Empyreal: Spells & Steam is the Most Vibrant Train Game on the Market

Empyreal: Spells & Steam Setup

Trains: a staple of popular board games like Ticket to RideAge of SteamRailroad Ink, and Russian Railroads. I’ve largely stayed away from the theme since I find the games to be so thematically dry. Then along game Level 99‘s Empyreal: Spells & Steam who for some reason felt that what route-building train games were missing was anime characters and magic. Whenever I see anime artwork or trains in a board game, I’m immediately turned off. However, Level 99 Games has officially converted me. 

Empyreal: Spells & Steam is a game for two to six players designed by Trey Chambers, the man behind Argent: The ConsortiumEach player takes on the role of different railways looking to gather color-coded resources from the board and return them to the matching colored cities. The more goods players pick up at once, the more points are awarded to them by the city in the form of Demand tiles. The heart of Empyreal‘s challenge is that goods are never plentiful and players are competing over the same resources, creating a tight action economy.

Empyreal: Spells & Steam Characters

Despite the box size and number of components, Empyreal: Spells & Steam is a much easier game to learn than it first appears. Players take actions by moving their worker across the spaces on the board. Each player board is divided into multiple sections. The uppermost banner is a handy player reference and the player’s available Mana. Below that are individual tiles for the player’s Conductor and other staff members who provide special abilities. The white starred boxes to the right of the hired staff are slots for the Demand tiles awarded by cities when goods are delivered. 

The track and grid below influence what players can do on their turn. The circular spaces above the grid is are the worker placement spaces for the player’s singular worker, representative of their train conductor. The first space a player moves is free, while every subsequent one costs mana. The train cars in each column indicate the actions the player can take when their worker is in the space above the column. Not unlike worker movement, the first (top most) action is free. If players want to use additional train car actions in that column, they’ll have to pay additional mana. The most common ability is to add a train to a space on the board, matching the color of the train car action. 

On their turn, players take a single action that can either be the worker movement/train action described above that’s referred to as Moving. Alternatively they can also choose between two other actions: Administrative and Transfer. The Administrative action allows players to restore their mana, ready a staff member’s ability (if it had previously been used), and add a new train car to their board. Lastly, the Transfer ability lets players jump over another player, city, or Wasteland space, depending on the amount of Mana the player spends.

The sixth and final space on the worker track is called the End of the Line. When the worker piece reached that space, they execute the pick-up-and-deliver action. To do this, the player selects one of the colored resources they have train figures on and deliver them to the matching city, if and only if they also have a train adjacent to the city. Each city has a set of Demand tiles that will be given to the first players who can collect them based on the number of resources delivered at a time. These are given to players who deliver two, three, or four matching resources back to the city and give the player additional points in final scoring at the end of the game. However, each city only has so many Demand tiles available so it’s first come, first serve. Once the Demands of a city have been met, they’re gone.  

Empyreal: Spells & Steam Game Board

As players are competing for the same spaces and resources, the key to victory is choosing which resources you want and moving as fast as possible to expand and get to the End of the Line so you can deliver your goods. Reaching the End of the Line before anyone else also means spending Mana more aggressively than other players, which is an easy way to find yourself out of your most valuable resource at an inopportune moment. Obtaining more Mana early on is a great way to get ahead of the otherwise limiting factor.

Empyreal: Spells & Steam ends when a player has collected the required number of Demand tiles; six tiles for two to three players, five tiles for four players, and four for five or more players. Whichever player has the most points combined between Demand tiles and the number of resources collected over the course of the game, wins. 


This game is beautiful, even more so for those who got the upgraded components from Kickstarter or as an add-on. Regardless of the version of you have, Empyreal: Spells & Steam has some impressive table presence. It’s no secret that I love games that provide tons of immersive components like Kingdom Death:Monster and Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon; and when a game I really enjoy isn’t as immersive, I do what it takes to fix that. But in all the games where I appreciate that level of excess detail, the gameplay itself is expansive and complex. In the case of Empyreal, the gameplay experience is far shorter and far simpler than I believe this level of production quality deserves. 
 
While I certainly appreciate the level of care that went into the design of of the components and artwork in Empyreal, it’s not a cheap game and the level of production is clearly one of the reasons why the price is so high. Rather than simply color code the components for each playable railway, Level 99 Games went one step further and created separate moulds for each railway, resulting in eight unique train designs. The vacuform inserts included in the box also manage to make storage, setup, and teardown an absolute breeze. I can’t help but imagine how much more affordable Empyreal: Spells & Steam could have been without that level of detail. To be clear, I’m not complaining about the amount of love that was put into Empyreal’s design, but at $90 for the base game, I do wish there was greater depth to the game or degraded components to drop the cost of the game into a tier appropriate for the level of gameplay it offers.
 
But the overproduction is by far my greatest complaint about Empyreal: Spells & Steam. It’s unnecessarily expensive to cover the costs of the level of quality. But it is absolutely worth it. I also mentioned that it’s not a very deep or complex game and I stand by that. However, that doesn’t make it any less fun. 
 
With the Empyreal: As Above, So Below expansion, it can go up to a total of eight players. I typically find that any game over four or five players introduces too much down-time in between turns, but the one-action-per-turn structure keeps the game moving very quickly at even six players. It’s only at seven or eight that I started to feel like there was too much time between turns. Even then, the speed of players taking their turns and potentially stealing goods from underneath your feet does keep the game tense and exciting between turns.
 
At its heart, Empyreal: Spells & Steam is a Euro-style network building game that requires players to efficiently strategize and optimize their actions each turn. Poor decisions early on in the game have the potential to set a player back too far in the game to be a threat to their opponents. However, Empyreal’s staff powers offer players ample tools that will help them mitigate early game mistakes by allowing them to pick up additional goods, place additional trains, reduce Mana costs, or even take an additional turn. These abilities, and the east of gaining them, make Empyreal a more forgiving experience while still preserving its Euro soul, allowing new players a more comfortable introductory game. 
 
Empyreal: Spells & Steam is a really good game. In fact, it has easily made its way into my top ten. Simultaneously, it may be a bit too Euro for primarily “Ameritrash” players, yet not quite crunchy enough for Euro players. However, the design is a wonderful medium-weight merger of the two; offering challenging decision making while remaining easy to access for new players without quite entering into the “gateway game” territory. It’s become one of my go-to games to pull out with players of all skill levels and I’ve yet to become bored with it.  The tense fight over resources is felt regardless of player count or skill level. Such a well-rounded experience can only be described as the result of Trey Chamber’s game design mastery and painstaking labor of love.
 

Number of Times Played: 

Nine.

Reviewed Player Counts:

Reviewed at two, four, five, and seven players.

Supported Player Count: 

2 – 6 players, increases to a maximum of eight players with the Empyreal: As Above, So Below expansion.

Play Time:

Reported as 30 – 75 minutes, but I’ve found my average to be closer to 60.

Core Mechanics: 

Pick-up and Deliver
Route Building
Variable Player Powers
Tableau Building

Accessibility: 

Empyreal: Spells & Steam is an easy game for players to understand on their first play. The core functions are simple and there are only a handful of player actions to choose from. Keeping the rulebook handy for iconography clarifications however is recommend. 

Artwork/Components: 

The components are wonderfully made, even overproduced. 

Replay Value: 

There’s lots of fun to be had in Empyreal and it’s one that just doesn’t get old.