One month older and with a +1 modifier to Progeny, I returned to Newcastle Gamers. Visiting in-laws meant I was able to make the 4:30 start of the session, and I’m so glad I did. If I hadn’t, I would have missed Keyflower.
This had been one of John S’s birthday games, received just a few days beforehand; having given it an inaugural two-player run at home, he was keen to try it with a larger group. Keyflower plays up to six, but we kept things sensible with a group of four: John, me, Olly and Camo. My psychic powers had foretold that this game would be hitting the table (i.e. John had mentioned it on Google+), so I’d watched through Richard Ham’s excellent play through video in an attempt to get a handle on the rules. (I’d also had a go at reading the rulebook, but it wasn’t desperately clear to my baby-addled brain.) John’s excellent rules explanation bolstered my confidence in my grasp of the gameplay, and we entered into the first of four seasons in the “Key” world – actually, given the designers’ penchant for calling everything “Key-x“, it’s probably called the “Keyniverse”.
Keyflower is a bit of an oddity. The designers appear to have adopted the following design philosophy:
That’s not to say that it feels “thrown together” or anything – it’s actually an elegant and fairly simple game in terms of the rules and the way the mechanics fit together – but there’s a hell of a lot to take in the first time round. There’s an auction system, where everyone tries to take possession of various hex tiles for their village; there’s worker placement, with escalating costs for each use of a tile within a season and a bonus when someone else uses a tile within your village; there’s tile placement as each player builds their own little village, matching up roads and fields as they go; there’s a network-building element, with a pick-up-and-deliver system to get resources to the village tiles where they’ll earn victory points in the final reckoning; there are hidden goals, with each player holding three secret village tiles that they can draft into the final season for open bidding; and on top of all that, there’s the infuriating colour system – everybody has a secret stash of meeples (technically “keyples”, but… no, just no) in various colours, and once a meeple of a certain colour has been used to bid on or activate a tile, that tile is locked to that colour for the rest of the season.
Seriously, there’s a lot going on. At its most basic, it feels like the unholy lovechild of Le Havre and Carcassonne, with all of the brain-burn that implies. And it comes with lovely little player screens in the form of six individual cardboard houses (with breakaway stunt chimneys… although I’m not sure that’s intentional), unique inside and out. It’s a beautiful touch.
I enjoy auction games, although I’m usually pretty bad at them. The first season of Keyflower bore this out admirably, with me acquiring a single tile out of the eight available in spring. Not wanting to be outbid, I left it too late to join in a lot of the tile auctions, and I ended up either locked out by colour or by the size of the bid required. I was left without any resource-producing tiles in my village, meaning that all my raw materials for upgrading tiles and scoring victory points had to be sourced from other players. That was painfully expensive in terms of meeples, because the meeples used on a tile in a village are kept at the end of the season by the owner of the village. I ended up with my strength being the ability to obtain green meeples; that’s very handy, because the green meeples are much scarcer than the other colours, and aren’t available from the meeple-drawing bag at the start of the game, but the advantage wasn’t quite enough to outweigh my tiny, resource-less village.
Later seasons were much more successful in terms of the tile bidding, and I soon had a reasonable village network going on. I’d managed to pick up another green-meeple-generating tile, so people were at least throwing a few meeples at me in order to “get some green”. But I felt pretty hampered by that poor first season, and that feeling continued through the rest of the game – it certainly didn’t feel at all forgiving. I don’t have any problem with that; I just need to learn to play the game a bit better! My strength in green meeples meant that I was able to snipe a few tiles, managing to deny John a tile that would have scored him well for the wood he could produce. It was of little use to me, but it felt good!
Not all the village tiles get used in every game of Keyflower, and this particular outing suffered from a dearth – in fact, a complete lack – of tiles offering enhanced transport capabilities (i.e. the ability to move resources around from tile to tile). That meant that we could only use our Home tiles to transport resources, giving only 1 point of movement (moving one resource token by one tile) or 2 points if the tile was upgraded. This led to me suddenly (and a little bit swearily) discovering that I was completely unable to move the stone I had on my Home tile to the next tile over to upgrade it and score some points. All the Home tiles (including my own) had been used with meeple colours I didn’t have any of.
Never mind. I still had plenty of green meeples to go in heavily when bidding for the final-round winter scoring tiles, so I managed to pick up the boat tile which allowed me to flip (i.e. upgrade) a tile for free, meaning I was 7 points up on my previous position. My previous position had, however, been dreadful. I ended up last on 45, with John just ahead on “er… 47, 48-ish?”; meanwhile, Camo (who I’d thought was doing very well) and Olly (much more of a dark horse in this game) had steamed ahead and tied on 62. The tie-break? According to the rulebook, tying players should play another game of Keyflower to determine the winner. Errr… no. A gentlemanly handshake was a much better solution.
Thoughts on Keyflower? Some unnecessarily obtuse iconography aside, it’s a good game. A really, really good game. I’ll happily play it again. And again and again. There’s so much potential for variability, and it looks like it’ll scale really nicely to different player numbers. It might scare away a few people with its plethora of mechanics and abundance of choices, but they’ll be missing out on a tightly designed, elegant experience. Easily an 8.5–9 on the BoardGameGeek rating scale.
It was going to take something special to beat Keyflower. It turns out that Robo Rally was not that special something. But it was fun… for a while.
Ali had joined us as we were finishing up Keyflower, and with no other tables looking like they were close to finishing, we pulled out a little something to fill in the gap for the five of us. I hadn’t played Robo Rally before, but Olly had previously spoken of the time he played it with eight players and it dragged on and on and on and on and on… so I asked Camo how long it was going to play. “About an hour.” Oh, that’s OK.
160 minutes later, we emerged from the robotic battlefield, bloodied, bruised and (in my case at least) a little bored. It had been good fun for the first hour or so – I mean, robots racing around with lasers on a factory floor covered in conveyor belts and pits? What’s not to like? – but there’s a certain degree of frustration innately (and intentionally) built into the game. The main pre-programming mechanic (play five cards to dictate your robot’s movement, then reveal them one by one and simultaneously resolve movement) is ingenious, but the interactions between the robots, and between the robots and the board itself, become a little tedious when you’re trying to actually get somewhere. There were a few moments of good entertainment (John and I going relentlessly head-to-head in a sumo-laser deathmatch; Olly misjudging the board effects and walking directly into a pit; that sort of thing), but the game outstayed its welcome by well over an hour in my eyes.
I was glad that Olly picked up the “Fourth Gear” and “Crab Legs” upgrades, because they gave him a big advantage in manoeuvrability. He steamed ahead to the third flag, then (aforementioned pit accident notwithstanding) gracefully powered to the fourth and final flag for the win.
So, would I play Robo Rally again? Oddly, maybe. We’d used two of the playing boards to race on, one riddled with infuriating conveyor-belt circuits; with only one board, it might be a tighter, faster experience, but I fear the extra crowding might increase the frustration level even further. If I could guarantee it would play in an hour or less, I’d go for it.
Next was a proper filler. A quick game, light on the brain and easy on the eye. Tsuro. I’d somehow never managed to play Tsuro, which was a situation that needed rectification. The five of us from Robo Rally sat down as flying dragons and started trying to kill each other.
I hadn’t been prepared for just how quick this game is. The whole thing was no longer than ten minutes, and probably closer to five. It was so quick that I haven’t really formed any opinions on whether I like the game or not. I’m not sure I can hold anything against a game that only lasts five minutes. Anyway, Camo and Olly got down to a head-to-head battle after the rest of us crashed off the board, with Camo taking the victory.
There was talk of mustering eleven players (!) for Amo’s new copy of Panic on Wall Street!, which sounded interesting… but not quite my cup of tea. I’m not really one for large numbers of players; anything beyond five and I start losing track of what’s going on. This particular game was also being described as “shouty” (again, not really my bag), so Ali, John and I made our excuses and shuffled off to play John’s other exciting new birthday acquisition: Myrmes.
Myrmes (mur-mezz? mur-meez? mur-muss? murms?) is a game of ants. Taking place in the eponymous ant kingdom (i.e. a back garden) over three years, the winner is the player who dominates the garden and completes tasks for the “Council of Queen Ants” or something. This is all done via a worker-placement mechanic on each player’s own ant colony board, although somewhat tragically, they’re not worker ants that you’re placing. Missed a trick there. The workers are in fact your nurse ants, who can help give birth to larvae, soldier ants and worker ants (there they are!), or they can carry out their own specialist actions, including digging the colony deeper, completing tasks for victory points and giving birth to more nurse ants. Larvae are used to modify the die roll that defines the bonus for a particular season, or you can eat them when it comes to winter. Worker ants can carry out simple tasks within the colony, in which case they survive into the next season, or they can be sent out of an ant-hole onto the garden board, where they can fight prey insects (with the help of your soldier ants) and/or be converted into pheromone tiles, which score points and give you resources from the garden. And that’s the basic gist of the whole game. It’s really pretty simple, especially when you’ve kicked off the evening with something as wide-ranging as Keyflower. Here in Myrmes, it’s a question of gaining territory and resources, carrying out tasks and making sure you can feed the family at harvest… sorry… feed the colony in winter. Everything gets boiled down to Agricola comparisons with me.
Both John and Ali took an early decision to carry out one of the tasks for the Council of Queen Ants. This nets some victory points, but it results in the loss of the nurse ant who carries out the task. Given that you only start with three nurse ants, that’s a big sacrifice to make early on. In contrast, I chose to expand my workforce, spending most of the game with four or five nurse ants. I’m not sure I used my nurse advantage to full effect, but I only had to take one 3-point penalty for being unable to fully feed my colony in winter. I think I was also the only player to take their colony down to the third level, which provides an extra couple of spaces to store resources (if either John or Ali did this, it would only have been in the very last stages of the game), giving me much more flexibility.
As I’m writing this, I realise it sounds like I was coasting to victory. Yes, I won, but not by much! Ali had played an efficient game, coming in on 54 points, just behind my 58. For some reason, John only had 24 points. I can’t put my finger on where it went wrong for him, apart from the early loss of that nurse. I get the feeling that Myrmes can be a little unforgiving of early mistakes.
It was a very enjoyable game, with better thematic integration than most eurogames. Nothing needed explaining more than once, because it all fitted together in a satisfyingly ant-y way. I wonder how much longevity it might have, what with the only random elements of setup coming in the placement of prey and random selection of the six Council objectives. But I’ll very happily play it again… in fact I already have played it again, albeit only in digital form on the Boîte à Jeux website (I lost a two-player game, 48–46, just for the record).
I had no major problems with component quality as such, but the pheromone tiles seemed to be on a slightly different scale of hex-size to the actual board, making every tile placement feel like a “near enough” fit. Also, the start-player marker is the most ridiculous choice, being a little disc just like the prey markers, and featuring an ant looking just like the termite prey. As you can see from the photos, we ended up swapping the start-player marker with the year marker, giving us a nice chunky wooden pawn (and what the hell is that supposed to be in our ant theme?) to pass around. It worked really well, and I’m not sure why that isn’t the way given in the rulebook. Anyway, all of those quibbles were balanced out by the plastic ants. FREAKIN’ PLASTIC ANTS. Awesome. And the great gameplay, obviously.
John and Ali made tracks at that point, and Lloyd announced Panic Lab to fill the gap before the traditional night-ending games of The Resistance. I hadn’t come across Panic Lab before, but it was simple enough to understand in a couple of minutes, so six of us (me, Camo, Olly, Gareth, Dave and Lloyd) tried to catch some escaped amoebae. It’s a sort of racing game, trying to figure out which of the amoebae in a circle of cards is the one specified by the dice rolled. The trouble is that it might mutate and change shape, colour or pattern, or travel through the air vents, so you have to methodically track around the cards, holding three bits of information in your head (shape, colour and either spotty or stripy), altering them as you go. If your brain works like that, you’re in luck. Mine usually does, but not so much after midnight. I got a few points, but the punishment of losing a point if you choose an incorrect amoeba left me on zero by the time Lloyd had racked up the required five points for a win.
At that point, it was time for The Resistance, which usually indicates that it’s time for me to go home.
Highlight of the evening was Keyflower. Brilliant. More Keyflower for me, please!
Next Newcastle Gamers session on the 30th March is an all-dayer starting at 10am, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it. Even if I can, I’ll almost certainly not be there all day!
All photos by Olly, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page.