Monthly Archives: February 2015

My January in Games

There isn’t usually enough gaming between sessions at Newcastle Gamers to make a song and dance about. Maybe an evening here and there; perhaps a weekend afternoon with the kids.

Well, January 2015 has been chock-full of gaming goodness. It started in fine form on New Year’s Day, introducing my friends Ben and Rachel to Pandemic – playing with my wife, a hardened Pandemic veteran. Perhaps it would have been a little smoother to have played before an entire bottle of red wine went down one person’s throat (identity protected for purposes of dignity), but everyone had a good time and enjoyed the game. Oh, and we won with two cards left in the player deck. Perfect!

After the early-January all-day session in Newcastle, I met up with fellow Corbridge gamer John on three consecutive Wednesday evenings. It’s as close as I’ve ever been to having a regular game night, and it was only the sudden blizzard last Wednesday that prevented a four-week run. We’ve had two games of Viticulture, one of which was with the Mamas & Papas expansion from Tuscany (really enjoyed both those games – an excellent light worker placement game, with potential to become substantially meatier as the Tuscany expansions get added in). There’s been Targi (slightly mind-bending with its spatial aspects), Bruges with bits of The City on the Zwin (always enjoy Bruges, and the bits of Zwin we used were a neat addition) and Rosenberg’s Fields of Arle.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge for a two-player-only game.

Fields of Arle deserves a paragraph of its own, because it’s a really neat ‘greatest hits’ compilation of bits from Rosenberg games over the years. There are obvious bits of Agricola in there, plus a few elements from Caverna (where it differs from Agricola). Le Havre comes to mind when considering all the paths to upgrade and convert resources, along with all the different uses for them, and Glass Road is the clear progenitor of the random selection of buildings available for construction once spaces have been cleared on your board (and that’s also a bit Farmers of the Moor). I won, 97½ to 92½, but John and I had adopted utterly different strategies. I’m sure there are a whole bunch of paths to victory – mine was just building shedloads of buildings, while John actually did some proper farming, harvesting flax, converting it to linen, then sending that off on his selection of carts to be turned into clothing. I really enjoyed the game, and I should play it again soon before I forget not only the rules but also the resource-conversion paths.

Gaming with the kids has been plentiful, with Bandu (Bausack by a slightly more Anglo-friendly name) being a particular hit. Camel Up has also been popular with my 7-year-old; it’s got just the right mixture of randomness, tactical positioning, brightly coloured stacking camels and a pyramidal dice dispenser. Rampage remains my 5-year-old’s favourite. It seems a bit of wanton destruction is quite appealing to a small boy. Who’da thunk it?

Brilliant oddity of the month was my friend Sarah’s out-of-the-blue request to play Twilight Struggle. Stats-wrangling site FiveThirtyEight had run a few blog posts on board games, and she’d seen Twilight Struggle referred to as “the best board game on the planet”. Like a moth to a flame, Sarah was drawn to the glimmering beacon of Twilight Struggle and invited me over to teach her the game. We had an excellent evening, with me playing USSR in an attempt to drive the game to an early-ish conclusion while giving Sarah a feel for the game (and repeatedly stopping her from committing DEFCON suicide). Some very duff hands in the first few turns put paid to that plan, and I didn’t win until Turn 7. That was lucky really, because the game was undergoing its natural later swing in favour of the USA and my unlucky card draws had returned late in the Mid War.

War

Into the Mid War, with the Americas and Africa virtually untouched.

January also saw the end of play-by-email games of Paths of Glory and Twilight StrugglePaths was against Gareth; although I’d held his Central Powers forces quite well for a long time (even after my western front collapsed), eventually the Russians fell to bits as well and there were Germans and Austro-Hungarians everywhere. A crushing defeat. Twilight Struggle was Olly’s second game, which he won as the USA after ten turns and final scoring. Later analysis has revealed that I missed an opportunity to DEFCON suicide him in the middle of the game… but I probably would have just pointed it out to him had I noticed and suggested he play a different card.

I’ve still got a PBEM game of Unconditional Surrender!: World War 2 in Europe on the go, playing the USSR 1941 scenario as the USSR. It’s going terribly for me, so the less said the better. The game system skews heavily in favour of aggressive Axis play (hefty combat DRMs for German units, especially Panzer armies), and that combines with the option for multiple mobile attacks by single units to create a situation where it’s easy to get overrun by the German forces in the first turn. That’s exactly what happened to me, anyway. The USSR can keep creating cheap leg units in each turn, but that just creates more targets for the Germans to attack. It won’t be long until Moscow falls. Ho hum.

Digital

I don’t usually mention non-board-games on here, but a new laptop has enabled me to get up to date with some computer gaming too, so… whatever. It’s my blog. Here we go.

I’ve been starting to explore space-fantasy civ-style game Endless Legend, which takes all sorts of concepts from old stalwart Civilization V and spruces them up with quests, different species, changing weather and gorgeous graphics. I’m not sure if it’ll have staying power for me like Civ V (or any Sid Meier Civ game, for that matter), simply because I prefer the pseudo-historical human aspect of Civ, but it’s a wonderful alternative to have. Which reminds me – I should get back to trying to figure out Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II. They’re right up my street, but the depth is ridiculous.

That's a nice city you've got there. Shame if something were to... happen to it.

That’s a nice city you’ve got there. Shame if something were to… happen to it.

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game, clearly influenced by the Portal games, but playing as a humanoid robot AI working its way through a series of challenges in utterly stunning outdoor environments. This game is seriously beautiful, and the puzzles present just the right amount of challenge without being annoyingly difficult. So far, anyway. There’s also a wonderful lack of ‘action’; I’m not a fan of games involving rapid button mashing and sprinting around, and this is definitely not one of those games. Most of the time is spent staring at the screen and wondering how to keep that gate open while shining a beam of light through it simultaneously. Then trying it, failing and going back to figure it out again.

It’s all set against a backdrop of philosophical enquiry and debate regarding consciousness and post-human humanity (play it and you’ll find out), and it gets a bit sixth-form-philosopher about it IMHO, but it certainly isn’t enough to spoil the atmosphere and pleasure of the puzzles. I just wish it had done away with the tetromino-tessellating block puzzles that unlock further areas of the game. They’re usually so easy as to be pointless, and when they’re harder it’s frustrating because you just want to get on with the actual game.

The Talos Principle. It's even lovelier in motion.

The Talos Principle. It’s even lovelier in motion.

And just towards the tail-end of January came the release of Grim Fandango Remastered – a reissue of one of my favourite games from the 1990s, with updated visuals, audio and UI. As an old-school point-and-click-style adventure, it had the potential to feel very dated, even with the spruced-up bits and bobs, but the characterisation and humour keep it fresh (and the black bars at the sides of the screen – an artefact of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 – only add to the vintage fun vibe). Even better, I’ve forgotten the solutions to most of the puzzles in the fifteen years since I last played it.

It's the Day of the Dead, so it's quiet in the office. Note the black bars at the sides – a legacy of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 screen ratios.

It’s the Day of the Dead, so it’s quiet in the office. Hold on… how does a skeleton get a sweaty back?

So that was January. February’s already looking pretty good too (snow permitting), except for the fact that I won’t be able to make either of the Newcastle Gamers sessions this month.

[sad face]

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 31 January 2015

Having introduced my good friend Sarah to the joys of Twilight Struggle a few weeks ago, she’d expressed an interest in popping along to Newcastle Gamers for a few hours. What better way to introduce her to the club than with a lovely cooperative game, right?

So, yeah. Ghost Stories.

As far as notoriety goes, Ghost Stories is right up there with Vlad the Impaler. Nobody wins Ghost Stories the first time they play. Or the second. Or usually the third, fourth, fifth… It’s not an easy game to win, even on ‘Initiation Level’ as we played it. At least one bad thing happens on every turn, and no good deed goes unpunished, with many ghosts doing horrible things as you exorcise them.

We had a good thing going at the start, with Olly (green, with an extra tao die and never rolling the curse die) taking custody of any ghosts with an ongoing “roll a curse die every turn” characteristic. With those ghosts not triggering, we were more free to go about our business elsewhere, performing minor exorcisms and gearing up Graham (yellow, taking a free tao token on each turn) to deal with some tough customers.

Wow. Don't we look competent here? Full of fight and vigour. There's even a buddha in play on the far side of the board. (Although clearly Graham and Sarah have both just visited the Sorcerer's Hut.)

Wow. Don’t we look competent here? Full of fight and vigour. There’s even a buddha in play on the far side of the board. (Although clearly Graham and Sarah have both just visited the Sorcerer’s Hut, losing valuable Qi in the process.)

I was red, flying around the board to pick up buddhas and deal with some low-level bad guys, while Sarah’s blue taoist had the super-handy power of being able to use a village tile and attempt an exorcism on the same turn… except the most useful village tiles (Sorcerer’s Hut, I’m looking at you) ended up next to ghosts she had no hope of defeating.

There was a tipping point about ten or twelve cards before the Wu Feng incarnation arrived, after a couple of Black Widow ghosts had been and locked up our tao tokens for a few turns, not to mention the constant onslaught of haunter ghosts on Graham’s yellow board. (We got rid of a Hopping Vampire, only to have it immediately replaced with… a Hopping Vampire.) Suddenly, Sarah and I had full boards and only one Qi each, meaning death was inevitable. Two village tiles were flipped already, and Olly and Graham made a semi-valiant flailing attempt to salvage some hope, but all was lost. It was a matter of moments before we were all dead via overrun boards. Wu Feng would return and the land of the living would be forever lost.

Oh well.

All just having a nice lie down in the graveyard. Not a problem at all. The land of the living wasn't that great anyway.

All just having a nice lie down in the graveyard. Not a problem at all. The land of the living wasn’t that great anyway.

I’d messed up – or failed to mention – a couple of rules in my explanation, although Olly picked up on one halfway through the game (you can share the tao tokens of other players on the same tile when attempting an exorcism… although that wouldn’t have changed anything up to that point). The other one was a timing thing with Graham’s ability – it had been a little while since I’d played Ghost Stories in any form, and I thought the free tao token was taken at the beginning of his turn, before a new ghost is revealed. In fact, it should be taken just before his move, after the new ghost arrives. Again, probably not a huge difference made to our game, but I did make it a bit harder on us because I didn’t remember this one until the day after.

We still would have died, I’m sure.

Anyway, losing and rules aside, I really enjoyed my first play of Ghost Stories with other actual humans. I’ve played it to death (pun slightly intended) on the iPad, using various combinations of soloing multiplayer or the proper solo rules, and I’ve soloed the cardboard version several times. Using the solo rules in the rulebook (three neutral boards) and playing as the yellow taoist, I can quite happily beat the game most of the time on most difficulty levels – and I’m even pretty confident on the nastiest, ‘Hell’ level. Playing with others is substantially more difficult… but substantially more fun. It’s a game that feels – quite literally – laughably unfair the first time you play it. The shared despair was really enjoyable.

After dropping Sarah back home (she’d only planned a couple of hours of games) and losing Graham to a night on the town, I returned to that shining jewel in the world of games, Agricola. Four-player this time, with Pete, Ali and Olly. I far prefer four to five, just in terms of being able to keep track of everything that’s going on; in Agricola, there’s the added bonus of the four-player game having three Wood-accumulating spaces, and I’m always happy when there’s plenty of Wood. Oh, and the Reed+Stone+Food space too.

We drafted from 1E, 3I, 3K, which made for an interesting mixture of cards doing the rounds… and a lot of dross. Sometimes it’s nice to have plenty of those stalwart E-deck cards you get in a 3-2-2 draft, but I still managed to pull together a feasible combo, if only a small one. As Round 1 start player, I played Serf as my first occupation (when using ‘Sow and/or Bake Bread’, before sowing, take 1 Grain, or exchange 1 Grain for 1 Vegetable), then Pig Whisperer a few rounds later (free boars in the future… but too late to get a third free boar, sadly), giving me the required two Occupations to play Planter Box and get some ridiculously fertile Fields sown next to my house. With Wildlife Reserve also in play, I had room for those few animals that didn’t end up in my Fireplace, until I managed to get round to fencing off some Pastures. (My fencing was inefficiently done over two separate rounds, but it meant that I could actually hold on to some breeding pairs and build up my livestock.)

Meanwhile, Ali had drafted an incredible Clay-based food engine. Clay Worker gave him extra Clay from the outset, while Tinsmith meant he could eat the Clay at a 1 Clay = 1 Food rate; after Pete built the (inevitable) Well, that rose to 2 Clay = 3 Food. With a Clay Deposit as well, there was never any shortage of Clay for Ali to eat (and it seemed to accumulate a lot on the board too), so he could concentrate on getting some proper farming done.

Pete threw a spanner in the works by playing Taster, allowing him to pay 2 Food to the Starting Player in order to take the first action in a round. After a round or two with Ali getting that Taster payment, I took Starting Player… and kept it for seven or eight rounds. Pete paid me to take the first action on at least five of those rounds (mainly using the Food drip-fed from his Chicken Coop and Well improvements), which kept me pretty much fed through two Harvests, and took the strain off my animal population. It also meant, with Pete to my left, that the player order went Pete–Me–Pete–Ali–Olly. Having fifth choice in several consecutive rounds left Olly trailing wildly – he was first to build a third room, but last to take Family Growth. His Pieceworker Occupation started to pay off towards the end, especially in terms of extra Grain and Vegetables, but it was too little too late. He was also hoping to take advantage of his Master Baker, having assumed that my hefty Grain Fields meant I would be baking… but I didn’t bake even once.

Pete’s play of the Chamberlain in the late game left me thinking that he’d have it all wrapped up, but he’d left it so late to develop a food engine that he had to put that into effect in the dying stages. Meanwhile, I’d grown 8 Grain and several Vegetables, and I had breeding pairs in all three animals. My final-round flourish was to Renovate my three-room Clay hut to Stone, then play the Tavern as my Minor Improvement. It was 2 VPs on its own, and I hoped to use it for 2 bonus VPs with my final worker, but Pete immediately jumped on it for the 3 Food it offered, blocking me.

After the traditional final-Harvest VP-counting think-fest (“If I cook this, I gain 3 Food but lose 1 VP…”), Pete tallied the final scores. I could tell he and I were close, but I suspected he might have edged the win with his VPs from played cards. In fact, I took victory by a single point! (I may have then gloated slightly for a few minutes; to be fair, it’s not often I get to beat Pete. Not ever before, actually. He did point out a few mistakes before I made them though, so… maybe not entirely a flawless, unaided victory.) Ali realised in the final scoring that he’d forgotten to use his Hut Builder ability in Round 11, and he had all the relevant resources to have Renovated even with the extra room, so he should really have had several extra points. Olly’s six empty farmyard spaces counted heavily against him, as did not having a single Pasture fenced.

Final score – Me: 43 / Pete: 42 / Ali: 31 / Olly: 21

I think that’s my best ever score in a face-to-face game! Post-game analysis contained much regret at leaving Starting Player with me for so many rounds. It had crippled Ali and Olly in many ways, but Pete’s Taster ability had left them thinking it wasn’t as valuable as it really was. Second choice is way better than fourth or fifth, and the extra Food I got left me happily grabbing Wood, animals and new family members when I might otherwise have been attempting to mitigate an upcoming Harvest.

Pete left and Dave joined us for four-player Ticket to Ride on the India map. I hadn’t played on this map before, but its only unusual feature was the bonus points for ‘mandala’ routes – if you complete a ticket in more than one way, you get a bonus; the more tickets completed like this, the more bonuses you get.

As it turned out, there were only a handful of tickets completed like that. Once I saw that my initial two tickets were going to be far too congested to manage the mandala bonus, I decided to go for my usual TtR strategy of claiming the longest routes for mega-points and trying to do everything in one long train to take the 10 VPs for longest route. There aren’t many huge routes on the India map, but I took both 6-length ferries and the one 8-length ferry (that’s 51 points for those three alone) and just managed to end the game with all 45 of my trains in one continuous line. Everyone else had taken loads of tickets, while I took only one extra, finishing the game with three. It was enough though, and I narrowly squeaked a win over Ali.

Final score – Me: 117 / Ali: 111 / Olly: 100 / Dave: 98

The India map is very congested with short routes in the middle, and it’s often hard to identify which city is which (standing up helps enormously with this), but it was good fun as Ticket to Ride always is. A relatively gentle way to end the evening.

A superb evening it was too. Highlight of the night… I’d almost always say Agricola, but I think Ghost Stories might just edge it for the novelty of a first play and its sheer fun factor. It’s also beautiful on the table, which never hurts when you’re being absolutely pummelled. No more Newcastle Gamers for me until March, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about before then.

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!