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.

sigh

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!

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