The Steampunk User’s Manual: An Exclusive Astonishing Game From Storium’s Will Hindmarch


The Steampunk User’s Manual by myself and Desirina Boskovich is the just-released follow-up to The Steampunk Bible. As a spe­cial perk for read­ers, as noted in the Sto­ry­telling chap­ter of the user’s man­ual, we’re proud to present a character-driven card game for your enjoy­ment, cour­tesy of Will Hindmarch.

Hind­march is a free­lance writer and designer whose credits include the ENnie Award-winning Eternal Lies for Pelgrane Press and design work on the online storytelling game, Storium. In the gam­ing indus­try, he has worked for White Wolf Game Stu­dio, serv­ing as the devel­oper of the flag­ship World of Dark­ness Sto­ry­telling Game, Vam­pire: The Requiem, and he has writ­ten or designed works for Wizards of the Coast, Fan­tasy Flight Games, and Atlas Games. He also co-produces the live-lit sto­ry­telling show, Story Club South Side. Hind­march serves as the Assis­tant Direc­tor of Shared Worlds, a teen SF/F writ­ing camp.

(Image by Jeremy Zerfoss, from The Steampunk User’s Manual)


A game of steampunk contraptions designed and exhibited, for 2–4 players.

Version 1.9.12—2014 by Will Hindmarch

The year is 1899. The World’s Design & Invention Fair draws near. Across the globe, inventors and artists lead design houses in the crafting of new technologies to exhibit at the fair. Soon, you shall debut your contraption, hoping it operates correctly on the fair’s dais, and see which invention elicits the most marvelous reception from peers and public alike. A grant from Queen Victoria and the adoration of the audience await the invention deemed most astonishing!


Each player controls one of four inventors in charge of a fabrication workshop somewhere on the Earth at the end of the nineteenth century. By drawing, trading, and playing numbered cards, each player shall construct a prototype steampunk contraption for exhibition at the World’s Design & Invention Fair in London.

This is a cutthroat affair. The different workshops squabble and scheme in pursuit of the final prize: a commission from Queen Victoria to produce a final, fully functional version of the winning prototype.

Depending on the contraption’s quality of construction — and a bit of luck — the device may have a good showing at the fair … or it may malfunction on stage. It may earn acclaim … or it may fail spark the audience’s imagination.

The more the audience marvels — and the more people that are astonished! — the more Acclaim players earn. The inventor with the most Acclaim wins.


You need a few game components to play Astonishing!:

  • A deck of regular playing cards (including Jokers)
  • Three regular, six-sided dice
  • A different Inventor sheet for each player

NOTE: Play sheets also available via the attached PDF: SUM-play-sheets-9-23-14

Each Inventor sheet represents the vision, guidance, and workshop of a different Inventor. A different playing-card suit — Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades — represents each Inventor’s unique purview:


Lady Calibrette Merchant (Clubs)

Born to a family of weapon-smiths and military officers of some repute in the British Raj, Lady Calibrette has proven herself the true heir to the genius of her father, a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE), and the spirit of leadership possessed by her mother, a headmistress from Bombay. After surviving the Bombay plague outbreak of 1896, Lady Merchant took over unofficial management of her family’s munitions factory, where some of her designs are now entering production.


Abimbola Kayin (Diamonds)

This inventor and entrepreneur made his fortune facilitating telephonic operations in the vicinity of Lagos Island and helping to design railway stations and mechanized farm implements for the government. Since solidifying his reputation as an inventor, Mr. Kayin has turned his attention toward beautiful designs with practical applications to “push mundane life beyond Mundanity.” He often promotes a sometimes unpopular movement towards miniaturization and “incorporeal technologies” that would “take Song and Story beyond the Page.”


Marisol Chang (Hearts)

Marisol Chang first made a name for herself among the poets and literati of Lima before expanding her art into performance and installation works in Mexico City, Chicago, and Paris. Now she is known world-wide as a storyteller, singer, and designer of what Harpers Bazaar called “impossible art.” Her vision brings provocative, multicultural tales to life via music and technology in public plazas and city squares. “All art speaks in a voice inherited,” Chang said, “and thus the old forms flow into the new.”


Albert “Albie” Smithering (Spades)

“Albie” Smithering is the adventurous youngest son of the Smitherings of Wellington, New Zealand — known explorers and pioneers. Albie himself has something of a notorious past, having been arrested for trespassing and grave-robbing in his youth. He later developed a reputation as a racing aficionado, having won races by sail and cycle as far away as Lake Michigan and France. His self-described “fondness for velocity” has led him to pursue efforts to fund and design the next generation of vehicular inventions.


Prepare for play with the following steps:

  1. Separate the face cards from the rest of the deck and stack them by suit in four separate piles.
  2. Shuffle the remaining cards (Ace through 10 of each suit, plus Jokers) and set the deck in the center of the table where everyone can reach it. During play, form a discard pile face-up next to the deck.
  3. Each player selects a different Inventor sheet and sets it in front of them. Fold the sheet along the dotted line so it stands up on the table with the lists facing the Inventor’s player and the biography facing out at the other players.
  4. Each player collects the three face cards corresponding to their Inventor’s suit. Set them face-down on the table near your Inventor sheet.
  5. Deal a starting hand of 4 cards to each player.

Playing the Game

Astonishing! play unfolds in two phases: Invention and Exhibition. First you play a series of turns in the Invention phase, using cards to build your contraption. When conditions are right and the deadline for the fair has arrived, play proceeds to the Exhibition phase, where you test your contraptions and earn Acclaim.

Take note of the differences between Invention actions and Exhibition actions, even though both phases use the same face cards. Each phase uses the face cards in distinct ways. Likewise, each of the Inventors has unique abilities in each phase and thus each Inventor “handles” a bit differently in play.

Note, too, the difference between your roster of action cards and your hand of resource cards:

Each player gets a roster of three action cards made up of the face cards from the Inventor’s corresponding suit.

Each player also holds a hand of numbered resource cards representing the resources and materials used to build contraptions. You’ll find these referred to as “numbered cards,” “resource cards,” and simply “resources” throughout these rules. Most cards are worth a number of build points equal to their value, regardless of suit. Treat the Ace that corresponds to your Inventor’s suit as an 11-point resource card. All other Aces are worth just 1 point for you.

Though you may occasionally hold more than six cards in your hand at once, you should never start a turn with more than six cards in your hand.


In this phase, players trade, gather, and play cards that interact to describe the technological wonders being built in each workshop. Each turn consists of the same few steps played out in this order:

  1. Choose An Invention Action
  2. Reveal Invention Actions
  3. Trade
  4. Resolve Special Effects
  5. Build
  6. Discard Resources (If Necessary)

1. Choose An Invention Action

First, each player secretly selects an Invention action to take on the current turn. Each player sets the face card corresponding to her chosen action face down in front of her Inventor sheet.

A player normally cannot take the same action two turns in a row. Track this by leaving each player’s previous action card face up on the table until the next turn’s action card is set face-down to replace it.

(Note that on the first and final turns of the Invention phase, each player chooses from all three cards in her roster. On every other turn, the player chooses from just the two cards she didn’t play on the previous turn.)

A different face card represents each of the three actions available to the players:

Jacks—Trade Cards: Use this card to initiate trade with other players, exchanging one or more cards between you. See the rules for “Trading.”

Queens—Special Effects: Each Queen triggers a different effect unique to the Inventor in question (summarized on the Inventor sheet). See the descriptions under “Card Abilities by Suit” for a full explanation of each Queen’s effect.

Kings—Build Your Contraption: Use this card to indicate that you’re building a part of your contraption this turn. See the rules for “Building.”

2. Reveal Invention Actions

After all players have set down their action cards, and thus chosen an action to undertake, all players simultaneously reveal their actions for the turn.

Though actions are revealed simultaneously, take care to resolve Invention actions in order: First resolve all trades (Jacks), then enact all special effects (Queens), and finally carry out actions to build (Kings).

3. Trade (Jacks)

Playing the Jack from your roster signals that you want to trade resources this turn. Only players who chose Jacks for their Invention action may initiate a trade, however a player does not have to play a Jack to participate in a trade during the turn.

If more than one player has chosen to trade this turn, initiate and resolve the trade of the youngest player first; play then proceeds clockwise.

To initiate trade, set one or two numbered cards from your hand face up on the table in front of you. This is your offer.

All other players may respond by offering one or two cards in exchange, setting the offered cards face up or face down or any combination thereof in front of them.

Players are now free to negotiate, revise their offers, reveal cards, make promises, break promises, and bluff during this process.

Jokers may be included in any trade offer. A Joker represents a faulty component or flawed resource, useful for slowing down a rival’s production — or for misdirecting rivals. Jokers can never be discarded or used to build a contraption. Only theft or trade moves Jokers from workshop to workshop.

Let the buyer beware.

A player who offers no cards in trade cannot receive cards from the player who made the initial trade offer — you cannot get something for nothing here.

If the initiator does not get an offer he likes, he may withdraw his own offer. Play proceeds clockwise to the next trading player, if any. Every player who revealed a Jack this turn may initiate a separate offer of trade with the rest of the table but is not required to do so. (Thus the Jack is the only way to pass on your turn.)

4. Special Effects (Queens)

Every Inventor has a different special effect at their disposal, represented by the Queen of the appropriate suit. Special effects enable a player to obtain resources for building contraptions. See the descriptions under “Card Abilities by Suit” for a full explanation of each Queen’s effect.

The youngest player goes first during this step, after which play proceeds clockwise to the subsequent Queens played.

If a player has chosen a Queen for the turn, that player must take that action this turn. She may not pass on her turn.

5. Build (Kings)

Playing the King from your roster engages your workshop in the construction of your contraption. Play this step simultaneously for all players — no one has to wait on anyone else.

If you play your King and you have cards in your hand, you must build part of your contraption on your turn. (Work must continue! The deadline looms!)

When it’s time to build, place one or two numbered cards from your hand face down into any one of the three positions marked on your Inventor sheet. This installs the card or cards in that position. No position can hold more than two cards. You may discard one or both cards already installed in a position to make room for new installations. You may peek at the cards you have installed at any time.

Pay attention to the value of the cards installed in each position. Each position’s point total determines its reliability. The higher the total, the more likely your contraption is to perform as designed when tested during the Exhibition phase. A reliability of 18 points or more is guaranteed to function and astonish during Exhibition.

The cards installed in each position also contribute to your overall design. From each list, secretly select a descriptor corresponding to one card installed in that position. The descriptor from each list combines with the others to describe the contraption you’re building. (An Ace always corresponds to the first item on your list but when it’s worth 11 points it means you have revolutionized the design of something common or mundane or created a new standard for excellence in that area.)

You may change your mind about what descriptor you’re using all the way up until you describe your device to the other players during the Exhibition phase.

As you combine descriptors from your lists, picture your device in your mind. Imagine what your contraption looks like, sounds like, and how it operates. What does it do? How does it astonish? How will you describe it to your fellow players during the Exhibition phase?

For example, if you installed a 3-point card and a 9-point card in first position, you could choose either the third or ninth descriptor from that list to begin describing your contraption. Either way, the reliability of that portion of your contraption is 12 (because 9 + 3 = 12).

Note that resource cards that correspond to your Inventor’s suit earn Acclaim only for you. Resources cards from other suits represent components, parts, or materials manufactured or inspired by your rivals. Depending on the actions they take during play, rivals may earn some Acclaim from your contraption. (Likewise, you may earn Acclaim for cards of your suit that turn up in other players’ contraptions.)

6. See To Your Resources

Space in the workshop is at a premium. At the end of the turn, each player holding more than six resource cards in hand must discard down to a maximum of six resource cards. Players may discard extra cards if they wish, but remember that Jokers can never be discarded. Each player that ends the turn with no resource cards in hand may draw one resource card off the top of the deck.

If even one card remains in the deck, the Invention phase continues with a new turn. Return to step one to begin the next turn.

Ending the Invention Phase: One Last Turn

Drawing the last card from the deck means the deadline is nigh — the Inventors must set out for London and are almost out of time to perfect their contraptions. Complete the turn in which the deck is exhausted (skipping any actions that are impossible without the deck). Each player then collects all of their action cards for one last Invention turn.

Option: If all players have at least one card installed in each position for their invention at the end of a turn — and if all players agree to it — the players may call the Invention phase to an end. Each player collects all three action cards of their suit and the final Invention turn begins…

Choose Your Final Invention Action

On the final Invention turn, each player may select any one action to undertake in the heat of the final hours of construction, even if they just took that action on the previous turn. This final turn of the Invention phase follows the usual steps of play, though the lack of a deck to draw from may render some actions useless.

When the final Invention turn is complete, the Inventors reach London and the Exhibition phase begins. The process of building each contraption is officially over, but some players may yet find a use for the cards in their hands.


In the Exhibition phase, players reveal and demonstrate their contraptions and compete to astonish the public gathered at the fair. This phase consists of a single turn made up the following few steps:

  1. Choose Exhibition Actions
  2. Describe Your Invention
  3. Cast Your Vote
  4. Exhibit Inventions for the Crowd

Step One: Choose Exhibition Actions

First, players secretly choose one of two Exhibition actions — Queen or King — representing each Inventor’s final efforts to tinker with the contraptions or sway the crowd. Place the chosen action card face down in front of the Inventor sheet. Players reveal these cards during the fourth step of the phase.

Jacks aren’t used during this step.

Step Two: Describe Your Invention

Describe your contraption to your fellow players without turning over your installed cards. Announce what your contraption does, describe what it looks and sounds like, tell everyone how it operates, and mention how your Inventor reveals the invention to the crowd.

Use only one eligible descriptor from each of your three lists, even if you have two cards installed in the relevant position. A position without installed cards does not contribute a descriptor to your device at all.

A little modesty might secure a player votes from rivals who underestimate the magnitude of a design based on its descriptors, but a more grandiose, impressive description can be its own reward — or attract votes from astonished players.

Step Three: Cast Your Vote

Queen Victoria’s customs for the exhibition call for each participant to serve on the judging panel and cast a public vote in the competition. No one may vote for their own invention. Players vote simultaneously by handing their Jack to a competitor of their choice. Players may cast their vote using any criteria they like.

Players whose inventions receive votes may use those votes in the next step to persuade the crowd.

Step Four: Exhibit Inventions for the Crowd

Once the competitors have voted, the public demonstrations begin. As each Inventor performs his or her spiel for the world, the crowd moves about, forming its own opinions. The crowd may marvel or balk. The crowd may giggle or guffaw at malfunctioning devices or it may applaud and celebrate astonishing new designs. The crowd may cheer in delight or recoil in terror. The crowd is fickle.

To represent the crowd, roll three regular, six-sided dice and add them together to get the demonstration number. The ideal demonstration number is less than your invention’s reliability number for each position but more than your competitors’ reliability numbers.

The demonstration total indicates what, if any, installed components fail to perform or impress. Any invention’s position that is less reliable than the demonstration total fails to work as planned. In other words, if the demonstration total is higher than the reliability point total installed in any position, that position fails. A failed position may indicate an actual fault in the componentry or it may mean that some part of the invention merely fails to astonish the audience at the fair and so doesn’t earn the Acclaim that it might have.

Any number of positions may succeed or fail when compared to the tastes of the crowd (represented by the demonstration number). A position with no cards installed automatically fails, regardless of the demonstration total.

Once the demonstration number has been rolled, players simultaneously reveal Exhibition actions. Resolve all Jacks, then Queens, and then Kings, in that order. Begin with the youngest player playing each card type and then proceed clockwise around the table, as necessary.

Jacks: Players that received Jacks as votes from competitors may discard a Jack to re-roll one of the demonstration dice. A player with multiple Jacks may discard more than one to re-roll multiple dice (or re-roll a single die multiple times). A player may opt not to use their Jack(s) — each held Jack is worth 1 Acclaim — but once play has proceeded to resolving Queens or Kings, Jacks may no longer be discarded.

Queens: These effects tinker with inventions or sway the crowd to change the way the cards interact with the demonstration. Each Queen represents a different effect. A Queen, once played, must take effect.

Kings: These effects promote the Inventor’s individual resources and exploit derivative technologies to earn extra Acclaim from the public. A King, once played, must take effect.

Final Scoring

Each player scores Acclaim depending on the success of her invention.

  • Earn 2 Acclaim for each position within your invention that functions as planned during the demonstration.
  • Earn 1 Acclaim for each Jack you still hold.

Card Abilities by Suit

Queens and Kings have different abilities depending on their suits and if they are played during the Invention or Exhibition phases. These card effects are also summarized on the Inventor sheets.

Clubs Invention Ability

Queen—Capture Resources: Draw two cards from the top of the deck or draw one card from the top of the deck and one resource card at random from another player’s hand.

Clubs Exhibition Abilities

Queen—Intimidate: Treat any one position on your invention as if its reliability was 2 points higher (to a maximum of 15 points).

King—Impress: Select one competitor’s invention. Earn 1 Acclaim for each Club card in a position that didn’t fail during exhibition.

Diamonds Invention Ability

Queen—Buy Resources: Discard zero, one, or two cards; draw one more card from the deck than you discarded.

Diamonds Exhibition Abilities

Queen—Replacement Part: You may exchange any one Diamond card currently installed on any invention for one resource card from your hand. This does not alter the descriptor used but it does alter the reliability for that position and thus potentially change the Acclaim earned.

King—Showman: Select one competitor’s invention. Earn 1 Acclaim for each Diamond card in a position that didn’t fail during demonstrations.

Hearts Invention Ability

Queen—Finagle Resources: Draw one card at random from another player’s hand and two from the deck. Keep any two of those cards and give the remaining card to the rival whose card you drew. You may use this ability to give a rival a Joker.

Hearts Exhibition Abilities

Queen—Sway the Crowd: You can change the value on any one of the demonstration dice by 1 or 2 points. Pick up and turn the die to a number that is within two points of the number rolled. (Thus a 6 may become a 5 or a 4 but cannot be made any higher.)

King—Charm: Select one competitor’s invention. Earn 1 Acclaim for each Heart card in a position that didn’t fail during demonstrations.

Spades Invention Ability

Queen—Beg, Borrow, and Steal: Draw one card from the deck and then either one card at random from the top five cards of the discard pile or one at random from another player’s hand.

Spades Exhibition Abilities

Queen—Saboteur’s Gambit: Turn over one installed Spade card worth 7 or fewer points on any invention, leaving it face-down. That resource fails on the demonstration floor, reducing that position’s reliability.

King—Exploit: Select one competitor’s invention. Earn 1 Acclaim for each Spade card in a position that didn’t fail during demonstrations.

“The Steampunk User’s Manual: An Exclusive Astonishing Game From Storium’s Will Hindmarch” was published in Giveaway, Literature.

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