Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 12 January 2013

Saturday saw the first Newcastle Gamers session of the year, so it seems as good a time as any to write my first gaming session report. And what a session.

I’d made prior arrangements with Olly and John S to have a crack at High Frontier. It’s a game of space flight and exploitation of the natural resources of the solar system. A game of high technology and high risks. A game where water is both currency and rocket fuel. And it’s a game of ridiculous complexity. Take a look at the game board:

Photo by Olly

I think my brain got decommissioned during an aerobrake manoeuvre

Yep, that’s the inner solar system, but not as you might know it. The lines are possible paths that your rocket can take, burning fuel if it changes course or passes through a particularly gravity-ridden stretch of space. The object of the game is to prospect various sites (the black hexagons on the board) for minerals, and then build factories on your successful prospecting claims. These factories can then build more advanced rocket technologies, enabling you to explore and exploit further, faster or more efficiently. Or maybe even all three.

This is a brutal, unforgiving game, with moments of crushing randomness and a completely open-ended approach as to how you achieve your goals. I won the game (sorry for the spoiler!) without my crew even getting into orbit around Earth. They just sat on their fat arses in their Japanese training facility while I sent unmanned mission after unmanned mission to Mars and Venus. Meanwhile, John’s crew made it to various planets and asteroids and even got back home again, scoring him valuable “glory points”, and Olly spent a large chunk of the game figuring out how to construct from his acquired technologies a rocket that was light enough to actually get anywhere.

While spending several hours before Saturday reading the rules (and various “for dummies” versions and walkthroughs) and looking at images of the board, I’d struck upon something which I thought might make a good beginner’s strategy. So, as we launched into this game (no pun intended), I made sure that I collected the bits of technology I would need to put that plan into action. A solar sail (requires no fuel to zoom around the inner solar system) and a buggy robonaut (think Curiosity with more drills) were soon acquired, and once I’d boosted them into orbit, I sent them off to Mars. I dumped the buggy onto Mars, destroying the solar sail in the process – although it simply gets “decommissioned” back to Earth, ready to be boosted into orbit again – and roved the entire Martian surface, planting flags for the Shimuzu Corporation. It was simply a matter of repeating the process with more bits of technology attached to the solar sail and I had a functional factory on Mars. That enabled me to build a faster solar sail, so I could do it all faster, again on Mars and then once more on Venus.

After I had three factories, I could pay 5 tanks of water to end the game. But here’s the thing: I didn’t want to. I was enjoying the experience. It wasn’t really a game any more. I was exploring the solar system, and I’d only just started. Mars and Venus? They’re the low-hanging fruit, exploration-wise. Olly and John were out in the asteroid belt and I wanted a piece of that pie!

Photo by Olly

Olly (white) and John (green) explore the asteroid belt, while my factories (yellowy-orangey-colour) churn out Martian souvenirs

But it was a game after all, and we were playing to win, so I paid my 5WT and took a comfortable victory with 21 points, while the others hovered around 12 or 13 points each, if I remember correctly. It felt like a cop-out – an anticlimax in a game of such huge scale (each player turn represents an Earth year, each point of mass is 40 tonnes, etc.). If I played again, I might put forward a house rule that nobody can pay to end the game; we’d just have to run to the required number of factories.

So, would I play it again? Yes, definitely. This was certainly just a learning game for all three of us; I think it would flow a lot more easily next time, now we’ve got a lot of the rules niggles and strategy options ironed out by actually playing the game. It was quicker than I’d anticipated too, clocking in at about three hours, including several occasions with two of us simultaneously consulting different rulebooks…

After that, it was time to move on to some lighter fare. Given that pretty much every other game in the room was lighter fare, we had a wealth of options. John produced his recently acquired copy of Age of Industry, and we sat down to play the Germany side of the board.

Photo by Olly

End-game situation – sadly, the tiles look nicer earlier in the game

I hadn’t played Age of Industry before, but John had, Olly had played Brass (the more complex game from which Martin Wallace distilled AoI) and Paul, who sat down to join us, proclaimed AoI to be one of his favourite games. Thus, I felt a little intimidated, especially after the pure brain-frying experience of High Frontier. But as the rules explanation played out, I felt like I had a handle on most of the basic mechanics. Strategy, on the other hand? None. Play it and see.

It’s a deceptively simple game, by which I mean it looks complicated but it isn’t really… but don’t let yourself be deceived by the simplicity because it’s actually quite deep… and… well… it’s simple to play but difficult to play well… I think. Maybe.

Let me be clear for just one moment: I really liked this game. There was a lot to think about, but not too much. Everything affects everything else. You want to build loads of industries? Fine, but that means you’ll go last in the turn order next round. You want to build a factory? Great, you’ll be using my coal and my iron to do that, so that’s money for me. It’s a game with my kind of depth.

I ended up somehow winning in a very tight game (Me: 35 / John & Paul: both 34 / Olly: 31). This might have been a bit of a “dark horse newbie” effect – nobody expected me to win on my first time, least of all me, so they might not have felt threatened by me. Seriously, my first few turns were largely random until I got the swing of how things fitted together.

Germany seems to be the most basic map for Age of Industry, so I look forward to playing the other side (New England), as well as the Japan/Minnesota double-sided expansion that John picked up. There are some really crazy-looking resource rules for some of those maps…

Filler time: Würfel Bohnanza

Now, I have the utmost respect for Uwe Rosenberg. Agricola is one of my favourite games (if not my outright favourite) and I love Le Havre – more of which in a moment. But I’d never played any of his Bohnanza games until Saturday.

This dice-based game could alternatively be called Advanced Bean-Based Yahtzee. The aim is to roll combinations of different bean characters on seven dice, of which four dice have one distribution of faces and the other three have another distribution. The twists are that everyone’s working towards different combinations and you can also collect combinations on other people’s turns.

It was fun enough, but I felt it might have been a touch too long for the amount of game there was in it. I struggled a bit with colour-recognition as well. (I’m not colour-blind by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have trouble sometimes with certain colours in certain lighting conditions. These were the colours; these were the lighting conditions.) If someone offered me the choice of watching Hollyoaks or playing Würfel Bohnanza, I’d pull out the dice for certain, but it’s not a game I’d actively clamour for.

And to finish (after John and Paul had declared themselves finished for the night and bid farewell), Olly and I pulled out my Christmas present, Le Havre: The Inland Port. This two-player-only game attempts to distil the pure essence of Le Havre into a quick, zero-luck game. WITH WHEELS!

Photo by Olly

Olly’s spinny-wheely building board, warehouse and pile o’ francs, near the end of the game

Quite simply, each round consists of between three and nine actions, distributed between the two players. Each action is either buy a building or use a building. That’s it, really. Whoever has the highest value in buildings and cash at the end of twelve rounds is the winner. The real brain-burner here is the warehouse.

The four resources (wood, clay, grain and fish) are represented by four wooden cubes on a warehouse grid. The quantity is given by the total of the horizontal and vertical positions (e.g. Olly has 5 + 3 = 8 fish in the picture). Here’s the thing: all gains to and payments from the warehouse are represented by vectors. If you want to pay 2 wood, you have to move your brown cube 2 spaces to the left; you can’t move diagonally down and to the right. It’s just not allowed. The buildings give you resources by moving your cubes along vectors the number of times shown by the wheel sector in which that building is sitting (from 2 times to 4 times). Managing this vector-based warehouse alongside your building wheel (and keeping an eye on your opponent’s buildings and warehouse) is really two games in one.

The thing is, this isn’t really very much like Le Havre at all. Yes, it shares some of the same artwork for the buildings. Yes, it involves building things and using them (and you can pay to use your opponent’s buildings too, just like Le Havre). Yes, you can block your opponent from using a building by using it yourself. But it feels much, much drier than Le Havre, and the warehouse mechanism can feel extremely abstract at times. I’ve enjoyed this game on the couple of occasions I’ve played it, but I can’t help feeling it’s a little hampered by its association with its big brother. In my mind, it’s hard to live up to the name of Le Havre.

Anyway, Olly won (211–201). By that point, it was Sunday, so we both called it a night.

The highlight of the night for me was High Frontier. Not because it’s a brilliant game. I’m not sure it actually is. I’m not sure it’s really that much of a game. But it was a real experience, and I had dreams about it that night. I’ve already been looking at Phil Eklund’s other designs and wondering if I could get anyone to play them. Bios: Megafauna, anyone?

All photos taken by Olly and shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers G+ page.

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