Build a steam-town and defend it from steam-robots. And harvest steam.

I’ve begun to notice certain frameworks within many free-to-play games that almost function as a set of game design sub-genres. The reason I’m bringing this up is because I know I’ve played a game very much like Steam Age before, only it wasn’t thoroughly soaked in steampunk. I like steampunk.

Steam Age is one of those location-based freemium games – only it’s not location-based in the typical sense. Rather than using location services and real-world landmarks it sets up each player’s town in a specific area in their world (which is on a particular server). Attacking other players, raiding NPC structures, or founding new towns means sending the troops out on a march that takes real time to complete.

Steam Age

Anyone who’s messed around with a few iOS freemiums has probably encountered a game like this at some point or another. Aside from the particulars of the geography, Steam Age is still mostly about expanding a town. Some buildings harvest specific resources such as steam (of course) or metal, while others are meant to help progress the tech tree. Initial quests/assignments involve simple tasks such as building a power plant or harvesting X number of a particular expendable material, and before long it’ll be time to start upgrading and extending those borders.

Of course it also won’t take long before expansion starts to require a certain amount of force, and that’s when players will need to begin hiring “Mechanists” (think Generals or something like them) and training military units. Combat is a simple turn-based strategy affair that is affected by a number of variables both on and off the field. A Mechanist’s level effects combat prowess as well as the number of units that can be used at one time in battle. The units themselves have to be constructed in groups and what’s available depends largely on what structures have been built as well as what level they are. Even the units themselves adhere to a kind of rock-paper-scissors system of combat superiority which makes developing a diverse army very, very important.

Steam Age

Aside from the typically addictive qualities found in many a town-building freemium game such as the ever-present draw of The Next Thing on the List, Steam Age also has a fair number of surprisingly clever little design quirks. Being able to select the city center and bring up a list of all current construction projects—as well as being able to cancel or finish them—is incredibly handy, as is being able to collect all resources at one time by tapping a single button. Granted the “collect everything” option is only available until the town’s main structure hits level 5, but it certainly makes the early phases of growth much less arduous. Being able to see which building is which when scrolling around (they all look rather similar since everything is basically cogs and steam) is also great. I’m even quite fond of the way most resource gathering buildings can be set to collect specific amounts of materials; a setting that will also affect how much power they use. The game is full of little touches like this that make it quite a bit more user friendly than a lot of other sim-heavy games like it.

The problem is that, despite all these design aspects that improve accessibility, their overall presentation is still pretty rough and makes simply realizing that they’re present rather difficult. I’m not saying Steam Age is an ugly game when I call it “rough,” but rather that structure of the interface itself isn’t as cohesive as it could be. Being able to zoom to a location/building from within a quest entry, having a more obvious indication of which kinds of units trump which, and even a slight increase to the font size would make a significant difference. It took me far too long to realize that the NPC enemies that were being referred to in a quest description were lurking right outside the city limits. I spent all my time zoomed out on the world map trying to find them because I never thought to simply scroll past my town’s walls. A “zoom to” option or something like it—or even a more detailed description or tutorial—would’ve helped a lot.

Steam Age

Steam Age is a pretty cool free-to-play game with a heavy emphasis on simulation and combat that works well – assuming players know what they’re getting into when they start it up, of course. It’s got some clever ideas as well as some slightly clunky ones, but they balance out in the end to make a game that could very well be enjoyed for quite a long time.