What do the individual Actions REALLY do in AoS?
OK, so you've started to play Age of Steam, and had the Auction Actions explained to you, but did you ever think about the wider possibilities and ramifications of each action? Here's a breakdown of each one and some important elements to consider.
This one seems simple: you move goods ahead of all others, who then follow in normal turn order. This means, however, that the value of First Build depends on your current standing in the turn order! If you are already first, then it serves only as a defensive move, preventing someone else from bumping you to second, which in the early going is probably insignificant. If you are last in turn order, however, you jump the entire queue, and may be able to poach someone else's prime shipment. First move provides an advantage when you really need to upgrade your locomotive. For example, if there are 3 useful cubes in a city, and you and two other players are connected to it, but you need to manually upgrade your locomotive to use any of them, then first move guarantees that you will get the third cube. More valuable on turn one if initial setup is short on shipping opportunities, First move can swing the game in mid and end game positions by grabbing someone else's potential 6 link shipment.
You build your track ahead of all other players, who then follow you in regular turn order. Like first move, its value varies with your standing in the turn order. There is an often-ignored downside to First Build: it means you precede the player who chooses urbanization, who often opens up more than one juicy opportunity with his new city placement. The value of First Build is greater on turn one if good shipping opportunities are rare in the initial board setup. Don't forget that your first build may be trumped by someone later connecting to your initial city or cities, and poaching cubes using First Move and/or higher turn order. Later in the game, first build allows you to grab valuable entries to city hexes when most entries are already used, so First Build can be a defensive or offensive tool guaranteeing your access and/or blocking someone else out.
You have the ability to build 4 tracks instead of the normal three maximum. Don't forget you will need to pay for it all, and 4 simple tracks mean a cost of 8. If you are passing through a town the cost is 9, so engineer almost always necessitates issuing an extra share if you choose it on turn 1. Offensive use of Engineer involves identifying whether someone else really, really needs it... then winning it in the auction yourself. Note that on the regular board, engineer opens up no less than SEVEN potential two-link connections! There is another risk when choosing the engineer, besides the track cost. If you build before the urbaniser, they may urbanise any town you may have linked through already, both reducing your track value (making that $3 link you spent your hard earned cash on disappear), and potentially blocking a shipment by dropping in a city of the same colour as the cube! Engineer can be incredibly useful if you use it after the urbaniser, as you often end up with a tonne of great shipping lanes to choose from. When you are last in turn order and choose engineer on turn one, you can often connect a link that has no competition for cubes during turn one's chipping phase.
The most underrated and explosively powerful action in the game, in my experience. It grants an instant boost of your locomotive up one notch (subject to the maximum level of 6) and most importantly, means you are not forced to forego one of your two cube shipments on that turn. It grants you the flexibility to actually bump up your locomotive by 2 on the same turn. This is useless in turn one as you will not be able to build track allowing a 3 link, but is immensely powerful in turns 2 through 4. Judicious use of Locomotive maximises your potential score in the game, as will be discussed later. Plan wisely, however: locomotive adds to your obligation costs. Locomotive is also the only financially sound way to raise your locomotive power to level 6 in a 5 or 6 player game because it does not forego a high value shipment.
Often viewed as the most powerful action in the game, it does come with several potential downsides. First, though, the good stuff: Urbanisation allows you to access to cities normally 4 hexes apart by urbanizing a town between them and only building 3 hexes, for a potentially low $6. Urbanization is also the weapon of choice for stomping on the leader: when urbanizing a town with many connections, if wipes out the track score of each junction (hopefully all his)! Maximum nastiness is achieved when you urbanise a town which breaks someone's network by inserting a city of the same colour as a cube your opponent was about to move for a value of 6... and cause it to be blocked, rendering it a 1 or 2 value. Now for the bad: urbanization, especially in the early going, can actually open op opportunities for the other players to make good connections. Be especially wary of this on turn one. Urbanisation is most valuable if it is chosen late in the turn order, but it rarely makes it that far.
The dark sheep action of AoS. People complain that it is underpowered, that they want the choice of cubes to place. Without any alteration, the rule as written can provide a huge margin of victory. There are some serious downsides to consider though: Production is useless on both the first and last turn of the game. On the first turn, there are no empty slots to put cubes in. On the last turn, the cubes brought onto the board will never be shipped. That being said, Production allows you to fill in crucial gaps in your early production chain, to load up a city that you have control over, and to potentially replace cubes in a city that is currently empty, which is crucial when cubes are few and far between in the endgame.
Allows you to pass once in the next auction without dropping out of the auction. Unlike First Build and First Move, this choice is most valuable when you are ahead on the turn track, as it can force other people to drop out at very little cost to you. If however you are already last in turn order on this turn, you are already in an advantageous position where other people may pass before you are forced. Turn order is capable of moving you up to position 2 for a cost of 0 in a best-case scenario.
In general, you must consider four things when choosing your action: your need, others need, your position in the turn order, and the likely outcome of actions already chosen and the actions you will leave behind. As you can see from above and as will be explained further, sometimes the attractiveness of an action depends on what the player immediately preceding you in the turn order has chosen.
NEXT: Board Analysis