Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 26 January 2013

As usual, the last Saturday of the month brings with it a glorious grab-bag of gaming in the form of Newcastle Gamers. To avoid the usual “standing around awkwardly trying to figure out what to play and with whom”, there’d been a bit of pre-arrangement on Google+, so I entered the room carrying what I knew would be my first game of the night.

That game was Québec. It seems to be a relatively little-known game published by Ystari in 2011. Why isn’t it more popular? Well, I don’t think the box helps.

Meh.

Meh.

It’s like the commissioned art for a self-published book on the historical doorways of Québec City, or an awful chocolate box painting… but it’s a chocolate box that you’d open up and find that all the chocolates are beige, and they taste beige as well. I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or a Euro-game by its bland, insipid box art, but it’s certainly not a good start. Luckily for Québec, it had been half-price in the Travelling Man sale, so I’d checked its rating on Boardgamegeek and snapped it up. You see, I’m not shallow. Much.

Open up this box, however, and it’s a very different story inside. Here’s the board about a third of the way through our game:

ALL the colours!

ALL the colours!

The board features zones in red, blue, yellow and purple, and the possible player colours are pink, white, black, green and orange – it’s a riot of colour, which makes it fairly easy to distinguish what’s going on where on the board. So… what is going on?

The rulebook tells us that the players are “in charge of a rich family whose goal is to acquire influence by building the city of Québec”, which you achieve over four centuries by finishing buildings with your “architect” and sending your workers to the “zones of power”. In reality, what you’re actually doing is putting your pawn on one of the 11 circles available each round (sorry… each century) and piling cubes on the circles with pawns on them until the pawn gets moved and you get to shift your cubes into one of the corners of the board. It’s a micron-thin-themed cube-shuffling Euro to the nth degree. You could paste any theme onto this game and notice no difference at all. You could be in charge of space construction companies vying to build an enormous spaceship, looking to gain the most influence in the design of the five main ship sections (command, propulsion, weapons, shields and… er… holodecks?). You could be scientists trying to wipe out diseases in 44 out-of-control petri dishes by piling drug cubes onto them. It’d be the same playing experience.

But does that matter? Well, not much. It turns out that it’s a really rather enjoyable game that happens to have a hellishly brain-burning scoring mechanism at the end of each of the four centuries.

I was playing the full rules (there are simpler variants to ease you into the game – we ignored them) with Michael, Olly and Jerome. Michael and Olly had read the rules beforehand, so between us we managed to get Jerome up to speed fairly painlessly and we set off into the first century. It soon became apparent (and especially after the scoring at the end of the first century) that the key to doing well in Québec is managing the positioning of your cubes around the edge of the board. Managing the positioning perfectly. The problem is that you go around the five “zones of power” and score one VP for each cube you have in that zone – which is fine in itself – but then the person with the most cubes in that zone cascades half of their cubes into the next zone to be scored again there… and then they can cascade again if they have the most cubes in that zone too, and so on and so on. If you misjudge the leader in a zone by just a single cube (or if they do something unexpected on the main board that allows them to get another cube into a zone), you could miss out on a cascade and potentially a lot of VPs.

The upshot of this system is that we all spent quite a bit of time counting. Counting, dividing by two, counting again, dividing by two again, counting… and then figuring out where best to put more cubes in order to mitigate the results of our arithmetical gymnastics. And then re-counting, re-dividing… It all got a bit ponderous. I imagine it would speed up once players had a few plays under their belts and had more of an intuitive feel for the scoring.

There’s also an area-control element to the game, in that you score more points at the end of the game based on the buildings your architect finished. Your “main group”, which is usually going to be your largest contiguous collection of buildings, scores more points than any other buildings, so you want to make sure that your main group is as big as possible and contains as many highly prestigious buildings as possible. In this game, there wasn’t much in the way of blocking, so most of us managed to create a reasonable main group. Olly’s was particularly impressive, with a whole bunch of 3-star (the maximum) buildings in a lovely cluster. That helped him claw back a hefty points deficit in the final scoring, but not quite enough to win. It was a surprisingly close game, given how out-of-control the cascading scoring process can feel after each century. I don’t love Québec, but the things I don’t like (ponderous; theme-starved; analysis-paralysis-inducing cascading madness) certainly wouldn’t stop me playing it again.

Final scores (roughly) – Jerome: 139 / Me: 134 / Michael & Olly: both 128

Olly had to leave at that point, and we knew John S was arriving any minute to play some more pre-arranged games, so Jerome suggested a little filler. And so it was that Jerome, Michael and I became bizarre Japanese cowboy goblin-things in Make You Gunfighters. It’s a very simple game, in which you have a hand of cards representing your gunfighters in various locations. To attack another player, you play a location card, and if they have the same location on one or more cards, you’ve killed their gunfighter(s). But then your card (whether victorious or not) goes back into your hand, so the other players now have a little information about where your gunfighters are! You can also “run” (i.e. discard a card to gain a new one from the deck), so if you get the opportunity, you can discard a card you’ve just played and gain a bit more secrecy.

It was fun, it was light, and Jerome won by shooting me to death.

We’d just started a quick game of Skull & Roses when John walked in (and you can read his version of events from this point by clicking here), so we abandoned that after one round and settled down to something meaty. Or, as it turned out for me, bready.

It was my first ever 4-player game of Agricola, so I was particularly looking forward to it. We decided on a mixture of the Basic deck and the Interactive deck for our Occupations and Minor Improvements. It was Michael’s first ever game of Agricola, so the K deck (or anything even weirder – John has all the oddities and promos) would have been a bit of a full-on introduction. It turned out tough enough anyway.

Michael played the Turner occupation early on in the game, which allowed him to use wood for food. As a result, he went heavy on the wood-taking. No, I mean really heavy on the wood-taking, snapping up pretty much all the wood that came out. That left the rest of us floundering slightly when it came to getting enough wood to do simple things like, y’know… building fences, building stables and extending our wooden houses. I ended up renovating to clay earlier than I would have done usually, seeing as there was so much clay sitting around.

Agricola

Is there an Occupation that allows me to feed my family with Walkers Baked crisps?

I struck lucky with my cards. Given the scarcity of wood, it was difficult to build fences, which meant it was difficult to keep animals. I’d been dealt the Baker Occupation, which allowed me to bake bread as part of the harvest phase. After picking up a Clay Oven fairly early on and sowing a few fields with grain, that left me with a nice little food engine for each harvest. As the family grew, 5 food wasn’t going to cut it, so I played another serendipitous card: the Millstone Minor Improvement. This gives 2 extra food from baking bread, so that was 7 food per harvest. After playing the Occupation that means only 2 family members need 2 food, with the rest satisfied by 1 food (don’t ask me what the Occupation was called… EDIT: It’s the Cook. Thanks for reminding me, Olly!), I could feed the whole family of five with only 1 grain. BOOM. Happy.

Somehow, I managed to fill all my farmyard spaces and, even though I had no boar and only one cattle, I won! It was very much a learning game for Michael, and I think Jerome hampered himself slightly by playing a lot of Occupations. They were powerful ones, and they allowed him to bring out some Minor Improvements with prerequisites of 3 Occupations, but I think they took up too many valuable actions, leaving him with a lot of unused spaces at the end of the game. I was pleased with my farm, having managed to time things just right to get 4 vegetables (maximum veg points!) and a pretty respectable cluster of sheep and grain.

Final scores – Me: 36 / John: 33 / Jerome: 19 / Michael: 9

And then Galaxy Trucker. This game from Czech designer Vlaada Chvátil has quite the reputation for unpredictable mayhem and riotous fun, and it didn’t disappoint. We had the same four players as for Agricola, with everyone except John on their maiden voyage.

The premise is simple: we cobble together spaceships from heaps of pipe and assorted components (racing against each other and the clock), fly them across the galaxy, picking up cargo and facing hazards along the way, and then sell the cargo at the end of the mission. Do that three times – game over, richest player wins. The beauty is in the way things just don’t end up how you expected them to, and almost never how you wanted them to. But that’s fine, because – a bit like Pandemic – it’s almost more fun when it all goes disastrously wrong.

After the special “introductory” mission, we felt like we’d all got the hang of how the game worked. Oh, how wrong we were. The second and third missions are much, much tougher. Yes, you get to build a bigger ship to soak up more asteroid impacts and laser fire, but you’ll be taking a serious pummelling before you get to the end. Astonishingly, no one actually had to drop out of any of the missions, but Michael got as close as it’s possible to get on Mission 3:

In space no one can hear you scream. That's mainly because everyone else on the ship has been blasted off into space by an errant piece of rock.

In space, no one can hear you scream. That’s mainly because everyone else on the ship has been blasted off into space by an errant piece of rock.

One crew member left, drifting along in an un-propelled crew cabin. It was a hilarious end to the mission, especially after Michael had been confident in his ship’s construction. So confident, in fact, that he’d been the one pushing the timer onto its next run every time during the building stage, hurrying the rest of us through the process.

But as I suggested earlier, it just doesn’t matter when this stuff happens. OK, you might want to win, but it’s just so much fun that it doesn’t matter when the entire left side of your ship gets sheared off by a single laser hit. It doesn’t matter when your crew gets reduced by eighty percent because of an onboard infection or because you got boarded by slavers. It doesn’t matter when all of your batteries fall off the ship and you can’t power your shields any more, leaving you painfully exposed to all attacks.

A bit of experience with the game seems to pay dividends though. John knew enough to equip his ship with huge amounts of firepower during the third mission, which was key to his survival of several brutal attacks. As a result, he thrashed the rest of us quite soundly, but I like to think I might put up more of a fight next time. And there will  be a next time. Oh yes.

Final scores – John: 50 / Me: 25 / Jerome: 22 / Michael: 20

At that point, I headed for home… but not before scoring one final win of the night. Remember last time, when I played High Frontier and flippantly suggested Bios: Megafauna as a possible follow-up? It turned out that founder member Gareth was trying to part with his copy in an effort to trim down his collection a touch. So, nature followed its course and I ended up leaving the session with an as-new copy of Bios: Megafauna to add to my collection. The best part?

DINOMEEPLES!

Three types of dinomeeple from Bios: Megafauna, with a standard Carcassonne meeple for comparison.

Three types of dinomeeple from Bios: Megafauna, with a standard Carcassonne meeple for comparison.

Really looking forward to getting it to the table, but it’s going to be another homework assignment for anyone who wants to take part.

Anyway, highlight of the night was Galaxy Trucker. It’s hard to beat Agricola, but GT was just SO. MUCH. FUN.

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