it a shot.
First, the gameplay is incredibly smooth once everyone knows what they’re doing. Those interlocking pieces I mention tie together brilliantly in a shell that feels fragile, but is held together just right. Players have to be on their game at any given moment, because every decision point is crucial. And there are tons of small decisions to be made in this game, each one deeply affecting the next. Fortunately, most of the “grindy” decisions that make standard Euros take ninety minutes too long are done simultaneously by all of the players. Despite this largely “parallel play,” the game still feels interactive. You’re trying to win a race, so you have your eye on the other pawns, and the draft definitely inspires you to look around to see just how dangerous passing a certain card is.
Second, for a game driven mostly by a sequence of “do this to do that to do that..” mechanisms that are more about arithmetic and logic than thematic reasons, the theme still largely comes through. The art and graphic design give a spatial element to each player’s engine, and makes it feel like your contraption is uniquely yours. This is augmented by theme-driven rules, such as the fact that when you take too much damage, parts of your engine literally come off and are discarded. Each inventor also has a unique starting cockpit, which adds flavor. And of course, the actual goal of the game is to race to the finish line, a more concrete goal than the most victory points. As an aside, I find that many racing games telegraph their ending long before they’re over, but Steampunk Rally doesn’t. Someone crossing the finishing line usually gives me one of those “oh, crap, really!?” moments, but the rules cleverly add another round after this happens. So there’s a tension around hitting the finish line—you don’t want to blow up your whole contraption to get there, because you still need to make progress for another round.
Third, the game is just fun. The theme and the cover, while both strange, generate buy-in over yet another game about Egypt or merchants in the middle ages. The gameplay, once you get it, is a delight, offering plenty of opportunities for players to witness their own progress and to pride themselves on their own cleverness. There are so many small decisions that lead to exciting combo-building moments, yet they don’t take an intense amount of time due to the largely simultaneous play. And the hardcore gamers will appreciate the serious amount of nuance generated by the considerable number of decision points the game offers. Yet more casual gamers can slap things haphazardly onto their engine and just see what works. While they likely won’t win their first game, they’ll still have fun and generate some uniquely impressive moments on their way to losing. There’s also the pleasant tactile element of hearing dozens of dice being rolled around the table. The game is also just the right length (once you don’t have to explain it anymore). In the end, Steampunk Rally works so well because it takes the best engine-building moments of games like Dominion and Splendor and improves upon them in every way outside of the strategy elements—artistically, thematically, and kinesthetically, this game annihilates the classics that came before it. Steampunk Rally shows what an engine-builder can be when designers and publishers look beyond the mere mechanisms.
Thank you to Roxley Games for providing a review copy of Steampunk Rally.
The Bottom Line
Steampunk Rally is one of the most flavorful, thematic, and beautiful engine-builders I've ever played. The gameplay is also smooth and fun. If your group is willing to listen to longer rules explanations, this is a truly excellent game.