The Hunt for the Rest of October

including Hot New Stuff and Ridiculous Rocketry

John and I managed a game of Stefan Feld’s excellent Bruges a couple of weeks ago, including the faintly ridiculous but perfectly functional Pets promo mini-expansion. We’ve fairly comprehensively bounced off the City on the Zwin expansion-proper (with the exception of the extra cards, which are now forever shuffled into John’s deck), but Pets wasn’t too much of a disruption to the base game, just adding some pet cards to the deck as well as the accompanying “Look, I Have the Most Pets” majority markers. The beauty of the pets is that they can share a house with a person, but they also count as people for most game purposes. Need to lose a person due to threats/opponents? Lose a pet instead!

In an early round, I didn’t quite have enough cash to advance on the town hall track (or whatever it’s called) and fell behind for the rest of the game. I was also permanently behind on canals, simply because I hadn’t been able to draw the appropriate colours in the first round, and I never managed to catch up on the randomly distributed pet cards either. Ho hum. Other than those little niggles (one my mistake, two beyond my control), I think I did pretty well out of the cards I had, with one person in particular (Biologist, if memory serves) providing a 3-coin discount when installing new people in houses. Brilliant for getting out those high-value, high-scoring people. In the end, though, my brilliant people couldn’t topple John’s dominance on the majority markers and the town hall track, with John winning 67–54.

Bruges is a really solid game that gets lost in the sea of really solid Stefan Feld games. I’m interested in having a closer look at his new Essen release, The Oracle of Delphi – it seems to take a few mechanisms he’s used previously and throw them together into a… race game?! Yep, a race game: first to complete the objectives wins. Should be interesting if nothing else.

The bulk of the late-October gaming came in the form of an all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. For once, I arrived before lunchtime and stayed until about 1am… and still only managed to play four games. But it’s quality that counts, not quantity – and what quality!

I kicked off with Uwe Rosenberg’s A Feast for Odin with John, Olly and Camo. This absolute beast of a game combines mechanisms from previous Rosenberg titles (a little like Feld’s Oracle of Delphi or Rosenberg’s own Fields of Arle) – worker placement, resource conversion, spatial tile-placement puzzling, feeding the family, negative points everywhere – in a true smörgåsbord of a game. In fact, the Feast phase of each round features rules for creating an actual smörgåsbord – there has to be a variety of foodstuffs on the feasting table to ensure the Vikings get a balanced diet. Seriously.

In a way, that illustrates what I found exceptionally tough about A Feast for Odin as a first-time player. I struggle with spatial elements in games at the best of times, so when a game has lots of different rules about where different resource types can be slotted into your board, I struggle even more. Every time I thought I had a plan figured out, I’d carry it out and then realise there was a reason why it couldn’t work (because green tiles can’t be adjacent to each other, or because you can’t cover an income space without also having covered all the spaces below and to the left of it), leaving me with a bunch of resources and treasures I couldn’t position sensibly.

The worker placement – in other words, the meat of the gameplay – had everyone puzzling for a while over the best moves to make. Rather than the Agricola-style approach of having a small number of possible spaces which increases slowly over the course of the game, Feast goes all-out with 61 spaces available from the start of the game to the end. (63, in fact, in our four-player game – two “imitate” spaces are added to the action board with four players.) The four columns require differing numbers of workers to activate and some spaces have preconditions like boats or certain goods, so they’re not all sensible from the beginning of the game, but even so… a huge number to choose from.

I allowed my starting Occupation card to shape my game, and I wish I hadn’t – the Catapulter directed me towards lots of pillaging and collecting blue/grey treasures. I didn’t realise how horribly inefficient that would be compared with other people’s more balanced approaches; each Pillage action required two or three workers and only yielded one tile to go onto my board, while others could collect multiple tiles per action.

The end of the game – notice how full everyone's board is, except mine (right)

The end of the game – notice how full everyone’s board is, except mine (right)

By the end, I was just feeling a bit frustrated that I hadn’t got it at all. The spatial element had eluded me and I hadn’t figure out how to make the action spaces work to my benefit. At least I’d pillaged the Crown of England. In the end, I did very well on positive points (having emigrated two boats’ worth of Vikings, taken Iceland and built two buildings) with 110 to my name, but then managed to score 65 negative points from uncovered “-1” spots. John’s experience with the game – although only one two-player game prior to this one – helped him along to a win and no one had quite the negative-point disaster that I did.

Final score – John: 76 / Camo: 68 / Olly: 57 / Me: 45

I ended up feeling a bit mixed about A Feast for Odin – it was interesting and engaging to play, with all the usual fun and frustration of worker placement, but I hadn’t grokked the spatial puzzle and the action spaces themselves were clearly going to take another few plays to figure out the useful paths through them. As it happens though, I’ve had another play since this one and it worked out much better – read more in a future post.

Next was Paris Connection, which I won in roughly the time it’s taken you to read this sentence.

And then the next meaty beast – Leaving Earth. Having already played once earlier in the month, John and I talked Olly and Alex through the intricacies of rocketry and component testing. There’s a lot to take in, although once grasped, the rules seem fairly intuitive; it reminds me in that way of a Splotter game, alongside the slightly homespun feel to the production and presentation.

We were playing on the next difficulty level up from our initial outing, which meant adding two scoring objectives from the Hard deck; they turned out to be (a) returning a sample from Ceres to Earth and (b) returning a sample of extraterrestrial life to Earth. The latter was worth a whopping 40 points, which just about eclipsed the sum of the rest of the points available… but there was, of course, no guarantee that there would be extraterrestrial life anywhere in the solar system! That in itself would be the factor that decided the game.

We started off slowly, with my opening turn bringing in a 1-point objective – getting a working probe into space (strap a probe to an Atlas rocket and get it suborbital), and the other low-value objectives got snapped up pretty quickly. Some of them came with a certain amount of morbid comedy – Olly got the prize for first man in space and first man in space at the start of a year, by blasting Jim Lovell into orbit, feeding him once and then… well… just letting him starve to death. Houston, he had a problem, but it was a net gain in VPs. It was either starve him or let him burn up on reentry; Olly decided that leaving a capsule in orbit might be beneficial for future missions, even if it did have a pioneering corpse in it. And, meanwhile, John had quickly strapped Yuri Gagarin into his capsule atop an untested Saturn rocket, which promptly exploded. Alex (who’s Russian) didn’t seem to mind us blowing up one of his national heroes.

Another monster table-hog, but this game is beautifully presented

Another monster table-hog, but this game is beautifully presented

After that, things slowed down a lot as we settled into long rounds (“It’s my turn, but I’ll pass for now so you can get on with things while I redo all my maths.”) and the thing that niggles me slightly about Leaving Earth – it can be so very obvious that someone is definitely going to complete the mission that you were aiming for, and that they’ll complete it before you do, which means you abandon all the plans you had and start all over again. However, there’s still the chance that you can figure out a quicker way of doing it, which is how I ended up winning the game when it looked like there was no chance at all.

Alex had already successfully used ion thrusters to get to Ceres and back when it became obvious (via his and John’s surreptitious scanning) that the Moon was hiding something valuable – presumably life. I’d figured out a way to get a probe to the Moon and back just in case of this exact situation, but it involved seven Saturn rockets and eight Atlas rockets, all strapped together in a ridiculously Heath-Robinson-cum-Kerbal-Space-Program contraption. Luckily, due to a bunch of objectives being completed by other players (which results in a $10m boost each time for every other player) and some wheeling and dealing of technologies (which, for me, elevated the four-player game far above the two-player version), I’d had a few rounds with substantial extra cash to spend on Saturn and Atlas rockets.

Alex had sent an ion-thruster-powered mission off to the Moon, and he looked like he’d have the sample back on Earth before anyone else could do anything about it… but ion thrusters take a long time to get anywhere and he wouldn’t touch back down to Earth until the following round. Thankfully, I only needed one more Saturn rocket to create my preposterous mega-rocket (seriously, this thing was about ten times bigger than anything NASA has ever even envisaged) and I was first in turn order, still having only 1 VP, so I bought it and fired my mission into space. Everything was fully tested, so it landed beautifully on the Moon (still consisting of about 4 Atlas rockets), blasted off with a sample of Moon microbes on board, and touched back down on Earth that same turn for 40 VPs and the win.

My glorious French space agency at the end of the game

My glorious French space agency at the end of the game

Honestly, it was a ridiculous win but that’s space flight, folks. It was a long but very enjoyable game, with plenty of silly table talk and loads of, “Well, I think I’ve done the maths right, so let’s try it.” It was just about to start outstaying its welcome; I think those two Hard-level objectives at least doubled the potential length of the game, so I wouldn’t want to up the level any further without a lot more practice. I can see how you’d get a lot quicker with more experience as the rocket science got more intuitive.

The last game of the day (with Andrew replacing Alex) was Alexander Pfister’s new Great Western Trail. It’s a game of deck/hand-management, worker management, careful bonus selection and movement across a board that essentially creates an expanding, branching action rondel – in other words, there are a lot of moving parts. I think I explained it about as concisely as possible though, and one of the great things about this game is that the turns rattle round at a fair old pace. Move your cattleman, do the action of the building where you land (usually) and draw back up if you discarded any cards. It doesn’t mean that turns are short of decisions though – it’s a careful balancing act between making money, hiring workers, buying cattle, constructing buildings and rushing for Kansas City in order to sell cattle and deliver them for (hopefully) points.

This game looks like a baffling mess at first glance, but it honestly makes a lot of sense once you're playing!

This game looks like a baffling mess at first glance, but it honestly makes a lot of sense once you’re playing!

I was aiming to get some high-VP buildings on the board and build up some valuable cattle in my deck (cattle have a sort of double-goodness, due to being VPs themselves and also allowing you to ship your cattle to higher-valued spots from Kansas City), but I kind of messed up a couple of building placements. I never felt quite like I had enough workers; maybe I should have concentrated on hiring workers instead of building or buying cattle on one of my trips to Kansas. I was well served by getting rid of my two hand-limit-limiting discs as quickly as possible though – six cards tend to score substantially better than four when you reach Kansas City!

Anyway, I’m already over 2000 words on this post, so suffice to say that I really enjoyed Great Western Trail and am keen to play it again soon. It’s exactly the sort of game that grabs me straight away, with lots of simple parts that slot together to make a challenging whole. I didn’t win though:

Final score – John: 103 / Me: 88 / Olly: 83 / Andrew: 66

November could turn out to be interesting – I’m hoping this year’s Splotter reprints will turn up soon, I’ve got a few new Sierra Madre titles on order (having yet to even play last year’s Neanderthal), and there are still a few more new Essen titles I’m keeping an eye out for!

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