Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 8 February 2014

or Back in Action!

Saturday afternoon saw my return to Newcastle Gamers after a long, illness/work-enforced hiatus. It wasn’t exactly a triumphal return given that I’m still ill (and given that I can’t drive far yet, my thanks go to John Sh for the lift into Newcastle), but it was great to get out of the house and get some gaming in. My plan for the session was to keep the cognitive load relatively light by sticking to games I already knew.

I’d made arrangements earlier in the day to play Agricola with Olly, John Si and Pete “10-Point-Agricola-Handicap” M at about 6.30. That gave me two hours to fill at the start of the session. Olly adopted his role of Fabulous Host to a few newcomers hanging around the door, so we decided to kick off with a few lighter games before the main agricultural meat of the evening. Out came String Railway.

“But Owain,” you cry, “what about your plan to stick to games you already knew?” Yeah, I know. But there’s this:

Venn diagram

It’s a small intersection at the moment, but luckily String Railway ∈ ( AB ). It starts off nice and simple (place a station, lay a string), but by the time you get to the last of your four turns it’s like a noodle-network nightmare. Olly had played it a few times before, John Sh just once and I and the two newbies (Louise and Richard) had never touched it.

Richard took an aggressive expansionist approach early on, moving into the mountain range directly in front of his home station and eventually making it all the way across to Olly’s station opposite. My lines intertwined quite a bit with John’s, seated to my right, while Olly and Louise both spidered out a bit and bothered everyone everywhere.

As discovered later, we fluffed a few rules, leaving players early in the turn order at a disadvantage and leaving me at a slight advantage due to the type of station I kept drawing, but that didn’t stop the game from being fun. Of course, I would say that because I won.

Scratching my head because I'm somehow winning

Scratching my head because I’m somehow winning

It is a fun game though, and I like the idea of potentially limitless variation provided by the “mountain” and “river” strings, along with the different island shapes for different player numbers. I’ll definitely play this one again.

The same crowd followed up with a couple of small card games from John’s collection – No Thanks! and Newcastle Gamers favourite Coloretto. (Seriously, Coloretto‘s like Power Grid or The Resistance – it always seems to make an appearance at these sessions.) No Thanks! is about as simple as games come. I got off to a good start, but ran out of precious chips in the mid-to-late game, meaning I racked up points (which is a bad thing) and Olly ended as the victor, continuing his unbeaten run in No Thanks!

In Coloretto, I played my usual fairly conservative game (aim for exactly three colours or maybe four at most, taking small piles if necessary). It has a reasonable success rate, but it didn’t work out this time. I’ve won previous games with 24 points, but not this time; Olly won again with substantially more points than that.

And then Agricola. Pete had turned up during our Coloretto game, so Olly and I assisted him in the ritual of setting up for a four-player game while we waited for John Si to arrive. We opted for a “deal 10 cards, discard down to 7” scheme for Occupations and Minor Improvements, with four from the E deck and three from each of I and K. The discard process is a game in itself, especially when you have a bit of experience with the other people at the table. I’ve played a few times with Olly in face-to-face games, and quite a few more with Pete and John Si on the iOS version, so I had some ideas about the ways they might play. I know, for example, that a game without Pete building the Well is a rare game indeed, so the Flagon Minor Improvement was a clear choice for me to keep (4 Food for me and 1 Food for everyone else when the Well is built).

The only decent card combo I had screaming out at me was the Writing Desk (when playing an Occupation, pay 2 Food to play a second Occupation) and Bookshelf (before paying for an Occupation, gain 3 Food… yes, even for the second one played with the Writing Desk, so that’s a net gain of 3 Food and 2 Occupations for one action), but given the prerequisites of 2 and 3 Occupations respectively, they wouldn’t be coming out in the early game and would be a late-game Food-boost at best.

It turned out to be a bit of an odd game. Pete had bemoaned the poor quality of his cards and ended up playing no Occupations at all, taking no Family Growth until the very last round (thus playing the game with the minimum 28 actions), with a two-room Stone house and his entire agricultural achievements consisting of one massive 12-space pasture with a few boar in it. He took no Wood until somewhere around round 9. And still he got 31 points, even while playing a very silly game.

I’d been the first to build a third room, so I had the early advantage in terms of Family Growth and extra actions, but I tend to get flabby and lose track of what I should be doing in the mid-to-late game, so I never really capitalised on that momentum. I ended up with six Occupations played (a couple mainly for the Writing Desk / Bookshelf combo Food boost) but not much in the way of a farm. 32 points.

Red: me.

Red: me. Blue: John. White: Olly. Green: Pete. Check out Pete’s pasture.

John Si and Olly were both playing their typically sensible, balanced games and I couldn’t instinctively pick out a winner. They’d both played Occupations involving the Travelling Players space, so there was the occasional bit of intrigue as to who might take that spot. John also had Harvest Helper, allowing him to nick Grain from other people’s fields. (Thankfully, my farm was so poor that I didn’t have any fields sown until the final round.)

Final scores – Olly: 42 / John: 33 / Me: 32 / Pete: 31

Like I said, an odd game. All four of us ended up with Stone houses. I seem to remember I was Starting Player for the last five rounds. For once, I didn’t lose (these guys are all a class above me when it comes to Agricola, even when I’m not enfeebled), but the only person I’d beaten had only had 28 actions for the whole game. I need to get even more practice in.

Pete slipped away into the night, so Camo and John Sh joined Olly, John Si and me for a five-player Puerto Rico. It’s a game I really, really rate, but don’t often get the chance to play. It’s always a bonus to have a table full of people who already know the game, so we were off to a flying start.

Starting fourth in player order, I got a Corn plantation, which is my preferred start. I quickly went down a Tobacco-as-cash-crop route which combined with my Small and Large Markets with Office to create a fairly powerful money machine. I got shut out of the Trading House a couple of times by being fifth in line for a tile with only four spaces, but I similarly got revenge by generating 7 doubloons when there was only space left for me to trade. There was huge competition around the table for Indigo (and hence space on the Indigo boat when Captain was taken), which I kept out of entirely. By the time Camo filled the last of his building spaces and brought on the end of the game, I was feeling pretty confident.

It's a classic, but it's, er... not very photogenic. That's my board down at the bottom-left. Note the relative lack of plantations.

It’s a classic, but it’s, er… not very photogenic. That’s my board down at the bottom-left. Note my relative lack of plantations.

My confidence was well-founded: 45 points and victory. Camo was second with 39, while Olly and John Si were in the 30s and John Sh in the high 20s.

I love Puerto Rico‘s interactivity: you’ve always got to be aware of everyone else’s agendas and how your actions will affect them (and on the flipside, how their actions will affect your plans). If you do something to benefit you, it might benefit someone else twice as much, so you’re sometimes better off waiting for someone else to do that something… and hoping that they actually do, rather than letting it go for another round and picking up another doubloon so the wrong person will be tempted into taking it, thus scuppering your devious scheme. Ah, it’s a great game.

It was getting late, so what better time to bring out a new, heavy-ish euro from the 2013 Essen crop? John Sh was keen to play Yunnan, so I thought I’d give it a crack. After all, I’d just given a table of good gamers a solid thrashing at Puerto Rico, so I must be reasonably capable, right?

No. No, no, no. I’ve never been so confused by a game in my life. And it’s not that it’s a particularly complicated game; I play more complicated games even now (I can quite happily manage Mage Knight or Cuba Libre solo at home). It’s just that at the moment I can’t take in the rules at that sort of pace. At any one point, I think I had about 50% of the rules in my head, but exactly which 50% kept changing from round to round. I never at any point managed to retain the simple fact of which workers come back to my hand and which go to Pu’er.

Anyway… it’s a tea-based euro by German first-time designer Aaron Haag. There are workers, trading posts, tea houses… tea horses for heaven’s sake. The worker placement system involves a bit of an auction feel, with the possibility of displacing other players’ lower-paying workers. At the end of each round, you have to divide up your income between cash and victory points, which is a horrible decision in itself.

Even the board is the colour of tea.

Even the board is the colour of tea.

I accidentally stumbled on a strategy of taking the bank action to gain plenty of cash and then taking all my income as VPs. In the next round I could bid to actually do things and take income as cash, then back to the bank in the round after that. It ended up working pretty well, somehow, and I took second place with 108 points to Camo’s winning 113. If I’d just taken a few steps up the border crossing and imperial influence tracks I could have edged him out (each track scores n2 points for n steps up the track), but then I would have had to have spent cash on those steps.

I honestly can’t form any sort of opinion on Yunnan without playing it again, and I don’t think I managed to learn much about the game from my initial play. There were a lot of moving parts and areas that seemed to influence each other, but I didn’t really figure out how. I’m sure it’ll come out again in future and I’ll be able to gather some thoughts about it. For now, in summary: brown.

And that was that. Creeping up on 1am, John and I zoomed back to Corbridge. It was great to be back at Newcastle Gamers. I probably won’t make the next one (birthday of offspring), but watch this space for more gaming.

All photos by Olly and John Sh, 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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