Monthly Archives: September 2016

Gametown Top Ranking

While listening to Heavy Cardboard episode 52 (Amanda and Edward revealing their top 50 games each), I naturally started thinking about the games that would make it into my “Top N” list. I don’t think I could sensibly manage N=50; even with the length of time I’ve been seriously gaming, I’d probably struggle to drum up 50 games I’ve played more than once and I don’t think I can legitimately pass judgement on a game I’ve only touched on a single occasion. N=10 would be manageable, but liable to change on a moment’s notice.

So I thought I’d do something a bit different: a couple of favourite games in each of ten different categories, giving me a “sort of top 20 games list” to come back to in a year or two and scoff at.

All-Time Classics

You know, the sort of games that are always hovering around people’s top-10 lists, usually in the top 10 or 20 on BGG and often more than a few years old.

Agricola

Agricola

Yeah, you know it’s still the best game ever. Building a food engine, improving the farm, grabbing stuff, keeping an eye on everyone else and making sure you know when they’re going to be grabbing stuff, making sure you have enough food for Harvest… The game wants to kill you, but it wants you to have fun anyway.

I haven’t played it for ages though, which is partly due to the constant influx of new games and partly due to the company I keep – quite a few people don’t want to play with certain other people because those certain other people are so good at Agricola that there’s no chance of winning. Doesn’t bother me though. Agricola‘s always a good time, win or lose.

Twilight Struggle

If I’ve got 3–6 hours and a single willing victim, this is the game of choice for me. Of course, those being fairly restrictive criteria and being married to someone who (by and large) doesn’t play board games… again, this one doesn’t get played enough for my liking. The new digital adaptation by Playdek does an OK job and I need to dig into it more to get my head round the interface, but nothing beats the raw tension of playing TS in person.

Heavy Euros

The real brain-burning brutes with plenty of bits of wood being pushed around.

Madeira

See all my red workers in the fields? See my red square action marker in Moinho? That's my engine, that is.

Sounding like a stuck record already, but… I need to play this more. It’s fun, it’s long, it’s oddly lovely to look at and sweet lord it hurts. It’s (usually) obvious what you need to do in order to score in the next scoring round, but how you actually get to do those things and pay for them… that’s a whole other challenge.

Through the Ages

Possibly cheating with this one, because I’ve never played it face-to-face and I haven’t played the new version; it’s all been on BGO with the original (or very slightly tweaked) rules. It’s a masterpiece of horribly tight resource management and tableau building, which are two of my favourite things in games.

Lighter Euros

Shipyard

Rondels, rondels, rondels. Ships so long they look like oil tankers. The weird canal-maze-tile-laying subgame. This one’s greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are pretty great.

Trajan

Trajan

So simple, yet tough to pull off well because of that mancala mechanism for action selection. And it works really well at all player counts from two to four.

Economic Games

Basically a way to get a few more heavy euro-type games in. Brass nearly got in here, so consider it an “honourable mention”.

Food Chain Magnate

FCM Olly

Like most Splotter games, FCM is non-stop tough from start to finish and things can go horribly wrong for you… but it’s quite often your fault when that happens and you can learn a lesson for the next time you play. And then you’ll mess up something else and get better again. So many strategies I’ve yet to try.

1865: Sardinia

This is really here as a representative of 18xx as a whole, but I think 1865 might well be my favourite. It’s small and tight, and it eliminates a lot of the fiddliness of more traditional 18xx games by virtue of players never having to calculate their most lucrative routes. So where the final rounds of many 18xx games can bog down into hours of “well, if I put a station there it blocks that, but if I upgrade this track then I get $10 extra…”, 1865 retains all the good stuff and skips along nicely to the end.

Cooperative Games

Pandemic

Pandemic

Quite enough has already been said and written across the web about Pandemic; I’ll say nothing other than that I think it’s the best cooperative game around.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

While Ghost Stories isn’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination, it’s hard. Really hard. And really fun, as long as you can cope with the fact you’ll very probably lose.

Two-Player Abstract Games

I do love a good two-player abstract, and I’m trying to indoctrinate my kids in the joys of the classic white-vs-black board game.

Hive

Hive

Yes, white should win in an evenly matched game, but it’s still an excellent game. Although it looks like you’ve got loads of choices on your turn, there are very often only one or two that make any tactical sense, so it’s usually quick to play and easy to convince your opponent to play another round.

YINSH

Definite cheating here because I’ve only played this once, but I think this might be a truly excellent game and I want to play it a lot to get better at it.

Family Games

Stuff that my kids – and even my wife – will happily play and/or request.

Indigo

Indigo

For some reason, my kids love this Knizia game. I think it’s pretty good too, and it has the added benefit of being really handsome on the table.

Ticket to Ride series

Ticket to Ride

OK, I’m not a huge fan of TtR (especially the original US board), but I think it helps consolidate a lot of basic game concepts for my kids and will hopefully prove to be a decent stepping stone to more complex games.

Wargames

D-Day at Omaha Beach

DDaOB featured image

Because I don’t have any face-to-face wargaming buddies I can play with on a regular basis, it’s obvious that the king of all solitaire wargames is sitting here. Never mind that it’s incredibly tough and your troops will be picked off by the Wiederstandsnests as they move up the beach; this is a beautifully designed challenge for the solo gamer.

Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland 8–12 December 1939

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was my real introduction to hex-and-counter gaming, and it remains my absolute favourite two-player wargame. Why? Low counter density, relatively low rules complexity and a beautiful map that – while as free as any other – encourages certain types of movement and play while leaving the door open for the odd surprise manoeuvre. Fantastic design. I’ve been trying to get my head into the sequel, Operation Dauntless, but the added chrome and armour rules mean it’s been a bit opaque.

Solitaire Games

Mage Knight

If I’ve got a whole evening alone, I’ll quite often set this up and… well, usually lose. But the puzzle! Oh, the puzzle. Every hand of cards is a different puzzle with loads of solutions, but usually only one of those solutions will get you where you wanted and with the right cards left over to successfully defeat the next challenge.

Friday

I could write almost exactly the same about Friday as I did about Mage Knight, except it doesn’t take a whole evening. Simple, yet satisfying.

Fillers / Party Games

Codenames

I’ve only played this a handful of times, and never with more than four players (so I have yet to experience the chaos and fun of larger teams) but I know it’s a genuine masterpiece of game design. So, so simple, yet so, so tough on the brain whichever side of the table you’re sitting.

Coloretto

Coloretto

I don’t think I’ve played another filler that engenders such furious bouts of swearing as Coloretto. It’s one of those “gentle” games where you can be genuinely horrible to people without directly stealing from them or anything like that. Again, a brilliant bit of game design.

So there it is. My pseudo-top-20 list. What did I miss off? What entire categories of game did I neglect to include? Let me know.

Oh, and I couldn’t neglect to include this little pop gem.

In August, There Were Games

Considering the general mayhem that August usually brings (school holidays being the main disruptor of sanity and routine), I managed to fit in a surprising amount of gaming. Among the usual family favourites like Ticket to RideIndigoCatan Junior and Forbidden Desert, I also introduced my eldest, J (now 9), to GIPF and we both indoctrinated his brother A (7) in the ways of Small World (in which they ganged up on me and A won his first ever game).

August’s Corbridge Gamers sessions started with a delivery from the hype-train: Scythe, which – like Jamey Stegmaier’s previous game Viticulture – I thought was fine and perfectly playable, yet completely unspectacular. Now, to be fair, I hadn’t quite got my head around exactly where the balance of VPs was going to come from, so I blithely bashed on towards my sixth star without thinking about expanding my territory and lost to John quite horribly (110–57). I mean, losing never bothers me and I would know what to do differently next time… but maybe my failure to grasp the importance of controlling hexes had dampened my opinion of the game somewhat?

Unspectacular gameplay, but fairly spectacular on the table – and we haven't even tried the enlarged side yet

Unspectacular gameplay, but fairly spectacular on the table – and we haven’t even tried the enlarged side yet

Well, skipping on to the last Newcastle Gamers session of August, I got the opportunity to play Scythe again, this time with five players instead of the Corbridge-standard two. I enjoyed it much more this time out, with a lot more going on in terms of interactions – at one point I was perfectly poised to swoop in and take the central Factory hex from John when Camo jumped in first and essentially shut me out for what turned out to be the rest of the game. Fun! (No, really.)

Five colours this time – a lot more to keep an eye on

Five colours this time – a lot more to keep an eye on

I ended up doing no better in terms of territories this time, but at least it wasn’t for want of trying. We ended up with quite a tight spread of points and a surprise victory for Olly, almost entirely by virtue of the fact he’d been hoarding cash to fulfil his secret objective card… and cash is VPs.

Final score – Olly: 59 / Pete: 54 / Me: 48 / Camo: 47 / John: 41

So… thoughts after two games? Yeah, it’s still pretty unspectacular. It’s like watching one of those lazy holodeck-based episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation: all the familiar elements are there and you’ll have a good time, but there’s something deeper missing and it leaves you feeling slightly unfulfilled. It reminds me a lot of Eclipse:

  • hex-based exploration (and some hex-to-hex routes inaccessible without certain technologies)
  • rush to a central important hex
  • hex control necessary for scoring and for producing resources
  • first-half buildup followed by second-half petty skirmishing for hex control
  • moving bits of wood from one place to another uncovers a thing and covers something else (I realise that’s a fundamental description of moving any bits of wood from one place to another, but if you’ve played the games you’ll know what I mean)

It’s mercifully shorter than Eclipse, and the main reason I don’t really play Eclipse is that I don’t enjoy it enough for the amount of time it takes, so I guess Scythe wins in that respect. It just doesn’t feel as elegant as Eclipse… or a lot of other games, frankly. I think it’s trying to do one or two things too many and it feels like a muddled experience. Oh, and the board design is a nightmare in poor lighting. Still, I’d play it again, although the alternatives would have to be reasonably poor to make me go for it.

Back to Corbridge Gamers and the inaugural (and still only-so-far) run of Guilds of London, Tony Boydell’s long-gestated area-control-with-confusing-iconography game. I’m entirely reserving judgement and comment on this game until I’ve played it more than once and with more than two players, because (a) the iconography on the cards is a complete bastard and the first game is almost entirely spent trying to figure out what each card in your hand does; and (b) the two-player game is quite possibly not much like the “real” three/four-player version.

It's quite pretty in a way, especially that massive horde of my red liverymen

It’s quite pretty in a way, especially that massive horde of my red liverymen in the Guildhall

Don’t get me wrong: we both really enjoyed the actual mechanisms and the wealth of options and decisions available with each hand of (baffling) cards. It’s just that the two-player version turns into a swingy cat-and-mouse round the scoring track. The VP leader is first player for the round, which is a disadvantage, meaning the second player is more likely to score more points and jump into the lead, thus leaving themselves at a disadvantage and likely to be overtaken again in the next round… and so on. No great surprise that the scores were close (70–68), but the winner could have been either of us.

More precisely though, it was me.

We also played Brew Crafters at John’s table this month, which was possibly the best-received Corbridge game of August in my eyes. It’s so much like Agricola that if Uwe Rosenberg wasn’t reportedly a fan of the game, I’d be expecting litigation. That makes it really easy to teach an Agricola veteran though: it’s just “these are resource-accumulating action spaces, these are Occupations, these are pretty much Improvements, let’s go”. OK, there’s a slight wrinkle with the two types of worker and the “brewery phase”, but it’s very Rosenberg.

The randomised available beers pointed me towards brewing ales for big points (8 points per brew of Belgian Quad), whereas John’s first move had telegraphed his intention to at least start off with the porters. It took a while to get going (and money is so horribly, horribly tight in Brew Crafters) but I managed to crank out a few high-value ales and over-hop a few for extra points with the Hop Infusers. My research track actions left me gaining even more extra points just for brewing beer, but I wasn’t sure if John’s more-beers-but-lower-value approach was going to squeeze me out in the final reckoning. As it turned out, I got the win 67–59; those Hop Infusers were great.

My brewery by the end of the game

My brewery by the end of the game

My only particular criticism of Brew Crafters is that the artwork is a bit… rubbish. If only Klemens Franz had put his hands on it. *sigh* You can’t have everything, I suppose. Oh, and I suppose my other criticism is that it isn’t Agricola, and if you can play Agricola… why play Brew Crafters? I guess it’s just down to thematic preference.

Let nobody try to convince you that Brew Crafters is a cuddly version of Agricola though – it’s even harder to pay your workers in BC than to feed your family in ‘Gric. So horribly, horribly, awfully, terribly tight.

Continuing this non-chronological skip through the month, the first Newcastle Gamers session started with Brass and ended with Trajan… with nothing in between. They didn’t run long; there just weren’t people available to start something new after Trajan so I called it a night. Still, any night with two of my favourite games is a win.

Even if I lost both of them.

The second Newcastle Gamers session contained the five-player Scythe experience mentioned earlier, but it started with Splotter Spellen’s Duck Dealer. I think it’s fair to say that Duck Dealer somewhat lived up to my expectations, in that I couldn’t even slightly get my head round it. I found it so opaque (and so difficult to read the board state) that I think I’d have to play it about five times to start to understand it. The thing is, I don’t want to play it even a second time, let alone the other three.

It’s like they took the beautiful simplicity of Roads & Boats and decided to remove all logic from the resource-crafting tree (rather than “some boards and stone makes a building”, you have “plastic beads and blue paint makes diet pills” and “rubber ducks plus phones makes radios”) so it takes an extra cognitive leap to understand. Then they made the movement more complex (each Move action might get you 8 points of movement, but the costs of interplanetary movement might be 12… or maybe 9 if you put some cubes on that route) and introduced a spaceship-upgrading system that slows you down as you add more cargo space and/or crew to the ship.

Maybe I’m just a bit dim, but it was about five things too many to take in at once and I couldn’t figure out what I should be doing when. That was compounded by graphic design that was inconsistent (some pieces showed the VPs you’d score by building them; others didn’t, so I didn’t remember that I could score by building those things) and just, well… hideous. I can forgive hideous design if the underlying game is enjoyable (see every other Splotter game I’ve played), but when the hideous design actually gets in the way of understanding what the hell’s going on, I’m entirely unforgiving.

Anyway, after initially realising that he’d entirely screwed himself over with his starting choice (classic Splotter there), Olly went on to unrealise that and win the game in spectacular style, 90–48–40–36. That’s my 36 at the end there. It would have been 30 if I hadn’t seen the end of the game coming and ditched my plan (such as it was) to scramble up a measly 6 points by selling satellites made from solar panels and telephones.

After being underwhelmed by Duck Dealer and Scythe, it was a delight to try Pi mal Pflaumen for the first time. Adding all sorts of fruity twists to the trick-taking genre, PmP is a lot thinkier than it might at first seem. Every card has not only a number (dictating who wins the trick and gets first choice of the played cards), but also a fruit and usually a special action or scoring opportunity. That means there’s a bunch of agonising over whether to play this card because it’s a high number or this one because I want that fruit but hold on if I play that fruit the number means I’ll lose the trick and Camo will take it first because it’s got the watchdog action on it, so maybe I should play this card with the slightly rubbish scoring combo on it and hope it’s the highest card… and I’ll throw a bunch of pi cards in with it to boost the value.

Every trick’s like that. And that’s great. I hope to play it a lot more.

Final score – John: 43 / Me: 42 / Olly: 38 / Camo: 35

A quick August mention to my week’s holiday in the Lake District, where six games of the wonderful Codenames were played with my wife and her parents. Of course, it’s a hugely fun game, but it’s also an interesting window into the way people think. With people you’ve known very well for over twenty years, it turns out it’s both hilarious and faintly worrying when you find out what their thought processes were.

“Location, 2” (on a table with HOLLYWOOD and a whole bunch of place names)

“Ummmm… POST!”

“No, that’s the other team’s… and in god’s name, why POST?”

“Because the post has to go to a location, doesn’t it?”

My view from the top of Honister Pass, looking east, having just ridden up it from the west – literally the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done

My view from the top of Honister Pass, looking east, having just cycled up it from the west