Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 3 January 2015

This wasn’t even my first gaming of the year (an excellent Pandemic with some not-usually-gaming friends on New Year’s Day saw to that), and it started in the best possible way. I arrived around 3.00 to this all-day session and wandered straight into the Sainsbury’s next door to pick up a drink and some food, where regular wargaming PBEM buddy Gareth immediately offered me a game of Martin Wallace’s new Onward to Venus.

Before I’d even set foot on the gaming premises. Superb.

Onward to Venus is essentially an interplanetary area-control game with steampunk-ish retro-futurist theming and some military trappings. Opinions on BoardGameGeek had been lukewarm so I hadn’t been going out of my way to play this one, but I’m glad I did.

Norman (playing the French Empire) used his first action to move into the potentially lucrative outer fringes of the Solar System, quickly establishing a presence on Titan, Ganymede and the Kuiper Belt. Graham (USA), Gareth (Russian Empire) and I (playing the British Empire, with a card depicting Lord Cockswain, “the Earth’s best human”) were left to scrap it out around Earth and its environs. As last in turn order on the first round, I found myself with no available places to build a factory or mine after all the others had snaffled them; this had the very unfortunate effect of holding me back noticeably in the first period or two of the game. Given that there are only three periods… that was quite a big thing.

I’d usually say there’s at least one random element too many in Onward to Venus (tile draw every period, cards with vastly differing powers, dice rolls potentially drastically increasing defence values… or not affecting them at all), but the theme and artwork kind of pulled me along with it. Rather than a card simply being “+2 combat”, it’s “Lord Cockswain’s Ray-Blunderbuss the Unnatural Selector: +2 combat”. Graham’s repeated exploitation of the “Moon Maidens” for extra combat strength on the Moon had a nice thematic ring to it, rather than just being, “Oh, it’s that card again.” I hadn’t come across Greg Broadmore’s Dr Grordbort’s universe before, but it’s one I’d happily venture further into.

Just a small fraction of the total mayhem (the game took up a whole large table). My forces around Venus are hopefully about to land and take over a mine or two.

Just a small fraction of the total mayhem (the game took up a whole large table). My forces around Venus are hopefully about to land and take over a factory or two.

After a long while with everyone feeling that Norman was dominating, things began to swing around in the third and final period, with a few Crises setting off little scrabbles for power on some planets. It wasn’t enough to get me back in contention, but I enjoyed pulling off a couple of little coups here and there.

Final score – Graham: 35 / Gareth: 33 / Norman: 23 / Me: 21

Next, Graham offered up his copy of 19th-century-New-York-gerrymandering game Tammany Hall, which was impossible to refuse. After a period of being almost legendary (being out of print certainly helps with that sort of things), Tammany Hall has recently come back into circulation with a lot of people keen to find out if it lives up to the hype – me included. And it kind of does.

Camo joined us to make five players, which meant the whole board was in use from the start; fewer players means the board gradually opens up as the game progresses. Looking back, I think having five players made it much more difficult for me to keep track of what was going on (CFS-brain still kicks in now and then in high-complexity situations), but that didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the game. The thing that did slightly affect my enjoyment of the game was the choice of player colours: yellow was fine, but black, brown, purple and red together… they were hard to tell apart in the club lighting. Graham decided to lay his brown meeples flat, distinguishing them more easily from Gareth’s purples. Camo struggled with the blue and green cubes representing immigrants (as did I at times, depending on angle and glare), so the whole game involved a sort of ‘dance of the pieces’ to ensure that everyone could tell them apart. Even so, with five player colours and four colours of immigrant (Italian blue, Irish green, English white and German orange), it was still a very busy and tough-to-read board.

Nine different colours of wood on the board. The board itself is several shades of brown, tan and taupe. I am doing very badly (red pieces).

Nine different colours of wood on the board. The board itself is several shades of brown, tan and taupe. The flash makes the colour differences very obvious, but behold: I am doing very badly (red pieces). Can’t really blame that on the colours though.

Chromatic aberrations aside, it was a surprisingly swift, rules-light and brain-heavy game, and hugely enjoyable for it. We had a rules blunder or two – nothing to completely change the game, but it made us all drastically shift our focus when we realised the player controlling the most immigrants in each colour would get three influence chips in that colour after each election.

The final election cycle was spent with everyone trying to peg back Gareth, who had flown into a huge lead (and who had played the game before… although only once several years ago). I wasn’t convinced it was really possible for anyone to catch him up, but I did my best to try. I’d been assigned the role of Chief of Police and was busily flinging English immigrants out of electoral wards in order to keep Gareth down and my strength up, but I’d made a mess of things too many times for that to be effective. In the end, it was another narrow last place for me, and Norman – although he did well with his stranglehold on the German immigrants – didn’t quite manage to catch Gareth.

Final score – Gareth: 23 / Norman: 20 / Camo: 17 / Graham: 14 / Me: 13

It was a cracking game, and I can understand why it received so much hype. I’d be very keen to play it again, but maybe with three or four players rather than five, just to keep the chaos of the interactions down a touch and keep the board a little easier to read.

Olly was looking for a game at this point, and we’d previously discussed playing his newly acquired Last Train to Wensleydale, so that was the obvious way to round off the evening. (In fact, it was First Train to Nuremberg, but the board is double-sided with Wensleydale on the reverse. Given that Olly, Gareth, Graham and I all have strong Yorkshire connections, it was the natural choice… although possibly not the simpler choice.) Another Wallace game, this one about building small railways around small Yorkshire towns, shipping cheese, stone and passengers to exciting destinations like Harrogate, Ripon and “The South”, before flogging off said railways to the big rail operators nearby in order to stay roughly in the black.

Rules explanation took a while, partially because the rulebook splits each round into ten phases. Nothing of interest happens in many of these phases, so why they weren’t rolled up into fewer, larger phases I’ll never know. Either way, the game includes four tracks on which to monitor each player’s influence in various areas and three separate turn-order tracks for different phases of the game, with two turn orders dictated by the influence tracks. The marriage of those elements was the biggest headache for me; choosing which items to bid on in the auction round affected both the influence tracks (i.e. how much was available to spend on bribing landowners, flogging off railways and – most importantly – buying trains and collecting goods) and the turn order. It was clear that brown train-buying influence was going to be highly sought-after but there wasn’t a huge amount of brown influence available to buy in the auctions, so bids were always high, leaving fewer influence cubes available for building track on the map.

After a round or two out of four in total, we looked at the majestic sweep of the victory point track, spanning -20 to 80 VPs… and then we looked at our scores, ranging from about 5 to 8. Surely we were doing something wrong? It turned out we were, but not wrong enough to greatly affect the scores – Olly’s post-game calculations revealed that you might be able to graze the upper end of the VP track in a two-player game if absolutely everything worked out well for you. What we’d actually missed is that when it comes to buying trains and paying influence to ship goods and passengers, you can trade any non-brown influence at 3:1 to pay for it, not just your influence cubes. That meant that the last couple of rounds involved everyone spending all their influence from all sources in order to ship things and desperately grab some VPs.

I managed to sell off most of my track to the big railway businesses, meaning my profit/loss at the end wasn’t too bad, and minimising my negative VPs for still owning rails. Olly, on the other hand, misjudged slightly and couldn’t get rid of his track, meaning he lost all of his lead over me. That sounds more dramatic than it was, given that we were fighting it out for last place, but hey – at least I didn’t come last in all three games in one session.

The final situation. Note the sky-high scores. I did well to get rid of all but one of my black rails; Olly (blue) fared less well in that respect. The others, naturally, are nowhere to be seen on the map.

The final situation. Note the sky-high scores. I did well to get rid of all but one of my black rails; Olly (blue) fared less well in that respect. The others, naturally, are nowhere to be seen on the map. (Green and red stations represented for clarity by factories and mines – and an errant spaceship – from Onward to Venus.)

Final score – Gareth: 15 (won on profit/loss tie-breaker) / Graham: 15 / Me: 6 / Olly: 5

Incredible scores, I’m sure you’ll agree.

This game… aarrghh. Well. I did enjoy it, to a certain extent. There was certainly a lot to think about, plenty of strategies to adopt (and abandon because you weren’t early enough in player order), economic and timing factors to consider… and I can’t get enough of the theme and map. It was just very fiddly. It’s the only word for it. Not just time-consumingly fiddly in terms of working things out and having lots of tracks to adjust and maintain; it was physically fiddly too, with tiny, tiny counters on each track constantly jostling, moving up and down, being restacked and rejigged. And the less said about the almost Sisyphean setup, the better. I’d like to play the Nuremberg side of the board, and maybe with only two or three players (the VP structure for transporting passengers is different with fewer players) so I can form a better opinion of the game. A bit of experience should count for a lot, second time round.

Highlight of the night was Tammany Hall; I’ll be looking forward to playing that one again. Hopefully in better light.

All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne! (This session was an extra New Year all-day event.)

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