Category Archives: Game Ramblings

Gametown Top Ranking

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

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

All-Time Classics

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

Agricola

Agricola

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

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

Twilight Struggle

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

Heavy Euros

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

Madeira

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

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

Through the Ages

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

Lighter Euros

Shipyard

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

Trajan

Trajan

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

Economic Games

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

Food Chain Magnate

FCM Olly

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

1865: Sardinia

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

Cooperative Games

Pandemic

Pandemic

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

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

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

Two-Player Abstract Games

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

Hive

Hive

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

YINSH

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

Family Games

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

Indigo

Indigo

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

Ticket to Ride series

Ticket to Ride

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

Wargames

D-Day at Omaha Beach

DDaOB featured image

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Solitaire Games

Mage Knight

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

Friday

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

Fillers / Party Games

Codenames

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

Coloretto

Coloretto

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

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

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

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!

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!

September Gaming Roundup

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

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

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

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

Our view for the weekend

Our view for the weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of Trajan

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

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

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

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

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

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August Gaming Mega-Roundup

Well, August got away from me. Way too much going on, what with school holidays, work responsibilities and my increasingly obsessive cycling habit (Strava year-to-date stats now in the sidebar to the right, because… why not?), so here’s a brief roundup of everything except the early-August Newcastle Gamers session I already covered.

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 12 August

Another notch on the Stefan Feld bedpost… no, that sounds wrong. You know what I mean. I played Notre Dame for (amazingly) the first time. It was a fun little game, not quite up to the standard of his more recent work, but the modular board is an ingenious piece of physical design. I think John played a better game, but I managed a crushing win (65 points to John’s 49) entirely by exploiting one particular card that came out at the end of a round. Still a few Felds to go until I’ve played them all.

We also played the “High Form” of Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends, which I think of as a nice little abstract to fill a few minutes, but is actually a crushingly brain-searing spatial thinkfest. We fluffed the end-game slightly, in that I forgot to have an extra turn each after I’d reached 9 points, but it wouldn’t have affected my victory. As it was, I was 9–4 up. Having only played this game a couple of times, I really like it, but it doesn’t seem to engender the same sort of enthusiasm in my opponents.

EklundFest 2015 – Friday 21 August

Olly and Graham took a half-day off work to come over to my otherwise empty house (hooray for grandparents) and get in some brutal simulation time with a couple of Phil Eklund designs. First up – Bios: Megafauna.

Graham and I were proto-mammals while Olly was the sole dinosaur player. After spending quite a bit of the rules explanation stressing the importance of preparing for Catastrophes, it took ages for the first one to hit. We’d spent quite some time populating the board with biomes and creatures eating stuff in the biomes (and a few creatures eating the creatures eating stuff in the biomes), and then… BOOM. Level 4 Catastrophe. Nearly everything died, leaving us with one creature each on the map, and me stranded in the corner of the board across the Atlantic Rift. With not enough marine biomes and a relatively cool world (leaving empty spaces as land rather than sea), I was totally stuck. I could have evolved an extra marine DNA letter and deliberately died out in order to start again elsewhere, but I actually managed to set up a few creatures on the map and use a genotype card (points for later) to start a new species, which could then predate my other species in that area.

Graham was struggling to find things to eat (although he had some absolutely massive species, so he could migrate reasonable distances), while Olly was expanding nicely and picking up genotype cards for his fossil record. Graham and I ended up accelerating the end of the game in order to stop Olly running away with it too badly, but even so…

Final score – Olly: 39 / Me: 19 / Graham: 17

The end of the game, with barely an animal on the map. Mass extinction FTW.

The end of the game, with barely an animal on the map. Mass extinction FTW.

Bios: Megafauna is at least a game (it’s a little less brutally random than High Frontier, which revels in drawing you into a false sense of security before destroying everything you ever loved on the roll of a d6), but it’s still fairly unpredictable, especially to inexperienced players. There’s a certain degree of fun in looking at the ridiculous creatures you create (a horn-beaked dolphin with armour and a club tail, or a tiny burrowing tiger with infra-red sensor pits) and you can certainly make some confrontational choices on the board, but it does still kick you when you’re down. Again and again.

After a rules-muffed blast at the very beautiful Kigi, we had our second run this year at Greenland. We all took a different tribe from last time (Norse for me, Thule for Graham and Tunit for Olly) and it all worked out very, very differently. There were plenty of successful hunts, including lots of required doubles, triples and quadruples to take cards as trophies. That meant things had essentially been hunted to extinction, so the available biomes got fewer and fewer quite quickly. We coped better with decimations this time, although the Event cards with Elder die-offs were always a bit of a rude shock and could destroy plans on the roll of a die (the true Eklund colours showing through there).

Graham did very well in auctions for imported goods, with his daughter Peepeelee allowing him to break ties in his favour. I struggled for energy for a while, but managed to get back on top of that by sending hunters to the New World later in the game. After Olly converted to monotheism, I began to get increasingly worried that he’d send someone to convert my Norsemen, thus rendering my huge haul of trophy VPs worthless. To prevent this, I made sure I always had energy and cubes spare to create the relevant Elders in order to banish the missionary… should it even appear. In the end, he sent his missionary to Graham, but the conversion attempt in the final round wasn’t successful.

Graham and I stayed polytheistic to the end, with my trophy haul and population VPs edging him out for the victory. Olly had suffered huge population losses and hadn’t managed to recover them; as a result, he hadn’t had the manpower to bring in the iron and ivory he needed for a monotheistic victory.

Final score – Me: 52 / Graham: 44 / Olly: 11

I considered it payback for Bios: Megafauna.

We rounded off the evening with Roll for the Galaxy, in which I had an absolute shocker, Graham did well for a first game and Olly continued his 100% win-streak in Roll.

Final score – Olly: 42 / Graham: 31 / Me: 29

And then just 11 hours later…

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 22 August

Well, I wasn’t there at the start of this all-day session, but Olly was, launching into Antiquity nearly first thing. Hats off!

I turned up around 2 pm and sat down with Nick, Gordon and David for… Roll for the Galaxy! Yes, why not play this little beauty twice in a row (albeit separated by 15 hours or so)? After teaching the game yet again, I was feeling optimistic a few rounds in. I’d built a couple of useful developments and the others were having a slower start. But then the tile-draw went against me and the “6+” developments (the ones with endgame bonus VPs) started coming out for everyone but me. Even some extended Explore-trawling through the bag wasn’t getting me anywhere – I drew ten tiles in one round and didn’t see a single 6+.

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

In the end, Nick’s combination of shipping for VPs and building medium-value developments and planets served him well. Gordon got some nice bonuses from a few 6+ developments in his tableau, while I just had to make do with what I had. David seemed to be having the sort of game I’d had the night before.

Final score – Nick: 45 / Gordon: 38 / Me: 38 / David: 20

I jumped table as Antiquity finished (Olly victorious – clearly not enough Eklund the day before to properly melt his brain) and joined John, Michael, Olly and Camo for a quick Coloretto (Olly wins again) before a five-player Last Will plus the Getting Sacked expansion.

I had memories of really enjoying Last Will the one time I’d played it (it turned out to have been two years previously); this time was no different. The concept alone is innately fun (be the first to lose all your money by doing things like taking your horse to the theatre or putting a dog in your house in order to depreciate more rapidly) and the gameplay is simple enough to not get in the way of that storytelling fun, although with enough tough choices to make it thinky where it counts.

My only real gripe this time was that had my card draw been luckier in the last couple of rounds, I could have lost substantially more money and possibly even won. The counter-argument would, of course, be that I should have gone for something that didn’t rely on the right cards coming up, and that’s fair enough. It just irks me slightly when something key hinges on something quite random. I think in those last couple of rounds I drew something like 6 or 7 companion cards just looking for a horse but didn’t get a single one. All dogs and chefs.

Olly's player board, halfway to getting sacked from his job as a journalist

Olly’s player board, halfway to getting sacked from his job as a journalist

In the end, Camo played his first game very nicely, after being the subject of some bafflement as he extended his player board further and further along the table. He pipped John to the win by a single pound of debt, while I came in third. Olly and Michael didn’t quite manage to bankrupt themselves, although Olly came very close.

Final score – Camo: -£11 / John: -£10 / Me: -£6 / Olly: £4 / Michael: £11

Michael was replaced by Vernon for Ticket to Ride: Legendary Asia, at which I performed in my usual “fine but not enough to win” way. The Legendary Asia board has a neat little “dangerous routes” mechanism whereby some routes involve trashing trains into the corner of the board as well as placing them on the route. Each trashed train is worth 2 VPs, so it’s definitely worth bearing in mind when planning a set of routes. Unfortunately, my initial ticket draw didn’t involve much in the way of dangerous routes, so I didn’t use that corner much. Vernon, on the other hand, seemed to be using it every other turn and he ended up with a huge pile of trains in the trash corner. It turned out to be a winning strategy…

Final score – Vernon: 110 / Olly: 100 / Me: 99 / Camo: 84 / John: 83

What was left of the evening was taken up with fillers (Scream MachineNo Thanks! and 6 Nimmt! – what is it with fillers and exclamation marks?) before several of us declared ourselves too worn out to continue.

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 26 August

The final flurry of gaming in August brought Die Burgen von Burgund (that’s The Castles of Burgundy for those of you with the English edition) back to the table for the first time in a long time. I’ve played it a lot online, but it was great to come back to the cardboard version.

As usual, I neglected animals (which was a bad idea), went heavy on the knowledge tiles (which was very handy) and kept blocking John from taking valuable mines by ensuring I was first player for the beginning of each of the first few rounds, with enough workers in hand to be able to grab the mines. And, as usual, we ended up with a close final score. A very, very close final score.

Final score – Me: 186 / John: 185

After that, Averil joined us for my first ever time playing Alhambra. All I can say is… well… it was a learning game. I didn’t get my head around the importance of the wall for scoring until near the end of the game, and I kept being just beaten to the tiles I wanted, forcing me to take second-best options just so I could attempt to keep up. We were playing with the Invaders mini-expansion, but that didn’t have too much impact on either the scoring or how any of us played. Anyway…

Final score – John: 152 / Averil: 116 / Me: 77

Not the most auspicious end to the gaming month, but there it is. At least I’ve played Alhambra now (initial thoughts: it’s… OK? Nothing special) and I might be able to pull off a better performance next time.

September’s already got off to a solid gaming start, with SnowdoniaRussian Railroads and more making an appearance, and a lot of games to come in the month. I’ll be back…

Photos by Olly and me, Olly’s 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!

July – There Were Games

Yes, there were indeed gamings, including one session at Newcastle Gamers which I haven’t blogged about so far. It’s been another busy month, including a ramping up of volunteering responsibilities (which is good because I can – just about – handle it), a family holiday (which is good because holidays are apparently A Good Thing) and watching the Tour de France (which is good because it’s the Tour), which hasn’t left a huge amount of time for blogging. And so to a whistle-stop round-up of the month…

July started with a first play of La Granja, which I’d been on the lookout for since its original release in 2014. Who can resist another farming game? It’s a bit of everything euro, with the rulebook going as far as naming the specific design “influences” (that’s in scare quotes because in reality they’re directly lifted from the original games): Stefan Feld’s Luna, Carl Chudyk’s Glory to Rome and more. It could have ended up feeling pasted together, but it holds up really well and was a hugely enjoyable game. I was a bit slow getting stuff onto market barrows, concentrating too hard on craft buildings at the start, which was reflected in the fact that John beat me 65–62. The bonus tiles from craft buildings don’t necessarily cancel out the fact you’re short on VPs!

We also managed to fit in Welcome to the Dungeon that evening, with John’s wife Averil making us up to three. It’s not entirely my sort of game (push-your-luck bluffing), but I preferred it with three compared to the four-player game a few days later…

Talking of which, Newcastle Gamers on the 11th was a treat, starting with Panamax. Sharing two designers and a certain degree of “complex play from relatively simple rules” with my beloved Madeira (which I’ll surely get a chance to play for a second time soon), Panamax uses dice-based action selection to create a surprisingly tight and brutally interactive game of goods shipping.

Olly and Graham had both played before, while John and I were fresh to it. I hadn’t quite twigged some of the details from a single read-through of the rules, so it wasn’t until about halfway through the first of the three rounds that I realised why I might want to do some things rather than others – the importance of getting my own boats through the Panama canal suddenly became clear. I hit lucky with some early contracts and my initial financial advisor card tied in well with that, giving me bonus points for each flag token.

Hello sailor!

Hello sailor!

It took a round or two to get a handle on all the movement options as well, including grouping and re-grouping as ships move through the canal. It doesn’t matter how many times it’s explained; it’s not until I’m actually doing it that I understand all the implications. And I still ended up getting it wrong in the final round, leaving many of my goods and ships pointlessly stuck in the middle of the canal.

By the end, Olly had beautifully manipulated the relationship between his company and his personal fortune, pushing him to a comfortable victory. (John, meanwhile, had misunderstood his financial advisor card and thus played the whole game to the wrong goal. Oops!)

Final score – Olly: 127 / Me: 107 / Graham: 86 / John: 58

Great game – I’d definitely play it again. After a quick Welcome to the Dungeon (as stated before, not quite as good with four as with three – not enough information for my taste to make sensible decisions), we attempted the “short” version of Uwe Rosenberg’s Ora et Labora. This was supposed to take one hour; in reality it took just over three, including a rules explanation. Regardless, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, although it left me with an unshakeable fear of the full-length game.

Another Rosenberg game that takes up a whole massive table.

Another Rosenberg game that takes up a whole massive table.

The short game is ridiculously generous with free goods, getting steadily more valuable as the game progresses through its 13 rounds. I spotted some of the late-game free goods a few rounds in advance and figured out a way to just (and only just) make two Wonders in the final couple of rounds, utilising the start player’s double-action ability. That was enough to tip me over the edge for a win.

Final score – Me: 211 / Olly: 202 / Graham: 169 / John: 168

Again, a really fun game (albeit a bit long for a “short” version) which edged me one step closer to having played all of the big-box Rosenberg games. Spoiler: I’ll complete that challenge in about two paragraph’s time.

A few days later, I teamed up with John and Averil to save the world in Pandemic, playing with the In the Lab expansion for the first time. I thought the lab challenge added a really nice new element to the game, both thematically and mechanically, which has tempted me to buy the upgrade kit for my own original-edition copy of Pandemic so I can get the latest expansions for myself. Anyway, we lost, but – in typical Pandemic fashion – only just. The yellow disease had been a problem from the outset, and the outbreaks got away from us just as the player deck came to an end.

And then the final gaming evening of the month was At the Gates of Loyang with John, completing my “big Rosenberg” checklist. Agricola, At the Gates of LoyangCavernaFields of ArleGlass RoadLe HavreMerkatorOra et Labora… I’ve played them all now. And what a treat this one was! Right up there with his very best, full of tight resources, tough decisions, brain-burn… and the oddest card-drafting phase I’ve come across. Still, it worked well and I got my head round the game quickly enough.

We both ended up at 17 on the Path of Prosperity, so it came down to the tiebreaker: cash. John had 1 coin left over; I had none. A win for John, even though I helped him figure out how to end up with 1 coin left. 😉

Not a bad month for games, but I’m hoping August will be even better with (hopefully) three Newcastle Gamers sessions and as much extra gaming as I can fit in.

My June in Games

June was a very busy month for me, especially around the weekends when I’d usually be at Newcastle Gamers. Two missed sessions (three including the late May one!) means I was grabbing any opportunity to get in a game here or there, but I ended up not doing too badly.

I kicked off the month by heading on down to Newcastle Playtest to see what new designs the group had kicked off since my last attendance. What actually happened was that I played Graham’s long-gestated flower-growing game with him and Olly (really enjoyed it, but Graham’s not sure about spending any more time on it), which devolved into a chat about pro cycling and the recently finished Giro d’Italia which had turned out to be a fantastic race (and a slightly ridiculously paced one – thanks, Astana).

The following week the stars aligned and I finally made it along to the Mile Castle for some Monday evening Android: Netrunner. What a lovely bunch of people! And what an experienced bunch of players. I played three games and lost all three. My decks kind of worked against me in a couple of the games (the first one ended in a flatline when my opponent played SEA Source and two Scorched Earths, so I didn’t really get a chance to get going), but I’m sure a more experienced player would have made better of the hands they’d drawn… or built a better deck in the first place. Everyone was really patient with me as I stumbled through some slow decisions and tried to make my frustrating hands work.

Dan played a beautifully horrible HB deck with the new Cybernetics Division: Humanity Upgraded identity (reduce each player’s hand size by one). After Dan scored a couple of Self-Destruct Chips early in the game, I was down to a hand size of two. Given that my Hayley deck is partially about heavy card draw, that was me scuppered. I need to work in a hand-size-enlarging card or two to counter things like that.

And then two days later I was down at John’s house for a bit of Corbridge gaming. John sprang on me a game I hadn’t even slightly imagined he might be interested in: Neuroshima Hex (in its 3.0 version, for those keeping score at home). I’d played this a few times on the iPad, but I couldn’t remember much about it so all strategic thought eluded me. I played the Borgo (good at melee combat) against John’s Moloch (lots of ranged combat options) and the tile-draw kind of screwed me a bit. I got in some good early hits on John’s HQ, which is the object of the game, but I didn’t draw either of my ranged units until near the very end, which meant I kept getting pushed back away from John’s HQ and had to concentrate on taking out some of his nastier ranged units. Yes, I’m staring at you, Gauss Cannon.

At the end of the game – looks like I've done really well (look at all that blue!), but all the damage had been done long ago.

At the end of the game – looks like I’ve done really well (look at all that blue!), but all the damage had been done long ago.

John took a comfortable victory after our tiles had run out, 9–5. Neuroshima Hex isn’t entirely my cup of tea, gameplay-wise, and the theme and artwork really aren’t for me. I mean, really – post-apocalyptic mutants? Again? I’d much prefer a Hive-style battle of the insects or something.

We finished up with another Roll for the Galaxy. Everything went my way this time, and I picked up a string of developments that only encouraged me to go for more developments. It really was a perfect-storm combo. I developed Investment Credits early on, which made all developments one die cheaper from that point. Galactic Bankers was a 6+ development, giving me 1 bonus VP per development, while Propaganda Campaign let me reassign one or two dice to the phase I chose. That meant (after a bit of exploring turned up some cheap developments) my final turn involved six dice on the Develop phase producing four developments for a total income of 14 VPs.

I had to check the rules to see if I was allowed to finish a thirteenth tile – indeed I was.

I had to check the rules to see if I was allowed to finish a thirteenth tile – indeed I was.

John had taken a much more balanced approach and did very well out of his shipping and a few 6+ development bonuses, but it wasn’t enough to overhaul my obscene development engine.

Final score – Me: 63 / John: 49

Yep, that entire winning margin of 14 was scored in the final turn. Love this game – it’s just so different every time.

That was it for June, and July’s shaping up to be similarly game-sparse. I’m making up for it with lots of cycling – both watching and riding. It’s great to get back on a bike after so many years off, and it’s helping no end with my CFS recovery.

My May in Games

John and I managed to convene Corbridge Gamers a few times last month. First up was Merkator, Uwe Rosenberg’s super-dry European-trading cube-pusher. From a quiet start, this ramped up quite quickly to a cubic frenzy, with each round bringing a whole bunch of tough decisions – where to move (and whether that move gains you time or costs time); which contracts to sell off in order to retain the ones you think you can fulfil; how to block your opponent(s) from getting the cubes they need to fulfil their contracts; which contracts to fulfil once you get to your destination; which building or bonus cards to buy (or whether to save the money for next round); and so on.

I went for a simple strategy of buying as many bonus cards as possible, to the point where we exhausted the whole deck. That meant I was getting bonus cubes in nearly every round towards the end of the game, helping me gain a level in contracts every time. In the end, I managed to get the Peace of Westphalia by completing a level-10 contract; that triggered the final round. I was massively helped along in the final scoring by my building which gave me an extra VP for each bonus card in my possession (I think I had 13 or so by the end). That tipped things in my favour…

Final score – Me: 81 / John: 73

I really enjoyed Merkator. There was a lot of depth hidden under a sheen of simple rules, and I successfully planned and executed a series of contract upgrades. In other words, my plan worked, which always makes me feel good about a game.

A week later, we returned to Fields of Arle, Rosenberg’s table-obliterating two-player epic of farming and resource conversion. I concentrated much more on producing and converting fabric into clothing than I did the first time round, only occasionally selling goods to build up enough food for a couple of big building purchases. I felt like I had a better handle on it this time, but clearly so did John and he got his engine going just a touch quicker than I did, leading to a narrow victory for him.

Final score – John: 102 / Me: 98½

And then towards the end of the month we played Roll for the Galaxy, which has turned into a bit of a favourite (31–28 to me; we both ended up really going for the shipping VPs, which ended the game quite quickly with relatively small tableaux), followed by Kingdom Builder, which was a bit of a surprise. I’d only played it once before and found it enjoyable but a bit… light and frothy. Not much to it. Well, this time – thanks to a perfect storm of randomly-chosen game boards from John’s big box edition – we had all sorts of exotic paraphernalia (walls! nomads! useless multi-hex bits of cardboard!) and loads of ways to think about using them.

After final scoring

After final scoring

The biggest game-changer was the walls, which essentially allowed us to occasionally ignore the adjacency rules (by walling off the relevant bit we were adjacent to) and set up camp somewhere else on the board. This played in really nicely to some of the goals we were working towards, which were about building in each of the four sections of the game board. Unfortunately, I managed to wall myself in on one of the boards, which meant that scoring 3 VPs per building on that board (my least populated board) wasn’t very lucrative and it was that scoring card that settled the final score between us – everything else had been level up to that point.

Final score – John: 100 / Me: 91

So yes, Kingdom Builder was much more enjoyable and thinky (and took a lot longer) than either of us had expected. I’d be much more inclined to play it again in the future.

And that was about it for board gaming in May. I’ve got an ongoing PBEM game of Unconditional Surrender: World War 2 in Europe, this time playing through a Mediterranean scenario covering 1940–42, but that one’s going to take ages to play through. There’s a lot of naval movement and possible interceptions to check every time someone sails from one port to another, so there’s a lot of back and forth within each turn. As it stands, my Italian forces in Libya are feeling under serious threat from the British troops in Egypt, but I’m about to get German reinforcements so the tide may soon turn…

My April in… Singing?

Yeah, not a huge amount of gaming done outside Newcastle Gamers sessions this month. There was an excellent evening towards the end of the month when I finally got to play Bruxelles 1893 with John Sh. He’s been saying for years (or at least the 18 months or so since it came out) that it’s my sort of game, and he was spot on. Lots of things to do, a clear sense of progress and (literally) building towards the end-game, relatively simple rules underlying a complex set of interactions… yeah, that’s the stuff. Great game (with the bonus of beautiful artwork and design) and I won by a single point in a two-player game, so it’s clearly tightly designed and well balanced.

We also played Roll for the Galaxy, which had been a slightly unusual purchase for me in that it has 111 dice. I tend to prefer games with fewer dice than that – typically 111 fewer dice, in fact – but I knew there were plenty of ways to mitigate the rolls and do the things you need to do. The components are lovely, from the custom dice and bespoke dice cups to the thick, chunky tiles that make up the space empire you’re building. The game itself was quick and enjoyable; it’s a bit multiplayer-solitaire-ish, but I’ll forgive that in a short game. We also managed to fit in my first game of Red7, which was baffling and fun in that way that only Carl Chudyk seems to be able to pull off.

Apart from that one evening (and a few failed solo attempts – yet again – at the first scenario in Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island), I’ve mainly been spending the month singing. I used to do a lot of choral singing; indeed, I was a member of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain some 15 years ago and sang regularly with a local-ish choir until about 10 years ago, when life, work and geography started getting in the way of rehearsals. I’ve always kept an eye out for local choirs I might be interested in joining, but nothing’s ever managed to fit the bill. I don’t want to sound arrogant or pretentious, but once you’ve toured the world singing some of the most beautiful and complex choral music ever written with the most talented young singers in the country… singing a medley from Cats to a half-empty church hall in rural Northumberland doesn’t really do it for you. I need a challenge.

And when you’ve had a decade off singing, it stops being a “thing you do”, so people don’t know that you do it. Eventually you’re not even sure if you can do it any more.

Well, I found myself talking to a local singing teacher a few weeks ago, and mentioned my choral past. It wasn’t long before she asked me to do a little small-group singing… and then the floodgates opened. Relatively speaking, anyway. So now I’m working on some madrigals (my favourite singing thing – there’s nothing quite like one voice to a part singing Elizabethan secular songs) and some alto–tenor duets, all slated for performance some time in the late summer. I’m even working on this (maybe for performance this year, maybe next year), which is really exciting because I’ve never done anything like it:

(In case you’re wondering, I’m a tenor, so I’d be singing the short-haired guy’s part – that of Abraham.)

It’s like coming home, or meeting an old friend for the first time in a decade. I’ve just kind of picked up where I left off, and it’s really good fun. I’ve even gained about a minor third at the top end of my range as I’ve aged, as well as a little richness in my chest voice, which was all a nice surprise. I won’t witter on too much about singing here on my blog, but it’s trundling along in the background, keeping me feeling that little more… alive.

Oh, and just to round the month off nicely, I finally got to see Nick Cave live at the Sage Gateshead with second-row seats – and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. Nick Cave knows his audience and he knows what we want to hear, so it was nearly two-and-a-half hours of fan favourites: “The Ship Song”, “Up Jumped the Devil” (complete with toy xylophone interludes from Mr Cave himself), “Into My Arms”, “Red Right Hand”, “Love Letter”… it was an incredible performance.