How to make a train game exciting? Auctions? Tough, unforgiving economy? A theme around everyone’s favorite year in the 19th century? Nope. Magic. It takes magic to make a train game exciting. This is exactly what Empyreal Spells and Steam are trying to do.
In Empyreal Spells and Steam (Empyreal), players will use the unique abilities of their magical trains to route and deliver goods with a fast-paced locomotive and special abilities. Empyreal is played by 2 to 6 players and takes about 20 minutes per player.
In Empyreal Spells and Steam, the goal is to score as many points as possible. At the start of the game, there is a map with hexes and goods placed on each hex. Each product has a static hub city where it can be delivered. In order to make a delivery, the player’s trains must occupy the spaces with the goods they are trying to deliver, and you must be connected to the respective city. Then they must reach the end of their playing field and make a delivery. Players will earn points for each item delivered, as well as points for completing demand tiles (deliver 2, 3, or 4 of the same item first). In addition, the reward option provides bonuses for scoring at the end of the game.
On their turn, a player can activate any of their available specialists, including their captain for special abilities. Players can then either steer (restore mana, upgrade the captain and engineer, and get a spell machine) or move and activate. Move and activate is the main way to place trains on the playing field (building path). Players will move their guide around the board, taking actions along the way by activating spell machines.
Most spell engines allow the player to build a track on a certain type of hex that is online (usually adjacent to the current track). Some will place more items on the board, gain or upgrade mana, place wastelands, gain a new specialist, and more. As soon as a player moves his captain to the end of his board, he makes a delivery and improves his company. Upgrade options include getting and renewing mana, getting and renewing specialists, or getting two new spellcars.
Throughout the game, players will manage mana, the main form of the game’s currency. Mana is spent on activating additional spell machines, moving to the end of the board faster, and breaking adjacency rules to build a track by paying transfers.
The game ends when the player has collected the required number of demand tokens or the player has run out of wagons to place. Each player makes one more delivery, after which points are calculated.
This was a must-play for me due to the strength of Trey Chambers’ previous work, especially Argent the Consortium (Chambers, 2015). Argent has brought a level of direct player interaction to worker placement games that we haven’t seen before. I really wanted to see what he could do to spice up another genre that doesn’t usually impress me: trains. I can say without hesitation that it exceeded all my expectations.
The first thing that catches your eye is the overhead of the rules and the time of the game compared to the quality of decision making and the depth of the strategy. This game is easy to learn and teach. Although it may take 10-15 minutes to set up, nothing else can stop you from creating a new group. And because turns are fast, downtime is very low, and it can serve a large group in just a couple of hours. Now it’s not a heavy 18xx strategy. Rather, if you expand the Ticket to Ride strategy several times and add a great engine on top. All this without much additional rules or playing time.
The strategy that goes beyond just building lanes in the right place and on the board actually comes from building an engine. First, you’ll be acquiring new spell machines that determine where and when you can place tracks. You will also add up to three unique professionals to your company board. They range from a small, long-lasting effect, to a strong ability that needs to be refreshed after each use, to a one-time-per-game ability that sends shockwaves across the table and makes opponents ask, “Wait. What can you do?”
Your engine must also be efficient. You will need to manage your mana so that you have enough to make big moves, and you will also need to be able to move quickly around the board to deliver goods before others do. Yes, the board fills up quickly. Players will regularly cross paths and steal goods from each other. You can’t ignore other players and I love that aspect of the game.
Strategy and interaction add palpable tension to every game. Each turn can be harrowing as you choose a new spell machine or which upgrade you will take at the end of the queue. Waiting your turn can also be excruciating (in a good way). Internal dialogue: Please don’t build there, please don’t deliver these goods, please don’t take that spell machine I need. This game can be cruel in your face too. I often seek such experiences. Empyreal provides fierce competition for goods and upgrades.
Replay value is another huge plus for me. There are 8 captains to choose from for 6 different factions. There are also 67 spellcars and 51 specialists, and only a small fraction appear in each game. Not only will your board look and function completely different from your opponents’ board, but your board will also be drastically different from game to game. All on board for interesting and new combos.
The last thing I’ll talk about is production. Level99 went above and beyond. What you see here are luxury components, but really the only difference is the plastic pieces and cardboard chips. Everything else comes standard, which is great. Each company has unique wagons. Also, while the size of the box is a bit blatant, they have created a great and practical storage solution (similar to Game Trayz). You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about the theme of the game here. Aside from the magic and feral powers that can only take place in a world like the Indynes, the theme here does nothing positive or negative for me. Although I like colorful art.
In case you didn’t understand my excitement, Empyreal Spells and Steam is one of my favorite games of all time. It works well across a wide range of player numbers, provides deep decision making, endless replay value and variety, and tons of intense interactions. I still pull this one out regularly and it’s always a pleasure.
If you like the sound of an intense race to deliver goods with a magical twist, check it out. This is Trey Chambers’ greatest opus until he outdoes himself again.
Final score: 5 Stars is a wild and magical route and drive building game with endless variety and interactive tension.
• Learn and play quickly while keeping a lot of strategy
• Tons of variation from game to game.
• Creates a lot of interaction and tension.
• Production is excellent.
• Handles large numbers of players well.