Author Archives: Owain

Dinner for Two: two-player Food Chain Magnate

This Corbridge session deserves a post all of its own, partially because I actually remembered to take some photos, but mostly because Food Chain Magnate is such a very good game. Oh, and also because we finally got the opportunity to play on a table large enough to accommodate the recommended card layout (see photo above – employee tree on the right and Milestones along the top).

Knowing that the two-player map layout is a 3×3 grid and that radio campaigns conveniently cover a 3×3 grid, I went into the game on a mission to play the first radio campaign as early as possible (and being first to radio means your radio campaigns advertise two of the advertised good to each house). However, in order to maximise my earnings, I wanted to be first to market something (for the $5-per-item bonus it brings) and also get hold of the Luxuries Manager for a $10 boost on each item… which all meant that it would take a while to get a marketer up to Brand Director level to play that radio campaign. I decided I could get it done pretty quickly though, so I chose the $100/2-slot Reserve card at the start of the game.

The random map tiles gave us two separate roads with three houses attached to each, so John and I fairly naturally started out with our restaurants on different roads. The lack of interaction didn’t last long though. After a first turn in which John hired a Recruiting Girl (clearly going for the “First to Recruit Three People in One Turn” Milestone) and I took a Trainer, we were clearly going for different strategies. I kept my company structure lean and mean until the last couple of rounds, whereas John took advantage of that Milestone bonus (and the two free Management Trainees it brings) to utilise lots of employees in each round.

Of course, hiring and playing lots of employees meant lots of Milestones for John, and it was hard to keep my nerve and stick to my initial plan, especially when he plonked down the first airplane campaign and spread desire for pizza all across one side of the board. (Thankfully, the tile layout meant that airplanes weren’t that effective in this game.) Meanwhile, I’d managed to play a mailbox campaign for burgers across the one large central block, meaning I’d get a $5 bonus per burger sold for the rest of the game. Note that I’d avoided playing a billboard campaign – infinite marketing campaigns for the rest of the game was something that hadn’t necessarily worked out well in previous games! (John also avoided billboards until quite late in the game.)

My five Milestones; John had twelve. It just goes to show: Milestones aren't everything.

My five Milestones, near the end of the game; John had twelve. It just goes to show – Milestones aren’t everything. (In fact, the bonus for being first to $20 is almost nothing.)

I managed to snag the (single) Luxuries Manager early enough to be able to flog some burgers at premium prices on the back of that initial mailbox campaign, but it was clear that I’d need a way to reach the other road on the board in order to properly benefit from my radio plan. After all, there’s no point making people want loads of burgers if you can’t sell them any. Naturally, John had reached the same conclusion, and we both worked towards the Local Manager and/or Regional Manager… but more of that later.

I’d picked up a Coach to make my training strategy more efficient within a small business structure. That meant training an Errand Boy up to Zeppelin Pilot didn’t take long, and I ended up with a Burger Chef and Pizza Cook (the latter to deal with John’s pizza-plane advertising) in order to try to meet the massive demand I was hoping to imminently create. Frankly, I needed to get the radio campaign off the ground, because (a) John was training worryingly high up the marketing tree, (b) I had trained so many people that my Payday bill was terrifying compared to my sparse income at that point, and (c) we had broken the bank for the first time, so the end of the game wasn’t that far off ($300 total second bank, three slots for CEOs). Oh, and John had taken the “First to $100” Milestone, so he was getting the CFO 50% bonus on income. Yikes.

The timing was beautiful though. On the round after I’d set up the radio campaign right in the middle of the board, I played my recently acquired Regional Manager and opened up a new restaurant right on the other road. Being the Regional Manager, of course, the restaurant opened immediately; John’s Local Manager in the same round built a restaurant that wouldn’t open until the next round, and he didn’t have enough burger-producing capacity to cope with the two-burgers-per-household desire I’d just unleashed on the city.

That meant multiple sales without any sort of competition, with my Luxuries Manager and Milestone bonus pushing sales up to $25 per burger, or at least $50 per household. With John earning nothing that round (and with a CFO bonus of 50% of $0 = …nothing!), I went from a long way behind to a huge distance ahead in a single round, very nearly breaking the bank for the second time.

Radio Burger unleashing its uncontrollable meat lust across the city

Radio Burger broadcasting its uncontrollable meat lust across the city. This picture is from the last round.

Meanwhile, as you can see from the picture, John had tried to sabotage me a bit by placing billboard campaigns on the map. But no – Zeppelin Pilot to the rescue! I could pick up drinks from every source on the board, so I was ready for anything. And my Pizza Cook meant I could cover the pizza desire too.

I’d lost track of John’s ability to produce burgers though, so I hadn’t realised that in the last round he could cook up eight burgers (two cooks and two trainees), and with other items stored in his freezer he fulfilled four houses at dinner time; he always got priority because I’d played my Luxuries Manager and he was way cheaper than me. Of course, that left two houses for me, and at 3 items per house with two burgers in each, that was 3×$20 + 2×$5 burger bonus = $70 per house. That’s $140 from two houses, which was more than John took from the other four houses all together (not including his 50% CFO bonus though). Love that Luxuries Manager. Imagine if I’d put a garden or two out…

With the bank thoroughly, completely and utterly broken, we totted up the final score, but we could see who the winner would be before any maths took place.

Final score – Me: $405 / John: $253

The final situation: John's stuff (Gluttony Burgers) on the bottom left, mine (Fried Geese & Donkey) on the bottom right.

The final situation: John’s stuff and final-round structure (Gluttony Burgers) on the bottom left, mine (Fried Geese & Donkey) on the bottom right. The only Milestone unclaimed at the top is the “First to Lower Prices” – neither of us did. Note that my Zeppelin Pilot was actually no use in the end – John served all the drinks-wanting houses before I got involved.

What more can I say? I love this game. I’m looking forward to trying it out with more players too. The two- and three-player games have relatively tight board layouts; with five players, the city is 5×4 tiles, so a radio campaign won’t necessarily dominate the board… and the “1×” top-tier employees aren’t limited to just one for everybody to fight over. If it still works beautifully with more players (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t), this is easily in my top ten games ever. Probably top five. Very, very clever stuff, and a large part of the catalyst for my pre-order of Splotter’s reprints of Indonesia and The Great Zimbabwe, coming later in the year. Can’t wait.

More January – Pfister Fun!

Continuing on from last time, more January gaming!

John Sh and I have managed a couple of Corbridge sessions in January (pretty impressive really, given how indisposed I’ve been by illness and child-rearing). The first featured My Village by Inka and Marcus Brand, an odd reworking of themes from their own Village, which I’ve played a few times and enjoyed a lot. My Village is, quite simply, better and more elegant. It’s like The Prodigals Club compared to Last Will – it’s clear that the theme works wonderfully, but it just needed a new set of mechanisms around it to really make it shine.

I tried to do a bit of everything with my villagers, which turns out to not be the way to play well. John specialised much more (he filled a massive church with monks), and it paid off in a 72–54 win for him. Great stuff – happy to play again.

Another Wednesday evening saw us playing Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, which is an unwieldy title for a fairly simple (yet quite thinky) tile-laying game from Austrian duo Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister. (More Pfister to come later.) I struggled massively, mainly by doing quite well for the first few rounds and ending up in a death-spiral of cash. Doing slightly better than John meant that he got a monetary boost in the last few rounds, which coupled with his whisky-heavy tile layout to mean that he could set prices on his tiles much higher than I could even afford. John overhauled me on points in the very last round to win 76–65.

I got him back in Roll for the Galaxy though, with a completely vanilla base-game-only match coming out in a 48–41 win to me. It was all about the Developments.

Too many family games to mention scattered throughout the month, but highlights included Ticket to Ride: Europe (with everyone old enough to play getting a solid drubbing from me) and a whole afternoon of games with 8-year-old J, featuring K2 and a bit of Small World.

Oddly, the last Saturday of the month brought more family gaming… except with someone else’s family at Newcastle Gamers. John Sh and I happened to end up at a table with Ruth and her sons L and J (feels natural to just use initials for the under-18s), which meant that probably the entire Hexham/Corbridge-area contingent was playing together. And what were we playing? Concordia!

I’d been umming and ahhing about Concordia for a while, given that it’s often recommended to people who like games that I like. When Shut Up & Sit Down gave it a positive review, I quickly jumped and ordered it before it sold out, as often happens. So this was my first play and my first time teaching the game. Thankfully, the rules are incredibly simple (play a card and do the thing written on the card), so we were quickly up and running, even with the slightly fiddly setup process.

And it turns out it’s a little gem of a game. Turns are quick and simple (although they can be very thinky beforehand), downtime is minimal even with five players and it always feels like there’s something useful you can do. The big stack of cards for purchase all give boosts to your end-game scoring as well as increasing the power of your deck of cards, so it’s not too hard to develop a coherent strategy. Mine involved building in all the cloth-producing cities and acquiring the Weaver card, which gave me a Minerva bonus of 5 VPs per cloth city (i.e. 20 VPs by the end of the game) and let me produce loads of cloth by playing the card. 4 cloth = 28 cash = lots of other buildings, so after a slow start I could rapidly increase my building portfolio.

It turned out to be a decent strategy and I won by a reasonable margin (I think I had 137 and John was in second place with 110-something). J came in a very respectable third place, just over 100 – he’d been planning well throughout the game – then Ruth and finally L bringing up the rear. A really fun game with a “classic euro” feel to it. Must play it again soon.

We followed that with the return of Mister Pfister and Isle of Skye. It was quite a different beast with five players, and I managed to avoid the cash-death-spiral this time round. L seemed to be following a similar path to the one he trod in Concordia – acquire cash and hoard it – which meant he didn’t price his tiles very highly and I snagged one or two at bargain prices to complete various handy scoring features on my layout.

And as it turned out, I demolished everyone with a final score of 77. To be honest, I’m not sure what I think of Isle of Skye, but that might be because I still haven’t quite figured out how to play it properly yet. Maybe a 3- or 4-player game (without rogue tweens using degenerate cash strategies) would help me decide.

After Ruth and the boys left, John and I teamed up with Camo and Lloyd for more Pfister, this time in the form of his execrably named compact engine/tableau-builder Oh My Goods! Ugh. While the original title of Royal Goods was dull, at least it connected back to Pfister’s game Port Royal and it didn’t make me want to eat my own face off. Oh My Goods!? No. It makes it sound like some sort of party game or Munchkin-style take-that-fest.

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers... cards for everything!

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers… cards for everything! (Photo by John Sh)

Which is something that it very much isn’t. It takes elements from San Juan and marries them to bits of every engine-building and resource-conversion euro you’ve ever played, producing a fairly simple and elegant little maxi-filler. There’s a bit of push-your-luck involved with the morning and afternoon markets being revealed, which slightly grated with me, but it’s a light enough game that it didn’t matter. Camo ran away with it, with his seemingly magical cow-production line.

And last but never least, The King of Frontier. Although I managed to snag my beloved Altar by making sure I had a massive field completed very early on, and although I went full-on heavy on the Consume action (albeit with only one very small city), it wasn’t enough to outdo John’s little collection of VP-producing buildings. He beat me by just two points, with Camo and Lloyd a fair bit further back.

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier (Photo by John Sh)

And that was January. February’s already underway, so I’m sure I’ll be back soon with more.

January Catch-Up

Aaaarrghh. Lagging behind, but the broadband is back on now. (N.B. If you ever want to make anything happen, just go and find some Openreach engineers working on a cabinet.) Must catch up…

January has so far been dominated by Pandemic Legacy, with games on the 4th, 9th, 15th and 16th (I know – consecutive marital gaming nights!) taking us up to the completion of August. We’ve only lost one game so far (early June), but for a fair few of the games the wins have been down to the luck of the draw. I can’t say much without filling this post with spoilers (and this is a game you really don’t want to have spoiled), so all I’ll say is this: it’s just brilliant. M has declared that she’ll “miss it when it’s over”.

Rolling back to the beginning of the month, there was the now-traditional New Year all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. And as is now traditional for these all-day sessions, I rolled in at about 2.00 and looked around for a game to play. Caylus! It wasn’t my first game (although the first was so long ago that it isn’t logged on BoardGameGeek), but I still needed nearly as much rules explanation as newcomers Phil and Alison. Fortunately, John B is an old hand with Caylus and explained everything beautifully, getting us off to a quick start. Given that it was Alison’s first time playing a worker placement game, she got her head round it remarkably quickly and started planning ways to block people. I trundled along, trying not to attract too much attention, but making sure I had consistently reasonable scoring throughout. Towards the end, John was clearly gearing up to build the 25-VP cathedral, which Alison immediately stymied by blocking the one prestige building space available. I’d been shunting my way gradually up the VP-awarding King’s Favour track, so the last few actions I took gave me about 15 VPs in total, creeping me into a narrow victory.

Final score – Me: 57 / Alison: 52 / Phil: 45 / John B: 38

Great game; certainly one I should play more often. I’ll dig out the iOS version again and have a few more plays of that.

Alison, John B and I had a quick gap to fill before the meat of the session (of which more in a moment), so John Sh kindly leaned over with his copy of The King of Frontier, which I discovered I could just about successfully teach. I also discovered I was capable of losing – yes, for the very first time, I lost The King of Frontier. John B grabbed the Altar (or maybe Shrine… I forget what it’s called), which cancels out the negative points for empty spaces at the end of the game. And that was enough to just get the edge on me. I had a slightly rubbish tile draw throughout, although I was lucky enough to end up with only a couple of spaces left empty.

Final score – John B: 33 / Me: 30 / Alison: 24

Now to the main course – Pax Pamir. It turns out that this is an absolute swine to teach. This should come as no surprise, given its Sierra Madre Games heritage, but there it is. So many things are connected to so many other things that it’s difficult to know where to start. Even explaining the victory conditions is a nightmare, because there are four different victory conditions, but for each one the winning empire must also have other types of pieces in play… it gets complicated. Even a familiarity with its ancestor Pax Porfiriana doesn’t help that much; it has two rows of cards to buy and play into tableaux, and there are Topple cards, and… that’s about it.

We were a four-player table, with John Sh and Olly joining John B and me as Alison drifted away to Thunder Alley. With only three empires to be loyal to in the Great Game (Britain, Russia and the native Afghans), that meant that at least two players would share an initial (secretly-chosen) loyalty, and so it was that the two Johns were loyal to Britain, while Olly was loyal to the Afghans and I favoured the Russians.

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn't matter... but then it ended up mattering a lot. :\

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn’t matter… but then it ended up mattering a lot. :-\

I can’t relate much of what happened over the next hour and 45 minutes, partly because it was nearly three weeks ago and partly because it was really quite complex. It felt like the last 45 minutes or so was spent with Olly and I trying to figure out ways to stop one of the Johns from winning (and the Johns naturally trying to figure out ways to stop each other winning). As it turned out, I managed to offload a useless card to Olly in order to free up a space in my hand for a game-winning twist… and then I was one action short of actually pulling it off. In the end, John Sh accidentally handed victory in the Intelligence War to John B, but it was probably only a matter of time before that happened anyway.

I sort of enjoyed it a lot, and sort of felt like my brain was being forced through a fine mesh. There was a lot going on, all the time, and I need to play it again soon in order to make things coalesce in my understanding. Very, very Eklund, although with more of a “game” feeling than usual – this is, of course, the result of Pax Pamir being primarily a Cole Wehrle design.

John B left, leaving the three of us who’d played Food Chain Magnate a few sessions back so… repeat run! Again, the details escape me, except the important milestones:

  • I took an Errand Boy in round 1, meaning I got the freezer (allowing me to store food and drink between rounds) and extra drinks when collecting them.
  • John Sh marketed first, meaning his marketing campaigns would all be eternal.
  • Olly took a Trainer in round 1 so he was first to train someone, giving him $15 discount on salaries.

I suspected Olly had the best opening gambit, and it certainly paid off, with his lead feeling ever more unassailable as time passed. Once he’d hit $100 and got the pseudo-CFO milestone, it just got worse for the rest of us. Just as in our first game, there was a broad smattering of timing errors which cost us, but I felt much more like I knew what I was doing this time. Again, I played a large structure with lots of slots for employees… but that isn’t necessarily a good thing unless they’re doing exactly what you need them to.

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message while the Pizza Plane seals the deal.

It turned out that we fluffed the timing of the end of the game – with a couple of bonus payments for John overlooked, the game should have ended a round earlier, so it shouldn’t have been quite as embarrassing a thrashing as it turned out…

Final score – Olly: $872 / Me: $259 / John Sh: $120

Very very good fun again. It’s becoming a bit of a favourite with me.

John headed off and Olly and I were joined by Camo and Jon (no “h”) for a light desert-dessert of Camel Up. We decided to throw in the Photographer module from the Supercup expansion, which added a little spice to the proceedings without too much extra complication and without extending the game unnecessarily.

Camel Up is always ridiculous, but this one was even more ridiculous than usual. It’s very unusual to see a full stack of five camels just two spaces from the finish line, but that’s what happened. It had been such a changeable race that quite a few of the cards for the winning camel were in the “betting on the loser” pile. Great fun, and it never really matters who wins with Camel Up – it’s the stupidity of it that counts. (For posterity though, Jon and I drew for the win with 24 Egyptian pounds each.)

That was the end of the session, and that’s quite enough January for now. More at a later date!

December – Rubbish Month, Good Gaming

December was riddled with calamity and annoyance, including my first Rapid Unscheduled Dismount while cycling as an adult, my first puncture while cycling as an adult and major flood-related phone-line cutouts plus botched repairs. And, of course, no phone line means no broadband, so I’m typing this using my mobile phone as a wifi hotspot. And, of course, living up a hill in the middle of nowhere means the best I can manage in my thick-walled stone house is two bars of patchy 3G reception if I stand on one foot in a corner of the coldest room in the house while reciting the arcane rituals of EE.

Amongst all that, the only Newcastle Gamers session of the month fell on the day it snowed enough to make the hill on which I live truly dangerous. We’ve lived here for four years and I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve considered the hill too dangerous to drive on. sigh

John and I did fit in a couple of Corbridge sessions though, the first of which was a “quick” play of Carl Chudyk’s latest, Mottainai, followed by HaggisMottainai was interesting, although very difficult to get our heads round on a first play. There’s an awful lot going on, and figuring out exactly how to get cards to the places you want them is pretty tough. I won almost entirely by accident, with a wince-inducing final score of 35–14. Very Chudyk. Haggis was… well, Haggis. It’s a very traditional-feeling climbing/trick-taking game and I suffered from a couple of bad deals and a general lack of competence. John got his own back for the Mottainai drubbing by winning 310–169.

A week later, we reconvened for Nippon, by Madeira/Panamax designers Paulo Soledade and Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro. I really enjoyed this – it managed to boil down a fair chunk of the thinkiness and planning of their previous designs into a smoother, easier-to-digest gaming meal – although I do have a niggling concern about how samey it might feel after just a handful of plays. Never mind, though: I’ve only played it this once so far. A nice tight game, with a victory for me, 200–193.

Because every collection needs at least one game about competing zaibatsu in the Meiji period

Because every collection needs at least one game about competing zaibatsu in the Meiji period

The rest of the month (and the ensuing school holiday) was peppered with family gaming: a Ticket to Ride here, a Castle Panic there, a Ticket to Ride again, followed by K2, with another Ticket to Ride to round things off… Yes, there’s a definite hit in this house. And, of course, M and I continued our marital Pandemic Legacy campaign. To date, we’ve played six games and only lost the most recent (early June) so the board looks relatively unscathed, but there have been some… ahem… developments that mean things certainly aren’t getting any easier any time soon and we’re enjoying the extra challenge.

More to come soon – sooner if the phone line gets mended…

Under Sea to Outer Space via 1950s USA

There’s been quite a bit of family gaming over the couple of weeks since my last post, including the discovery that my two oldest sons, J and A, both love Ticket to Ride. Totally love it. And it turns out that my mum quite enjoys it too. I’m glad I held on to my copy now, and I might even get one or two of the other maps; after all, the original USA map gets a bit dull after a while.

Mrs Cardboard (M, to follow the tradition of anonymous-but-distinguishable initials) and I also played the first game in our Pandemic Legacy campaign. We went for silly rather than realistic when it came to naming our characters, so we now have a medic called Max Dinglewang (thank you, M); my name offering for the scientist was Susan O’Hanrahan, but always, always referred to as Susan O’Hanraha-hanrahan. We won the first game pretty easily after just three of five Epidemic cards and managed to eradicate the black disease, now known as Boneitis, but I can see how things might get substantially tougher in future. I’m being completely spoiler-free here, but I might start writing up future games under a big SPOILER heading if it continues to offer the narrative and gaming excitement it looks like it should.

John and I convened a Corbridge Gamers session and we both ticked another game off our Stefan Feld lists – AquaSphere. It’s very Feld: doing a thing lets you do another thing, but doing that thing means you can’t do this other thing this round and there just isn’t enough time (or indeed Time, the game currency) to do everything you want to do. And oddly, for a game themed around scientists and robots conducting research in an underwater laboratory while fighting off purple Octopods… it feels a bit bland. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly solid game, but it’s not different enough from every other euro to make me excited about it.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes... it's a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes… it’s a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

I started out badly while John mopped up serious points for the area-majority aspect in the early rounds (I’d failed to plan for how much impact that would make), but I pushed forward with my long-term plan to finish all six pieces of my personal lab and collect all six lab letters. I did pull that off in the end, but John’s consistent showings in the end-of-round scoring put him far enough ahead that my sudden boost at the very end of the game wasn’t enough to overhaul him.

Final score – John: 71 / Me: 68

We followed up with a game that really is like nothing else I’ve ever played: Donald X Vaccarino’s Temporum. Jumping around between different eras and changing timelines makes it surprisingly thematic compared to the dry-as-dust-but-still-mechanically-lovely Dominion, and while the mechanisms themselves aren’t groundbreaking, they do coalesce into an overall experience that feels unique. There’s a lot of fun to be had in changing the future and forcing your opponent to suddenly find themselves in a Steampunk Utopia instead of the Age of Cats or whatever it was they were clearly hoping to use on their next turn to shuffle a few of their Influence markers down to the present day. (And yes, there genuinely is a card representing a timeline in which cats have taken over the world.) This one came down to the wire, with John getting his last Influence marker into the bottom box for the win when I had just one left to go.

Fast forward to Saturday and it was Newcastle Gamers again, this time with a prearranged game of Splotter Spellen’s latest release, Food Chain Magnate. John and Olly had expressed an interest and no one else seemed keen to join in (even on one of the busiest nights we’ve seen in a while; the busy-ness seemed at least partially due to our shift over to meetup.com following the near-total withdrawal of Events from Google+), so it was a three-player game.

Quick summary of Food Chain Magnate: you’re running a restaurant chain (duh!) on a randomised road/house map grid. It’s a sort of deckbuilder where the deck you’re building consists of the employees in your company, except rather than drawing a random hand of cards each round, you have the entire deck to choose a fresh company structure from. Employees in the company structure can do things like hiring or training more employees, collecting drinks from spots on the board, changing your prices (down or up), starting marketing campaigns, building new houses and/or gardens for houses, being managers who can accommodate more employees in your company, and many, many more. The winner is the person with the most cash at the end of the game, which is after the bank has broken… twice. (There’s an odd thing where the length of the game after the first breaking of the bank is determined by cards secretly chosen by the players at the start of the game.)

This being a Splotter title, there are many, many ways to make mistakes… and we all managed to make a few. I think all the mistakes were based around mistiming things, mainly to do with the fact that the people in houses don’t come out to eat unless they’ve been marketed to by players, but marketing doesn’t happen until after eating in the round order. The practical upshot of this is that something along the lines of “hey look, I’ve produced this burger and set up a marketing campaign for burgers so this house will come and eat the burger and I’ll be able to pay the Burger Cook I just hired and ohgodnoofcoursenoti’vereallyf—kedthisuproyally” happened several times over the course of the game.

Glossing over the inevitable mistakes then, it was interesting to see how our different opening strategies immediately led to different Milestone cards being claimed, with the bonuses they conferred. Olly went for early food production and thus forever had a freezer to keep unsold food and $5 bonuses for selling food products. John kept his company structure small to maintain a good choice of turn-order position and marketed drinks first ($5 bonus to drinks sold). I, on the other hand, went for full-on corporate bloat by hiring two Recruiting Girls and getting the “First to Hire 3 People in One Turn” Milestone, which gave me two Management Trainees and thus allowed me to maintain a much larger structure than the others. That wasn’t necessarily that great a benefit, but I was able to hire all sorts of people and shuffle them from round to round in order to get the best or most timely use from them.

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox campaign. (Looking back, I can see it's illegally placed, but I could have easily placed it somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox soft drink campaign. (Looking back now, I can see it’s illegally placed between houses 1 and 16, but I could have easily placed it legally somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

I was last to place a marketing campaign, which meant mine were time-limited but I’d trained my marketer up so he could place a mailbox campaign and cover a whole block. Several houses had been added to the map, which meant there were gardens in play and diners with gardens pay double for their meals. After a slow start, I was suddenly raking in money from all the houses that wanted soft drinks (and usually one that wanted beer if John had run out), which meant I was first to hit $100 in hand. That gave me the seemingly preposterously powerful bonus of having the CFO power – 50% extra income per round. I only got a couple of rounds to benefit from that bonus though, because the $600 we’d added when the bank first broke was rapidly running out. Olly was selling burgers to a cluster of houses on the far side of the board and his Luxuries Manager was making sure they were going at an eye-watering price. Each burger was $20, but with houses with gardens paying double, there was an occasion where a house wanting two burgers paid $90 (including Olly’s $5/burger bonus).

The bank broke for the second time when I claimed my CFO bonus, and it was pretty clear that I’d won.

Final score – Me: $387 / John: $232 / Olly: $190

It looks fairly emphatic, but I suspect I could have been overhauled in another couple of rounds had it continued – Olly’s super-mega-deluxe rare-breed yak burgers were painfully lucrative.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That's my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That’s my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans. The whole thing looks like an absolute shambles, but we knew what we were doing. Just about. Food Chain Magnate may win my prize for Most Table-Greedy Game.

Overall, I thought Food Chain Magnate was superb on its first play. Only time will tell how well it stands up to repeated plays (and I hope to play it as much as possible – after all, it’s a Splotter game that we finished in under two hours on our first play!), but I suspect the variable map layout and wide variety of possible strategies will keep me interested for a long while yet. Oh, and I love the artwork. Even the “oh dear, they sent the prototype to the printer” map tiles have their charm, and they’re very clear on the table.

The Prodigals Club was next, which was the first time any of us had played the three-player game (and the first time at all for Olly); we used the Election and Society modules again. Oddly, it uses the same worker-placement boards as the two-player game so the worker spaces are a little more congested. Only a little, because we each had four workers rather than five, but it was enough to make it feel a bit different. Not only was turn order much more important than with two players (which I only really figured out afterwards), but with only four workers, it’s much harder to do everything you want to do. Not only do you have just four workers, but if you’re last in turn order, the stuff you want may well have disappeared before your first worker goes down!

askdjfh

As with Last Will, it’s a handsome game with a cleverly designed board.

I didn’t really feel like I was doing well for the first four rounds (although I felt comfortably ahead of Olly at least, and I kept taking the Hyde Park action to make sure I didn’t start gaining votes), but then everything came together in a final rush and I managed to get my two scores down to 0 (Society) and 2 (Election). John had gone substantially negative in the Election module, but his Society score let him down badly and I ended up winning!

Final score – Me: 2 / Olly: 8 / John: 10

And then Roll for the Galaxy with the Ambition expansion, including the Objective tiles this time. They still didn’t add that much to the game, but that’s fine – it’s already excellent. I had a starting faction that was more annoying that anything else, so I concentrated on my initial draw of a 6+ development (3 bonus VPs for each world of cost 4 or more, plus the ability to reassign any three dice as Settlers!) and set about settling those planets. The others were playing a more balanced game, although Olly had the rather wonderful Psi-Crystal Forecasters, which allowed him to shift his selected phase after seeing what everyone else had chosen. It all worked out nicely for me in the end anyway after Olly ended the game with a full tableau of 12 tiles.

Final score – Me: 51 / Olly: 42 / John: 39

Lloyd joined us for the last game of the night: Spiel des Jahres 2005 winner Niagara. Typical SdJ family-friendly fare, but in this instance it ran on far too long (lots of simultaneous high numbers played plus almost constant bad weather meant the river flowed fast) and was memorable more for the frustration than the enjoyability. Still, I continued my unbroken win-streak for the evening, this time sharing victory with Olly. It’s been a long time since I played a game without a tiebreak rule!

Epic post ends here.

Photos by Olly and me, some shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Meetup page.

First Light to Second Heavy

Wednesday’s Corbridge Gamers session was relatively light, with the short civ-tableau-engine-builder Imperial Settlers starting proceedings. While the concept of a civilisation game where you can destroy your opponents’ buildings might not initially appeal to the eurogamer, when you realise that the defender gets 1 Wood and gets to keep the card as a Foundation (which can be used as part-payment towards a high-VP faction building), it doesn’t seem so bad.

Which was good for Corbridge harmony really, because I spent a fair bit of the game razing John’s buildings to the ground. I played the Roman faction which can store Raze tokens between rounds; John, as the other side in the suggested 2-player newbie game, was the Barbarians, who are good at producing and storing people from round to round. John got a nice little engine going fairly early on, involving some sort of gold mine and an Acting Troupe card which let him clear off the gold mine and use it again to gain even more Gold tokens. Gold being wild, he could then pour his mountain of it into building new Locations.

The Acting Troupe was first on my list of Raze targets. While John was gaining ground on the VP track, I was going for a much more ‘civilised’ approach, building as many of the Roman faction Locations as I could. That meant also picking up as many cheap Locations from the Common deck as possible, so I could build them and then spend them as part of the building costs for the Roman Locations. It worked out pretty well, with some lovely Feature Location synergies and a lucky draw of two ‘multi-colour’ Roman cards which each triggered two Feature Locations for extra Gold and/or VPs.

My glorious Roman civilisation. Common Locations (1 VP each) to the right of the Faction board, Roman Locations (2 VPs each) to the left.

My glorious Roman civilisation. Common Locations (1 VP each) to the right of the Faction board, Roman Locations (2 VPs each) to the left. I was very Production-heavy.

I was a little behind on the VP track at the end of the fifth and final round, but my massive collection of Roman faction Locations outstripped the Barbarians.

Final score – Me: 44 / John: 39

Imperial Settlers was a very fun, light (but not too light) engine-builder with tons of replayability and different factions to explore. I’m sure it’ll get played a fair bit in future.

We moved on to my fresh copy of Reiner Knizia’s venerable Samurai, in a lovely new edition from Fantasy Flight Games. I’d had a little bit of experience with the iOS version, but I’d never been any good at it and it had been a while since the majority of my plays anyway. We were essentially both new to the game.

The crucial difference was that I’d already figured out the crux of good Samurai play: timing. It’s not about getting the highest-value tiles down next to the statues; it’s usually about being the player to get the last surrounding tile down. It took John a few rounds to realise that, and by that time I’d already got the upper hand.

The end of the game after four tied statues – I took two majorities for the win.

The end of the game after four tied statues – I took majorities in buddhas and castles for the win. Never mind all that though… it’s PRETTY.

I forced the end of the game by causing a fourth statue to be tied while I was ahead on two categories. It felt a little gamey – it would certainly be lot harder to do that with confidence in a three- or four-player game because captured statues are kept behind player screens in those games.

We finished with a “quick” game of Harbour, which was new to me and didn’t make a great impression, largely down to an unlucky card draw which made the first few rounds painfully slow. Four of the five cards available to build at the start were high-cost, which is one thing you just don’t get in Le Havre (from which Harbour takes clear influence) because although the building order is slightly randomised, it’s also structured so the engines get built first. Not so here, so we struggled on for a while before things eased up and we could finally get some building done.

I managed a win, 40–27, mainly because John twice used the Wizard’s Travelling Imaginarium to swap one of his existing buildings for a higher-value one. That meant he got a cheap build, but at the sacrifice of the points he had in the building he traded in. Thus, I ended up with five buildings and John with three.

As I said, not a great impression, although I could see how much more fun it could be if the cards came out in a better order.

Saturday brought another Newcastle Gamers session, which began with another game of Samurai, this time with four players. It’s a very different beast with four – there are substantially more spots that could be surrounded by the time your turn comes back round, plus there are more spaces for ships to affect multiple contests. Thankfully, everyone twigged the timing aspect of the game pretty quickly, but there were some very long turns as people analysed the board situation and tried to figure out the best move… or sometimes just the least bad move. After a long dance, the last castle disappeared from the board and the game ended. I won a leader token and Graham won another (the third went unclaimed by either Olly or Andrew), so the tiebreaker was statues in castes other than the one in which we had the leader token. I just tipped it in my favour with 6 against Graham’s 5, so a win for me.

The rest of the session was a rematch of 1830 after an initial play in September. In order to fit the game into a normal Newcastle meeting, we’d gathered a few resources to make things quicker and easier (poker chips, player aids and a fabulous iOS app called Survey Party that does things like automatically calculating maximum railroad revenues and player payouts based on shareholdings) and actually played out the initial sale of private companies by email over the preceding week. I’d nearly ended up without a private, but thankfully Ali passed on his opportunity to buy the B&O private at face value and I snapped it up (setting share par at $90 in the hopes of keeping the B&O railroad a steady medium-to-high earner through the game). That left Olly with the C&A (I bid him up to an eye-watering $246 before dropping out), Ali with C&StL and John Si, King of the Privates, with SVR, D&H and M&H.

My initial plan worked OK for a while – the B&O is in a perfect position to crank out decent payouts pretty quickly, especially with a handful of trains. My 2, 2 and 3 did me well, until the 2 trains rusted and things slowed down dramatically. As expected, Olly’s PRR was knocking heads with the B&O in several spots, and he ended up blocking me via both tile and token placements (the latter after I’d foolishly let the B&O’s cash reserves run down to $3 so I couldn’t afford a token of my own). Ali’s New York & New Haven and John’s New York Central were far enough out of B&O’s way to not worry me in the early stages of the game.

About an hour or two into the game. B&O has upgraded some tiles to gain better revenue, but blocked out of some tiles to the east by the dastardly PRR.

About an hour or two into the game. B&O has upgraded some tiles to gain better revenue, but been blocked out of some tiles to the east by the dastardly PRR.

I played the shares game very carefully – probably too carefully – and only held a maximum of one share in anyone else’s railroad until we were into the diesel era. That protected me from having bankrupt railroads dumped on me, but it also ‘protected’ me from gaining a decent income. And for the second time, I failed to start up a second railroad. In fact, the Erie didn’t float at all, while Olly took control of Boston & Maine, John took Chesapeake & Ohio and Ali ran the Canadian Pacific again. This failure to start a second company (in part caused by the fact I got the B&O private – it closes as soon as the B&O railroad buys a train and thus can’t be sold to a railroad for fat stacks of cash you can spend on a second company) was a big part in my mediocre performance overall. I couldn’t play the game of buying trains between two companies in order to have enough money in one to buy a better train; rather, I had to withhold revenue to save up enough cash to trade in my 4 for a D train. (That was actually my one triumphant moment of the whole game.) At least I wouldn’t have to fund a train from my personal money, but I wasn’t going to do well overall. 60% shareholding in a railroad running one diesel on a heavily blocked route doesn’t compare with what the others had.

Olly, meanwhile, was manipulating the PRR share value to stay within the yellow zone, meaning his 60% of PRR shares didn’t count towards his portfolio limit of 16 certificates. That left him free to invest widely in other companies, benefitting from their continued revenue payouts while he kept PRR relatively low in value (and occasionally paying out handsomely). I only went over the 16-certificate limit by one, because all the interesting shares had been snapped up.

This time round, Ali was the only player to get stung by a forced train purchase, but it was a nasty sting, costing him just over $800 of personal money for a diesel. That involved ditching a bunch of decent shares as well, so Ali’s game never really recovered, while John and I just trundled along, paying out with our railroads, trying to engineer some decent track routes (failing in my case) and picking up the odd share here and there when they became available.

The endgame map

The endgame map – notice how horribly boxed in my B&O is, and how unappealing the Erie railroad was.

The bank broke around midnight. The last few operating rounds felt a bit stale – very little was happening in terms of track changes, so at least the Survey Party app helped keep things ticking along smoothly. As an aside, that app probably saved us at least an hour just tracing train routes and working out revenues. Possibly two hours. Seriously worth the money, especially because it’s free.

Final scores – Olly: $9,039 / John: $7,924 / Me: $7,602 / Ali: $4,646

For reference/interest/completeness, some cash/share-value splits:

Olly: $5,405 cash / $3,634 shares
John: $5,134 cash / $2,790 shares
Me: $4,616 cash / $2,986 shares
Ali: $2,066 cash / $2,580 shares

Not a terrible showing from me, considering the lack of second railroad (my widespread portfolio actually served me pretty well alongside a high value for my six B&O shares), and an unsurprising victory for Olly, considering his excellent manipulation of the PRR stock value and massive shareholdings. As with the first game, it was really good fun and now I feel like I’m just getting a handle on the ebb and flow of 1830… and handily there’s already talk of a further rematch.

Final gaming news of the week was that our marital copy of Pandemic Legacy arrived, which should keep us on our toes for some time to come. Looking forward to getting started with it!

Prodigal Ambition

After a quick rematch of Small World with 8-year-old J (he beat me again, 105–95 this time, even with my Ghouls), John Sh and I met for our now almost weekly Corbridge Gamers. Essen – and my birthday – having just passed, there was new stuff galore to choose from. We started with the newest arrival, which had turned up on my doorstep that very morning: the new Roll for the Galaxy expansion, Ambition.

Choosing to leave out the optional Objective tiles for now (as John pointed out, it’s not like it doesn’t get played a lot, so there’s plenty of opportunity to add them in future), there wasn’t a huge amount of new stuff to explain. It’s really just the addition of double-phase Leader and Entrepreneur dice, along with the many, many new starting faction and home world tiles. (Five new tiles to the draw bag doesn’t really seem worth mentioning.)

And so it played out feeling pretty much like vanilla RollftG, with the exception of very occasionally getting to put a black or orange die straight back into the cup. The black Leader die we each started with obviously added a tiny bit of flexibility to our dice assignments (after all, the double-phase faces give you a choice of two places to put the die), so it did feel a little bit easier to do what I wanted and to the extent that I wanted to do it. Also, the Leader die behaving like a purple die for shipping purposes is a pretty major thing; I racked up some early VPs that way.

You start with a black die (replacing one of the five white dice in the base game), so that's a wild face from the outset as well as the extra flexibility afforded by the dual-phase faces.

You start with a black die (replacing one of the five white dice in the base game), so that’s a wild face from the outset as well as the extra flexibility afforded by the dual-phase faces.

I kept myself in cash by completing planets with pairs of green and red dice (my faction gave me $2 when I did so), plus occasionally shipping from my yellow world for $6, and John stayed solvent with his faction power which gave him $2 for each good on a green world at the end of the Produce phase. Plenty of cash meant I could settle new worlds pretty quickly, giving me extra dice and new opportunities to Produce and Ship; a development giving me +1 VP for shipping from a brown world was a handy bonus. I just skipped ahead on the Shipping game which, along with my relatively expensive worlds, tipped me just ahead in the final scoring, triggered by the VP pool running out.

Final score – Me: 38 / John: 36

Like I said, fairly vanilla-feeling. Adding the Objectives next time should shake things up quite a bit.

We followed up with a follow-up: Vladimir Suchý’s The Prodigals Club, his 2015 sequel to 2011’s Last Will. I’ve enjoyed Last Will a couple of times, although reliance on a random card draw did irk me last timeThe Prodigals Club mitigates that randomness hugely. There’s no opportunity to draw blind from a deck of cards; rather, all available cards are drawn at the start of each round. That means it’s all meaningful, tough worker-placement decisions from the outset, and plenty of them.

The Prodigals Club comes with three modules (Election, Society and Possessions), of which you can choose two for each play, or you can play with all three, or even play with two modules and use Last Will in its entirety as the third. (That final option seems to me like a special kind of madness.) We went with the suggested first-play option of Election and Society modules which naturally means, in true Last Will style, that we were trying to lose an election and offend everybody in polite society. Of course, just doing one of those things isn’t good enough, so there’s scoring à la Knizia: your final score that actually counts is the worse (i.e. higher – start thinking backwards now) of your two module scores.

The fun comes from queueing up big combos of cards, so that this thing gives you that, which moves those down to there so you can do the other with these… Getting to that point is a bit of a battle, but all in a good way. Everything’s interconnected, so decisions you make to primarily influence the election competition can also have a knock-on effect in society and vice-versa. I took an early lead in losing the election and managed to start my four society markers on their journey down the scoring ladder. (This is where I wish I’d taken pictures. There’s a fun little geometric shuffling game there, wanting to keep the four markers out of each others’ way while also paying attention to Dame Beatrice – who can apply “penalties” every round because she thinks that you’re really a lovely person at heart – and positioning markers to take advantage of the icons they land on.)

John eventually managed to string together the mother of all combos, involving offending Conservatives and Liberals while getting into several arguments and annoying everyone in polite society too. My previously unhealthy-looking election score was suddenly far too healthy, and John managed to get both of his scores under zero in the fourth round. Just one score hitting zero is enough to trigger the end of the game, so I didn’t get the chance to stage a comeback (not that I’d have been able to).

Final score – John: -6 / Me: 9

Yes, the worse of John’s two scores was -6. I think the other one was -9. My society score was down to -2, I think, but my election scuppering slowed down in the third and fourth rounds. Overall, I liked The Prodigals Club substantially more than Last Will, and I already liked Last Will a fair bit. Looking forward to another shot at it!

The week ended with the arrival of my Sierra Madre Games (i.e. Phil Eklund) pre-order package, containing Pax Porfiriana Collector’s EditionPax Pamir (sequel of sorts to Porfiriana) and Neanderthal (sequel/prequel of sorts to Greenland). That should take up my entire rules-learning brain quota for the month. Getting them played is another matter – EklundFest 2.0 on the horizon, maybe…

A Cyclone on the Horizon

Long-time readers and people who actually know me will be aware that I’ve been going through a relapse into – and recovery from – chronic fatigue syndrome. Obviously this has affected many things, although this blog hasn’t really been one of them. At my physiotherapist’s behest, and as part of my own ramshackle attempts at pacing and graded exercise therapy, I started cycling back in May. I got myself a road bike and gradually built up the distance and time I was riding for, taking care never to push myself too far, but always notching it up to the next level if it was comfortable.

Well, now I’m at the point where I’m riding over 100 km per week, happily climbing hills (seriously, it’s my favourite bit – it helps being short and relatively light) and genuinely feeling like I don’t have CFS any more. Well, only when I’m cycling. Weird, I know, but walking still feels like the slog it has been for the last two years; standing still is oddly exhausting; even just thinking is a struggle at times… but when I’m spinning along at 90 rpm, everything’s just fine and dandy.

Because the cycling’s been going so swimmingly, I thought I’d enter a sportive – if you haven’t come across the term, it’s like a fun run for cycling (i.e. not a race), but still officially timed and with mechanical support and feed stations along the route. It’s a little something to aim towards. Given where I live, the Virgin Money Cyclone Challenge seemed like a good option, but with route options of 34, 64, 90 and 106 miles, which should a recovering CFS-sufferer go for? Hmmm. Yes, the 106-mile one. Definitely. That’d be sensible.

So I’ve signed up. Yes, it looks like lunacy at first glance, but given that I’ve gone from 0 to 65 miles per week in six months, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that I could get to well over 100 miles per week over the next seven months, which should set me up for the Cyclone. Of course, that means the slog of winter training, but I’ve got the British Cycling training plans on my side. As long as my body can keep up, I’ll be out on the road.

See you there.

October Gaming Roundup

Picking back through my logged plays on BoardGameGeek has got a bit more difficult now that I’ve made the decision to log plays of digital/online games as long as they’re against real people. It was starting to feel ridiculous having only two or three logged plays of, say, Castles of Burgundy when I’ve played it online (on Boîte à Jeux) 18 times against real people. I’ve also been playing online quite a bit recently, not only on Boîte à Jeux but also Board Game Arena and Yucata. As I write, I’ve got two games of Trajan on the go, plus one each of HivePuerto Rico and Tash Kalar.

But I’ll concentrate here on face-to-face gaming, facing real people with their real faces. John Sh and I played Nations at the start of October, which was (as I so often seem to say) something I’d wanted to play for a while. I like Through the Ages a lot (although I’ve only played it online and not for a while, so… no logged plays on BGG – sigh), so I was interested to play this apparently streamlined distillation of the essence of TtA, especially in advance of the new edition of TtA. The influence is blatant, but the differences are abundant – and nothing is more different than the military system, which removes virtually all of the player-vs-player nastiness of TtA.

We opted to play the “advanced” sides of our player boards, even though it was my first time playing. I’m a big fan of asymmetry and it wasn’t a change of rules – simply a difference in starting resources and a small special power. My empire of Rome pushed me towards a military strategy straight away, while John’s Egyptians were clearly much more peaceful; indeed, John renounced the military game pretty much immediately, in favour of being able to build more stuff while I pummelled him as much as the game would allow… which wasn’t actually much. A few bonuses here, a few things taken away there – I probably lost just as much stuff from being behind on the stability track for much of the game.

Everything progressed in a fairly TtA-ish way, with bigger and better cards coming out as each era began, slowly replacing our buildings and/or military units. The last couple of rounds became a slightly mathsy parallel-solo optimisation puzzle, which wasn’t a problem in and of itself, but it did detract a little from the civ-building theme. In the end, we totted up our points to find that my Romans had beaten Egypt, 36 to 28.

Overall, Nations does a decent job of simmering the civ-building genre down into a palatable play-length. It just doesn’t quite match the grand feeling of Through the Ages, but that’s OK – it’s a very enjoyable game in its own right.

A week later (and after a Newcastle Gamers session in the middle), John and I met again for Suburbia. Astonishingly, this was only John’s second play of Suburbia, having played it when I picked it up just after Essen 2012. That first time round, he’d taken an early lead, which is generally a Very Bad Idea in Suburbia, and he spent the rest of the game being pummelled by the red lines on the Population board reducing his Income and Reputation. Not an enjoyable introduction to the game, and he’d understandably been a bit put off.

The pain had dimmed to a dull ache after three years, so we attacked the base game again. It was all fairly close (and John edged ahead for a while) until very late on in the game, when my experience showed through (with a bit of good luck) and I was ready for the uncertainty of the game-end timing in the C stack. John got slightly too hammered by the red lines again, but not quite enough to push his income down to -5 on the last turn like mine. That meant I took the Miser goal (lowest income) and the Aquaphobian goal (fewest lakes), because John had to build a second lake when he had no money left and had used all three of his Investment Markers. We each made our private goals, but that wasn’t enough to stop me soaring ahead in the final scoring: 169–130. I’m pretty sure that’s my highest score ever. I mean, 130 is pretty damn good, but 169 is ridiculous.

The key thing is that John enjoyed Suburbia much more this time round, which means there’s less chance of it languishing on the shelf – that’s great, given that I’ve just bought the Suburbia 5★ expansion.

We finished off with John introducing me to Arboretum, which is a fabulously thinky little card game. It’s like a two-dimensional Lost Cities, with elements of tableau building and hand management thrown together into a simple-yet-oh-so-AP-inducing super-filler. John was planting some lucrative-looking trees in his arboretum, so I made sure to hang on to high-value cards in those suits so he hopefully couldn’t score them. Meanwhile, I was struggling to plant anything useful in my own tableau, with a hand full of 6s, 7s and 8s. At the end, the vast majority of my success came from denying John the ability to score his trees, so it was a low-scoring victory for me, 16–11.

Continuing the “gaming weekend” theme from last month, I had a weekend alone with our 8-year-old. J (as I shall refer to him, given that it’s his initial) has enjoyed a few of the games from my collection over recent years, but he’s just turning a developmental corner which means he can really start planning ahead. Oh, and he can read fluently now, which is a great help for games covered in text. Being an 8-year-old boy (and a voracious reader), he’s much more interested in fantasy creatures and exciting gameplay than economic models and quiet contemplation of worker placement, so we took a trip to Travelling Man in Newcastle, to see if there was anything we both fancied the look of. We ended up leaving with Small World, which is pretty distant from my usual gaming territory, but I know it has a reputation for being ‘fun’, if nothing else, and J was drawn to the artwork, the presence of wizards and dragons (just like in his favourite books) and the fact it was for “age 8+”. (As an aside, I’m quite proud that he declared the newly released Star Wars Carcassonne to be “a ridiculous idea”; it certainly looks it.)

Over the weekend, we managed:

  • Castle Panic × 2 (too light for me, and too easy to win, but just right for J – again, including the theme)
  • Small World (what fun there is largely comes from the race/power combos – J got Heroic Halflings and thrashed me 95–75)
  • Carcassonne (probably the last time we’ll play this for a while – I’m just too nasty, which is what I enjoy about 2-player Carcassonne)
  • Labyrinth (the old Ravensburger maze one, not the GMT global terrorism one)
  • Forbidden Island (we died pretty early on, even on Novice level)
  • Jungle Speed Safari × 3 (my hands hurt for about four days afterwards)
  • Ingenious (against all odds, J loved this on his first play)

Yes, a weekend of games that aren’t entirely to my taste (except Carc and Ingenious), but that’s not the point. A weekend of games with one of my kids. That’s the point.

Another evening session with John featured the most painful game of Snowdonia I’ve had in a long while. We were trying out the Trans-Australian Railway expansion, but we can’t blame the expansion for our woes. Every so often, the card draw in Snowdonia just doesn’t work out nicely. We had rain after rain after rain, including the Australian “extreme weather” version – floods – meaning the excavation and track-laying were painfully slow. The whole thing took nearly twice as long as it should (we played for getting on towards two hours) and just felt like being battered about the head with a Mallet of Obduracy. I finished the game at the earliest opportunity and won 121–86, essentially by accident. (It possibly should have been 124–90, because we forgot to score double points for the Nullarbor Plains track cards.)

Just over a week later, we held another Corbridge Gamers session, this time swollen in both length and numbers. Olly and Graham came over in the afternoon as well as John, bringing us to four for a good ten hours or so of games. We started with my newly acquired copy of Poseidon, an 18xx-euro hybrid which condenses most of the key elements of 18xx into a fixed-length game full of wooden discs.

We all synchronised fairly well: everybody set up a nation in the first round (my Megalopolis got a bit screwed by John slightly unexpectedly cutting me off, but my plan from the outset had been to keep Megalopolis slow and steady until the final few rounds so it wasn’t too much of a bother) and then we all started a second nation in the same merchant round a while later.

We’d all played 1830 before (although for Graham it had been eight years and for John probably about 25), so there was much “ah, just like 1830” and “oh, this isn’t at all like 1830“. The huge difference is that Poseidon features recapitalisation as part of the game flow. At the start of Phases 2 and 3, nations can add more Potentials (wooden discs) to the Merchant Pool to raise more money for their coffers. That means that (a) there’s a careful balancing element between issuing Potentials as Merchants and using Potentials as Trading Posts on the map; and (b) it’s much more forgiving in terms of being forced to buy trains Ships from personal funds. That latter point, combined with the fact you can’t ever forcibly dump a nation onto someone else – even if they have more shares Merchants than you – makes it a much, much gentler financial game than 1830, and I certainly ended up concentrating very heavily on the map and getting the most out of my remaining Potentials once I’d figured out how many to issue as new Merchants.

Should the Merchant Pool be that full at the end of the game?

Should the Merchant Pool be that full at the end of the game? With a limit of 15 Merchants per player in a 4-player game, it seems likely… although we could maybe have managed nations better and got more Trading Posts on the board instead.

Megalopolis (purple) became very profitable indeed over the last two Operating Rounds Exploration Rounds, but it was too little too late. Olly had run Larissa (orange) very well for the whole game and, although it wasn’t generating a huge revenue in the last rounds, he had seven Merchants from Larissa (and a couple from Megalopolis) so he was bringing in a fair chunk of money each time it set sail. Graham was the only one of us to get seriously burned by the forced purchase of a Ship, which took several hundred drachmas from his personal funds and scuppered his game somewhat in the closing stages.

Final score (in drachmas) – Olly: 3626 / Me: 3296 / John: 3128 / Graham: 2649

I know a few things I did badly and a few things Olly did well, so I reckon I could play substantially better next time. I’m starting to get really excited by the idea of 18xx as a game series. I’ve got my eye on the imminent 1844/1854 double-package from Lookout Games and Olly’s already picked up 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties, so there’s plenty of possibility for more diverse 18xx in future.

After a quick pub trip for food, we spent the rest of the day engaged in substantially lighter (but excellent) fare. I maintained my 100% win streak in the superb The King of Frontier (Me: 52 / Graham: 44 / John: 42 / Olly: 28), failed miserably at Codenames (which could do with more than four players, to be fair) and came an honourable second in the mayhem that is Camel Up (Graham: 34 / Me: 29 / Olly: 28 / John: 20).

Tucked in among that lot was a successful run through Ghost Stories – yes, we defeated Wu-Feng! OK, it was only on Initiation level, but I tried to avoid quarterbacking too much (I’d had a solo refresher game on Nightmare level that morning and won fairly easily as the yellow Taoist). It was a really tough start to the game, with multiple Haunters coming out early on and several player boards being perilously full, but getting through a tough start means it should be easier later on. And it was for a short while… until Wu-Feng himherself turned up, as the Dark Mistress.

Victory! (A pyrrhic one for Graham, lying dead in the Graveyard.)

Victory! (A pyrrhic one for Graham, lying dead in the Graveyard. And clearly not an easy one for the rest of us.)

Obviously, none of the incarnations of Wu-Feng are exactly fun, but the Dark Mistress is my least favourite of the lot. Throughout the rest of the game, the dice are largely mitigable – in fact, my general rule of thumb is not to bother attempting an exorcism unless I have the Tao tokens available to do it without dice. The Dark Mistress takes that away, requiring three blue dice/tokens to exorcise… except it locks Tao tokens so you can’t use them. You can still use the Circle of Prayer so that’s only two blue (or wild white) dice needed once you’ve put a blue token on the Circle, but even so… it reduces the final encounter to simply rolling dice until either you succeed or you die.

So it wasn’t the greatest ending to Ghost Stories, but at least we won. Hooray!

These monthly roundups are getting out-of-hand lengthy, so I’m going to attempt to do little and often in future. Hopefully there’ll be enough gaming to justify it!

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!