I don’t have to tell you that there’s a dark side to this optimism. Colonialism, nationalism and environmental devastation all spring from this romantic idea that man (might as well throw sexism in there) can master the ways of the universe and bend them to his will for the good of all. There is definitely a naiveté to this worldview. But gosh darn is it a refreshing change from the status quo of evil mad scientists, useless nebbish scientists, negligent corporate scientists, etc. Steampunk gives us the hero scientist! The savior who accomplishes great deeds not through marksmanship, luck, or some heroic destiny hokum, but by his (or her!) brains, tenacity and creativity! As a perpetually scrawny nerd, this is the sort of hero I can get behind.
Or maybe it’s just that adding lots of gears to stuff makes it look really cool.
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines made a pretty big impact on my child brain as well, seeing as I watched it about a billion times (perhaps only surpassed by the original 1961 The Absent-Minded Professor). It had a goodly dose of that scientific optimism I referred to earlier (the character Lord Rawnsley is much opposed to his daughter’s passion for airplanes, and he is depicted as a stuffy luddite), and the idea of racing over Europe in rickety, often barely-functioning machines always had immense appeal to me. Somewhere at the convergence of LEGOs and reality television (Junkyard Wars, The Amazing Race, Top Gear) the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go.
One element of steampunk that’s crucial is that it’s set at a time when technology was relatively understandable. Even if you know something about circuit boards and microchips, modern technology is extremely opaque. But steam-driven mechanisms are (conceptually) simple. You boil some water, it pushes on some pistons and turns some gears, cool stuff ensues. I wanted a game where I could do that. And most of my game ideas come about when something I want to play doesn’t seem to exist.
There were things I liked about this version. The multiplication added a huge risk-reward dynamic. And many parts allowed you to place stress tokens on them to trigger special powers, which added some tough choices since you were basically sacrificing durability to try and gain an upper hand. (My favorite racing videogame F-Zero GX did this by making “boost” and “shields” the same bar.) Overall though, the game was just too chaotic for its level of complexity. I hadn’t internalized the value of iconography that modern euros have embraced, and consequently most cards had reams of text to digest despite minimal variation. So you’d carefully decide on a set of parts to use after poring over your hand, make sure the total weight fell within the correct bounds (yeah, you had to calculate weight in older versions. I’m glad I realized this was unnecessary, and that I could make big clunky vehicles feel and act big and clunky through less literal means) and then you’d roll a bunch of dice and watch it fall apart because you rolled horribly. Also virtually everyone who played wanted the physical placement of their machine’s parts to be relevant somehow, and I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish this, so the game was shelved.
One thing I learned along the way was that I wanted a system where different types of energy flowed throughout a player’s machine. I’ve played a lot of “engine-building” Euros, and there’s a reason this term is used. It’s because it feels like you’re building an engine which processes one type of resource (money, actions, cloth), converts them into various other resources, and ultimately churns out Victory Points (or “VPs”). But VPs are so dull. What is a VP? I’ve never seen one in reality, nor do I particularly care to strive for them in my escapist entertainment. I was a maverick, and I felt a need… A need for speed!
In some of the earlier versions I had cubes representing heat, steam and electricity (the purest building-blocks of steampunk, along with brass) which could be placed on and generated by (and even move between) part cards/tiles. A recurring problem I recognized was that a lot of this ended up amounting to busywork. Eurogames generally introduce whatever player interaction there is by making basic game resources, the fuel for your engine, central in some way, such that everyone’s pulling from a limited pot. But aside from adding interaction (as it may be), it introduces the crucial element of uncertainty and risk which keeps things from devolving into deterministic mathematics (except for the ones that have a fetish for mathematics and keep that part too, *cough*Powergrid*cough*). This sort of dynamic of competing over central resources felt incorrect for a racing theme, but then as soon as players go off in a corner with their resources uncontested, it has a tendency to become busywork. (I have electricity and my wheels require steam so obviously I’m going to put them through the chain of cards that turn them into steam just like every other turn.) If I wasn’t going to have the players fighting over a central resource pool, then the use of the resources themselves had to be unpredictable in some way.
And this is how I hit upon the idea of dice-placement and after seven years finally had a game people wanted to play.