Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 April 2013

After a long day of herding buskers around Hexham (don’t ask), there was nothing I wanted more than to get over to Newcastle and play some games. Luckily, it was the right Saturday for that to happen, and I actually made it in time for the start of the session! With punctuality comes choice, so John F seized the moment (and me) to request Power Grid: Factory Manager. We roped in John S and Olly to make it up to the sensible maximum of four players, and we started setting up.

PG:FM has a rather tedious set-up, involving arranging the factory tiles on the main board ready for purchase, as well as sorting out the appropriate starting tiles for player boards, tiles for turn order (which are different for different numbers of players), tiles for energy price rises, selecting three “X” tiles to seed the first market… it drags on a bit. I usually like to explain bits of the game as they get set up, but PG:FM doesn’t really lend itself to that approach, so this time I made sure we could see all the bits before explaining anything. It’s a relatively simple game, so I hope I didn’t make too much of a hash of the rules explanation. I’d decided beforehand to explain the end of the round before explaining how the earlier parts of the round work, because everything you do earlier in the round is geared towards optimising the result of the Bureaucracy phase at the end. I think it was a successful approach, and it probably took roughly the same length of time to explain as it had to set up the table.

PG:FM is Power Grid in name only. Yes, it’s a Friedemann Friese game; yes, it’s got artwork by Maura Kalusky; and yes, it’s got the same paper currency. The only gameplay element that feels similar is in balancing two factors as you increase your capacities through the game – here, it’s Production and Storage; in Power Grid, it’s cities built and cities you can power. PG:FM introduces a nice little twist in that the auction phase (where you bid for turn order, rather than factory tiles) is carried out with available worker meeples rather than money. In principle, this makes it a short, tight auctioning round; in practice, it means that most turn-order tiles go for a zero bid. Bit of an anti-climax.

We ploughed through the game’s five rounds in about 90 minutes, including rules explanation, so it didn’t outstay its welcome. However, I quite quickly felt that we were playing relatively isolated solitaire games on our own player boards. Interaction was minimal (opportunities for opponent-screwage are limited to the aforementioned auction and buying tiles before your opponents can) and… well… it was just very dry.

Now, I don’t normally mind dry. Sometimes I take a perverse pleasure in enjoying a game despite its apparent dryness. But this was seriously dry. Dry like a snorer’s uvula. Drier than a vulture’s armpit. Like a lake of fun had been soaked up with a giant enjoyment-sponge, leaving just a cracked bed of ultra-dry game-mud. It was engaging, yes, but engaging in the same way that once I’ve started filling in a tax return, I can’t stop until I’ve got to the end.

You could dry it out a bit more by setting fire to it, I suppose.

You could dry it out a bit more by setting fire to it, I suppose.

So yes, the end. The winner is simply the richest person at the end of the game. John F won, comfortably into the 300s, with Olly and me hovering in the middle (304 and 295 respectively) and John S down in the low 200s. There was a general feeling of “meh” around the table, and I agree. I’m glad I got to try out Power Grid: Factory Manager with more than two players, but it’ll probably be out of the door when the next UK maths trade comes up on BoardGameGeek.

We toyed with the idea of Bios: Megafauna at that point, but I could see lots of hesitant faces, so I ended that discussion with the words, “Let’s play something fun.” And thus Myrmes hit the table. It was my first four-player game of Myrmes (having played a three-player game at Newcastle earlier in the year, and a two-player game online at Boîte à Jeux), and it played out similarly to my previous experiences: players who lose a nurse early in the game (in this case, John S and John F) by completing a challenge for the Council of Queen Ants end up lagging behind because they’re severely limited in the number of actions they can take per round. Meanwhile, the other players (in this case, Olly and me) can afford to create extra nurses, dig their nests deeper, leave bigger pheromone trails and just generally crank out the victory points. Myrmes doesn’t shy away from punishing early mistakes like that, and so we ended up with isolated battles between first–second and third–fourth places. It probably didn’t help the imbalance that Olly and I were diagonally opposite on the main garden board, so we didn’t really restrict each other’s pheromonal ramblings until very late in the game.

Olly (black) and I (red) dominate the board with our pheromone trails

Final game state – Olly (black) and I (red) dominate the board with our pheromone trails

I did manage to frustrate Olly’s plans for expansion in the last of the three game “years” – my five-hex trail on the bottom-left in the picture was exactly where Olly had wanted to put his, leaving his worker-ant options severely restricted – but that wasn’t enough to hold him back from the win. Some final-round challenge completion left Olly with 48 points and me with 42, while John S and John F trailed on 27 and 24 respectively. It’s a really enjoyable game, but horribly, horribly tight on resources and workers. Very thinky and very frustrating, especially when you make what seems like a good scoring move early on and it brutally punishes you for the rest of the game. Not one for the faint of heart.

A few games finished around the same time, so there was a slight reshuffle at the table, with Amo replacing Olly for a game of Spectaculum. I didn’t really know anything about it except that it was a Reiner Knizia design, but if I hadn’t known that, I would have been able to guess within thirty seconds of rules explanation. It’s so Knizia. Route-laying, buying and selling, values going up and down – it’s like several Knizia games thrown into one box, and it’s good fun. The travelling-circus theme is, of course, utterly superficial. It’s really a stock-trading game, with the coloured tokens placed onto the map board altering the values of the stocks, as well as creating dividend payouts and taxes (or, in the language of the theme, payday and sickness).

Stock market games aren’t really my forte, and I struggled to marry the price-manipulating route-building to the buying and selling until about halfway through the game. Once I’d got that sorted, I started doing OK, but it was a bit late by that point to do much about it. A fun game, ending in a very close win for John S (84) over Amo (83), with John F and I a little further behind.

Caption?

I felt like a bit of a Dizzy Dancing Bear myself for about half the game

John F was keen to get in his traditional play of Power Grid at this point. Now, I know I said last time that “I’m not one to turn this game down”, but, well… I was wrong. I don’t know if it was having already played Factory Manager, or just that I’d played Power Grid at the last Newcastle Gamers session, but I just didn’t fancy it. I think that when my gaming opportunities are as slim as they are, I like to get as much variety as I can at the Newcastle evenings, but I’ll probably be ready for Power Grid next time.

John S was feeling much the same (although I can’t speculate on his reasons), so we left John F and Amo scouting for more Power Grid players and set up for a quick round of vanilla Hive. Obviously, I’d played this too at the last Newcastle session, as well as in between, so maybe my reasoning for not wanting to play Power Grid is flawed… but it’s a very quick game, so that makes a substantial difference.

I felt like I had the edge from the start (probably to do with being White and thus having the first turn), but I had to engineer the rescue of my Queen at a couple of points through the game. Once I got onto the attack, however, there was a point where I still had six tiles left to place, while John was down to three, so I had much more flexibility in the later game. After foolishly placing a spider instead of an ant (and giving John an easy chance to block my win), I had to go for victory with a grasshopper placement instead, and I took the win a couple of turns later. Great game. Swingy, thinky and pleasantly short.

One grasshopper jump from victory

One grasshopper jump from victory

Olly had just finished London at that point (verdict: “It’s… alright.”), so he joined us for Survive: Escape from Atlantis!, complete with John’s newly acquired expansions: the Giant Squid, Dolphins and Dive Dice. We went all-out and threw everything onto the table, hoping for a newly chaotic experience. It turned out pretty similar to normal Survive, but the new elements did add a certain fun novelty. I’d expected the Squid to play a much larger role than it ended up playing – its power to eat meeples off adjacent land hexes and pick individual meeples off boats sounds outrageously powerful on paper, but I think we only lost two or three meeples to squid attack throughout the whole game.

It may have been that the sheer number of creatures on the board diluted the effects somewhat (we’d added five squid and four or five dolphins), and the Dive Dice meant that we were quite often able to manoeuvre the creatures away from our swimmers / rowers / unsuspecting squid-victim walkers. It might be best to go for one expansion at a time to retain as much “take that!” screwery as possible… or we may have just had an unusual game.

"Mmmmm. Your friend was tasty."

“Mmmmm. Your friend was tasty.”

Olly managed to rescue eight of his ten meeples for a total of 23 points, which was bigger than the combined total of my rescues (12) and John’s (8). Double-win for Olly.

The final game of the night was also from John’s bag of goodies: Fearsome Floors. In fact, being a copy of the cheaper German edition, it was Finstere Flure, but John gave a us a very thorough rules run-down in English. It’s a race game designed by Friedemann Friese, in which the object is to get your four young, delicious humans across the board from one corner to the opposite without them being eaten by a monster. The monster moves according to a simple set of rules after everyone has moved their people, so each round sees the players trying to strike a balance between moving towards the exit and guiding the monster towards their opponents.

There are a couple of key things that you need to get your head round to function properly in Fearsome Floors:

  • After a player piece has been moved, it’s flipped over to its other side for the next round. The movement points on the two sides of each piece add up to 7, which is fairly even for the pieces with a 3 and 4… but the 6-and-1 piece really needs some thought to be used effectively.
  • The player who moves the last piece of the round can make dramatic changes to the movement of the monster, so it’s a fairly powerful position to be in (typical Friese!).

One of the immediate joys of this game is the ability to create your own monster from various slot-together card body-parts. Lloyd was hovering near the table, with not quite enough time to play a game but not quite wanting to leave yet either, so he helped construct our monster. As a result, we ended up with a pink slime monster with a very dapper right arm and leg (complementing Lloyd’s après-dance waistcoat and bow-tie), as well as a top hat balanced on his eyeball head. Oh, and a second head as well.

"And tonight, performing the merengue... err... how do you pronounce this? Rrrffththlllaagaagahhhghh? Is that right?"

“And tonight, performing the merengue… err… how do you pronounce this? Rrrffththlllaagaaghhhghh? Is that right?”

And with the Frankenbeast assembled, we set about getting our humans out of danger. It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to do very well at this game. I could attribute it to fatigue (I think it was well after 11 pm when we started), but it’s probably just a personal weakness when it comes to spatial puzzling. I often don’t “see” things that others do – I’d made a few unforced errors in Hive earlier on – which is easily turned to my disadvantage. I got more of a handle on it towards the end of the game, but by then I’d had at least four pieces sent back to the start (which is what happens to them if they’re attacked by the monster in the first seven rounds), so I was well behind.

John got his second piece out of the exit before either Olly or I had saved even one. Given that the game is won when a player gets their third piece out of the exit, even after we’d got some pieces out, Olly and I had to join forces to try to delay John’s victory. I had everything sorted – I would sacrifice one of my gang to lead the monster through a secret passage to near the exit; meanwhile, Olly and I had cleared our pieces near the exit out of the way so that the emerging monster would turn and eat John’s piece. The only way it could fail was if the monster movement card that round was the one with a value of 5.

And, of course, it was exactly that card. Bum. John took an easy victory. It was a fun game, even if it wasn’t one to which I’m particularly well suited. It plays up to seven players, which is (a) useful for larger groups, and (b) potentially hilariously chaotic, so I’ll look out for it being played at future sessions.

It was well after midnight by that point, and there was only The Resistance being played, so I called it a night. I’m not sure anything stands out as a highlight this time. It was just a good, solid evening of quality gaming!

[Speaking of The Resistance, it was interesting to note that it was played a lot over the course of the evening. (You can always tell when it’s happening, because there’s someone loudly declaiming things like,”Everybody close their eyes… Now all the spies open their eyes…”. If it’s the Avalon version, it’s even weirder because they’re doing stuff with their thumbs.) I wonder if its recent appearance on the web series TableTop has resulted in more people buying and playing it. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that it’s not really my sort of thing. It’s a “people” game rather than a “things” game, and I like “things” (boards, cards, wooden bits, bakelite invertebrates, whatever)… but I think if I could round up six or seven good friends – people I know really, really well – who were willing to play it, I’d probably love it.]

For once, I took all my own pictures, but I’ll point you in the direction of the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page anyway for promotional purposes. Second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

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