Steampunk and board games have a lot in common. They’ve both taken off enormously as subcultures in the past twenty years. They’re both slightly outside mainstream awareness in English-speaking countries. They both have dedicated fan bases, people who will travel hundreds of miles or even to different countries to indulge in whole days dedicated to their hobbies.
And of course there are the steampunk board games.
Let’s Stick Some Gears On It!
It’s fairly easy to give a board game a little bit of steampunk flavour. Forbidden Desert by designer Matt Leacock is a great cooperative game in which you dodge sandstorms and try not to die of dehydration while you rebuild your ruined airship. It’s only a little steampunk – that airship could as easily have been a helicopter like the one used in its predecessor Forbidden Island. Yet that eccentric looking airship, that touch of gears and steam, does make the game more satisfying, as you slot together the parts of this tiny plastic toy on your way to victory or defeat.
Or look at Mission: Red Planet by Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti. A game about mining Mars could as easily have had a science fiction setting as a steampunk one, but the eccentricity of that steampunk setting makes it more interesting and evocative. I’d rather play an eccentric Victorian industrialist digging up the red planet than a game that tries for the realism of Andy Weir’s The Martian – wouldn’t you?
A touch of steampunk can help a board game to stand out in a crowded market. But there’s also a deeper connection at work here.
Hands Up Who Wants To Be Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Pause for a moment and think about what’s similar between steampunk and board games. Now you’ve probably guessed what I’m about to say – that both steampunk and board games are great ways of letting us be creative, while taking control of a corner of our lives.
Nigel Pyne’s Oddball Aeronauts, a simple fantasy card game with more than a little steampunk flavour, illustrates this beautifully – not least through its beautiful illustrations. A handful of cards lets you take control of an airship in a desperate dogfight. Will you try to board the enemy, or attempt to outfly them before loading your guns? Will you use your Cannoneers, your Marksmen or your explosive Fuse Bots? And what’s with those bulbous bits on the bottom of the pirate airship – the view from their must be fantastic!
Like steampunk, most board games encourage you to imagine yourself in another world, one full of strange sights and amazing characters. As well as evoking something entertaining they give us control of parts of our lives, whether through costume making, story writing or plotting a strategy for the board. We’re free to find excitement and make important choices without risking real consequences. That’s wonderful and liberating.
Of course, the same could be said about a game like Reiner Knizia’s Modern Art that, fantastic as it is, is firmly anchored in the real world. But the best steampunk games connect theme and mechanics, evoking a core aspect of steampunk in a way few others things can.
The Gears Turn
Many of the most popular board games are those known as Eurogames. Influenced by Germany’s huge gaming culture, designers like Reiner Knizia and Klaus Teuber use ingenious rules that encourage players to construct systems within the game. Whether you’re creating a kingdom, running a factory or establishing a trade network, success in these games comes from taking different game elements and connecting neatly together. In effect, you’re building a machine.
And again, if you know anything about steampunk, you can probably predict where I’m going with this.
Great games connect their theme and mechanics, so that the rules evoke the atmosphere. The tense, careful building of poker hands in weird western card game Doomtown: Reloaded (which also features its share of steampunk mad scientists) evokes a Wild West shootout in a way that rolling dice never could. In the same way, the building up of moving parts in a Eurogame perfectly evokes the inventiveness and machinery that are central to steampunk.
This is what a game like Alex Churchill’s upcoming Steam Works does. Not only are you playing the role of steampunk inventors, but you’re doing it by connecting together the game’s components as you put together the components of your machines. Can you think of a more perfect way of evoking mad science and oddball invention, short of building your own tesla coils?
There are also options if you’d prefer to play with a pre-built machine. The World of Smog: On Her Majesty’s Service, by Yohan Lemonnier, has dials and gears on the board that turn as part of the game. It’s a game whose very board evokes a machine in motion.
Where to Start?
If you’re not already a gamer but you want to start – and I heartily recommend that you do – then your best bet is to pick something simple and straightforward. Oddball Aeronauts has a reputation as being accessible as well as fun. Smash Up: Awesome Level 9000 is only 1/4 steampunk, but it’s a lot of fun, and if you like it then you can mix it in with the original game and its other variants. Forbidden Desert is straightforward and an interesting challenge, and has the advantage of being cooperative, making it easier to work out how to play as a group.
And if none of those appeal, or you just want to look for more options, then check out the steampunk game list on Board Game Geek, the internet’s single best repository of board games information and discussions.
Because what could be more perfect than a bit of steampunk where the gears really do turn?
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Andrew Knighton is a steampunk author and freelance writer. The first book in his Epiphany Club series is available for free on Amazon Kindle. He blogs about board games for Boardgameprices.com, and about all things steampunk, science fiction and fantasy at Andrew Knighton Writes.