Alex Churchill is a Christian software developer, gamer and father, living in Cambridge, UK. He’s been playing and designing games since primary school, and also proved that Magic: the Gathering is Turing complete (that is, you could build a computer out of Magic cards).
The following interview is about his board game Steam Works.
Jason (GameGobble): Steam Works is a worker placement game with a steampunk theme. How did you come up with the initial idea, and how did it evolve from there?
Alex: I came up with the original idea when playing Caylus, one of the original worker-placement games that defined the genre. I noticed that the effect of the Carpenter, Stonemason, Lawyer and Architect were all similar: build a building of a specific colour. I started wondering, “Is there any way that could be made modular? Could you have one piece that says ‘Build a building of colour…’ and another piece you plug into it to specify what that colour should be?”
That idea of modular worker placement spaces was at the heart of SteamWorks from start to finish. The steampunk inventors theme felt like a natural fit for the mechanic, and I do love me some steampunk. That guided the evolution: for example, one of the earliest tiles designed was the Patriotic Haiku Generator, which is such a ridiculous name that it had to be in the game.
Jason: Each player in Steam Works builds machines, which not only can benefit the inventor but potentially opponents as well. How did you come up with this mechanic and what kind of impact did you want it to have on gameplay?
Alex: It’s a fairly common thing in worker placement games to build worker placement spaces that opponents can use. Often it’s a drawback – you’d rather have exclusive access to your own spaces, but opponents can come in and meddle with your plans. I thought it was more interesting if you actively want other players to come and use your devices, which is why the reward for having your device used is a victory point: often the game is won by the player who built the most useful devices which got used by opponents the most.
What caught me by surprise was the delightful effect this has on gameplay. I hadn’t expected it to lead to this almost salesman-like hawking of your own spaces: “It looks like you need money! Come to my Miscellanerie-Distiller and get 7 cash!” “Well, you could do that, but if you come to my Iterated-Monetiser-Librarifier you’ll get not just money but a component as well!”
When I noticed this kind of conversation happening I loved it, and I was keen to make sure that element stayed through the rest of game development. That’s why we added the ability for players to use their own device even if it’s occupied once per round: to retain this unusual positive interaction with other players.
Jason: Players have to be situationally aware of how close their opponents are to winning and when the game will end. Players also have to assess what machines everyone has as well as what everyone can potentially build. Steam Works would seem to appeal to an analytical person. How else would you describe the kind of player that would most enjoy your game?
Alex: Steam Works is certainly unapologetically a strategy game, but it does have some other more unusual elements. I already mentioned the kind of social in-game advertising: that’s optional – you can play Steam Works in silence if you want – but it definitely rewards table talk a bit more than the usual multiplayer-solitaire Eurogame.
But there’s one more aspect to Steam Works that’s unusual in this kind of game, which is creativity. Most worker placement games have a limited number of action spaces you can use: the 30 Caylus buildings are all there will ever be. But in Steam Works, there are literally millions of possible devices, and every game someone assembles a device that has never existed before in any previous play of the game.
Steam Works rewards finding combinations of the pieces available to you, and what kind of device will be most useful varies from one game to another based on what other players have already built. That combination of strategy, creativity and social interaction means Steam Works can appeal a bit wider than just strategy gamers.
Jason: Talk about the overall gaming experience you were trying to create when designing Steam Works.
Alex: As soon as the game acquired the steampunk inventor theme, I wanted the players to really feel like inventors.
The creativity element comes in here: you get to imagine what kind of device would attract lots of visitors (or just be useful to yourself) in the current board state. Some players like to plan out an awesome combination of effects, carefully accumulating the pieces over several turns. Others like to just throw together whatever random tiles they get, and bolt another tile on there just to see what happens. A player once built a device whose effect was “draw 3 random tiles from the deck, build a device out of them, and immediately use it!”
The delight of putting together a zany combo, the feeling of having created something really cool – that’s the kind of experience I want players to have in this game.
Jason: What is one thing you want gamers to know about Steam Works?
Alex: Steam Works has several features that set it apart from the crowd of worker placement games. You’re actively involved in other players’ turns, trying to encourage them to use devices you want them to. You get to exercise creative ingenuity to put together clever combos.
But the one comment I get again and again that pleases me the most is this: it’s a game where you have a great time even when you don’t win.