Why is Money so tight in Age of Steam?
Simply put, your start the game in the hole financially, with bills to pay. Unlike most other games where you are given a stash of cash and then can borrow more, in AoS your initial money is entirely due to the two shares initially issued. And because your locomotive is at 1, Even if you do not build track or upgrade your locomotive, you will have to pay 3 dollars in expenses at the end of the first turn, and every turn thereafter. Doing nothing at all will keep you in the game for exactly 3 turns, after which you are bankrupt.
Let's take a look at the way money flows in AoS.
There are two methods to gain cash: issuing shares and collecting income. Issuing shares gains you $5 per share, but also increases your obligations in that you have to pay $1 per share on every turn. Collecting income is free (and highly satisfying) but you don't actually see the cash in your hand unless your income is greater than your expenses. Don't get too excited though: income is eroded by taxation as soon as it is greater than 10, and can be knocked down if you don't pay your bills.
There are three types of cash outlay in this game, which I shall call "obligations", "infrastructure", and "opportunity". Obligations are the expenses associated with paying off shares issued and your locomotive level. These are ongoing expenses that have to be paid time and time again, at the end of each turn. Infrastructure is the payments associated with laying track: once you pay for it, the track is on the board and costs you nothing further. Opportunity costs are the hard earned dollars you spend on your bids.
Two additional concepts will come in handy later. “Capital position” is your income minus your obligations. At the start of the game your capital position is –3. “Capital gain” is the change in capital position from one turn to the next. If you increase your locomotive from 1 to 2, and issue a supplementary share on turn one for a total of 3, and manage to ship for 2 income, your capital position is now still -3 (2 income – 3 shares – 2 loco) for a capital gain of 0.
Where does this tangle of 5 types of money flow leave us? Well, you are trying to balance your income against your opportunity expenses: that's the break-even point. However, you can't get there without building track, as no links means no income, so you will need to shell out for infrastructure. To build infrastructure and get that juicy action, you need capital, which means issuing shares... and raises your obligations. Since you can only ship a maximum of 2 cubes, if you want to get more than 2 income a turn, you'll need to upgrade your locomotive, temporarily foregoing some income and also raising your obligations. And round and round we go!
The most important skill in this game is the ability to assess your money, and here's one way to think about it. For you AoS sharks out there: have patience, we will get into some meatier calculations later, as this next paragraph is crucial for new players.
You need to figure out your finances BEFORE you issue shares. First, look at your obligations. At the start of the game, your shares are 2, your locomotive is 1, for a total obligation of $3. Then look at current income, which in this case is 0. The difference is the current amount of cash you will need to pay your obligations. If it is positive, rejoice, and bask in the envy of the other players. Then look at cash on hand. You have $10 at the beginning of turn 1. Subtract obligations from cash, giving you $7, which is currently what you have to build and bid with if nothing else changes. Now estimate how much your income and obligations will increase this turn... and be careful you do not count too heavily on a cube which may be shipped by someone else! Do you need to upgrade your locomotive to get to that juicy cube slightly farther over? Can you build enough track with your meagre cash to get to the city you need? Make a mental total of what your obligations would be. For example, say I want to upgrade my locomotive to a 2, which means in the absence of gaining the locomotive action, my maximum income will be shipping one cube for an income of 2. My obligations are now 2 shares plus 2 locomotive for a total of 4. My estimated income minus expenses is therefore (-2). If everything goes well, that means I currently need to set aside $2 to pay my obligations, whereas if nothing works out, my initial calculation means I have to set aside at least the original obligation of $3, possibly $4. Do you feel that $6,$7, or $8 is enough cash to build the track you need to ship your target cube to make that income? Is the board congested enough that there are few opportunities and you will need to use some of that money for a bid? Are you feeling lucky, and most importantly, are you a target in your gaming group? (Trust me, I have to take that last point into consideration with my co-gamers... sheesh!) If you think you will not have enough cash... then issue more shares, and RECALCULATE everything. Your obligations have just gone up again, as you will need to pay for this new share issue immediately at the end of turn 1!
How many shares should you issue? Well, there is no correct answer 'cept one: Don't issue too many! I hear a few cries out there saying "... how do I tell how many is too many?" Simple. If you have more than $4 left after the income and expenses phase, you issued too many shares. You gained $5 for that share, and gave $1 back at the end of that turn for the privilege of not using any of the capital it generated, and now you'll be paying $1 extra each turn for the rest of the game. Let the crying begin! This should serve as an object lesson of why recalculating your financial position is so important.
The short answer is that money is tight, cause you owe immediately, your potential initial income is limited, and the temptation to spend on track and bid can easily outstrip your means. I will examine some aspects with examples later in these strategy articles.
NEXT: What do the individual Actions REALLY do in AoS?