Monthly Archives: October 2015

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 10 October 2015

or FeldFest 2015

OK, not much of a “fest”, but two heavy Stefan Feld games in one evening is a Good Thing. Bora Bora was first, with John Sh (owning and explaining), Camo and John F. I’ve been keen to play Bora Bora for a while, but (a) timings haven’t quite worked out and (b) just… the iconography. Man, those player boards are something else. Every space filled with an icon, some no larger than a few mm. Of course, once everything’s been explained, it all makes some sort of sense (and actually becomes a useful player aid), but until then it’s a hurdle to overcome.

Still, hurdles overcome, we played, quickly coming to realise just how important – and horribly difficult – completing the end-of-round tasks would be. With 6 VPs per round at stake (plus a 6 VP bonus for completing all nine tasks), it became the focus of my game; simply figuring out which I wanted from the six new tasks available became a huge part of each round’s play. And actually getting the one I wanted was much easier said than done.

The dice-allocation mechanism is a fabulous bit of design: the higher the die you assign to an action, the “better” you can do that action (more points to spend or more choice, usually), but you have to assign a die of lower value than any previously placed on that action, leading to a wonderful dilemma of “high value = good action” versus “low value = blocks other people”. It also led to my one major frustration of the game when I rolled triple-1s. Although we were playing with some promo “orange god” tiles that allow a +1/-1 modifier, that wasn’t enough to make the dice useful in that situation, especially when I had no useful cards, no Offering tiles to spend anyway, and Camo had just played a 2 onto the “take a man” action and taken the 1-value man, meaning only 1s could be placed there and there was no 1-value man left to take. Aarrgh. I felt like I never quite caught up from that dreadful round.

More colours and icons than you can shake a stick it. Astonishingly, "shaking a stick" isn't represented by an in-game icon.

More colours and icons than you can shake a stick it. Astonishingly, “shaking a stick” is one of the few things in the world that isn’t represented by an in-game icon.

That little niggle aside, I really enjoyed Bora Bora at the time, although I can’t remember a huge amount about it afterwards. Perhaps there was just a little too much going on in the game. There was always a pressure to be doing lots of different things, rather than anyone being allowed to specialise in something, although John F seemed to do a remarkable job of specialising in both placing huts pretty much everywhere and building his ceremonial area. And that clearly served him well, because he came joint first, Camo taking the victory on the tiebreaker of turn order. (I’d managed a neat little trick involving cards, Offerings, god tiles and making sure I could complete my final tasks in just the right order… but it was nowhere near enough.)

Final score – Camo: 140 / John F: 140 / John Sh: 135 / Me: 121

A very, very good game, but seemingly not quite a great game. It got overshadowed in my eyes by the other Feld of the evening, but I’d rank Bora Bora alongside Bruges in my internal Feld-chart. Nothing alike at all, but I enjoyed them roughly equally.

Jack turned up at this point, touting Macao and claiming it went to five players – great! More Feld! And then it turned out that it only went to four, so he pulled out his actual five-player option, Alea Iacta Est. Those with a passing knowledge of Latin will be expecting a dice game set in ancient Rome, and they’d be right. I would describe Alea Iacta Est as being Alien Frontiers – IN SPAAAAACE!… but Alien Frontiers is already in space and it post-dates Alea Iacta Est by a year, so the situation’s clearly reversed.

It’s a whole chunk simpler than Alien Frontiers too, but still with enough meat on the bones to make it a worthwhile, fun little game. Being early in turn order was certainly not necessarily a good thing; in fact, it was sometimes downright bad, with the expected length of round being whipped out from under you by some lucky and aggressive dice play. And figuring out how to judge the overall arc of the game was not easy at the outset. Five rounds just didn’t seem long enough to pull everything together so you’d have provinces and patricians in them in order to score well.

I always relish the option of having poo-brown as my player colour

Who can resist that lovely shade of brown as a player colour?

Minor niggles: some province/patrician colours weren’t easily distinguished from others, especially under the notorious Newcastle Gamers lighting. Also, the iconography on the SPQR tiles was so opaque that it slowed the game to a standstill every round while people figured out which tile to take. Still, it was all fun enough, but no one could quite match up to Jack (who had the benefit of having played it before, even if it had been a while).

Final score – Jack: 42 / John Sh: 39 / Me: 38 / Camo: 38 / John F: 33

At this point, John F left, so we stuck to the earlier plan and broke out Macao. A relatively early (2009) Stefan Feld game, Macao includes some elements that can be found in his later designs (Bruges for the communal-dice-roll-per-round aspect, Amerigo for the actions denoted by tiny coloured cubes, just about every other Feld game for the turn-order track… the list goes on), but for me this was the perfect synthesis of those elements.

The wind rose planning mechanism is a devilish piece of design, clearly similar in intent to the die-assignment in Bora Bora: it’s all about balancing timing and power. If one of the communal dice shows a 1, you can take 1 action cube of that colour for the upcoming round; if a die shows a 6, you can take 6 cubes of that colour (which is 6 actions) but you won’t get to use them for another five rounds. Simple but devastatingly effective. It took me a fair while to get my head round it – and the early rounds were often dominated by the “obvious” groupthink, with everyone taking the same options – but once I spotted a chance to have a massive final turn, I took it. 6 green cubes and 6 violets, lined up well in advance. Shortly after that, I activated a card that gave me an extra action cube each time I used a die to take cubes, so that was a huge boost for my final round.

The majority of the game was spent in traditional Feld style, picking up points here and there (although nowhere near as many as his usual “point salad” games) and building towards a self-appointed end-goal. The constant pressure of having to activate cards (in order to avoid filling your tableau and taking a -3 VP “punish marker”) meant there was always something to concentrate on, a little like the tasks in Bora Bora. I actually started the game by completing a “Baronesa” card which gave a hefty bonus for a player who completed more than one Baronesa, so I spent the rest of the game keeping an eye out for more Baronesas and trying to stay reasonably up-front in the turn order so I could grab them. Unfortunately, we didn’t get through anywhere near as much of the card deck as I’d expected and no more Baronesas came out. So it all hinged on my big final round, which I’d spent literally half the game working towards. It was showing in the scores – I was a trailing a few points off the back at this point.

See that massive clump of cubes next to my wind rose at the very top of the picture? That's my preposterous final round, that is.

See that massive clump of cubes next to my wind rose at the very top of the picture? That’s my preposterous final round, that is. In fact, we haven’t even finished the round before, so there were four more cubes in the clump when we got round to it. Plus an extra violet cube from my Senora Violeta card.

I think I ended up with about 28 or 29 action cubes for the last round, which were spent on: activating three or four cards; using cards to convert cubes into gold coins to spend on “tribute” for VPs; taking over city quarters (which I later realised was actually a bit of inadvertent cheating – I bought two quarters in one round, which we’d earlier established was against the rules – but it only affected the final score by 2 VPs); and moving my ship between various ports to sell wares for VPs. Given that everyone else had maybe six or seven cubes for the last round, it pushed me in front on the VP track. I had another 7 or 8 VPs from end-game scoring cards in my tableau, which only compounded my lead.

Final score – Me: 72 / Camo: 55 / Jack: 54 / John Sh: 54

I hereby pronounce Macao my second-favourite Feld, after the seemingly unassailable Trajan. It’s got that special marriage of just the right elements, including forward planning, dice used in a non-traditional way, and several different areas on which to concentrate for VPs. If it wasn’t long out of print, I’d be picking up a copy for myself; as it is, I’ll be looking forward to Jack bringing it back to Newcastle Gamers.

After Jack left, Camo, John and I rounded off the evening with The King of Frontier, which John had introduced me to a couple of weeks earlier. Mixing the tile placement from Carcassonne with the role selection from Puerto RicoThe King of Frontier manages to be much quicker than either and possibly even slightly more fun. To cut a short story even shorter, I went for a produce-consume strategy early on with a size-4 field and size-4 city; John had a special building which gave him a bonus when spending wood during the consume phase, so we were pretty even. John and Camo both very helpfully pointed out when I forgot there was a handy building I could afford, so I built it… and it won me the game. The Altar cancelled out the -2 VP for every empty space on my board at the end of the game which, along with the 2 VPs on the Altar tile, effectively put me 14 VPs up (16 if you include the fact that the Altar fills a space).

This is what a winning board looks like... although it wouldn't without the Altar there.

This is what a winning board looks like… although it probably wouldn’t without the Altar there

Final score – Me: 43 / Camo: 35 / John Sh: 30

A great game to finish another great evening at Newcastle Gamers. The next session falls on my birthday, so it’s anyone’s guess if I’ll actually make it along or not.

Photos by John and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

September Gaming Roundup

huge month of gaming, even when you exclude the Newcastle Gamers session I’ve already covered. It started with a weekend where Mrs Cardboard took two of our three kids away and left me with the middle one (aged 6), so he picked some of his favourite “proper games” to play. Two games of Indigo, one of Carcassonne (no farmers and playing nicely – no stealing cities, much to my dismay) and an unusually long Rampage in which we both struggled to properly demolish buildings and kept missing things when throwing trucks. As ever, I absolutely destroyed him points-wise (and the city, physically) because he’s far more interested in having fun knocking stuff over than in collecting full sets of meeples for points. 65 to 12. He didn’t care; he’d thrown bits of wood around for nearly an hour.

That weekend also included a Corbridge Gamers session with John Sh, featuring Snowdonia with the Neuhauser Bockerlbahn expansion. I nearly sneaked a win by doing really nicely out of station building and having just the right set of contracts to fulfil, but John got some excellent bonuses from track-based contracts and took the win by 10 points (134–124). The Neuhauser Bockerlbahn adds some interesting ideas to the Snowdonia formula, including wood and the ability to power trains (of which you can own two!) with said wood once you’ve felled it. I really should play Snowdonia a lot more.

We also played Russian Railroads, which was new to me. I’d somehow missed every opportunity to play it over the nearly two years since its release. I now massively regret that, because I really enjoyed it! It’s got that magical combination of being relatively rules-light while always having some fairly deep choices to think through, with early engine-building (not literally… although also literally) guiding you to an overall strategy that can work out really well… or go horribly wrong. I managed to sneak a win, basically by collecting enough engineers to score an obscene bonus towards the end of the game (28 points or something like that). John had warned me that the scoring would accelerate rapidly. Even with that warning, after the first round of six ended with the scores at 11–7, there was no way I would have suspected I’d win 299–274. Ridiculous. But brilliant. Very keen to play this one again with more players.

The major gaming event of the month came on the final weekend, with another fantastic two days away organised by the other gaming John in my life (Simmo when he comments here). These weekends have become little highlights of my year, with the opportunity to get some longer, heavier games played without fear of running out of time or taking up too much space.

Our view for the weekend

Our view for the weekend

Friday was almost entirely taken up with 1830, which I’ve wanted to play for a long time. I’ve had a copy of the Mayfair edition since I saw it briefly going cheap (£25-ish?) a while back. Simmo has had a copy of the Avalon Hill edition for a lot longer; indeed, the last time his copy got played was almost eight years ago. John, Ali, Olly and I all had a basic understanding of the rules, but it still took at least an hour to set everything up and make sure we were all on the same page (some slight rules differences and clarifications between the AH and Mayfair editions threw up some early stumbling points).

The initial auction for private companies left Olly with the B&O – very expensive, but with the bonus of the President share in the B&O railroad – and me with the C&A, giving me one normal share in the PRR (and obviously I went for the presidency straight away). Both of those railroads floated early and paid out often. Ali ended up with four shares in PRR, which meant I could have dumped the railroad on him just before its trains rusted and left him short of cash. As it turned out, at the crucial point he was swimming in cash and I slightly mistimed it anyway, so I ended up paying up about $750 for a diesel from my personal fortune, which pretty much scuppered my game.

The board was pretty full with tiles towards the end of the game, with only minor adjustments between operating rounds; unfortunately, we hadn’t thought this bit through and ended up recalculating entire train revenues every time, which ate up loads of time that could have been saved with a revenue table (I’ve printed one out and stuck it in my copy for next time). After about seven-and-a-half hours of play, we finished a set of operating rounds with only about $50 left in the bank, so we called the game there and saved probably another 45–60 minutes of recalculations that wouldn’t have changed the final position much.

Final score – Olly: $6,547 / Ali: $5,494 / John: $5,296 / Me: $4,227

A sound win for Olly, and a solid thrashing for me. I had a wide spread of shares across various companies, but without deep holdings in anything except PRR (50%). Coupled with mistiming the diesel buy, I think that was the crucial factor in my woeful performance. Olly, meanwhile, was heavily invested in two companies (B&O and C&O) with only a few shares from others, which meant he could get hefty dividend payouts from his presidencies. We all played nicely with each other (apart from my early blocking of C&O with awkward track tiles), given that it was very much a learning game (and I mistimed dumping PRR on Ali). Next time, I think we’re all armed to be a bit more vicious. And I’ve found myself looking at other 18xx games since; it’s clearly struck a chord with me.

Saturday was a lot more varied, with Age of Industry (New England map, Graham winning a low-scoring 5-player game on a tiebreak) and Ticket to Ride: Märklin (enjoyed this more than any other TtR variant I’ve played, even played at breakneck speed to fit it in before Ali had to leave – he thrashed us all in absentia) taking up the morning. I got in a 3-player Trajan (my favourite of all the Felds) with Olly and James; I made a couple of silly errors, which is normal for me playing Trajan, but still won by a single point over James.

The end of Trajan

The end of Trajan; just peeking into shot, bottom-left, is Olly’s impressive collection of shipped goods

After that came Erosion, a Sierra Madre Games card game, not designed by Phil Eklund, but developed by him and bearing all the Eklund hallmarks – terrible graphic design, cards filled with educational text and preposterous game terminology. It proved to be one of the strange little highlights of the weekend, partly for the fact that it’s a game about being a mountain, but mainly for the constant giggling about having “handfuls of schist” and asking people if they would be “uplifting”. Ridiculous, with a narrow win for James.

After introducing Jude to Ingenious (Jude placed second behind Graham, with me in third and Olly bringing up the rear after a little scrap where I made sure I wasn’t going to be last), I played the first of two end-of-WWII-themed games that rounded off the weekend – 1944: Race to the Rhine. In some ways, RttR could suffer slightly from its theme, in that it’s clearly a war-themed game (evident from the box art) but at its heart it’s a resource-management and racing eurogame. That means that wargamers could be a bit disappointed by the euro-style play, while euro-lovers never try it because it’s a “wargame”. Me? I loved it.

Ben played the sole British role of Montgomery, while Toby (Patton) and I (Bradley) represented the US generals pushing eastward towards Germany. As Brad, my problems were apparent from the start – I had no opportunity to capture limited supply bases on the way, so all of my supplies had to be brought onto the board at the “bottom” (the west-hand side) and taken all the way to my corps by truck. Monty and Patton had the option of bringing in supplies much closer to their corps, which meant they could be a little more responsive and flexible.

It turned out to be less of a Race to the Rhine and more of a (in Ben’s words) Casual Stroll to the Rhine, with each of us being fairly cautious in our advances. Toby did shoot ahead to the east in the first few turns, but then was brought up short by a lack of supply… alongside Ben and I using the Axis markers to hamper his advance quite drastically. Ben, meanwhile, mopped up some German forces as he sauntered to the east, and I pushed on in a fairly measured and even fashion, bringing each of my three corps forward together. I nearly came completely unstuck when Toby carried out Axis counterattacks into my supply lines; I was one turn away from being completely cut off, but I just managed to sneak some fuel and ammo through to keep things moving. Bradley does have the potential to be completely cut off (and effectively out of the game) without sufficient care, so that’s something to watch out for in future!

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine – I do love the graphic design work on this one

It got a bit gamey towards the end, with Ben clearly having a lead in medals (the win condition if nobody actually crosses the Rhine before Axis markers run out) and thus wanting to end the game, while Toby and I wanted to catch up a bit… or even cross the Rhine, which Toby was perilously close to. We got there in the end though, with Ben winning on 7 medals, me on 6 and Toby on 5. A really fun game, which I’d like to play again soon… but I imagine I won’t get the chance because the theme probably puts a lot of people off. Shame.

One night’s sleep later, the three of us reconvened for Churchill on Sunday morning. An odd and very effective mix of negotiation, seemingly simple card play and abstracted warfare, Churchill covers the closing months of WWII, simulating the conferences between Churchill, Roosevelt (and later Truman) and Stalin. We played the tournament scenario, which covers the last five of ten possible conferences (the ten-conference game would take a fairly long session…), although we missed off the final conference through a lack of time.

The card-play in the Conference phases seems initially trivial, but it soon becomes apparent how important it is to (a) keep turn order in mind and (b) hold back powerful cards for late in the conference. Winning the Agenda segment at the start of each Conference phase not only lets you get a headstart on winning a conference Issue (represented by counters on the Conference Table tracks), but also ensures that you’re last in turn order, which is a huge advantage for winning that all-important Issue.

Ben (as Stalin) kept the “Nyet!” feeling alive by regularly debating Issues after they’d been advanced by either Toby (Roosevelt) or me (Churchill); conversely, neither of the Western allies felt the need to do much debating. I think I did it once, just to keep Ben from being able to debate (only one player can debate an issue after it’s advanced). It’s little touches like that which keep the theme alive through simple mechanisms – the USSR player debates so often, as Stalin did historically, because they get a +1 bonus to card strength when they do. Clever design.

Debates continued in another form after the Conference phase was over, with the assignment of support on various war fronts in the Military phase. There was a fair bit of jostling and (non-binding!) conversation going on as to which fronts would receive support and for what reason. I didn’t want to support the Normandy landings until my UK troops had entered Northern Italy; conversely, Ben was desperate to make Normandy happen so the Germans would divert some of their horde of troops to the Western front. That meant nobody could be happy until I’d got my precious advance in Italy and was ready to commit to the Normandy effort.

I pushed a couple of Global Issues early on, meaning I could place Political Alignment markers in Colonies when no one else could. That was going to be my key to VPs – Political Alignment and clearing out other people from the Colonies, keeping my head down so the others might not notice. Meanwhile, Ben and Toby kept the fronts moving forward as best they could, stealing the odd bit of Production from me (either directly or with Directed Offensives) and each other.

At the point that we cut the game short, neither Axis power had surrendered, so we knew we were in for a bit of a die-roll-fuelled resolution to the final score – it’s Mark Herman’s penalty for players who don’t bother finishing the war. The leader subtracts 1d6 from their score, the second-place player subtracts (1d6)/2 and the player in last adds 1d6. Before the d6-randomised score adjustments, I had a lead of several points over Ben, with Toby just behind him; after the adjustments, it was a different story.

Final score – Toby: 36 / Me: 32 / Ben: 31

A sneak win for the US. I’m not entirely satisfied with the “victory condition 3” ending with random score adjustments – had I not rolled a 6 and had Toby not rolled a 5, things would have been very different – but I guess that’s the idea. It’s not supposed to be a satisfying ending if the Allies don’t even bother to win the war.

And that was the end to a superb weekend of games.

John Sh and I managed to squeeze in another Corbridge Gamers on the last day of the month, featuring Tash-Kalar (deathmatch duel this time, which I think is a slightly better variant for beginners now I’ve played it – I still won 20–15), The King of Frontier, which manages to combine elements of Puerto RicoCarcassonne and a bunch of generic euro mechanisms into a genuinely successful and enjoyable little game (I won, 49–44) and Reiner Knizia’s venerable Battle Line, which is fine but not spectacular (John won with 5 flags overall).

An epic post for an epic month. October will be a little lighter on the gaming, I suspect, but there’s always hope.