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.
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.
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
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.
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!