Monthly Archives: April 2015

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 25 April 2015

Greenland, Greenland, Greenland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Greenland, Greenland, Greenland
It’s the country for me

(with apologies to Monty Python)

Yes, after a quick half-game of Android: Netrunner while waiting for Olly to arrive (my new Hayley Kaplan Shaper deck against Graham’s new HB Foundry setup – I was starting to feel confident, but the NEXT ice hadn’t started coming out yet), it was time for a pre-arranged stab at Phil Eklund’s most recent game simulation pile of utter madness, Greenland. No, to be fair… it’s actually a playable game this time! It still has the usual raft of exceptions, fiddly corner-case rules and things that you never expect to see in a game (syphilis, witch-burning – to which Norse husbands are immune – and the “domestication” of orca all spring to mind), but at its heart it’s a relatively simple worker-placement/action-selection/brutal-survival game with massive random elements ready to pounce on your carefully laid plans at every turn.

I was the Tunit (good at fishing and already with a colony in the New World), Olly was the Thule (historically the sole survivors of the period covered in the game) and Graham was the Norse invaders in southern Greenland. I got lucky early on with some successful hunting, and ended up with all 18 of my hunter cubes available. Of course, with all the random events, it wasn’t long before a decimation or two brought us all down to just a small handful of hunters.

I’d managed to collect a few pieces of iron (and an import that could convert to iron) and I hadn’t spent any on negating hunting attrition, so when I lost my final elder a few rounds from the end, the switch to monotheism was an easy choice to make. I’d only pulled in 3 VPs of trophies to score for a polytheist culture, and converting to monotheism put me immediately on about 11 VPs (5 iron and 1 ivory), well ahead of the others. Graham converted at the same time, but Olly stayed polytheistic and spent the rest of the game like Ahab relentlessly hunting the white whale (technically the Bowhead Whale in Greenland), which was tough to hunt but yielded huge amounts of resources… and 13 VPs if rolling four identical dice on the hunt to take the trophy!

It's all cards, tiddlywinks and hideous graphic design here in Greenland.

It’s all cards, tiddlywinks and hideous graphic design here in Greenland.

I sent three hunters to the same iron-giving biome four rounds in a row; all I needed each time was a 1 from any of three dice (about a 40% chance) to get another iron and thus 2 VPs. Naturally, I didn’t get a single iron from this venture on any of the four occasions I tried. Meanwhile, Graham set up a New World colony in Vinland and managed to get some iron using the excellent reroll/dice-changing abilities in his tableau, and Olly finally speared his cetacean nemesis. The game ended before Graham or I had a chance to send a missionary to the heathen Thule and convert them to our way of thinking; that whale skull finally hanging in the great hall of the Thule handed victory to Olly.

Final score – Olly: 17 / Graham: 16 / Me: 15

[Side note: Olly noticed a few days later that we’d missed a key VP rule – you also get 1 VP for each hunter/elder cube not in Valhalla (or 2 VPs if it’s in a cold colony), so I think the final scores were actually 28/27/21 in the same order. Of course, had I remembered that rule on the day we would have handled the late game quite differently and gone for some serious baby-making biomes, so we can’t really just adjust the score like that.]

Greenland turned out to be surprisingly fun, and a few strategies became clear as we played. I think we could have been far more interactive (although we were all having such a tough time surviving that it didn’t seem wise to risk our hunters in a fight), and the timing of the switch to monotheism is definitely important. Once you’ve converted there doesn’t seem to be a way to domesticate animals, which is odd – I’m pretty sure monotheists are as capable as polytheists when it comes to matters of farming, although Eklund notes in the rules that “almost no animal domestications have occurred since the onset of Christianity”. Just because they historically didn’t happen in that order, does that mean that I shouldn’t be able to do things differently in a game? Anyway, small niggles aside… Eklund fun!

John Sh joined us for a few rounds of Red7, which he’d introduced me to earlier in the week. It’s an interesting and fun little game, taking a concept that seems initially like gamers’ nemesis Fluxx and putting a spin on it that makes it… y’know… an actual game. I’m sure there’s a fair degree of strategy and tactics involved in Red7 once you’ve seen your hand of cards, but it’ll take me a little while to get my head round it all. No idea who won; not particularly bothered. A fun time was had by all.

Not actually our game of Red7, but one John had earlier in the evening.

Not actually our game of Red7, but one John had earlier in the evening.

And then a proper proper game: Orléans. The toast of Essen 2014, Orléans is a bag-building action-selection game about… wool? Well, it was for me. With seemingly many paths towards victory, my game was all about accumulating vast quantities of wool, Olly was collecting cloth and money, John was building trading posts like they were going out of fashion and Graham had an automated monk-production machine going on, allowing him to do pretty much whatever he wanted (monks are wild workers in Orléans… just like in real life). That translated into collecting money, money and more money, along with gaining points on the Development track.

What’s odd is that I clearly remember really enjoying Orléans, but I can’t remember much about the actual gameplay afterwards. There’s not a huge amount of interaction (we ran out of a couple of worker types, and John and I were competing over certain sections of the road/canal board, but that was about it) and it’s often just a case of setting your workers to whatever task you’re aiming for. Of course, my luck from Greenland carried on into Orléans. Three times I had a bag of ten workers, of which three were yellow wild workers; three times I drew seven workers; three times I drew no yellows. Gaaah.

The road/canal side of the board, where I did OK in terms of picking up goods, but didn't build enough trading posts.

The road/canal side of the board, where I did OK in terms of picking up goods, but didn’t build enough trading posts.

In the end, collecting cloth and money won out, with a tidy victory for Olly. I knew I’d done OK with my massive pile of wool (44 points from the wool alone, plus 10 from my warehouse building for having two full sets of goods), but I hadn’t spread myself around the mechanisms quite enough to make some of the extra points I needed.

Final score – Olly: 135 / Me: 111 / Graham: 100 / John: 96

As I’ve found with many previous “hot” games from Essen, I liked Orléans but it didn’t set me on fire. I enjoyed it a lot and I’d absolutely play it again, but there wasn’t quite enough player interaction and blocking for my tastes. It felt tightly designed though, with something of a Feld air about it.

It being quarter to midnight as this point, John sensibly left for home while Robert joined the rest of us for Splendor. Neither my spellcheck nor I are happy about that name, but there it is. A Spiel des Jahres nominee last year (so you know it’ll be an accessible, quick, fun game), Splendor is all about collecting precious stones, seemingly only to use them as currency to buy even more gems which are worth points, and possibly to impress a randomised selection of nobles. That’s as much theme as there is, and that theme doesn’t impose itself on the gameplay in any way, shape or form. Available actions are very simple (take gemstone chips, reserve a card or buy a card) and the whole game just slowly ramps up to the point where players can afford the cards they actually want.

That’s the way I played it, anyway. I didn’t take many chips at all after the first few rounds, preferring to buy gems using the ones I’d already collected (they stay in your collection rather than being spent back to the deck). I nearly got away with it, but everyone else was playing a more balanced game between cards and chips, which edged me out in the end.

Final score – Olly: 15 (won on tie break condition) / Graham: 15 / Me: 14 / Robert: 10

Again, Splendor didn’t excite me, but I’d be happy to play again. Its shining, crowning glory is its components – the gem chips are brightly coloured, hefty, weighted poker-style chips, giving the simple action of taking chips a physical significance it somehow wouldn’t quite have if they were cardboard tokens. They’re precious gems, after all! It’s a superb production decision which lifts the game from forgettable filler to something that looks and feels beautiful on the table.

And I didn’t even get a photo.


All photos by John Sh and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month (although there’s an extra one in April), 4:30 pm until late (unless it’s a special all-day session like the first two Saturdays in April…) at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 11 April 2015

The Easter holidays meant there were two consecutive all-day Saturdays at Newcastle Gamers. I’d missed the first one because I was in a different county, celebrating a bunny being nailed to a cross by eating his chocolate eggs (or something like that – I’m not a religious person, so I can’t claim to understand these things), but I managed to make it to the latter half of this session.

I turned up at the perfect time to get in on a game of Survive: Escape from Atlantis! (I’m not overexcited; the exclamation mark is part of the title.) With five players, we each had one fewer meeple – and the distribution of starting boats was altered – but the island still felt very crowded. John Sh, Michael and I, all old hands at the cutthroat brutality of Survive, were joined by newcomers Anna and… well, I’m terrible with names, so my apologies to Anna’s friend whose name I can’t remember. [EDIT: Ivan! He commented down below – thanks, Ivan!]

With such a crowded island, meeples were swimming from the outset and succumbing to the elements the sharks all over the board. I was somewhat hampered by the tile draw – every tile I sank for the first few rounds was a green tile, immediately replaced by a creature, boat or whirlpool. Meanwhile, others were getting friendly dolphins, shark-cancelling tiles and so on, making their escape that little bit easier. Anna did particularly well early on, getting a tile that allowed her to move a boat with three of her meeples to the dock and disembark all three of them on the same turn.

So early in the game. Such innocence. So few dead. All to change very, very soon.

So early in the game. Such innocence. So few dead. All to change very, very soon.

In the end, experience counted for nothing – Anna and Ivan drew for victory with 11 points each. Survive is always fun, even when you lose. Perhaps especially when you lose.

Dead of Winter was mooted, but other people were looking to start other games so I excused myself. In retrospect, I think Dead of Winter – which absolutely isn’t my sort of game – might have worked out a bit more enjoyable…

I ended up playing Princes of the Renaissance with Gareth, Graham, Lloyd and Álvaro (both Gareth and Álvaro had played before, with Álvaro being the more experienced). On paper, this should be exactly my sort of game: Martin Wallace, Renaissance Italy, a sort of stock-market manipulation, collecting tiles in sets, etc. In reality, I realised that I’d lost and Álvaro had won within the first half-hour or so. And then the game went on for another three-and-a-half hours.

Doesn't look too intimidating, does it?

Doesn’t look too intimidating, does it?

PotR is one of those games that’s impossible to understand just from a rules explanation. There are so many moving parts that it isn’t until you’ve played through at least one of the three ‘decades’ of the game that everything starts to fit together. Actually, that’s being optimistic. I’ve played a whole game and I still don’t feel like I’d do any better in a second game. Part of the problem for me is that the whole thing is based around auctions, and I’m terrible at auction games. I have no idea how to value things and figure out if I’m over-bidding, or identify when the best time might be to put something up for auction. Another part of the problem is that you’ll generally only do well by forming loose alliances within cities, and that just doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not a negotiator. (On top of that, there’s often going to be a dominant partner within these alliances, so the lesser partner is working to improve not only their own position but also that of their partner who’s already ahead of them. Being that lesser partner seems pretty pointless to me.) The final part of the problem is that all the mechanisms fit together in fairly non-obvious ways.

This all sounds very negative, but I actually quite enjoyed the gameplay as it went on. Jostling the value of Rome down so that Graham and Álvaro (who’d both gone heavy on Rome tiles) would score nothing for their investments was good fun, even if I didn’t feel like I had any control over whether it happened or not. It didn’t make a shred of difference though, as evidenced by the final scores:

Álvaro: 47 / Lloyd: 30 / Gareth: 20 / Graham: 17 / Me: 15

wow. such doge.

wow. such doge. very influence. much attack.

Out of interest, I had a flick through the rules online after I got home… and discovered that we’d played a few fairly crucial things quite, quite incorrectly. Here are a couple I noticed:

  • A player can only own one Troop tile of each type. (At least two players had multiples of a single type, which made their military super-powerful.)
  • The amount a city pays for their Condottiere is equal to the city’s status, not double the city’s status as we played it. (This would have made taking part in – and losing – wars far less attractive and kept incomes lower. My weak military meant there was little point in taking part in wars, so my gold income was relatively low.)

Also, I don’t remember any mention of the fact that a player may hold no more than six City tiles in total. Actually, this may have been mentioned and I just forgot about it… and I don’t think anyone went over that limit… but it could have changed things had I been aware of it.

One final moan: the Treachery tiles. I really didn’t like these because they introduced a ‘take that’ mechanism, which is pretty much my least favourite thing in gaming (in fact, second only to having to run around during a game). You’ve bid yourself into a war because you’re confident you can beat the opposition? BOOM – not any more. I’ve bribed one of your Troop tiles to not fight, so now you’re probably going to lose. Or maybe you’ve planned out in advance what you’re happy to bid for various tiles over the next few turns? BOOM – not any more. I’ve stolen gold and/or influence from you so now all your plans are ruined. And so on. It’s not like I didn’t use Treachery tiles myself – I did, several times – but I just thought it was a layer of guff thrown on top of an already complex game.

So. Princes of the Renaissance. I’m not saying it’s a bad game by any means, but it’s a relatively old Wallace design and he’s come a long way in terms of making things smoother and more intuitive. Chances are I wouldn’t play it again, mainly because there are so many other games in the world that are (a) better suited to the way I like to play, and (b) just more fun.

After having my brain pummelled for several hours, I fancied something light and breezy to round off the evening. Gareth and Lloyd had drifted away, so Graham, Álvaro and I played Scharfe Schoten. I’m not quite sure what caught my eye about this game. I mean, I’ve always liked trick-taking games, but the only stand-out thing about this particular game is the suited card-backs and slightly odd trump system. Oh, and the card art, which sits somewhere on the fine line between awesome and awful.

Not sure about that imagery on the yellow 10...

I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that yellow 10…

But what a fun little game it is! One that rewards a few plays, I imagine, but still very enjoyable on a first outing. The randomised-per-round trump system is simple enough; it just has a habit of taking you by surprise when the hand of cards you initially thought was utter drivel is suddenly revealed to be quite powerful on closer inspection. The bidding for most-won and least-won suit in each round is a little unintuitive at first, but then you realise how much influence the “spice cupboard” (a spare hand of cards, one of which must be taken by the winner of each trick) has over the collection of cards you’ll end up with. And then the realisation that you can screw over the other players in quite simple (yet very effective) ways brings a whole new level to the game.

Graham took the lead in the first round and held it to the end, although I mounted something of a comeback in the last of the three rounds by winning relatively few tricks and trying to throw ‘bad’ cards to opponents so they’d fail in their bids.

Final score – Graham: 39 / Me: 34 / Álvaro: 10

That was a natural end to a slightly odd evening of gaming. Lesson learned: Wallace doesn’t necessarily equal fun. I need to play Brass to even out the universe.

All photos by John Sh and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month (although there’s an extra one in April), 4:30 pm until late (unless it’s a special all-day session like the first two Saturdays in April…) at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

My March in Games

In many ways, my gaming highlight in March was (finally) teaching Hive to my seven-year-old son. Not just because it’s a great game, but because he got it. I barely had to re-explain anything and he could recognise when things were going well and when they were turning bad. Admittedly, I helped him along in quite a few places (because there’s nothing fun about steamrollering a child at a game notorious for requiring an even match of player ability), but he understood exactly why the bad decisions he was mulling over were bad decisions. I foresee many matches of Hive to come in the future – and I foresee him beating me before too long.

The month began excellently (after an early session at Newcastle Gamers) with a game of Madeira against John Sh. I’d recently picked it up at a vaguely bargainous price, intrigued by its reputation as a brutally heavy euro and heartened by the knowledge that it’s a real favourite of Newcastle Gamers chairman John B.

At this point, I’d love to go into a detailed report and analysis of our beautifully constructed strategies and well timed moves. Instead, I’ll just present you with how the board looked at the end of the two-hour game as we sat with our heads in our hands, muttering things like “probably the heaviest euro I’ve ever played” and “that was exhausting”.

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

Yes, it felt very heavy… but not from being overburdened by elaborate rules. The rules themselves are relatively straightforward (I mean, it’s not Ticket to Ride, but it’s certainly not Mage Knight either); the heaviness comes from the complexity and depth of the interlocking mechanisms and the decisions you have to make on each turn. Resources are tight, in true brutal-euro style, and you only have a small handful of actions available in each round, so there are points where you’re inevitably failing to maintain your boats (if you have to buy wood, the cost scales using the triangular number sequence: 1 wood costs 1 coin, 2 wood costs 3 coins, 3 wood costs 6… all the way up to 6 wood for a horrifying 21 coins) or feed your workers. And failing to do things means pirates. And pirates give you negative points at the end of the game.

I ended up winning, 72 to 51, but it was kind of accidental. I fell into a heavy shipping strategy early on (mainly because of the first crown demand tile I was dealt) and it threw a reasonable number of points my way over the first couple of scoring rounds (end of rounds 1 and 3), plus a big bonus at the end of round 5 (my three red wine ships you can see on the board pulled in 18 points from a single tile). John had also overtaken me – way, way, way overtaken me – for pirates in the last round, so he got the larger points reduction at the end of the game.

So it was very much an exploratory first game, and I reckon Madeira would need a good four or five games before you get a decent handle on how everything fits together. I did really enjoy it, but it’s not an “every day” game. It’s probably not even an “every month” game, given its weight. But I’ll float it some time at Newcastle Gamers and see if I get any takers.

The middle of the month brought another wonderful gaming weekend (see this post for last spring’s report). I could only make it for about 24 hours, but I managed to fit in some excellent gaming. In brief:

  • Formula Dé – This was much better fun than I’d anticipated, taking roll-and-move to a level that actually engages the brain. The highlight was watching Olly dance on the verge of death for most of the race before spinning and crashing out on the penultimate bend. I played it steady and very nearly won, being pipped to the post by John in the last roll of the die.
  • Roads & Boats – Having scared everyone else away by (correctly) stating it had taken 6 hours last time we played, Olly and I then polished off a game in 90 minutes, both rushing to complete the wonder rather than bothering with mines and all that nonsense. Not the most satisfying of games, but at least it showed us another way it could be played.
Yes, we set up all those hexes, then didn't even bother getting beyond wagons. I didn't even get beyond donkeys, and I crushed all my geese into delicious wonder bricks.

Yes, we set up all those hexes, then didn’t even bother getting beyond wagons. I didn’t even get beyond donkeys, and I crushed all my geese into delicious wonder bricks.

  • In the Year of the Dragon – Finally managed to play this excellent Stefan Feld game. It didn’t feel much like a Feld as we know them these days; it was much more a game of managing crises than building opportunities and creating combos. Really good fun, with an enjoyable schadenfreude in watching Camo (who has played the game a billion times) accidentally screw himself over and have a disastrous last few rounds.
  • Suburbia – My first play with the Suburbia Inc expansion, which adds borders, bonuses, challenges and a whole bunch of new tiles. Camo, Olly, Graham and I were experienced enough to take it in our strides, and we ended up with some ridiculous-looking border-riddled boroughs (except Graham’s, which looked like someone had actually put some thought into its layout). I struggled for income throughout, but just managed to scrape together a win by sneaking down to score the “lowest income” goal.
My winning "borough". I don't know why anyone wanted to live there, but they did.

My winning “borough”. I don’t know why anyone wanted to live there, with a checkpoint sandwiched between a desert and a national park. Maybe it was just those contiguous lake tiles that brought the people flooding in.

  • Earthquake – A very odd little set-scoring game, with Magic: The Gathering artwork and a whole shedload of luck involved.
  • Android: Netrunner – I tried out a Noise (Anarch) bullshit deck against Graham’s Jinteki Replicating Perfection deck. I can’t think of a better way to describe the deck I was using. It’s just a complete confrontational arsehole of a deck, tweaked to my liking from the Can o’ Whupass build. Virus after virus after virus, milling through the corp deck, bringing out Incubators, Hivemind and three Chakanas… I can’t imagine what it’s like to play against as a corp. Indeed, Graham was heard to mutter, “Y’know, we could fall out over this.” I managed to faceplant into a Cerebral Overwriter and accidentally kill myself; I really shouldn’t have run at all, even with a super-strong Darwin running off Hivemind. You live and learn. Really good fun to try something like this out, and it’s now become my proper runner deck after a few tweaks.
  • Fungi – I’ve had a copy of this sitting around unplayed for ages, and Graham happened to have brought his along. I wish I’d played my copy ages ago. What a lovely little set-collection game. The morels seemed very powerful, but I think Graham struck lucky in managing to get all three of them out for 18 points.
  • Love Letter – For once, I didn’t do terribly… but I didn’t win either.
  • Space Alert – At last, I tried this Vlaada Chvátil game, but I couldn’t stay long enough to get beyond the first couple of training missions. I was enjoying it a lot, although the real-time aspect of it did make me realise how much my CFS still affects my mental function. I struggled to keep up with what was going on… but of course, that’s partially the idea of the game anyway! Hopefully I’ll get another chance to play it before I’ve entirely forgotten how it works.

I had a fantastic time with superb games in excellent company, and was gutted to have to miss half of the weekend. I even missed two games of Agricola. [sad face]

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the month trying to get my head round the rules for Salerno, the first in MMP’s Variable Combat Series. It had been on my radar for well over a year – the system, the map, the counters… it all looked like my sort of wargame, and one I could play solo fairly easily too. I’d read the system rules a couple of times, and it seemed so simple; it was largely a collection of standard hex-and-counter wargaming staples.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t looked at the exclusive rules for the Salerno game. They’re twice as long as the system rules, and make it substantially more complex. I’m not a massive wargamer, but I’ve never had trouble getting my head round a ruleset once I put some effort into it. Salerno was the first wargame to make me feel like a complete idiot. It’s not just that the rules could be much clearer in places; it’s that they make assumptions about your knowledge of military terminology. For a lot of grognards, this wouldn’t be a problem. I, on the other hand, have struggled enormously to figure out which counters are the parent units to others, and to figure out how the unit designations listed in the reinforcement schedule correspond to what’s printed on the counters.

Maybe I’ve been coddled by the likes of Red Winter, which prints the turn of entry on each unit, or Unconditional Surrender, in which each ground unit counter is an entire army with a simple number on it. Either way, Salerno‘s back on the shelf for now. I hope I can understand it some day.