Nearly a year after my first session at Newcastle Gamers, I finally managed to bring along a newbie… but I made up for the slow build-up by being some sort of Pied Piper of Gaming and bringing three at once! My ex-colleague Ben (“ex” as of the previous day) brought along his dad Paul and sister Hannah, all well-versed in modern gaming, to sample the ludo-epicurean delights of Newcastle Gamers. As I arrived, they were standing and taking in the atmosphere of the pre-game setup routine (tables and chairs out, curt nodding, the metagame of “what shall we play first?”), so I ambled over and said hello. Paul had brought his copy of Shogun, which I’d fancied playing for quite a while, so we sat down as a foursome and got underway.
Paul and Ben had played Shogun quite a few times before, while Hannah and I were new to it, so it will come as no spoiler that I didn’t win. In fact, territory-wise I did very badly indeed, ending with only five provinces, but I had managed to build plenty of theatres and palaces for a reasonable number of VPs. Before the game had even begun, Paul and Ben agreed a sort of entente cordiale, allowing them to consolidate powerful empires across the eastern side of the board. Hannah proposed a similar pact to me, but I declined. Why? Well… I don’t know, really. It’s not something I’m used to in games – it’s usually very much everyone-for-themselves in the games I tend to play – so it felt a bit alien. I should probably try playing Diplomacy to get some practice in. It ended up being my downfall, and Hannah’s too. We were hammered from all sides, losing provinces not only to Paul and Ben, but to each other. Stuck in the middle, our empires dwindled away while the more experienced players expanded unchecked.
It’s a nicely constructed game, with a planning system reminiscent of Roborally (without the lasers) and a combat system involving chucking handfuls of coloured cubes through a tower full of layers and baffles, then picking out the victors from whatever manages to drop out of the bottom. It’s not my normal gaming territory, but it was good fun and didn’t outstay its welcome (a little over two hours after the rules explanation). Paul took victory, followed by Ben, then me (not too far behind) and Hannah bringing up the rear.
After a quick break for food, we stuck with the Japanese theme and I broke out my new copy of Trains. This is a deckbuilder, and not just any old deckbuilder – it’s essentially Dominion with a board. Many of the cards will be familiar to those who have played Dominion (and thankfully Paul and Hannah were very familiar with Dominion, so the rules explanation was pretty simple), given that their prices, values and actions are identical; they’ve just been renamed and given new artwork to fit in with the ‘train’ concept.
The board does give it a decent twist though, with the spatial interactions essentially removing the need for the Attack cards in Dominion. It becomes a game of area control… or possibly just area presence, given that no one can really ‘control’ an area per se. Paul and Ben set up their initial rail cubes on the eastern side of the Tokyo board (backed with the Osaka board for variety), while Hannah and I were clearly going to butt heads again on the western side. After quickly boxing Hannah in (while not strictly ‘boxing in’, once you’ve laid rails in a hex it becomes more expensive for another player to lay rails there too), I started trying to build stations and build into cities with other players in order to negate their VP advantage over me.
My deck went through a slow initial expansion, gently building up my buying power with Express Trains (Silver in Dominion) and a couple of Limited Express Trains (Gold) alongside a few Amusement Park cards, which allow you to double the buying power of a card you’ve played (there’s probably a Dominion equivalent, but I don’t know it). This meant that I could get quite a few Subway Excavation cards into my deck (very pricey to buy, but they remove all extra costs for building rails) so I could freely enter cities with other people’s rails in them and benefit from all their hard work. Meanwhile, Paul was creeping across the board to the west, Hannah was creeping east across my semi-barricade, and Ben was languishing on the opposite side of the board, trying to amass enough money in one hand to build rails into the VP-lucrative distant locations.
I felt like I’d gained a bit of an edge, so I built and built my rails until I laid the last one, at which point the game ended. No one had gained any points before the final scoring (there are only a few card types that allow VPs to be scored during the game, and they hadn’t been selected for this game), so it was all still to be seen. I ended up taking a comfortable-ish victory with around 45 points, while everyone else was in the mid-to-high-30s.
I really enjoyed Trains, and there’s a huge amount of replayability in the box. For each game, you select eight card types out of a total of thirty to be available in that game. By my calculations, there are nearly six million possible combinations of cards to play with. I’ll let you know when I’ve tried them all.
Another card game up next, and it was Fleet. I hadn’t played this for a while, and I’d actually only ever played it with two. I wasn’t particularly convinced with it for two players, but I’d been keen to try it with more for a long time, so the four of us remained at the table and started launching fishing boats. It’s very much in the vein of San Juan, with a tableau of cards (in this case fishing boats) being built, while the cards are also used as money, or can be played face down as ‘captains’ for launched vessels.
I was heavily affected by some bad draws early on in the game, and I struggled to get a fishing engine going, even with the Shrimp licence and its resultant cheap/free boat launches. Ben was in a similar boat (no pun intended), while Hannah and Paul raced ahead. The end came fairly quickly, and we counted up our totals.
Final score – Hannah: 63 / Paul: 62 / Me: 41 / Ben: 37
A single point in it at the top! It was a much more convincing game with four players, what with the auctions being a little more lively, but I still think I prefer the purity of San Juan, where every card is of equal monetary value.
Ben, Paul and Hannah had to drift off into the night at this point, so I sat down with Lloyd, Michael and Peter for Suburbia. (Peter may well actually be Piotr or another non-English variant – I think he’s Polish, but I didn’t get him to spell out his name. Apologies to you, Peter/Piotr/Pxxxx if you read this.) Again, I hadn’t played it for a while, and Lloyd and Michael were both new to the game, so I gave a brief rules run-down. Peter had played it once before, but Suburbia is one of those games where experience can really swing things your way, and given the number of times I’ve played this game, I had a big advantage. I know the pacing of the tile stacks, roughly when to switch from increasing income to increasing reputation and building residential areas, how to block opponents effectively… it wasn’t really a fair game.
Peter and I quickly built up our incomes, while Michael took an early lead in population (paying for it later in crippled income and reputation) and Lloyd repeatedly felt the cold hand of destitution on his borough. The end of the game came at just the right point for me, given that I’d just built the green residential tile that would qualify me for one of the end-game goals, and I’d totally tanked my income over the last few rounds, meaning I also qualified for my secret goal of having the lowest income at the end of the game.
I was already well ahead before the final scoring for goals and money, but a few goals later I was unreachable, even with Peter’s huge pile of cash.
Final score – Me: 133 / Peter: 71 / Lloyd: 67 / Michael: 48
I still like Suburbia, but I’m getting a bit of an expansion-itch. Will the upcoming Suburbia Inc add enough spice to keep me interested?
And then, to round things off late at night, why not play a game that relies heavily on memory, reasoning and deduction? Yes, it was Hanabi time. I played with Peter, Andrew and John F, with Peter and Andrew being totally new to the game. To cut a long story short, we scored 15 points. Not great, but at least we didn’t blow ourselves up.
That was the end of the night for me. The usual games of The Resistance had started up, the epic five-player game of Terra Mystica had ground to a close (I think they started while I was playing Trains) and I sallied forth into the night, not sure when I would next return.
All photos by Olly 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!