Corbridge Gamers – Saturday 1 March 2014

or Renaissance, Runners and Rosenberg

It’s been a while since I’ve written about any gaming at home in Corbridge. Here endeth the drought! John came up the hill on Saturday evening and we set about some two-player games.

I’d recently taken part in the BoardGameGeek UK Maths Trade (essentially a set of computer-algorithm-driven circles of trades, matching up people who want a game with people who want to get rid of a game), meaning I had a few new-to-me games to try out. One of those was Carl Chudyk’s Innovation, a potentially chaotic card-based civilisation builder.

Innovation has the strange characteristic of being simultaneously available in two different editions, from publishers Asmadi and Iello. My copy is the Iello edition, which has the reputation of looking prettier (it does) while being less user-friendly (possibly true). John had read the rules for the Asmadi edition. “Not a problem,” you think, “it’s the same game.” Well, yes and no. Same game, different terminology. Whereas in the Asmadi edition, one melds and tucks cards, in the Iello edition players play and archive them. Achievements become dominations; returning becomes recycling. But we got onto the same page quickly enough and got underway.

I struck lucky, twice drawing cards that allow quick and early domination of the five “Domains” that exist as bonuses to the normal dominations scored via influence. That put me at an early advantage, and although John was starting to catch up in terms of influence (meaning he would be able to score more dominations), I ended up with a devastating combo of Physics and Perspective. The first gave me three Age 6 cards, while the second allowed me to score those three Age 6 cards for 18 influence points, pushing me up to 31 and meaning I could take three dominations for a total of six and victory.

[Note: I’ve since remembered a rule which we totally forgot at the time – I shouldn’t have been able to score the Age 6 domination because I didn’t have an active Age 6 card in my zone at the time. Victory wasn’t quite mine, although it probably only would have been a matter of a round or two before it was.]

My 'winning' tableau. Note the lack of an active Age 6 card on any of my five piles – not really a victory.

My ‘winning’ tableau. Note the lack of an active Age 6 card on any of my five piles – not really a victory. I won’t be forgetting that rule again in a hurry.

It’s hard to come up with any sort of coherent thoughts about Innovation after just one play. I fully see how it would be unmanageably chaotic with four players (and indeed, it’s generally recommended to play two-vs-two partnerships if playing with four), and I see that a player can be completely screwed by a consistently unlucky draw. But I like the fundamental concepts that underpin the whole thing, and I’m a bit of a sucker for civilisation games. I’d be interested to see how I feel about it after a few more plays.

John compared it to Chudyk’s other big game, Glory to Rome, which he’d coincidentally played the previous week and which shares some similar mechanics. (I was under the impression that Innovation predated GtR, but it’s actually the other way round, by about five years!) GtR features a system by which cards have to build up resources before they can be used; in Innovation, played cards can be used instantly. This means that the game feels more streamlined, but the flip-side is that the two actions in a player turn can often be “play insanely powerful card” followed by “activate insanely powerful card” without any intervening “STOP THE MADMAN” actions from opponents.

With 105 unique (and fairly text-heavy) cards, Innovation isn’t the easiest game to approach for the first time, and it feels like it would reward some repeated play and familiarity with the cards. I hope this won’t be the last time it gets played, but I’m not sure who the right crowd would be for this game. A bit too meaty for non-gamers but a bit too chaotic for many hardcore euro-players. Hmmm.

Anyway, on to the next game: Android: Netrunner. I picked up the Core Set in December when it was going cheap on Amazon, along with the first couple of “data pack” expansions (also going cheap at the time) and it’s been sitting around ever since, hunched there like some sort of shelf-toad. Well, this was the night to un-toad that box. John had absorbed most of the rules beforehand, so we pulled out the suggested “first time” decks from the Core Set (Jinteki Corporation and Kate the Shaper), had a flick through the decks so we knew what was coming and got started. I took the Corp side for the first game.

The real beauty of A:NR lies in its complete asymmetry. No element of gameplay is the same for both players. The Corp installs assets, upgrades and agendas in its servers while the Runner installs hardware and software designed to let them access the Corp’s servers by performing “runs”. And simply in describing the beauty of the asymmetry, we’ve hit the major obstacle to getting into Android: Netrunner – the terminology.

Everything that has a perfectly valid, standard gaming name (deck, discard pile, hand) has in A:NR a theme-driven alternative name instead (stack, heap, grip), but these names are of course different for each side. The Runner’s deck is the stack; the Corp’s deck is its R&D. And naturally, these terms are the ones used at all times on the text-heavy cards, so you end up with initially cryptic instructions like “Search your stack for an icebreaker, reveal it, and add it to your grip. Shuffle your stack.” Just so you can see how much terminology there is for stuff on the table, I’ve annotated some photos.

The Corporation side of the table.

The Corporation side of the table.

The Runner's rig.

The Runner’s rig.

Honestly, it’s all fine once you’ve got your head round it, but you do feel a bit ridiculous for a while talking about “rezzing ice” and “running on R&D”. I’m as much of a fan of William Gibson as the next man, but the suspension of disbelief takes a bit of a step.

Jinteki is notorious for being a bizarre suggestion for A:NR‘s first play. It’s a Corporation built around bluffs and traps, designed not so much to block the Runner but instead to kill them before they can access the Jinteki servers. Or afterwards. Or maybe during. It’s a solid lesson for the Runner though, and John lost our first game pretty quickly, running on my HQ (that’s my hand of cards – keep up at the back) and accessing a Snare card. In fact, it’s so nasty it’s called “Snare!” (with exclamation mark) and it killed him outright. Sorry… “flatlined” him. Anyway, the lesson was learned – don’t run on Jinteki without a decent hand of cards to protect you from damage.

We set up to play again and this time John was much more cautious, poking and prodding the chinks in my armour… and then successfully running on various bits and bobs and racking up the seven agenda points he needed for the win. With a taste for the flow of the game, we swapped roles (but kept the same Jinteki/Shaper combo) and I played as the Runner. I didn’t have much luck with the draw early on and although I made sure I only ran with a decent protective hand of cards, I got bitten by some nasty ice a couple of times, meaning I lost some cards it would have been useful to get into my rig. It all came down to one card, installed behind two pieces of ice and advanced twice. If it was an agenda and I left it, John would advance it again in his next turn and win the game. If I ran and it was a Project Junebug or similar trap, I could be in for a lethal shock. Either way, I needed to run on that server or I’d probably lose on the next turn. Playing “Tinkering” got me through the ice (which John naturally didn’t know I’d be able to do) and I discovered a lovely 2-point agenda sitting there for victory.

So three game of Android: Netrunner in quick succession. Thoughts? John thought it was OK; nothing special. I’d suspected in advance that would be the case. We have very similar gaming tastes in some regards (all hail Rosenberg!) but not so much in others (I appreciate a good wargame; John not so much), and I could tell this would be one of those areas where we don’t overlap. So clearly I thought it was great.

It’s not so much the gameplay itself, although I do like it a lot. It’s the idea of the metagame – the game behind the game. Building a Runner deck from scratch would be like constructing a universal toolbox. It would have to be able to cope with anything a Corp player could throw at it; able to break any ice; able to generate enough income to install its versatile selection of hardware and icebreakers; able to adapt, twist and reroute its running techniques. And building a Corp deck would be like designing a castle. How much should I dedicate to building defences? How much to offensive capabilities? Can I advance agendas so fast that I don’t need to worry about the Runner?

It’s essentially a puzzle game, but the puzzle is undefined before you start playing, and the nature of the puzzle might change during play because the puzzle is the person on the other side of the table. And they’re thinking exactly the same thing about you.

I need to try to find/create a Netrunner group to play with. This is a game I’d like to spend a good deal of time exploring, and that can only be done by playing it.

We rounded off the night with some more traditional Corbridge Gamers fare in the form of Uwe Rosenberg’s Glass Road. It was new to me, but the rules are pretty straightforward and it didn’t take long to get going.

It turned out to be a bit of an oddity. It’s a very quick game, lasting only four rounds (and around 30 minutes), but in each round you have fifteen possible action cards from which to select five. That’s a huge amount of choice, lending the game a very open, almost sandbox feel. I simply went with attempting to address the most pressing concerns (more sand! more wood! more food! build stuff!) and tried not to worry too much about thinking ahead.

As it turned out, that was a pretty strong approach, because I ended up winning, 24–21.

The Estate got me a cool 6 VPs for three sets of pit-pond-grove.

The Estate got me a cool 6 VPs for three sets of pit-pond-grove. John (top) was clearly going for contiguous ponds.

I thought it was a neat little game (and the resource/production wheels are really nice), but the potential depth of the gameplay left me feeling it should be slightly longer. Not in that “oh, if only I’d had one more round to build up my blah blah blah” way you get after playing Agricola; this was more of a feeling that the game deserved to be longer somehow. Of course, I’m sure it’s all been tested and balanced such that four rounds is the perfect length, but I would have been happy to play it for at least 50% more time. Maybe I just need a second crack of the whip.

An excellent evening of games and John left knowing that – with Android: Netrunner “done” – he’d finally played every game in the BoardGameGeek top 10! (In fact the top 12, but that’s somehow less monumental.) I’ll be happy to give him a hand with my copy of Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island when it creeps up a little further and spoils his achievement…

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