Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 9 August 2014

Well hello, my long-neglected blog. Nice to see you again. I didn’t even write a report on my last session at Newcastle Gamers, and that was a couple of months ago. Blimey. I’ve really let things slide.

I was feeling intrepid on Saturday, determined to get in some serious gaming in spite of my CFS, so I arrived just before 2pm to an all-day Newcastle Gamers session for a pre-planned game of legendary proto-euro Roads & Boats. I picked up this game (and the & Cetera expansion) around Christmas, just after its most recent print run, safe in the knowledge that if I hated it, it would be out of print for years and I could sell it for more than the £100-ish I paid for it all.

Well, that ain’t happening. It finally had its inaugural play, and it’s a beauty.

I chose the four-player scenario “The Valley”, which is described as “suitable for inexperienced players”. That was perfect for us – I had stumbled through a few of the solitaire “puzzle” scenarios, Camo had played half a game some seven or eight years ago, while Olly and Graham were completely new to the game – and we got underway after about an hour of setup and rules. [I’ll pause briefly here to praise the rulebook – it’s truly excellent. Over the fifteen years since the release of the first edition, Splotter Spellen have clearly been able to pick up on every FAQ and corner case and weave them into the rules. There is no rules question whose answer cannot be found quickly and easily in this fourth edition rulebook, and it flows from start to finish with every rule sounding like utter common sense. Superb.]

Early in the game, with just a few buildings built by each player. Olly (green) has just built the first mine, while I (red) grow concerned about the proximity of our borders.

Early in the game, with just a few buildings built by each player. Olly (green) has just built the first mine, while I (red) grow concerned about the proximity of our borders, especially my unguarded breeding geese.

The first few turns are fairly scripted: build a woodcutter and a sawmill, and a quarry if you have nearby rock and some common sense. After that, we started to diverge a bit. Everyone except Olly was spending some resources in each round to contribute bricks to the Wonder, especially through the early rounds when bricks are cheaper. That allowed Olly to build extra woodcutters and quarries and build the first mine of the game. I got in on the mining action fairly early on, which is when I made my first major mistake. In protecting my geese from Olly (geese being vital to research), I’d ended up unable to protect my three pieces of mined gold, which were just sitting on a mountainside. I’d thought this a reasonable sacrifice at the time – after all, I could mine more gold, but once my geese were gone, they’d be virtually impossible to replace – but it turned out to be disastrous. For me at least. Quite the opposite for Olly.

Olly and I had a bit of a war of walls, after which we settled down into our own little areas. (Well, mine was little; everyone else seemed to be sprawling across the map with wild abandon.) Of course, then I made my second major mistake, in building a road that allowed Olly’s wagon containing the stolen gold to bypass my walls and escape back to his territory, where he could utilise his mint to convert it into coins and thus more points.

Walls! My attempts to keep Olly off my land came too late.

Walls! My attempts to keep Olly off my land came too late. I had successfully walled his wagon (bottom-left) into my corner of the map… but not for long.

I started down the road towards my grand plan of specialised mines (lots of gold) and steamers on my local two-hex sea carrying gold and minted coins around so no one could steal it. Graham put on a sudden flurry of mine-building (after having a little tussle with Olly and walling in Olly’s goose-thieving rowboat), while Olly had minted a few sets of coins and built a stock exchange. Suddenly, the Wonder was filling up quickly (helped along by Camo contributing several bricks made of compacted waterfowl) and the end of the game was looming. I wouldn’t have time to get my third mine built, or plough extra gold into any of the existing mines, or mint any more than one set of coins. Gah.

I say “suddenly”. In reality, the game was six hours long, but it certainly felt sudden to us. We knew the final brick would go into the Wonder in the next round, and we were all pretty certain that Olly had it in the bag. It became like this year’s Tour de France, with Olly as Vincenzo Nibali and the rest of us just jostling for the lower podium positions. Much of the last round was pointless (no point moving stuff around to build things that wouldn’t change the score), so the final couple of bricks went in the Wonder and we totted up the points.

Very near the end.

A couple of rounds from the end. I’ve got steamers, I’ve built a mint, I’ve minted some coins… but it’s not enough. Graham (blue) and Camo (yellow) had a fight over a woodcutter for a while (hence the walls), but they’ve retreated to maximise their gains.

We scored the Wonder first and Camo was well ahead, having been present (and dominant) on most of the rows. And then we realised what a pointless endeavour that Wonder-work had been when we added on our score from gold, coins and stock certificates (nobody actually had stock certificates, thankfully – Olly hadn’t been able to get paper to his stock exchange in time for the last production phase). The Wonder score was completely dwarfed by the score from everything else. The only thing it had achieved was making the game slightly shorter than it could have been, thus limiting Olly’s winning margin to just 65.

Final score – Olly: 172 / Camo: 107 / Graham: 103 / Me: 101

A resounding win from Olly, certainly helped along by the three gold I’d essentially produced for him early in the game, for a swing of at least 30 points. We all enjoyed the game immensely, and discussion quickly turned to arranging a second game. Given that it was a six-hour game, that’s quite something. Part of the beauty of the game comes from its simultaneous action, so there’s almost always something to do.

Roads & Boats isn’t without its flaws though. It’s almost comically fiddly, with hundreds of counters strewn across the board, being shunted around and transformed from one form to another. It can be brutally unforgiving, and it’s entirely possible to be effectively knocked out of the game (or, even worse, to inadvertently knock yourself out of the game). While I had plenty of interaction (and a prolonged phase of cold war afterwards) with Olly, I didn’t interact much with Graham, and not at all with Camo, who was in the opposite corner of the map. And I have a personal niggle in that if I’d drawn a gold instead of an iron from one of my mine bags in the last production round, I would have scored 10 more points and come second rather than last. [But you should have built a specialised mine – you certainly had the research for it, you cry. And yes, you’re right. But I needed the iron for my grander plan which we suddenly ran out of time for, and I don’t really like my final score being decided by the (literal) luck of the draw.]

Overall: superb game.

We followed up with String Railway and Ingenious, with Olly and Camo sharing victory in the former and Olly winning the latter. After six hours of spatio-logistical horrors, String Railway was a bit much for my brain, and I wasn’t helped by drawing dull, dull, low-scoring stations in the first three rounds, but it’s a fun game and I was happy to have the chance to play it again. Ingenious is always a joy, and we all did pretty well (except Camo, who got repeatedly locked out of scoring more in red, finishing on 6 points).

A very silly-looking game indeed. Lots of thinking though, and a lot of fun.

A very silly-looking game indeed. Lots of thinking though, and a lot of fun.

An excellent day of games. Conversation afterwards turned to films (OK, so I apparently must see L.A. Confidential) and game design (I’ll be attempting to get back on that horse very soon – or perhaps just crafting an entirely new horse) before I yet again (!) managed to get caught by roadworks on the A69 heading westbound on the way home, resulting in a detour through scenic (?) Walbottle. There’s something about Saturday nights and the A69 that rarely turns out right. I’ll put up with it for quality gaming.

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!

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