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]

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