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!

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