Thursday, June 23, 2011

Playing with Steam!

by Randy

Fine, I'll admit it. I'm a closet steampunk. Which is -not- to say that I have closet full of spiffy custom or DIY quasi-period threads, have a computer with a wicked lacquered wood and brass or go to conventions and speak in my best imitation old-school Queen's English  (though I wish I did!). What I mean to say is that I have a fondness for the aesthetic, read steampunk fiction and lurk in steampunk forums. There's some great creativity going on there, and it's worth taking a look at. So, what is it, anyway?

Steampunk is usually represented as Victorian futurism... that is to say, mostly contemporary people trying to imagine a future that Victorian-era people might have foreseen. Clear as mud? Okay, okay... think of heroes in top hats and/or corsets riding dirigibles, fighting mad scientists with death rays. Or in steam powered exoskeletons. Not all steampunk is necessarily Victorian-based... a lot can take place in a fantasy setting, with the primary steampunkiness coming in technology having the flavor of that era but generations ahead in function and complexity. I'm including a sample reading list at the end for those of you interested in looking at the literary genre.

Off the page, you'll see steampunk enthusiasts at conventions, making really cool stuff and/or online in various forums devoted to the subject. Without a doubt, steampunks are the best-dressed geeks around (and I say geek affectionately, as I consider myself one!). It's hard to find a group of people so obsessed about their wardrobe... or their cool toys! A browse through the interwebs will reveal to you a very active bunch of people making amazing case modifications to computers, creating amazing clothing, action figures and mock weaponry. And T-shirts, presumably for when they're not wearing corsets or waistcoats. But, all that aside... what about gaming?

Quite a few games recently have incorporated steampunk into their theme over the last few years, to varying degrees. I am not going to try to go over all of these; this is not a comprehensive overview. But the ones I'm including here are games that have caught my eye and/or crossed my game table. So here they are... a delightful smattering of ludological diversions that, perchance, you may ask friends to indulge in should they come a-calling!

The Games

Girl Genius: The Works - Strategy Card GameGirl Genius: The Works: This is a card game based on the Hugo Award-winning webcomic and graphic novel series by Phil & Kaja Foglio. I must say that I follow the webcomic faithfully, and if you haven't read it, I recommend starting from the beginning. The game has you lay out cards in a gear-like pattern. On your turn, you rotate a card and check to see if any of the symbols match surrounding cards; if it does, you remove the card ("pop" the card) and perform the listed action, for good or ill. Then you add it to your score pile and replace it with a card from your hand. This continues until you hit 100 points. As a game, it's decent. What I like best is the Foglio art of characters from the Girl Genius storyline.

Red NovemberRed November: The only truly cooperative game on the list, Red November casts the players as the drunken gnomish crew of a submarine that is both falling apart and being pursued by a kraken. I had a good time playing it. What I think is really innovative about the game is how it tracks time. The board is framed with a time counter. The person whose token is farthest back on the time track takes the next turn. You have discretion in how much time you want to spend trying to repair something (or another task); the more time you spend, the higher likelihood you'll be successful. It's great to have as a consideration, and an excellent way to ramp up the tension. Overall, not the best of the cooperative games out there, but very good, very funny and very steampunk.

New Rio Grande Gamesaround The World In 80 Days Award Winning Alhambra Series The 3rd Expansion
Around the World in 80 Days: Based on Jules Verne's classic and a Spiel des Jahres nominee, Around the World in 80 Days isn't necessarily the strongest steampunk-themed game, but I feel it belongs here. It's a race against time, and against other players. You collect various types of travel cards and spend them to advance to the next location. It's pretty simple, and it's pretty accessible for non-gamers.

Aether Captains: I've heard positive things about this game but have not yet tried it. It's a solitaire dice game where you are the pilot of a war zeppelin fighting air pirates.  I primarily included it because... it's hard to get more steampunk than war zeppelins. Enough said.

Ascension Chronicle of the GodslayerAscension: We reviewed this earlier, but I wanted to include this as a good example of a fantasy setting that incorporates steampunk. The Mechana faction in this game are all about the clockwork and anachronistic technology. Cards like the Watchmaker's Altar, Rocket Courier X-99 and Reactor Monk are examples. A solid and fast-playing game in the deckbuilding genre, Ascension is a good addition to any game shelf.

011: This is one that caught my eye for it's excellent art. The only game that has not yet been released, it is based on a novel and the game itself is a collaboration between game designers and a symphonic metal band called Therion. The BoardGameGeek entry has some card images and I recommend checking them out. They went all out with the steampunk theme, and photography figures heavily into the graphic design. Based on the description, it appears to be "competitive cooperative"- meaning that everyone must work together, but in the end one will win. Castle Panic has a similar mechanic. So... that's all I know about the game. But it's one that I'm very interested in trying.

EtherscopeEtherscope: Etherscope is the first roleplaying game on the list. Also a game I haven't played, but I've browsed the books and am fascinated. Based on the d20 Open Game License (OGL), it combines elements of steampunk and cyberpunk. From my readings, it seems to combine the best elements of Shadowrun with the standard tropes of steampunk. I keep meaning to pick up used copies of the core books, but have never got around to it.

Lady Blackbird: This is an indie RPG module with a light rules system that looks a lot like The Burning Wheel (I think it is some sort of BW Lite, but I could be wrong). The module seems very flavorful, and has very interesting pregenerated characters. It's a free download, so try it out! This was recommended for inclusion by Joseph Giddings. Thanks, Joseph!

Airship Pirates: This is a new RPG that I'm looking forward to trying out. The system it uses is from the Victoriana 2nd Edition (another steampunk RPG I missed!). I know very little of this other than that it is based off the songs of Abney Park. The art that I've seen for this is pretty amazing and I can't wait to locate a copy.

Iron Kingdoms: Iron Kingdoms (IK) is actually a setting that spans multiple games by Privateer Press. In my opinion, this setting is one of the best out there. It combines sword-and-sorcery fantasy with steampunk... they call it "full metal fantasy". It's a world where where is fought by steam-powered constructs (warjacks) alongside kinights and riflemen. Here are the games this encompasses:

Iron Kingdoms Character Guide: Full Metal Fantasy, Vol. 1-Iron Kingdoms RPG: The longest-running game I was dungeon master for was set in the Iron Kingdoms. In addition to having some of the best-written setting material, one of the things I like about it was that it did a great job of incorporating mechanical magic (mechanica) into the setting. Though mechanica items were significantly cheaper than standard magical ones that did the same effect, they were powered by batteries. Well, accumulators... which are magical batteries. New classes for the d20 system included Gun Mages (as awesome as they sound!), Arcane Mechaniks, Bodgers (sort of a junker, sort of roguish) and Fell Callers (a race-specific battle bard). And, later on, warcasters. warcasters are the rock stars of the Iron Kingdoms... mages (mostly) in steam-powered armor leading warjacks and others into battle. An amazing setting, and worth a look.

Warmachine Prime Mk2-Warmachine: Warmachine (and its sister game, Hordes) is a miniature skirmish game. It pits battlegroups led by warcasters (warlocks for Hordes) against each other. Five factions struggle for control of the Iron Kingdoms. One of the most popular mini games around. I personally own and have painted loads of these minis for my roleplaying game, but do not actually play it. I do, however, own most of the books, and mine these for roleplaying material.

Grind Board Game-Grind: Grind is a game based on the Warmachine universe where teams of Warjacks play an arena combat game, trying to score goals with a huge spiked ball. I own it and keep meaning to play it. Mostly, though, I just got it because the plastic warjack minis are the same scale as Warmachine and it's a cheap way to get new warjacks (Cygnar and Khador factions).

Infernal Contraption 2 Sabotage!-Infernal Contraption: Privateer Press a few years back decided to release a line of games called Bodgers. They all feature gobber (goblin) bodgers and their shenanigans. This one is a race to complete crazy machines by raiding junk piles and connecting them to each other and to appropriate power sources. I wanted to like this one, but beyond theme (and great art!), it's not spectacular.

Hopefully you've found something you'll want to try in that list. I personally find the steampunk genre immensely fascinating, and I'm all about combining that with my favorite hobby! If you want to get into steampunk, or know more about it, here's a reading list and some resources:

Boneshaker, Cherie Priest
Dreadnought, Cherie Priest
The Peshawar Lancers, S. M. Sterling
Leviathan, Scott Westerfield
The Horns of Ruin, Tim Akers
Heart of Veridon, Tim Akers
The Difference Engine, William Gibson
The Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia
Perdido Street Station, China Mieville

The Steampunk Bible, Jeff VanderMeer, S. J. Chambers
1,000 Steampunk Creations, Grymm, Barbe Saint John

Online Communities:
The Steampunk Empire (I'm coffeeswiller)
The Clockworker's Guild
Brass Goggles (also coffeeswiller there)

I hope you enjoyed this! Do you have any experience with the genre, or have any games, books or anything else to share about it? Leave us a comment!


  1. So cool to meet another closet geek/gamer/steampunk fan. I'm not nearly as steampunk. I just finished my first novel, a steampunk tale. It grew out of an idea I thought to run in a RPG a friend and I were playtesting. Please do check it out at

  2. Thanks for stopping by! I may have to pick up your book! :)

  3. Awesome. There is also Lady Blackbird ( I love Steampunk games as the source material alone can be great fodder for my own writing.

  4. Lady Blackbird is now added! Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Surprised Victoriana isn't on this list. I've found it a very enjoyable Victorian age game with good Steampunk & Gaslight Fantasy possibilities.

  6. Very good article! Hey would you mind reviewing my game When the Navy Walked? I can send you a copy from rpgnow. I particularly want people to check out Conflict on Mars which is our first expansion to the game. Airships and Skypirates is due out in late October (pdf) /December (print) and we are working on an RPG for the game right now. email me at and we can discuss.

  7. I'm a huge fan of the Iron Kingdoms setting and also a closet Steampunk. 011 sounds fantastic, and I will check it out. Great lists!

  8. You have missed one of my great faves (admittedly from many years ago) - Forgotten Futures (much of the material is now freely available at - for some reason, the obscure phrase "Klatuu Barada Nichtu, My Dear Chap..." has got stuck in a corner-of-my-brain. For more quotable quotes, see:

    And books? "The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" is great novel by Neal Stephenson, not quite "steampunk" but with strong overtones of the Victorian era.

  9. Great article and great site! I gave you guys a shout out in my steampunk post here: Tomorrow's comic actually has to do directly with raising geek kids as well :-)

    Happy weekend and game on!

    1. Thanks for mentioning us! I tweeted a link to your post. I'll definitely stop by tomorrow, too... we love the geek kiddos. :) A great weekend to you as well, AnnaMaria! ~Randy