I have always liked Age of Steam, but I seldom get to play it. When I saw a number of 2-player expansion maps on sale, I decided to get some, so that I could play against my wife Michelle. The player count for the base game is 3 to 6. I bought two expansions, and each expansion contains three maps, two being small 2-player maps, and the third being a 3-5 player map. That means I have four 2-player maps now. I started with the simplest-looking map.
In Alabama Railways, and in other 2-player maps, a number of changes have been made to make the game more suitable for such a small number of players. The maps are much smaller, of course, forcing competition. There are goods of three colours only, instead of five. The roles (i.e. special abilities) for players to choose from are fewer. In Alabama Railways specifically, there is reduced income. For every delivery, $1 less is earned. This is a big deal. You don’t make money at all by making 1-link deliveries. You only earn $1 for 2-link deliveries. This means it’s much harder to crawl out of net loss. In the game that we played, I kept running low on cash and once I even ran out. I kept needing to issue more shares to fund my track building. There was once I was forced to reduce my income level because I didn’t have enough cash in hand for train maintenance and dividend payment. That was painful.
Another unique aspect is there are no cities accepting goods at the start of the game. Players must take the Urbanisation action to create markets for the goods (i.e. cities of the specific colours). Because of this, bidding for turn order can be very important, to make sure you can pick Urbanisation, place the new city somewhere convenient for you, and also build tracks first to gain access to the new city.
I made a number of small tactical mistakes in the early game, which made my company financials rather wobbly. In contrast, Michelle was more efficient in building tracks, and thus saved money. I teetered on the verge of the downward spiral towards bankruptcy for quite many rounds, needing to issue new shares round after round, to pay for new tracks, to pay for train maintenance and also to pay for the dividends for those shares themselves. Only towards the late game, my long-term planning paid off. I had more tracks, and had planned for making longer deliveries. It was these long deliveries that let me pull ahead. Also a $1 loss for a $6 delivery was much less painful than a $1 loss for a $2 delivery.
Michelle had not planned as well as I did for the longer deliveries toward game end, so by then her income level fell behind. Also we were quickly running out of goods to deliver. Throughout the game whenever we rolled dice for new goods, there was only once that we rolled two of a kind, so although all the 1st place goods came onto the board, only one of the 2nd place goods came out. We agreed to end the game one round early, since goods were running out and there wasn't much else for us to do.
2-player Age of Steam works very well! Alabama Railways is scaled well and the game is very competitive, tight and unforgiving. I really enjoyed the struggle for survival in the early game. That penalty of reducing my income level was a rude wake-up call, reminding me of how brutal Age of Steam can be. I'm quite happy with my purchase and I look forward to trying the other three 2-player maps.