Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 13 July 2013

Having missed the late-June session and having only had a few light, family-friendly games in the interim, I was desperate for some of the heaviness we traditionally see at Newcastle Gamers. Just a few hours prior to the session, Olly had posted on Google+ that he’d be bringing Brass, so I knew exactly what my first game of the evening would be. Nick and Amo joined us for the full complement of four.

Having played its streamlined successor Age of Industry a few times, I knew roughly what to expect. But it was the differences that made this a richer gaming experience, and a noticeably tougher gaming experience. In AoI, the board is the board and your rail network of mines, works, mills and ports just grows and grows. In Brass, you build and build through the Canal Age, with mines, works, mills and ports connected by a slightly sparse network of canals… and then the Canal Age ends and the Railway Age begins, meaning all the canals are ripped mercilessly from the board’s papery embrace, along with any “level 1” industries. That ends up meaning that most of the board suddenly empties and you start almost from scratch.

It gives the game a very different feel from AoI, and the strategy required to set up properly for the Railway Age pretty much passed me by entirely. I did, however, manage to get a couple of “level 2” cotton mills out on the board before the canals got filled in, so I had something to work towards – the shipment of goods via ports as yet unbuilt.

Experience counts – yellow rules over Lancashire with an industrial fist. At least I (red) managed to build a shipyard in Birkenhead for a welcome points-boost.

Experience counts – yellow rules over Lancashire with an industrial fist. At least I (red) managed to build a shipyard in Birkenhead for a welcome points-boost.

It was clear that experience counts in Brass, and Olly (who’s played the game quite a few times before, including online games against some very experienced players) took a commanding lead at the end of the Canal Age. He knew exactly which industries to develop through to higher levels, gaining him plenty of income and points. Even a catastrophic error which left him near-destitute near the end of the game (Olly failed to realise that as soon as the card deck is exhausted players are unable to take any more loans – he thought he’d have one more opportunity to take a loan) couldn’t hold him back, and he finished off a formidable network of railways and industries, ending with a score somewhere in the 150s–160s. Nick and I managed to tie on 104 points, with my slightly higher income level breaking the tie in my favour, while Amo trailed significantly behind, having spent nearly the whole game in negative income.

It’s clearly a very neatly designed game (and I can understand why it’s number 11 in the BoardGameGeek rankings), with a lot to keep an eye on, but it seems pretty harsh to the newcomer. I liked it a lot though, so I’ll definitely be playing it again. I’ll see if I can get some practice in online before I next face off in real life.

Just as we were finishing up, Dan arrived. Dan had mentioned in a BGG blog post how much he’d enjoyed Snowdonia, and I’d commented that I could bring along the expansion playtest bits I have, so now seemed the perfect time to build a railway up Mount Washington. The Mount Washington scenario is a little closer to the base game than the Jungfrau scenario from the upcoming expansion, so there were just a few things to go over before we started playing. Players were: me (Snowdonia veteran, many-time loser), Olly (several plays before), Nick (played it at a convention a year ago) and Dan (played it twice). I say that Dan had played it twice… as we went through the game, it became apparent that Dan had played quite a few rules incorrectly, so he’d really been playing a sort of Snowdonia-homage. A close facsimile. But there was nothing too catastrophic and we quickly got into the swing of it.

In fact, I didn’t get into the swing of it at all. Don’t get me wrong – I love the game, and I enjoyed it immensely. I just played extremely badly. I finished the game with two – TWO! – contract cards, from which I scored a magnificent zero – ZERO! – bonus points. I’d done OK from building in stations on the way up the mountain, and my surveyor (played sort of in reverse in the Mount Washington scenario) managed to slide all the way down the mountain at the end of the game for 11 points, but without those contracts I was never going to win. I also left it far too late to build a train, and I picked Padarn, which has a great bonus (extra Build action after others have resolved) but is expensive to build and costs two coal to take an extra worker from the Pub.

Typical Welsh weather... in New Hampshire. Note that the "G" action space isn't correct – I never got round to printing out the correct card, which should be a "dynamite" action.

Typical Welsh weather… in New Hampshire. Note that the “G” action space isn’t correct – I never got round to printing out the correct card, which should be a “dynamite” action.

As always with Snowdonia, we were at the mercy of the weather, with a very sunny early game lulling us into a quick pace. When the rain (and snow, which replaces rubble onto track and station spaces, even when track has been laid!) came later on, the pace naturally slowed dramatically, and the game became one of brinkmanship as we pushed each other into temptation to excavate or lay track. Suddenly, the last piece of track was being laid and the game was in its final round. The Padarn bonus paid off as I built a spot in the last station (meaning my surveyor could slide down the mountain), but nothing could save my game. Suffice to say that Olly won with 128 points, while I came a distant last with 65. Sixty-five points. Terrible.

The Mount Washington scenario is a great variation from the base game, mainly in that the event track barely lays any track at all, so the players dictate much of the pace of the game. The snow also regulates the tempo, with weather and events laying rubble (but not too much rubble) back on to the mountain on a regular basis. I’m really looking forward to the proper version coming out so I can ditch my print-and-play playtest cards.

It was interesting to play Brass and Snowdonia in quick succession, because I’ve been gestating a game idea for a few months now, and it happens to use elements from both games (although the Brass elements were entirely accidental – I hadn’t even played Age of Industry when I first had the basic ideas). I doubt I’ll ever bring it to any sort of testable state, especially as my free time will soon be diminishing by at least an order of magnitude (teacher training begins in September – yikes!), but this experience acted as a sort of reminder to me that I still had this undeveloped concept knocking around in my brain.

Olly suggested playing his brand new copy of Coloretto, which Nick wasn’t keen to play, so that left Dan, Olly and me to create matching sets of chameleons. This is one of those games that seems trivially simple on the surface; in fact, it actually is trivially simple, but it’s got a huge amount of possibility for screwing other players over. It took me a game to get a handle on the processes and strategy of the game, but it was quick enough (probably only about 10–15 minutes per game, if that) to play twice in quick succession. The second time round, I played a much more intelligent game and won by a handsome margin.

Luckily, the colours were all easily distinguishable, even under the artificial lights.

Luckily, the colours were all easily distinguishable, even under the artificial lights.

It’s got the right balance of thought and luck to make it ideal for this spot towards the end of the night, with simple choices leading to agonising decisions (“Do I draw another card and hope for a good one for me?”, “Do I add this card to this stack that I want, or do I use it to pollute this stack that someone else clearly wants?”, etc.). I’d get a copy to play with my kids, once they’re old enough to (a) figure out how to screw other players over, and (b) not weep uncontrollably if I screw them over. I give it a couple of years.

By this point, there were a few game-less people hovering around, and after we’d gone through a few suggestions, we settled on Citadels. This is a game that’s been hovering in my subconscious since it was reviewed in the very first episode of Shut Up & Sit Down. It’s one of those secret-y, backstabby, court-intrigue-y kind of games, with secretly selected roles and hidden agendas everywhere, so it’s not my natural territory, but I do remember thinking there was a good game in there. I’d need to play it again to be sure though, given that my overwhelming memory of Citadels was thinking, “These plastic coins are much nicer than the plastic coins in Brass.” I also remember being assassinated quite a lot. Clearly, my head wasn’t in the game.

After a conversation about immutable graph databases (or something like that… it was well past midnight), I headed for home. Highlight of the night was definitely Brass. I’d say it was one to tick off the “Top 10 Games on BGG” list if it hadn’t recently been usurped by Terra Mystica. *sigh* I’ll have to play that one as well now…

All photos by Olly (I really should start taking my own again), 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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