Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 11 May 2013

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Jo(h)ns

One of the wonderful things about Newcastle Gamers is the variety of people there, from all sorts of places and backgrounds, and with a huge range in gaming tastes. One of the slightly more confusing things about Newcastle Gamers is the fact that every other person seems to be called John. Even the ones who aren’t called John probably have it as a middle name (and I’m one of those). The upshot of all this Johnnery is that, every so often, you’ll hear something like this:

“Whose turn is it?”

“Oh, it’s John’s.”

“Ummm… John..?”

“Oh, yeah. THAT John.”

The evening started at DEFJOHN 5, with John S and Olly teaching me the microgame of the moment, Love Letter. Featuring only a deck of sixteen cards (sixteen!) and a small bag of score-keeping tokens (in this copy, borrowed from club treasurer Nick, said tokens were little red hearts… awww), it’s as simple a game as I’ve played since Hungry Hippos. Our nominal aim is to get love letters to the Princess and win her heart. In reality, we each hold a hand comprising a single card. One card! On your turn, you draw another card from the deck, then play one of the two cards to the table. The eight ranks of card have varying powers, from number 1, the Guard (name another card rank to a player – if they have that card, they discard it and are out of the round) to number 8, the Princess herself (the highest rank, but discard the Princess and you’re out of the round).

Not exactly the most photogenic game in the world... but I was winning at this point

Not exactly the most photogenic game in the world… but I was winning at this point

It’s super-simple, there’s a fair dose of luck in it and a little bit of bluffing, which makes it a nice little filler. For me, it wasn’t quite the amazing experience that it’s been made out to be on BoardGameGeek and the like, but it was a fun way to kick things off. After taking an early lead, we finished on 3 hearts each for John and Olly, with me on 2. So I lost. The game is intended to play until someone has 5 hearts, but there was a good reason we’d decided to kick off with a filler… and the reason is creeping into the top of that photo.

Yes, Agricola was on the cards. Pete had made plans to play it with another club member, and Olly, John and I had joined in to round things out to the maximum five players. We played Love Letter until our outstanding Agricolan arrived. Naturally, that “other club member” was called John. Now at DEFJOHN 3. In fact, it was another John S – the same John S with whom I’d played Power Grid in a previous session. Clearly, new nomenclature is called for. John who’d been playing Love Letter will be John Sh for the remainder of this post, while the new arrival will be John Si. Phew. So. Agricola. With Pete.

I’ve played Agricola quite a few times, and I know it well. I know the rules, I know the basic strategies, I know the rhythm of the game. Pete, on the other hand, knows all the cards. All the cards. The base game has 169 Occupations and 139 Minor Improvements, and Pete knows them, knows which ones work well together and has strategies to make his cards work for him no matter what he ends up with. Pete is a formidable opponent in any game, but particularly in Agricola. Indeed, there’s a running joke with Pete’s regular gaming group that everyone who isn’t Pete gets 10 extra points to level things up.

This was my first time drafting Occupations and Minor Improvements at the start of the game, so that was a novel twist for me. We had a straightforward mix of E and K decks, so I’d come across a lot of the cards before, but there was still a lot to take in when we picked up our hands to pick the first card. I didn’t time it, but I reckon we must have spent at least twenty minutes just drafting our cards. It was also my first time with five players, so I spent a couple of minutes getting my head around the slightly different actions available with the full player complement.

So we played. The start-player marker spent a lot of time flitting back and forth between John Si (seated directly to my left) and Pete (two seats to my right), so after a couple of rounds as start player early on, I ended up being either third or fifth in player order for much of the game. In hindsight, I really should have grabbed start player more often, but with only two workers for the vast majority of the game, it seemed like a weak option at the time. Lesson learned. As a result of being late in player order, I often took my second- or third-choice actions, bringing out a raft of Minor Improvements and Occupations rather than… y’know… actually farming.

Some of them were great though. The Clay Deliveryman gave me 1 clay per round from Round 6 to the end of the game, while the Fishing Rod allowed me to take 1 extra food (or 2 extra from Round 8 on) when taking the Fishing action – very handy when you’re not growing anything or raising any animals. My surfeit of clay (or, as it was described at the time, “a f—ton of resources”) meant that it made sense to renovate to clay very early in the game, and in combination with the Clay Supports Minor Improvement (pay 2 clay, 1 wood and 1 reed to build a clay room, rather than 5 clay and 2 reed), I ended up with a five-room clay house. And still no crops or animals.

Meanwhile, John Si was ploughing and sowing like there was no tomorrow, and he brought forth the oven to end all ovens – the Bakehouse. Worth a massive 5 points at the end of the game, the Bakehouse can also convert 1 grain to 5 food… twice per bake action. 10 food in one bake. Once John had his baking engine up and running, he was never short of food. Olly had utilised his Hedge Keeper Occupation to build all fifteen fences in one go, so he was going heavy on the animals. Pete was creating a nicely balanced farm, with crops, pastures and animals everywhere. John Sh had played the Wet Nurse, a card so powerful that many people refuse to play with it – when you build a room, you can pay 1 food to create a baby worker therein. It’s a potential starvation trap, but it’s well worth it if you’ve got the food to back it up. John did indeed have the food, in mammalian form. I’d ploughed a couple of fields and built two stables, but nothing was sown and nothing was living in the stables. Not looking great for me.

After breaking for a little food after Round 8, I resolved to get my act together and get some points. Once “Plough 1 Field and/or Sow” came out, it was my best friend, and I managed to get five fields planted with a mixture of grain and vegetables. I knew the vegetables would largely get eaten (1 veg for 3 food in my Cooking Hearth), and I had enough to sustain me to the end of the game, thanks to the Greengrocer Occupation (take 1 vegetable when you use the “take 1 grain” action) and its reciprocal Occupation, the Land Agent (take 1 grain when you use “take 1 vegetable”). After renovating again to stone and making sure I had the maximum five family members by the end of the game, I’d made about the best I could of a bad job. 3 unused spaces, no sheep, no cattle (and only 1 boar), so quite a few -1 points.

You can see my slightly bare-bones approach to farming in the upper right, just behind John Si's despairing head

You can see my slightly bare-bones approach to farming in the upper right, just behind John Si’s despairing head

In the end, John Sh and Olly had quite sparse but balanced-looking farms (although Olly was without fields, if I remember correctly), John Si was awash with grain and vegetables in a landscape of ploughed fields, Pete had a farm that looked nice but without boar (mitigated by his having played the Horse Minor Improvement, giving him 2 points for one animal type he lacked) and my farm… well, there was a nice, big farmhouse full of people (and with an Outhouse for 2 points), a few fields and crops, and a single pig. Again, not looking great for me. Of course, being Agricola, there can be some surprises in the final reckoning. Enough of a surprise for Pete to not have won?

Well, no. But not by much.

Final score – Pete: 37 / John Si: 35 / Me: 32 / John Sh: 25 / Olly: 25

So Pete won by a Horse. I was pleased with how I did, given it was my first time (a) drafting, and (b) with five players. Ah, Agricola. Always a pleasure.

Olly had to leave at that point, so after the traditional break for standing around and wondering what to play, I pulled out Snowdonia and we set up for a five-player game. Who replaced Olly at the table? Yep, we’re going to DEFJOHN 1. Well, OK. Not quite a John. This time it was Jon. So – just to clarify – that’s me, Pete, John, John and Jon. Glad we’ve got that sorted.

I hadn’t played Snowdonia in a while – which is a crying shame, because it’s great – and neither John Si nor Pete had played it at all. These two factors combined (along with my immense fatigue) to create one of my most shambolic rules explanations ever… but the whole thing gave rise to the renaming of the start-player marker as the “SEXY TRAIN”. Glorious.

I played an absolute stinker of a game. It was interesting to note that the three of us who’d played before were the ones who didn’t build a train until quite late in the game (certainly after the “train maintenance” event), and I didn’t build a train at all. Pete had Moel Siabod, which is cheap to buy (1 steel) and comes with 2 coal, but has no benefit beyond the third-worker capability. John Si had Snowdon – again, a cheap buy, but this time with 1 coal and 9 points at the end of the game. Just like in Agricola, I was late in player order for most of the game (with only myself to blame), so I ended up taking a contract card with bonus points for getting my surveyor high up the mountain, and concentrated on doing exactly that, building a few bits of station and laying the odd piece of track along the way.

John Sh built the Padarn engine, granting him an extra build action after all other build actions are finished, which was pretty powerful, and Jon controlled the timing of the game end by building Ralph, thus giving him +1 to the track-laying rate. By the time the final track was laid, I had indeed managed to get my surveyor all the way up Snowdon, but so had Pete… and he’d built a lot of station sections on the way up. Yes, Pete had grasped the game immediately and pulled out a solid win.

Final score – Pete: 94 / Jon: 89 / John Sh: 83 / Me: 80 / John Si: 71

The SEXY TRAIN takes pride of place in the coal stockyard while I do the final scoring

The SEXY TRAIN takes pride of place in the coal stockyard while I do the final scoring

Pete and John Sh had done extremely well off station spaces, while Jon and I did well from our contract cards (my surveyor got 15 bonus points on top of the 21 for being at the summit; I also got 15 bonus points from two track pieces laid and 4 points from 2 coal picked up in the final round). Considering how badly I felt I played, I could have done a lot worse. I really, really should have built a train, but resources and iron–steel conversion did seem quite tight (which is part of the reason the game flowed nicely – there was no resource-hoarding and the white event cubes came out relatively slowly). I was pleased to hear John Si and Pete say how much they’d enjoyed the game; it’s a little gem which deserves a much wider audience than it’s had so far.

After four of us had arranged to play an online game of Eclipse on iPad (we’ll see how many weeks that takes us…), Pete and John Si called it a night. With three of us left gameless and 11pm looming, I suggested Eminent Domain, and John Sh and Jon were happy to give it a whirl.

John describes this game as having taken Race for the Galaxy and Dominion and mashed them together. I haven’t played RftG, but I can imagine that’s about right. It’s a space-empire-building deckbuilder in which your deck gets more and more specialised in doing the things you do most often. This can be really handy when you want to survey new planets and attack or colonise them to benefit from them, but then when you want to do things to generate more points (like producing and trading goods, or doing technology research) your deck and hand are clogged up with survey and warfare cards. So it’s a neat little balancing act.

It’s a simple game to explain, so we got Jon up to speed and set about taking roles, following, dissenting, colonising planets… there’s not a huge amount to say about it, really. John and Jon went for the colonisation route to take control of their planets, while I went military and attacked all of mine into submission. I had an early boost from my second planet giving me +1 to my hand limit, which meant I could end up with eight cards in hand if I dissented on both the others’ turns. This allowed me to quickly expand my empire and indulge in a little production and trading.

I entirely failed to get a picture on the night, so here's a vague reconstruction of my empire on my desk at home

I entirely failed to get a picture on the night, so here’s a vague reconstruction of my empire on my desk at home

The three-player game has the same game-end condition as the two-player game (one role deck is depleted or all the VP chips run out), so it seemed to have come around pretty quickly when John took the last VP chip and declared the end of the game… but wait! Everyone gets an equal number of turns, so Jon had a turn remaining. He colonised the last planet in his tableau, giving him the last few points he needed for victory, snatching the game from John and me. Only just, though!

Final score – Jon: 26 / Me: 25 / John: 24

As close as can be! Eminent Domain isn’t an amazing game, but it’s a solid game and it plays reasonably quickly (about an hour this time round) so it’s definitely got its niche in my collection.

And that was the end of the night for me. The highlight was definitely Agricola. Frankly, the highlight will probably always be Agricola on evenings when it hits the table. Such a great game. The low point of the night was forgetting that the easternmost end of the A69 was going to be closed on my way home, so I took a slightly circuitous route around the western suburbs of Newcastle before finally making it back to the A69 and trundling home.

All photos by Olly, John Sh and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

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