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!

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