July Gaming Round-up

I’m back! Major cycling event out of the way (106 miles completed, £590 raised for ME Research UK), last days of first school for the firstborn completed, first couple of weeks of summer holidays navigated. And plenty of gaming done in the interim. Here’s July.

Corbridge Gamers

One from the bottom of John’s pile – Hamburgum. And it really doesn’t deserve to be on the bottom of anyone’s pile. It’s a real cracker.

caption

End of the game. You can see the lovely resources at the left-hand side of the photo, including real bells!

Rondel manipulation, resource management, area control… there’s a bit of each of them, and it all comes together into a splendid whole. The theme comes through nicely (increasing influence in Hamburg by contributing to the building of churches) and there’s a wonderfully evil mechanism in the shipping area, where newly added ships push out the older ships. Somehow, I always managed to stay on the upper hand in that little race, which really helped me power through to a win, 175–153.

My little bit of Hamburg.

My little bit of Hamburg. With the right scoring multiplier tiles, this was quite a points haul.

As usual with a lot of the games John and I play, I’d like to try it with more players, but it was really enjoyable with two.

On the other session we managed in July, we played Mykerinos – which was so underwhelming as to not warrant further mention – and Trambahn, which I enjoyed just as much as the first time I sampled its clearly-18xx-influenced tableau-building delights. This time I was hit with a series of poor card draws (and a smattering of rash decisions), so John’s 155–118 win was unsurprising.

Newcastle Gamers

Three sessions in July, what with the summer holidays bringing about an extra, all-day session on the penultimate Saturday of the month!

Session 1

Arkwright! I’d picked this up about a week before the session and had some solo learning attempts at home, first at the introductory Spinning Jenny game, then the full Water Frame version. I felt that SJ was a bit too light and unrewarding for the amount of effort it takes, so I convinced Olly and John Sh that WF was worth the extra learning effort and that it wasn’t that tough. I mean, it isn’t complicated in terms of the general mechanics of each turn – pick an action, pay the cost, do the thing. Simple, right?

Well, it turns out that with four players (John B joined us) there’s an awful lot going on besides that, and a lot to think about across several areas of the (very full) table.

So many charts. So many cubes. So many pawns.

So many charts. So many cubes. So many pawns. So much bookkeeping.

To cut to the chase: I really enjoyed Arkwright, but it was bloody hard work. I think it would be greatly rewarded by lots of experience, but I doubt I’ll get the chance to find out, such was the effort required. The production/sales phase alone (which we experienced twenty times over the course of the game) was so unintuitive to first-time players that it was very difficult to predict and quite tedious to play out.

Final score – Me: £506 / Olly: £506 / John B: £364 / John Sh: £171

Olly and I were level on portfolio value (one of us had 22 shares at £23 each, the other 23 shares at £22) but I won on the cash-in-hand tie-break, £8 to £1.

John B left and we were joined by Lloyd for the much lighter new game from Martin Wallace, Via Nebula. Bizarre theme and lovely production values aside (that inlay!), this was a perfectly fine if slightly unexciting route-building, pick-up-and-deliver-while-building-stuff game.

Lovely wooden bits.

Lovely wooden bits.

A bit like Age of Steam (of which more later), there’s a slow opening, a long build and a sudden finish… but all packed into about 45 minutes. So I’d be perfectly happy to fill a gap with it again, even if it did feel a little… meh.

Final score – John Sh: 27 / Olly: 23 / Me: 21 / Lloyd: 20

Session 2

What better to do with an all-day session than some 18xx? This time, it was 1844, set in Switzerland, with Olly and Ali. As 18xx games go, it’s a reasonably vanilla one, playing a lot like 1830 with just a few thematic wrinkles like tunnels, mountain railways, H-trains and four different types of company… one of which is the nationalised SBB, coming into being at the beginning of Phase 5 when all five precursor companies are merged.

A bit like 1865: Sardinia (which I seem to have played twice since my last gaming blog post – yikes), many of the railway companies have historical destinations; in 1844, reaching the historical destination means the company receives the 50% of capitalisation it didn’t get when it floated. With some of these companies having only four shares, the half-capitalisation and a top par price of 100 Francs means it can be tough to get anywhere to start with (200 Fr doesn’t go far). And with up to 14 companies on the go at once (although I don’t think we got above 11), the trains get snapped up thick and fast, sometimes leaving many companies trainless.

Mid-game

Late-game board.

I think we played the route-building fairly non-aggressively for most of the game, but we made up for it towards the end. Awkward routing and tokening-out of stations was the order of the day by the later phases, and there were a lot of sudden drops in company revenues when previously beautiful routes were abruptly terminated. Of course, with such a high certificate limit with three players, blocking routes often hurt the blocker almost as much as the blocked company director – after all, we were all at least slightly invested in most of the companies.

Olly had ended up with directorship of the SBB, having had most shares in the five precursor companies. Naturally, having most shares there (and the four trains it could run when most others were restricted to two) meant Olly was getting the biggest chunk of the biggest payouts. I’d done my usual 18xx thing of “strong start, weak finish” and had to payout personal funds for forced train purchases… twice! They weren’t huge, but they were enough to put me out of pocket going into stock rounds and leave me lagging.

1844 end

End of the game. Running only a single train with each of my companies certainly didn’t help.

The auxiliary table holding unsold shares, share prices, track tiles and the illegible scrawlings that tracked revenues from round to round.

The auxiliary table holding unsold shares, the stock market chart, track tiles and my illegible scrawlings that tracked revenues from round to round.

Final score – Olly: 8938 / Me: 6935 / Ali: 6593

As usual with 18xx, a convincing win for Olly. And as usual, I felt like I was getting a grasp on things about one or two rounds too late. Another play of this and I’ll feel more secure with it.

Session 3

With a double booking at the church hall meaning there was a small crowd of gamers standing around in the car park for potentially two hours, Olly, John Sh and I decamped to Olly’s house for a quick game of Age of Steam: France before heading back to continue the session. I say “quick”… it’s not anywhere simple enough to be genuinely “quick”. It is simple enough to pick up very quickly though, and first-time-player John schooled us, 102–88–81 (me last). I hadn’t twigged just how lucrative Paris could be, and I hamstrung myself early on with a few too-low turn-order bids and last position on the turn track.

Back at Christ Church, the session was in full swing when we arrived, with a few people just reaching the end of a game. We added Jon C to our trio and played Roll for the Galaxy (no expansion – it hasn’t been a popular addition when I’ve tried it). Olly went for a quick-building win and just managed it; my development-heavy approach was much too slow to keep pace, points-wise. That said, it was a low-scoring game all round.

Final score – Olly: 31 / Jon C: 27 / John Sh: 25 / Me: 22

Jon had Quadropolis in his big box o’ games, and I’ve been interested in giving it a go ever since its release. It’s a sort of city-building game with a huge chunk of spatial puzzling involved. I’m not necessarily the best at spatial stuff – not that I don’t enjoy route-building and tile-laying games, but I tend to work better without physical grids to work on – and Quadropolis was no exception to that. While the rules themselves are simple (even for the “Expert” version we were playing) and this is a family game at heart, it took me a fair while to get my head round the positioning puzzle. Jon was clearly going for harbours and skyscrapers; Olly was concentrating on monuments and civic buildings; I was… doing a bit of everything and doing it all fairly badly.

Final score – Olly: 91 / Jon C: 81 / Me: 78 / John Sh: 71

My finished city borough.

My finished city borough.

I’m not sure what to make of Quadropolis. There doesn’t seem quite enough to it for a gamer crowd, but it seems a little too thinky for families. Maybe it’s just not my sort of game. It looked quite pretty though, I’ll give it that.

Last up was the unpredictable madness of Donald X’s Temporum. To be fair, I’ve played it at two players and it felt much tighter and more controlled; with four, it felt like a Carl Chudyk game. All plans from one turn were entirely void by the next, given how much everything could change in between. We opted to change our Age I card partway through the game, because the original one made it far too tempting to just sit in Age I and do nothing but draw, play and score cards. Experience clearly played its part and John took a convincing win, but I ended up only one “point” behind. I’d be happy to play again with two… maybe three… but for me, Temporum was pretty unsatisfying with four players.

And that’s July done. Back on the blogging horse now, so hopefully I’ll be a bit more frequent in future.

Tynedale by bike

Two Wheels Good

You may have noticed that my gaming posts have recently become less frequent and less detailed than back in the days of yore. We can lay the blame firmly at the feet of cycling.

As I mentioned back in November, I’ve signed up to the Virgin Money Cyclone Challenge on 18 June. That means 106 miles of Northumbrian hills – by a fair way the longest ride I’ll have been on – and that in turn means a solid training programme. I’ve been ramping up the duration and intensity of my rides over the last few months, which has left me with less time and less energy to spend on blogging. I did 114 miles last week, over the course of five rides and nine hours in the saddle… which was obviously nine hours I couldn’t spend on anything else. Like blogging.

Actually, some of those 114 miles were virtual. I’ve been using an indoor trainer hooked up to Zwift, which is essentially a MMORPG… except the only role you can play is that of a cyclist and the only way you can get around the virtual world is by pedalling an actual bike in the real world. At the moment, I’m a level-10 halfling bard… sorry, a level-10 halfling cyclist. (Yes, genuinely, there are levels and XP.)

Virtual me on my virtual bike

Virtual me on my virtual bike riding round a virtual Richmond, Virginia on a virtual replica of the UCI (real-)World Championship road race course

It’s a fun way to relieve the monotony of indoor sessions (and avoid the horrendous winds and rain we’ve had over the last few months). My favourite rides are the ones when there’s a pro cyclist online; there’s always a massive crowd of fawning fans following them around the circuit, asking questions about heart rate and FTP on the in-game chat.

Anyway, all that aside, I wouldn’t expect too much gaming blog from me over the next couple of months, but something approaching normal service may resume in the summer. Until then, feel free to sponsor me for the Cyclone – I’m riding to raise money for ME Research UK. Click here to visit my JustGiving page.

(If you’re lucky, I’ll make it along to the all-day session at Newcastle Gamers on 28 May and write up some 18xx afterwards…)

Spring Games Weekend 2016

Last weekend was the spring 2016 instalment of the biannual “weekend away playing games in a bunkhouse”, featuring John Sh (of Corbridge Gamers) for the first time and lacking John Si, even though he’d organised the whole thing as usual. We also lost regular attendee Ben at the last minute, due to a situation involving train tickets, credit cards and flatmates.

We kicked off Friday afternoon in the usual “quick, light games while people are arriving” style with Camel Up, this time with the extended racetrack and supporting dice, just to spice things up a little. After spending most of the game thinking I had it in the bag, Graham R completely overhauled me in the final scoring, getting 8 Egyptian pounds in each of the “overall winner” and “overall loser” betting.

Final score – Graham R: 40 / Me: 33 / Graham B: 29 / Olly: 20 / Ali: 17 / Camo: 11

With all likely interested people present, four of us settled into 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties for the rest of the day. It actually wasn’t that long in the playing (somewhere around the seven-hour mark), but rules explanation was lengthy and intense and we broke off for Ali to cook for everyone, as well as to eat. 1862 is a really small, tight map with up to sixteen companies fighting it out in East Anglia; with great leniency in terms of forced train purchases and company refinancing, it’s much more a route-engineering game than a stock-market-manipulation game, so it was a nice change of pace from 1830.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies. And no, it’s not winning any graphic design awards, but it’s 18xx so no one cares.

Financial leniency doesn’t mean rules simplicity though, with each company potentially being either chartered (via an auction in the Parliament Round and fully capitalised) or non-chartered (started by buying shares in the typical 18xx way, but only partially capitalised), and each one having a random permit to run only one type of train (Freight, Local or Express, with Local being the most like the standard 1830 sort of train and Freight being… genuinely a bit weird). Coupling all that with rules for company mergers and acquisitions, it felt a bit daunting to begin with, but we quickly hit the usual sort of rhythm.

The game opens with two Parliament Rounds, which we all took as a sort of indication that we should probably start two chartered companies each. Well, maybe we shouldn’t have in reality – starting two chartered companies in the opening of a four-player game means setting a par price at the very low end of the spectrum (both of mine were at £54, on the £54–100 scale), which came back to bite me in the arse royally towards the end of the game.

With eight companies started in the opening minutes of the game, there was a massive train rush and we hit the green tiles very quickly. To be honest, the train rush never stopped; I’d be surprised if we played more than seven or eight whole rounds in the entire game, so quickly were the companies ploughing through the pile of trains. I spent much of the early game (or, really, much of the game) deliberately blocking people from my lucrative routes and keeping them away from the juiciest connections near me, which meant my companies (L&H running Freight trains, FDR running Express) were among the highest earners in the early game.

Talking of blocking, it was a key component of this game. Combinations of tile choice and station token placement meant that the board was essentially divided into a north half and south half, with only a couple of railroads able to run through the division. I don’t think any of us twigged early enough that “normal” cities (i.e. without special named tiles) didn’t get any bigger than two station spots, so congestion was guaranteed on this tiny map.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds, just after the collapse of the FDR.

There were a few mergers and a fair few bouts of refinancing in order to be able to afford trains, but I got bitten heavily just before the end of the game when there was an even faster rush through the last few train types. My FDR found itself with neither a train nor much money. Because the opening par price had been set at £54, refinancing would only bring in £540 and that was nowhere near enough for an £800 train. That meant the FDR was bankrupt and folded immediately. Disaster – that was my big earner. If I’d withheld revenue just once, I think I could have managed, but the train rush really was that fast. I went from feeling safe to utterly destroyed.

That was the end of my game, really. I think the FDR collapsed in the last set of normal ORs, and the final set (once the first H train had been bought) were simply “work out your revenue and get it three times”. Graham had played the centre of the map really nicely (he could run trains through that central divide I mentioned), but Ali had worked well to overcome all my blocking manoeuvres and he was director of three pretty good earners by the end and had a large portfolio of other shares. It was pretty obvious he’d taken the win, but the margins weren’t clear until the final reckoning.

Final score – Ali: £7835 / Graham B: £6413 / Olly: £5949 / Me: £5705

A decisive victory, and a cracking game. Really enjoyed this one, even though we didn’t finish until after 1 am.

Late finish, bad night’s sleep and woken at the crack of dawn by road noise and daylight (both things I’m unused to at home) meant my brain was pretty frazzled on the Saturday morning. I wasn’t the only one, and much of the day was spent on lighter fare.

John, Olly, Camo and I started with Kingdom Builder, with loads of oddities from the Big Box edition. Wagons, boats, soldiers… it was no surprise that I came in last, with John’s win nearly doubling my 43 points. I nearly made it up in The King of Frontier, but a rough tile draw (and John’s good fortune with the tiles) meant I came in just two points behind his winning 39.

Graham R joined us for Keyflower, in which he schooled us all on his first play (just like Camel Up the day before) by getting a tile that scored for every good on it and just piling those goods on. Olly managed to get close, but the rest of us… well… see for yourself:

Final score – Graham R: 80 / Olly: 70 / John: 45 / Me: 44 / Camo: 26

My dismal little village.

My comparatively dismal little village.

Terra Mystica took up what felt like the bulk of the afternoon, but it was only 2.5 hours, so it might just have taken up the bulk of my brain power for the afternoon. Graham R was replaced by Graham B, and Camo by Ali. Playing the Dwarves for the first time was interesting – tunnelling is great, not only for building further afield but also for just getting 4 points every time. Olly’s Nomads had the “sandstorm” power, allowing for an extra build once per round (and he built his Stronghold in the first round, so he got plenty of use out of that power) so it was nigh-on impossible to keep up with him for the largest-settlement bonus at the end of the game. Didn’t stop me trying though, so I at least ended up in second place for that competition.

Ali didn’t get his Witches’ Stronghold built until much later on, so he couldn’t get much use out of his flying power, although he did build a few towns and get the bonus points for doing so as Witches. John’s Mermaids were terrifyingly agile when it came to spreading around the board, but I largely concentrated on consolidating one large settlement and racking up the tunnelling points.

The end of the game.

The end of the game. Dwarves (grey) clearly stuck to the bottom-right corner. Halflings (brown) don’t look too intimidating on the board, but…

As I can imagine often happens, I regretted a couple of late decisions regarding losing VPs to gain Power (I really should have taken the Power), but I don’t think it would have greatly affected the final result, even though it turned out very tight indeed. In a clear sign of a Well Balanced Game, there was an eight-point spread across five players.

Final score – Graham: 97 / Me: 94 / Ali: 93 / Olly: 91 / John: 89

Great stuff – I’d been wondering how it would play with more than two, and I’m glad it turned out to be just as excellent.

After Paperclip Railways (so tired that I have no idea what happened or how I drew for first place with Olly – losing on the tie break), Trans Europa (a runaway win, but at least this one’s really simple) and a meal, Graham B, Ali and I settled into Tigris & Euphrates for the rest of the evening. I’d played the old iOS version a fair bit and Graham knew the game, but Ali has played T&E hundreds of times since it first came out 19 years ago. For reasons of table space and novelty value, we played on my new Fantasy Flight edition rather than Ali’s German first edition. (I think the new leaders are easier to read on the table, but the plastic monuments are just horrible. Thankfully, in two games, we only had one monument on the board.)

It's Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

It’s Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

With his experience, Ali vigorously schooled us in the first (relatively quick) game (13/6/6), so we reset and played again. This time we were more cautious, although we all started out fairly close together in the middle of the board and there were a lot of conflicts. Graham came out on top in quite a few of them, which boosted his scores a fair bit and he took the win, 12/8/8.

Nobody makes games like Tigris & Euphrates any more, which is kind of a shame, but at the same time it’s hard to improve on that mixture of points-accumulation and insane aggression. Maybe nobody needs to make games like this any more. Knizia got it right the first time.

At the point where we should have gone to bed, we played Splendor. Graham’s played this a lot more than Ali or I have, so Graham’s 19/7/6 win wasn’t a surprise.

After sleeping like the dead, we didn’t have long before being turfed out on the Sunday morning so Graham, Ali and I were joined by Camo to continue our “classic aggressive-euro Knizia in FFG edition” theme with Samurai. Ali and I both felt the pain of the tile draw, although I managed to do OK for castles. It wasn’t quite OK enough; tying with Camo, no one took the scoring tile for castles. He and Graham took one scoring tile each so it went to the first tiebreaker, with Camo winning on most other pieces won.

We couldn’t go an entire day without a train game, so five of us had a last-minute bash at Paris Connection / SNCF. It turned out a bit odd, with one colour not getting off 0 on the stock value track, one on 5 and the other four all on 10. That meant high chances of ties, and indeed…

Final score – Me: 100 / Graham B: 100 / Graham R: 95 / Olly: 90 / James: 90

With no tiebreaker in the rules, a shared victory was an excellent way to end an excellent weekend of excellent games with excellent people. Roll on the next one!

T for Two – March Gaming Roundup

I’ve done it again. I’ve gone and left it a whole month between posts. Gah. I’ve had a Pandemic Legacy post gestating for a while (given that we finished our campaign way back in February) and there’s another post brewing about a recent… ahem… descent into Ameritrash territory, but here’s a quick spin through March.

John and I have played some corkers in Corbridge this month, almost all beginning with “T”: Tzolk’in: The Mayan CalendarTrajan (with Port Royal to round off that evening), Terra Mystica and the double-whammy of Tash-Kalar and Trambahn. Yes, by the end of the month we’d realised the accidental T-theme and played into it deliberately.

Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica were two games I’d played once a couple of years ago, really enjoyed and then inexplicably hadn’t played since. It astonished me quite now much I remembered of both, mechanics-wise, although the finer points of the rules and strategies had largely escaped me.

For Tzolk’in, I made a few mistakes in terms of timing… and timing is everything in this game. Knowing when to place workers onto wheels and when to take them off, especially when you can only place or remove workers in one turn – never both – was something that slightly eluded me, and I took a couple of very inefficient turns that threw me well behind in terms of tempo. I did manage to disrupt one or two of John’s plans, but nowhere near enough.

Final score – John: 74 / Me: 39

Ouch. I did get a vague feeling of “oh, yes, I remember why I haven’t played it since the first time”, but I couldn’t lay my finger on quite what the reason was. Very odd. I think there’s always just something else I’d rather play.

Trajan was familiar territory and I used all my experience from boiteajeux.com to lay down a hammering on John. I shipped loads of cards and got whacking great bonuses from the Senate bonus tiles I’d engineered my way towards (and the ones I’d ended up with by accident) to finish the game 161–128. It made up a little for the shocking Tzolk’in anyway.

Port Royal (another Alexander Pfister design, after recent plays of Isle of Skye and Oh My Goods) was nothing spectacular, although it did make me wonder if my 8-year-old would manage/enjoy it. I’m not a huge fan of push-your-luck mechanisms, and there’s a big one that drives the core of this game.

Unlike Tzolk’in, the lack of plays of Terra Mystica is a complete mystery to me. I really like this game. It’s heavy, it’s pretty and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

My largest halfling city, next door to John's grey dwarfville.

My largest halfling city, next door to John’s grey dwarfville with its under-river tunnels.

My halflings had cheap digging upgrades so I tried to go for that as early as possible. Naturally, there were a load of other things to do before that was even feasible, so John and I pretty much matched each other step for step, carefully trying to avoid giving each other Power from building adjacent to existing buildings. We tussled a little on the Cult board, but nothing momentous happened until right at the very end of the game, when the jostling finally gave way and I used my Power bowls to devastating effect, edging ahead for the win.

Final score – Me: 113 / John: 99

…which is, oddly, almost the score we finished with the first time we played, and exactly the same winning margin (110–96). Great stuff. Must play again soon, and with more than two!

Tash-Kalar… well, it’s a decent game and I like the constant back and forth, although it can feel a bit too swingy at times. Also, it transpired that John had played all our games (and half of this one) without realising that you can not only rotate the patterns of pieces required for summoning, but you can mirror them too. So that was possibly a factor in my melee victory this time round. I keep coming back to this game, even though (again) I can’t quite pin down exactly why.

Trambahn turned out to be a bit of an unexpected treat. Designed by Helmut Ohley (of Russian Railroads and a whole scad of 18xx games), it combines Lost Cities with San Juan alongside a couple of simple ideas from 18xx to create a nicely thinky, slightly luck-dependent tableau-building game that plays quickly. There’s definitely more than meets the eye with this one, and John’s extra experience with the game certainly paid off against a few very lucky hands that I’d had.

Final score – John: 177 / Me: 154

Beyond our regular Wednesday sessions in Corbridge, I was home alone for all of the Easter weekend. It was glorious. If there’s one thing I yearn for, it’s time on my own. And living where we do, away from main roads and general hubbub, it was completely silent for two whole days.

Of course, I made the trip over to Newcastle Gamers that Saturday for Roads & Boats, that now-ancient progenitor of… pretty much every resource-conversion euro that ever was. We used the special scenario designed for two experienced players to play against two newcomers; Olly and I had played a couple of times before, while John and Ali were first-timers to this “Le Havre with logistics”. As it turned out, I’m not convinced two plays is enough to count as “experienced”. What really happened is that Olly and I just had to spend ages organising ourselves into sea-based transport in order to reach the mountains in the centre of the board, while John and Ali got on with mining.

However, because we’d had extra time to build up, both Olly and I had researched specialised mines before building any. (In fact, I didn’t even get round to building a mine or stealing anyone’s gold before the end of the game, which explains my hideously low score.) So while John and Ali had easily collected all three gold from their one mine each by the end of the game, it had taken six rounds to guarantee those three gold; Olly had picked up one gold per round in the last few rounds before the game ended.

azdg

The whole world. A couple of timing/resource errors/hubris meant I (red) was a few turns behind Olly (yellow) in reaching the mainland. Rafts would have been better than rowboats.

I had a reasonable points showing from the Wonder – and I’d helped to accelerate the end of the game once I’d realised how much of a mess I’d made of things – but it just wasn’t enough in the face of gold. It had been a very solitaire-ish game, with not a single wall built and no stolen goods whatsoever.

Final score – Olly: 69 / John: 61 / Ali: 55 / Me: 36

We’d actually played quite quickly, so we pulled out My Village next. It turned out to be the game for the rest of the night, but that was fine by me – I really like it. I went heavy on the monks, getting a full church before turning my hand to properly concentrate on other things. The full church wasn’t quite enough to combat everyone else’s huge swathe of goods sold though (there really are a lot of points in getting a goods/merchants engine going) and it ended up being a very close-run game.

Final score – Olly: 50 / Me: 49 / John: 48 / Ali: 43

The day after that, with my house still empty, I did this:

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

Yes, it was the latest instalment in GMT’s COIN series, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, taking the now-well-established COIN system and using it to model the American War of Independence. I played a medium-length-scenario solo game as the British (naturally) and just lost to the AI flowchart bots. It’s thankfully a step down in complexity from the last COIN game, Fire in the Lake, of which I’ve never managed a full solo game. Still a huge amount to think about though, and it was a really engaging and enjoyable six-or-so hours. (Possibly more than six actually… working through the bot flowcharts can be tough the first few times.)

More soon! Hopefully!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 February 2016

John Sh and I managed a couple more Corbridge sessions in February, involving Hawaii (which I declared to be “not bollocks”, but it seems to feel pretty dated now) and a first-play-in-a-long-while for Shipyard (which is just as good as I remember from the previous occasions it’s been out).

This, my friends, is how to win a game of Shipyard. As many ships as you can, filled to the brim with businessmen, in their suits and ties.

This, my friends, is how to win a game of Shipyard. As many ships as you can, filled to the brim with businessmen in their suits and ties. With the corresponding government contracts, of course.

But enough of Corbridge. To Newcastle, where I knew a 14-year-old boy I’d played Concordia with last time would be waiting to play Twilight Struggle with me. J (not to be confused with my J, who’s only 8) had attempted – but not finished – a few plays at home before, but any TS aficionado will tell you that it’s best to learn from someone who knows the game. That left me in the awkward position of either (a) taking the USSR, driving the usual early-war tempo and utterly demolishing him in the first few turns, or (b) taking the USA and watching the rest of the night disappear into an epic back-and-forth that doesn’t feel like a normal game of TS… and probably still winning anyway.

I took option (a).

I don’t think it was an unfair choice. I think it’s really helpful to see how the early war should play out with a more experienced USSR player (I’m certainly not a great player myself, but I knew enough to point out to J the importance of the Turn 1 AR1 coup in Iran… which I carried out beautifully and locked him out of western Asia for the rest of the game), and a new player taking the USSR against an experienced USA player can result in the mid war bogging down horribly. And to his credit, J only tried a couple of things that I really wouldn’t have done, so I pointed them out and suggested a rethink.

We got just into Turn 4 and onto the fifth scoring card of the game before I hit 20 VPs. A coup in Panama set me up for a quick infiltration into South America and I scored it for the 2 VPs I needed. I don’t think J was too crushed by his defeat, and I hope he enjoyed it enough to convince his parents to play again. He was certainly starting to recognise the signs that I was holding a particular scoring card… and he also appreciated the ability to bluff in that regard, so he was never entirely convinced I was doing what it looked like I was doing. (I was.) Ahhh, Twilight Struggle. It truly is a great game.

We joined his mum and brother, plus John Sh, Olly and Graham for a game of Paris Connection (aka SNCF). I hadn’t played it before, but it’s about as simple as a decent game can be. I was just getting the hang of the mechanisms when it ended, a round short of me having that crucial tenth share, with Olly (who had ten shares) taking the win. Really good fun in a short package.

After a seemingly complex decision-making procedure involving seven people and a bunch of games that went to five maximum, I ended up at a table with my copy of Samurai, club stalwart Lloyd and relative newcomers Sarah and Iain. Samurai is at its best with players who relish destroying other people’s plans, and there’s always a faint concern that married couples can introduce a relationship-based metagame or just be too nice to each other. No such concerns with Sarah and Iain, who proceeded to be just as mean to each other as to everyone else.

Sarah and I concentrated much of our mutual aggression on this small island.

Sarah (red) and I (red) concentrated much of our mutual aggression on this small island. I later realised why she just left those two castles to me.

I’d like to try Samurai with just three at some point. My two plays with four players have felt like they’re just a little too long and the extra board space possibly introduces a bit too much chaos with the statue-swapping and tile-replacing tiles. But it was still wonderfully aggressive euro fun. (I really should get hold of Tigris and Euphrates.) Sarah took the win by concentrating only on buddhas and rice; she took the scoring tile for both categories, automatically winning. (I managed to take the tile for castles, but I was clearly too diluted in the other two categories.)

After a lovely and enlightening conversation (in which I learned that Sarah and Lloyd had both penned entries on Urban Dictionary, one of which is simply too obscene to link to, and Lloyd told us about one of his plays and the resultant domain name shenanigans), Lloyd and I were left to play Lost Cities. It had been a very long time since I’d last played it, but I’d remembered the dangers of starting too many expeditions. Lloyd, meanwhile, was playing fast and loose, so over the course of our three rounds, things just got better for me and worse for him. I eventually won, 79 to -11. Yes, minus eleven.

Olly and John joined us to round off the evening with The King of Frontier. This remains a fantastic little game after six plays. I thought I was doing pretty badly to start off with (I declared myself to be playing “the long game” after several rounds without completed production areas); after finally finishing off my quarry and forest, I could actually afford some Buildings and shifted into a new gear. First of all, Reclaimed Land let me discard part of a city I’d just foolishly finished; next, I replaced that discarded tile with The Statue of a Man, which gave me 5 more points; the final, glorious touch was the Ancient Monument, which let me sift through my discard pile and place anything that would fit. As it turned out, that filled every space on my board except one, and it was only a couple of turns of Development before I pulled a tile that slotted in perfectly.

Wow

It truly is a thing of stick-figure beauty.

Lloyd had actually done really well with a couple of Building tiles and Olly had a nice combo of Warehouse (storing cubes) and a tile that scored VPs per cubes left at the end of the game, but nothing was enough to beat that 12-point swing from fitting my last tile in. John, meanwhile, was… well… he hadn’t completed many areas.

Final score – Me: 48 / Lloyd: 43 / Olly: 37 / John: 12

Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne! Details can be found on Meetup.

FCM start

Dinner for Two: two-player Food Chain Magnate

This Corbridge session deserves a post all of its own, partially because I actually remembered to take some photos, but mostly because Food Chain Magnate is such a very good game. Oh, and also because we finally got the opportunity to play on a table large enough to accommodate the recommended card layout (see photo above – employee tree on the right and Milestones along the top).

Knowing that the two-player map layout is a 3×3 grid and that radio campaigns conveniently cover a 3×3 grid, I went into the game on a mission to play the first radio campaign as early as possible (and being first to radio means your radio campaigns advertise two of the advertised good to each house). However, in order to maximise my earnings, I wanted to be first to market something (for the $5-per-item bonus it brings) and also get hold of the Luxuries Manager for a $10 boost on each item… which all meant that it would take a while to get a marketer up to Brand Director level to play that radio campaign. I decided I could get it done pretty quickly though, so I chose the $100/2-slot Reserve card at the start of the game.

The random map tiles gave us two separate roads with three houses attached to each, so John and I fairly naturally started out with our restaurants on different roads. The lack of interaction didn’t last long though. After a first turn in which John hired a Recruiting Girl (clearly going for the “First to Recruit Three People in One Turn” Milestone) and I took a Trainer, we were clearly going for different strategies. I kept my company structure lean and mean until the last couple of rounds, whereas John took advantage of that Milestone bonus (and the two free Management Trainees it brings) to utilise lots of employees in each round.

Of course, hiring and playing lots of employees meant lots of Milestones for John, and it was hard to keep my nerve and stick to my initial plan, especially when he plonked down the first airplane campaign and spread desire for pizza all across one side of the board. (Thankfully, the tile layout meant that airplanes weren’t that effective in this game.) Meanwhile, I’d managed to play a mailbox campaign for burgers across the one large central block, meaning I’d get a $5 bonus per burger sold for the rest of the game. Note that I’d avoided playing a billboard campaign – infinite marketing campaigns for the rest of the game was something that hadn’t necessarily worked out well in previous games! (John also avoided billboards until quite late in the game.)

My five Milestones; John had twelve. It just goes to show: Milestones aren't everything.

My five Milestones, near the end of the game; John had twelve. It just goes to show – Milestones aren’t everything. (In fact, the bonus for being first to $20 is almost nothing.)

I managed to snag the (single) Luxuries Manager early enough to be able to flog some burgers at premium prices on the back of that initial mailbox campaign, but it was clear that I’d need a way to reach the other road on the board in order to properly benefit from my radio plan. After all, there’s no point making people want loads of burgers if you can’t sell them any. Naturally, John had reached the same conclusion, and we both worked towards the Local Manager and/or Regional Manager… but more of that later.

I’d picked up a Coach to make my training strategy more efficient within a small business structure. That meant training an Errand Boy up to Zeppelin Pilot didn’t take long, and I ended up with a Burger Chef and Pizza Cook (the latter to deal with John’s pizza-plane advertising) in order to try to meet the massive demand I was hoping to imminently create. Frankly, I needed to get the radio campaign off the ground, because (a) John was training worryingly high up the marketing tree, (b) I had trained so many people that my Payday bill was terrifying compared to my sparse income at that point, and (c) we had broken the bank for the first time, so the end of the game wasn’t that far off ($300 total second bank, three slots for CEOs). Oh, and John had taken the “First to $100” Milestone, so he was getting the CFO 50% bonus on income. Yikes.

The timing was beautiful though. On the round after I’d set up the radio campaign right in the middle of the board, I played my recently acquired Regional Manager and opened up a new restaurant right on the other road. Being the Regional Manager, of course, the restaurant opened immediately; John’s Local Manager in the same round built a restaurant that wouldn’t open until the next round, and he didn’t have enough burger-producing capacity to cope with the two-burgers-per-household desire I’d just unleashed on the city.

That meant multiple sales without any sort of competition, with my Luxuries Manager and Milestone bonus pushing sales up to $25 per burger, or at least $50 per household. With John earning nothing that round (and with a CFO bonus of 50% of $0 = …nothing!), I went from a long way behind to a huge distance ahead in a single round, very nearly breaking the bank for the second time.

Radio Burger unleashing its uncontrollable meat lust across the city

Radio Burger broadcasting its uncontrollable meat lust across the city. This picture is from the last round.

Meanwhile, as you can see from the picture, John had tried to sabotage me a bit by placing billboard campaigns on the map. But no – Zeppelin Pilot to the rescue! I could pick up drinks from every source on the board, so I was ready for anything. And my Pizza Cook meant I could cover the pizza desire too.

I’d lost track of John’s ability to produce burgers though, so I hadn’t realised that in the last round he could cook up eight burgers (two cooks and two trainees), and with other items stored in his freezer he fulfilled four houses at dinner time; he always got priority because I’d played my Luxuries Manager and he was way cheaper than me. Of course, that left two houses for me, and at 3 items per house with two burgers in each, that was 3×$20 + 2×$5 burger bonus = $70 per house. That’s $140 from two houses, which was more than John took from the other four houses all together (not including his 50% CFO bonus though). Love that Luxuries Manager. Imagine if I’d put a garden or two out…

With the bank thoroughly, completely and utterly broken, we totted up the final score, but we could see who the winner would be before any maths took place.

Final score – Me: $405 / John: $253

The final situation: John's stuff (Gluttony Burgers) on the bottom left, mine (Fried Geese & Donkey) on the bottom right.

The final situation: John’s stuff and final-round structure (Gluttony Burgers) on the bottom left, mine (Fried Geese & Donkey) on the bottom right. The only Milestone unclaimed at the top is the “First to Lower Prices” – neither of us did. Note that my Zeppelin Pilot was actually no use in the end – John served all the drinks-wanting houses before I got involved.

What more can I say? I love this game. I’m looking forward to trying it out with more players too. The two- and three-player games have relatively tight board layouts; with five players, the city is 5×4 tiles, so a radio campaign won’t necessarily dominate the board… and the “1×” top-tier employees aren’t limited to just one for everybody to fight over. If it still works beautifully with more players (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t), this is easily in my top ten games ever. Probably top five. Very, very clever stuff, and a large part of the catalyst for my pre-order of Splotter’s reprints of Indonesia and The Great Zimbabwe, coming later in the year. Can’t wait.

More January – Pfister Fun!

Continuing on from last time, more January gaming!

John Sh and I have managed a couple of Corbridge sessions in January (pretty impressive really, given how indisposed I’ve been by illness and child-rearing). The first featured My Village by Inka and Marcus Brand, an odd reworking of themes from their own Village, which I’ve played a few times and enjoyed a lot. My Village is, quite simply, better and more elegant. It’s like The Prodigals Club compared to Last Will – it’s clear that the theme works wonderfully, but it just needed a new set of mechanisms around it to really make it shine.

I tried to do a bit of everything with my villagers, which turns out to not be the way to play well. John specialised much more (he filled a massive church with monks), and it paid off in a 72–54 win for him. Great stuff – happy to play again.

Another Wednesday evening saw us playing Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, which is an unwieldy title for a fairly simple (yet quite thinky) tile-laying game from Austrian duo Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister. (More Pfister to come later.) I struggled massively, mainly by doing quite well for the first few rounds and ending up in a death-spiral of cash. Doing slightly better than John meant that he got a monetary boost in the last few rounds, which coupled with his whisky-heavy tile layout to mean that he could set prices on his tiles much higher than I could even afford. John overhauled me on points in the very last round to win 76–65.

I got him back in Roll for the Galaxy though, with a completely vanilla base-game-only match coming out in a 48–41 win to me. It was all about the Developments.

Too many family games to mention scattered throughout the month, but highlights included Ticket to Ride: Europe (with everyone old enough to play getting a solid drubbing from me) and a whole afternoon of games with 8-year-old J, featuring K2 and a bit of Small World.

Oddly, the last Saturday of the month brought more family gaming… except with someone else’s family at Newcastle Gamers. John Sh and I happened to end up at a table with Ruth and her sons L and J (feels natural to just use initials for the under-18s), which meant that probably the entire Hexham/Corbridge-area contingent was playing together. And what were we playing? Concordia!

I’d been umming and ahhing about Concordia for a while, given that it’s often recommended to people who like games that I like. When Shut Up & Sit Down gave it a positive review, I quickly jumped and ordered it before it sold out, as often happens. So this was my first play and my first time teaching the game. Thankfully, the rules are incredibly simple (play a card and do the thing written on the card), so we were quickly up and running, even with the slightly fiddly setup process.

And it turns out it’s a little gem of a game. Turns are quick and simple (although they can be very thinky beforehand), downtime is minimal even with five players and it always feels like there’s something useful you can do. The big stack of cards for purchase all give boosts to your end-game scoring as well as increasing the power of your deck of cards, so it’s not too hard to develop a coherent strategy. Mine involved building in all the cloth-producing cities and acquiring the Weaver card, which gave me a Minerva bonus of 5 VPs per cloth city (i.e. 20 VPs by the end of the game) and let me produce loads of cloth by playing the card. 4 cloth = 28 cash = lots of other buildings, so after a slow start I could rapidly increase my building portfolio.

It turned out to be a decent strategy and I won by a reasonable margin (I think I had 137 and John was in second place with 110-something). J came in a very respectable third place, just over 100 – he’d been planning well throughout the game – then Ruth and finally L bringing up the rear. A really fun game with a “classic euro” feel to it. Must play it again soon.

We followed that with the return of Mister Pfister and Isle of Skye. It was quite a different beast with five players, and I managed to avoid the cash-death-spiral this time round. L seemed to be following a similar path to the one he trod in Concordia – acquire cash and hoard it – which meant he didn’t price his tiles very highly and I snagged one or two at bargain prices to complete various handy scoring features on my layout.

And as it turned out, I demolished everyone with a final score of 77. To be honest, I’m not sure what I think of Isle of Skye, but that might be because I still haven’t quite figured out how to play it properly yet. Maybe a 3- or 4-player game (without rogue tweens using degenerate cash strategies) would help me decide.

After Ruth and the boys left, John and I teamed up with Camo and Lloyd for more Pfister, this time in the form of his execrably named compact engine/tableau-builder Oh My Goods! Ugh. While the original title of Royal Goods was dull, at least it connected back to Pfister’s game Port Royal and it didn’t make me want to eat my own face off. Oh My Goods!? No. It makes it sound like some sort of party game or Munchkin-style take-that-fest.

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers... cards for everything!

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers… cards for everything! (Photo by John Sh)

Which is something that it very much isn’t. It takes elements from San Juan and marries them to bits of every engine-building and resource-conversion euro you’ve ever played, producing a fairly simple and elegant little maxi-filler. There’s a bit of push-your-luck involved with the morning and afternoon markets being revealed, which slightly grated with me, but it’s a light enough game that it didn’t matter. Camo ran away with it, with his seemingly magical cow-production line.

And last but never least, The King of Frontier. Although I managed to snag my beloved Altar by making sure I had a massive field completed very early on, and although I went full-on heavy on the Consume action (albeit with only one very small city), it wasn’t enough to outdo John’s little collection of VP-producing buildings. He beat me by just two points, with Camo and Lloyd a fair bit further back.

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier (Photo by John Sh)

And that was January. February’s already underway, so I’m sure I’ll be back soon with more.

January Catch-Up

Aaaarrghh. Lagging behind, but the broadband is back on now. (N.B. If you ever want to make anything happen, just go and find some Openreach engineers working on a cabinet.) Must catch up…

January has so far been dominated by Pandemic Legacy, with games on the 4th, 9th, 15th and 16th (I know – consecutive marital gaming nights!) taking us up to the completion of August. We’ve only lost one game so far (early June), but for a fair few of the games the wins have been down to the luck of the draw. I can’t say much without filling this post with spoilers (and this is a game you really don’t want to have spoiled), so all I’ll say is this: it’s just brilliant. M has declared that she’ll “miss it when it’s over”.

Rolling back to the beginning of the month, there was the now-traditional New Year all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. And as is now traditional for these all-day sessions, I rolled in at about 2.00 and looked around for a game to play. Caylus! It wasn’t my first game (although the first was so long ago that it isn’t logged on BoardGameGeek), but I still needed nearly as much rules explanation as newcomers Phil and Alison. Fortunately, John B is an old hand with Caylus and explained everything beautifully, getting us off to a quick start. Given that it was Alison’s first time playing a worker placement game, she got her head round it remarkably quickly and started planning ways to block people. I trundled along, trying not to attract too much attention, but making sure I had consistently reasonable scoring throughout. Towards the end, John was clearly gearing up to build the 25-VP cathedral, which Alison immediately stymied by blocking the one prestige building space available. I’d been shunting my way gradually up the VP-awarding King’s Favour track, so the last few actions I took gave me about 15 VPs in total, creeping me into a narrow victory.

Final score – Me: 57 / Alison: 52 / Phil: 45 / John B: 38

Great game; certainly one I should play more often. I’ll dig out the iOS version again and have a few more plays of that.

Alison, John B and I had a quick gap to fill before the meat of the session (of which more in a moment), so John Sh kindly leaned over with his copy of The King of Frontier, which I discovered I could just about successfully teach. I also discovered I was capable of losing – yes, for the very first time, I lost The King of Frontier. John B grabbed the Altar (or maybe Shrine… I forget what it’s called), which cancels out the negative points for empty spaces at the end of the game. And that was enough to just get the edge on me. I had a slightly rubbish tile draw throughout, although I was lucky enough to end up with only a couple of spaces left empty.

Final score – John B: 33 / Me: 30 / Alison: 24

Now to the main course – Pax Pamir. It turns out that this is an absolute swine to teach. This should come as no surprise, given its Sierra Madre Games heritage, but there it is. So many things are connected to so many other things that it’s difficult to know where to start. Even explaining the victory conditions is a nightmare, because there are four different victory conditions, but for each one the winning empire must also have other types of pieces in play… it gets complicated. Even a familiarity with its ancestor Pax Porfiriana doesn’t help that much; it has two rows of cards to buy and play into tableaux, and there are Topple cards, and… that’s about it.

We were a four-player table, with John Sh and Olly joining John B and me as Alison drifted away to Thunder Alley. With only three empires to be loyal to in the Great Game (Britain, Russia and the native Afghans), that meant that at least two players would share an initial (secretly-chosen) loyalty, and so it was that the two Johns were loyal to Britain, while Olly was loyal to the Afghans and I favoured the Russians.

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn't matter... but then it ended up mattering a lot. :\

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn’t matter… but then it ended up mattering a lot. :-\

I can’t relate much of what happened over the next hour and 45 minutes, partly because it was nearly three weeks ago and partly because it was really quite complex. It felt like the last 45 minutes or so was spent with Olly and I trying to figure out ways to stop one of the Johns from winning (and the Johns naturally trying to figure out ways to stop each other winning). As it turned out, I managed to offload a useless card to Olly in order to free up a space in my hand for a game-winning twist… and then I was one action short of actually pulling it off. In the end, John Sh accidentally handed victory in the Intelligence War to John B, but it was probably only a matter of time before that happened anyway.

I sort of enjoyed it a lot, and sort of felt like my brain was being forced through a fine mesh. There was a lot going on, all the time, and I need to play it again soon in order to make things coalesce in my understanding. Very, very Eklund, although with more of a “game” feeling than usual – this is, of course, the result of Pax Pamir being primarily a Cole Wehrle design.

John B left, leaving the three of us who’d played Food Chain Magnate a few sessions back so… repeat run! Again, the details escape me, except the important milestones:

  • I took an Errand Boy in round 1, meaning I got the freezer (allowing me to store food and drink between rounds) and extra drinks when collecting them.
  • John Sh marketed first, meaning his marketing campaigns would all be eternal.
  • Olly took a Trainer in round 1 so he was first to train someone, giving him $15 discount on salaries.

I suspected Olly had the best opening gambit, and it certainly paid off, with his lead feeling ever more unassailable as time passed. Once he’d hit $100 and got the pseudo-CFO milestone, it just got worse for the rest of us. Just as in our first game, there was a broad smattering of timing errors which cost us, but I felt much more like I knew what I was doing this time. Again, I played a large structure with lots of slots for employees… but that isn’t necessarily a good thing unless they’re doing exactly what you need them to.

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message while the Pizza Plane seals the deal.

It turned out that we fluffed the timing of the end of the game – with a couple of bonus payments for John overlooked, the game should have ended a round earlier, so it shouldn’t have been quite as embarrassing a thrashing as it turned out…

Final score – Olly: $872 / Me: $259 / John Sh: $120

Very very good fun again. It’s becoming a bit of a favourite with me.

John headed off and Olly and I were joined by Camo and Jon (no “h”) for a light desert-dessert of Camel Up. We decided to throw in the Photographer module from the Supercup expansion, which added a little spice to the proceedings without too much extra complication and without extending the game unnecessarily.

Camel Up is always ridiculous, but this one was even more ridiculous than usual. It’s very unusual to see a full stack of five camels just two spaces from the finish line, but that’s what happened. It had been such a changeable race that quite a few of the cards for the winning camel were in the “betting on the loser” pile. Great fun, and it never really matters who wins with Camel Up – it’s the stupidity of it that counts. (For posterity though, Jon and I drew for the win with 24 Egyptian pounds each.)

That was the end of the session, and that’s quite enough January for now. More at a later date!

December – Rubbish Month, Good Gaming

December was riddled with calamity and annoyance, including my first Rapid Unscheduled Dismount while cycling as an adult, my first puncture while cycling as an adult and major flood-related phone-line cutouts plus botched repairs. And, of course, no phone line means no broadband, so I’m typing this using my mobile phone as a wifi hotspot. And, of course, living up a hill in the middle of nowhere means the best I can manage in my thick-walled stone house is two bars of patchy 3G reception if I stand on one foot in a corner of the coldest room in the house while reciting the arcane rituals of EE.

Amongst all that, the only Newcastle Gamers session of the month fell on the day it snowed enough to make the hill on which I live truly dangerous. We’ve lived here for four years and I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve considered the hill too dangerous to drive on. sigh

John and I did fit in a couple of Corbridge sessions though, the first of which was a “quick” play of Carl Chudyk’s latest, Mottainai, followed by HaggisMottainai was interesting, although very difficult to get our heads round on a first play. There’s an awful lot going on, and figuring out exactly how to get cards to the places you want them is pretty tough. I won almost entirely by accident, with a wince-inducing final score of 35–14. Very Chudyk. Haggis was… well, Haggis. It’s a very traditional-feeling climbing/trick-taking game and I suffered from a couple of bad deals and a general lack of competence. John got his own back for the Mottainai drubbing by winning 310–169.

A week later, we reconvened for Nippon, by Madeira/Panamax designers Paulo Soledade and Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro. I really enjoyed this – it managed to boil down a fair chunk of the thinkiness and planning of their previous designs into a smoother, easier-to-digest gaming meal – although I do have a niggling concern about how samey it might feel after just a handful of plays. Never mind, though: I’ve only played it this once so far. A nice tight game, with a victory for me, 200–193.

Because every collection needs at least one game about competing zaibatsu in the Meiji period

Because every collection needs at least one game about competing zaibatsu in the Meiji period

The rest of the month (and the ensuing school holiday) was peppered with family gaming: a Ticket to Ride here, a Castle Panic there, a Ticket to Ride again, followed by K2, with another Ticket to Ride to round things off… Yes, there’s a definite hit in this house. And, of course, M and I continued our marital Pandemic Legacy campaign. To date, we’ve played six games and only lost the most recent (early June) so the board looks relatively unscathed, but there have been some… ahem… developments that mean things certainly aren’t getting any easier any time soon and we’re enjoying the extra challenge.

More to come soon – sooner if the phone line gets mended…

Under Sea to Outer Space via 1950s USA

There’s been quite a bit of family gaming over the couple of weeks since my last post, including the discovery that my two oldest sons, J and A, both love Ticket to Ride. Totally love it. And it turns out that my mum quite enjoys it too. I’m glad I held on to my copy now, and I might even get one or two of the other maps; after all, the original USA map gets a bit dull after a while.

Mrs Cardboard (M, to follow the tradition of anonymous-but-distinguishable initials) and I also played the first game in our Pandemic Legacy campaign. We went for silly rather than realistic when it came to naming our characters, so we now have a medic called Max Dinglewang (thank you, M); my name offering for the scientist was Susan O’Hanrahan, but always, always referred to as Susan O’Hanraha-hanrahan. We won the first game pretty easily after just three of five Epidemic cards and managed to eradicate the black disease, now known as Boneitis, but I can see how things might get substantially tougher in future. I’m being completely spoiler-free here, but I might start writing up future games under a big SPOILER heading if it continues to offer the narrative and gaming excitement it looks like it should.

John and I convened a Corbridge Gamers session and we both ticked another game off our Stefan Feld lists – AquaSphere. It’s very Feld: doing a thing lets you do another thing, but doing that thing means you can’t do this other thing this round and there just isn’t enough time (or indeed Time, the game currency) to do everything you want to do. And oddly, for a game themed around scientists and robots conducting research in an underwater laboratory while fighting off purple Octopods… it feels a bit bland. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly solid game, but it’s not different enough from every other euro to make me excited about it.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes... it's a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes… it’s a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

I started out badly while John mopped up serious points for the area-majority aspect in the early rounds (I’d failed to plan for how much impact that would make), but I pushed forward with my long-term plan to finish all six pieces of my personal lab and collect all six lab letters. I did pull that off in the end, but John’s consistent showings in the end-of-round scoring put him far enough ahead that my sudden boost at the very end of the game wasn’t enough to overhaul him.

Final score – John: 71 / Me: 68

We followed up with a game that really is like nothing else I’ve ever played: Donald X Vaccarino’s Temporum. Jumping around between different eras and changing timelines makes it surprisingly thematic compared to the dry-as-dust-but-still-mechanically-lovely Dominion, and while the mechanisms themselves aren’t groundbreaking, they do coalesce into an overall experience that feels unique. There’s a lot of fun to be had in changing the future and forcing your opponent to suddenly find themselves in a Steampunk Utopia instead of the Age of Cats or whatever it was they were clearly hoping to use on their next turn to shuffle a few of their Influence markers down to the present day. (And yes, there genuinely is a card representing a timeline in which cats have taken over the world.) This one came down to the wire, with John getting his last Influence marker into the bottom box for the win when I had just one left to go.

Fast forward to Saturday and it was Newcastle Gamers again, this time with a prearranged game of Splotter Spellen’s latest release, Food Chain Magnate. John and Olly had expressed an interest and no one else seemed keen to join in (even on one of the busiest nights we’ve seen in a while; the busy-ness seemed at least partially due to our shift over to meetup.com following the near-total withdrawal of Events from Google+), so it was a three-player game.

Quick summary of Food Chain Magnate: you’re running a restaurant chain (duh!) on a randomised road/house map grid. It’s a sort of deckbuilder where the deck you’re building consists of the employees in your company, except rather than drawing a random hand of cards each round, you have the entire deck to choose a fresh company structure from. Employees in the company structure can do things like hiring or training more employees, collecting drinks from spots on the board, changing your prices (down or up), starting marketing campaigns, building new houses and/or gardens for houses, being managers who can accommodate more employees in your company, and many, many more. The winner is the person with the most cash at the end of the game, which is after the bank has broken… twice. (There’s an odd thing where the length of the game after the first breaking of the bank is determined by cards secretly chosen by the players at the start of the game.)

This being a Splotter title, there are many, many ways to make mistakes… and we all managed to make a few. I think all the mistakes were based around mistiming things, mainly to do with the fact that the people in houses don’t come out to eat unless they’ve been marketed to by players, but marketing doesn’t happen until after eating in the round order. The practical upshot of this is that something along the lines of “hey look, I’ve produced this burger and set up a marketing campaign for burgers so this house will come and eat the burger and I’ll be able to pay the Burger Cook I just hired and ohgodnoofcoursenoti’vereallyf—kedthisuproyally” happened several times over the course of the game.

Glossing over the inevitable mistakes then, it was interesting to see how our different opening strategies immediately led to different Milestone cards being claimed, with the bonuses they conferred. Olly went for early food production and thus forever had a freezer to keep unsold food and $5 bonuses for selling food products. John kept his company structure small to maintain a good choice of turn-order position and marketed drinks first ($5 bonus to drinks sold). I, on the other hand, went for full-on corporate bloat by hiring two Recruiting Girls and getting the “First to Hire 3 People in One Turn” Milestone, which gave me two Management Trainees and thus allowed me to maintain a much larger structure than the others. That wasn’t necessarily that great a benefit, but I was able to hire all sorts of people and shuffle them from round to round in order to get the best or most timely use from them.

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox campaign. (Looking back, I can see it's illegally placed, but I could have easily placed it somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox soft drink campaign. (Looking back now, I can see it’s illegally placed between houses 1 and 16, but I could have easily placed it legally somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

I was last to place a marketing campaign, which meant mine were time-limited but I’d trained my marketer up so he could place a mailbox campaign and cover a whole block. Several houses had been added to the map, which meant there were gardens in play and diners with gardens pay double for their meals. After a slow start, I was suddenly raking in money from all the houses that wanted soft drinks (and usually one that wanted beer if John had run out), which meant I was first to hit $100 in hand. That gave me the seemingly preposterously powerful bonus of having the CFO power – 50% extra income per round. I only got a couple of rounds to benefit from that bonus though, because the $600 we’d added when the bank first broke was rapidly running out. Olly was selling burgers to a cluster of houses on the far side of the board and his Luxuries Manager was making sure they were going at an eye-watering price. Each burger was $20, but with houses with gardens paying double, there was an occasion where a house wanting two burgers paid $90 (including Olly’s $5/burger bonus).

The bank broke for the second time when I claimed my CFO bonus, and it was pretty clear that I’d won.

Final score – Me: $387 / John: $232 / Olly: $190

It looks fairly emphatic, but I suspect I could have been overhauled in another couple of rounds had it continued – Olly’s super-mega-deluxe rare-breed yak burgers were painfully lucrative.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That's my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That’s my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans. The whole thing looks like an absolute shambles, but we knew what we were doing. Just about. Food Chain Magnate may win my prize for Most Table-Greedy Game.

Overall, I thought Food Chain Magnate was superb on its first play. Only time will tell how well it stands up to repeated plays (and I hope to play it as much as possible – after all, it’s a Splotter game that we finished in under two hours on our first play!), but I suspect the variable map layout and wide variety of possible strategies will keep me interested for a long while yet. Oh, and I love the artwork. Even the “oh dear, they sent the prototype to the printer” map tiles have their charm, and they’re very clear on the table.

The Prodigals Club was next, which was the first time any of us had played the three-player game (and the first time at all for Olly); we used the Election and Society modules again. Oddly, it uses the same worker-placement boards as the two-player game so the worker spaces are a little more congested. Only a little, because we each had four workers rather than five, but it was enough to make it feel a bit different. Not only was turn order much more important than with two players (which I only really figured out afterwards), but with only four workers, it’s much harder to do everything you want to do. Not only do you have just four workers, but if you’re last in turn order, the stuff you want may well have disappeared before your first worker goes down!

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As with Last Will, it’s a handsome game with a cleverly designed board.

I didn’t really feel like I was doing well for the first four rounds (although I felt comfortably ahead of Olly at least, and I kept taking the Hyde Park action to make sure I didn’t start gaining votes), but then everything came together in a final rush and I managed to get my two scores down to 0 (Society) and 2 (Election). John had gone substantially negative in the Election module, but his Society score let him down badly and I ended up winning!

Final score – Me: 2 / Olly: 8 / John: 10

And then Roll for the Galaxy with the Ambition expansion, including the Objective tiles this time. They still didn’t add that much to the game, but that’s fine – it’s already excellent. I had a starting faction that was more annoying that anything else, so I concentrated on my initial draw of a 6+ development (3 bonus VPs for each world of cost 4 or more, plus the ability to reassign any three dice as Settlers!) and set about settling those planets. The others were playing a more balanced game, although Olly had the rather wonderful Psi-Crystal Forecasters, which allowed him to shift his selected phase after seeing what everyone else had chosen. It all worked out nicely for me in the end anyway after Olly ended the game with a full tableau of 12 tiles.

Final score – Me: 51 / Olly: 42 / John: 39

Lloyd joined us for the last game of the night: Spiel des Jahres 2005 winner Niagara. Typical SdJ family-friendly fare, but in this instance it ran on far too long (lots of simultaneous high numbers played plus almost constant bad weather meant the river flowed fast) and was memorable more for the frustration than the enjoyability. Still, I continued my unbroken win-streak for the evening, this time sharing victory with Olly. It’s been a long time since I played a game without a tiebreak rule!

Epic post ends here.

Photos by Olly and me, some shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Meetup page.