Category Archives: Musings

My March in Games

In many ways, my gaming highlight in March was (finally) teaching Hive to my seven-year-old son. Not just because it’s a great game, but because he got it. I barely had to re-explain anything and he could recognise when things were going well and when they were turning bad. Admittedly, I helped him along in quite a few places (because there’s nothing fun about steamrollering a child at a game notorious for requiring an even match of player ability), but he understood exactly why the bad decisions he was mulling over were bad decisions. I foresee many matches of Hive to come in the future – and I foresee him beating me before too long.

The month began excellently (after an early session at Newcastle Gamers) with a game of Madeira against John Sh. I’d recently picked it up at a vaguely bargainous price, intrigued by its reputation as a brutally heavy euro and heartened by the knowledge that it’s a real favourite of Newcastle Gamers chairman John B.

At this point, I’d love to go into a detailed report and analysis of our beautifully constructed strategies and well timed moves. Instead, I’ll just present you with how the board looked at the end of the two-hour game as we sat with our heads in our hands, muttering things like “probably the heaviest euro I’ve ever played” and “that was exhausting”.

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

Yes, it felt very heavy… but not from being overburdened by elaborate rules. The rules themselves are relatively straightforward (I mean, it’s not Ticket to Ride, but it’s certainly not Mage Knight either); the heaviness comes from the complexity and depth of the interlocking mechanisms and the decisions you have to make on each turn. Resources are tight, in true brutal-euro style, and you only have a small handful of actions available in each round, so there are points where you’re inevitably failing to maintain your boats (if you have to buy wood, the cost scales using the triangular number sequence: 1 wood costs 1 coin, 2 wood costs 3 coins, 3 wood costs 6… all the way up to 6 wood for a horrifying 21 coins) or feed your workers. And failing to do things means pirates. And pirates give you negative points at the end of the game.

I ended up winning, 72 to 51, but it was kind of accidental. I fell into a heavy shipping strategy early on (mainly because of the first crown demand tile I was dealt) and it threw a reasonable number of points my way over the first couple of scoring rounds (end of rounds 1 and 3), plus a big bonus at the end of round 5 (my three red wine ships you can see on the board pulled in 18 points from a single tile). John had also overtaken me – way, way, way overtaken me – for pirates in the last round, so he got the larger points reduction at the end of the game.

So it was very much an exploratory first game, and I reckon Madeira would need a good four or five games before you get a decent handle on how everything fits together. I did really enjoy it, but it’s not an “every day” game. It’s probably not even an “every month” game, given its weight. But I’ll float it some time at Newcastle Gamers and see if I get any takers.

The middle of the month brought another wonderful gaming weekend (see this post for last spring’s report). I could only make it for about 24 hours, but I managed to fit in some excellent gaming. In brief:

  • Formula Dé – This was much better fun than I’d anticipated, taking roll-and-move to a level that actually engages the brain. The highlight was watching Olly dance on the verge of death for most of the race before spinning and crashing out on the penultimate bend. I played it steady and very nearly won, being pipped to the post by John in the last roll of the die.
  • Roads & Boats – Having scared everyone else away by (correctly) stating it had taken 6 hours last time we played, Olly and I then polished off a game in 90 minutes, both rushing to complete the wonder rather than bothering with mines and all that nonsense. Not the most satisfying of games, but at least it showed us another way it could be played.
Yes, we set up all those hexes, then didn't even bother getting beyond wagons. I didn't even get beyond donkeys, and I crushed all my geese into delicious wonder bricks.

Yes, we set up all those hexes, then didn’t even bother getting beyond wagons. I didn’t even get beyond donkeys, and I crushed all my geese into delicious wonder bricks.

  • In the Year of the Dragon – Finally managed to play this excellent Stefan Feld game. It didn’t feel much like a Feld as we know them these days; it was much more a game of managing crises than building opportunities and creating combos. Really good fun, with an enjoyable schadenfreude in watching Camo (who has played the game a billion times) accidentally screw himself over and have a disastrous last few rounds.
  • Suburbia – My first play with the Suburbia Inc expansion, which adds borders, bonuses, challenges and a whole bunch of new tiles. Camo, Olly, Graham and I were experienced enough to take it in our strides, and we ended up with some ridiculous-looking border-riddled boroughs (except Graham’s, which looked like someone had actually put some thought into its layout). I struggled for income throughout, but just managed to scrape together a win by sneaking down to score the “lowest income” goal.
My winning "borough". I don't know why anyone wanted to live there, but they did.

My winning “borough”. I don’t know why anyone wanted to live there, with a checkpoint sandwiched between a desert and a national park. Maybe it was just those contiguous lake tiles that brought the people flooding in.

  • Earthquake – A very odd little set-scoring game, with Magic: The Gathering artwork and a whole shedload of luck involved.
  • Android: Netrunner – I tried out a Noise (Anarch) bullshit deck against Graham’s Jinteki Replicating Perfection deck. I can’t think of a better way to describe the deck I was using. It’s just a complete confrontational arsehole of a deck, tweaked to my liking from the Can o’ Whupass build. Virus after virus after virus, milling through the corp deck, bringing out Incubators, Hivemind and three Chakanas… I can’t imagine what it’s like to play against as a corp. Indeed, Graham was heard to mutter, “Y’know, we could fall out over this.” I managed to faceplant into a Cerebral Overwriter and accidentally kill myself; I really shouldn’t have run at all, even with a super-strong Darwin running off Hivemind. You live and learn. Really good fun to try something like this out, and it’s now become my proper runner deck after a few tweaks.
  • Fungi – I’ve had a copy of this sitting around unplayed for ages, and Graham happened to have brought his along. I wish I’d played my copy ages ago. What a lovely little set-collection game. The morels seemed very powerful, but I think Graham struck lucky in managing to get all three of them out for 18 points.
  • Love Letter – For once, I didn’t do terribly… but I didn’t win either.
  • Space Alert – At last, I tried this Vlaada Chvátil game, but I couldn’t stay long enough to get beyond the first couple of training missions. I was enjoying it a lot, although the real-time aspect of it did make me realise how much my CFS still affects my mental function. I struggled to keep up with what was going on… but of course, that’s partially the idea of the game anyway! Hopefully I’ll get another chance to play it before I’ve entirely forgotten how it works.

I had a fantastic time with superb games in excellent company, and was gutted to have to miss half of the weekend. I even missed two games of Agricola. [sad face]

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the month trying to get my head round the rules for Salerno, the first in MMP’s Variable Combat Series. It had been on my radar for well over a year – the system, the map, the counters… it all looked like my sort of wargame, and one I could play solo fairly easily too. I’d read the system rules a couple of times, and it seemed so simple; it was largely a collection of standard hex-and-counter wargaming staples.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t looked at the exclusive rules for the Salerno game. They’re twice as long as the system rules, and make it substantially more complex. I’m not a massive wargamer, but I’ve never had trouble getting my head round a ruleset once I put some effort into it. Salerno was the first wargame to make me feel like a complete idiot. It’s not just that the rules could be much clearer in places; it’s that they make assumptions about your knowledge of military terminology. For a lot of grognards, this wouldn’t be a problem. I, on the other hand, have struggled enormously to figure out which counters are the parent units to others, and to figure out how the unit designations listed in the reinforcement schedule correspond to what’s printed on the counters.

Maybe I’ve been coddled by the likes of Red Winter, which prints the turn of entry on each unit, or Unconditional Surrender, in which each ground unit counter is an entire army with a simple number on it. Either way, Salerno‘s back on the shelf for now. I hope I can understand it some day.

My 2014 in Games

As is now traditional (because doing something twice counts as a tradition in my book), I’ll cast an eye back over my 2014 gaming now it’s all over.

Games with others

Most played

Unsurprisingly, Coloretto tops the list again with 9 plays last year. A great filler, and I introduced it to my wife and in-laws on holiday this summer, accounting for a good few of those 9 plays.

The netrunner-up is… oh, I’ve given it away… yes, Android: Netrunner (7 plays), which is a little more surprising given that I’ve only ever run the nets with two different people. I’d like to get much deeper into this game, but there isn’t exactly a surfeit of opponents out in rural Northumberland and I’m still not up to too many trips into Newcastle where the scene’s a little livelier.

Interestingly, my joint-most-played game of 2013 – Pandemic – didn’t even get played once in 2014. I’ve rectified that for 2015 by playing a game on New Year’s Day, but it’s weird that a game that was so popular among various friends and groups during 2013 sank without trace for me last year.

Best New Games of 2014

Hmmm. There’s really nothing leaping out at me like Keyflower did last year. I’ve really enjoyed my dabblings with Volko Ruhnke’s COIN system games (Cuba LibreA Distant Plain and Fire in the Lake have all passed under my fingertips in 2014), so perhaps they can share the glory even though only FitL was published last year. They definitely need some more face-to-face play though; there’s only so much my brain can take when it comes to deciphering the non-player bot instructions in FitL.

Classics Discovered in 2014

2014 was the year of Splotter Spellen for this category: Roads & Boats and Antiquity were just glorious gaming experiences. There’s nothing quite like them for freedom, complex gameplay from simple rulesets and, well… looking fairly hideous. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and there’s a beautiful proto-eurogame heart beating under those manky old clothes.

Not really a classic as such, but certainly deserving of a mention: Stefan Feld’s 2010 game Luna, which is possibly his most underrated (or just most widely ignored) game. Like the Splotter games, there’s a lot of freedom in Luna, requiring you to fumble your own obscure way towards a seemingly nebulous goal. Unlike the Splotter games, it’s probably not possible to absolutely destroy your chances in the first turn.

Solo Cardboard

Blimey, it’s been a solo-heavy year. From starting the year with a full Agricola solo series through to December’s arrival of a copy of the near-legendary Japanese solo game Shephy, it’s been non-stop solitairing. Rather than last year’s 40 total plays of Onirim and Friday, I’ve been spreading myself around the solo games much more, with Shephy joining those two stalwarts in the short-and-sweet category.

Apart from them, it’s been all about the heft, with heavy, long games seeing the table on many occasions. Mage Knight has had 5 plays, Navajo Wars 4 plays, John Butterfield’s D-Day at Omaha Beach and D-Day at Tarawa 4 plays combined… these games last multiple sessions and have kept me well occupied when the chronic fatigue syndrome has been at its most annoying.

A special odd mention here for The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-43, which I bought near the beginning of the year and traded away within a couple of months. At first, I appreciated its simple dice-table-driven narrative style, and that was perfect for my addled brain in the early months of CFS. And then after a few plays I just got very, very bored of it. There’s barely a game there – maybe a handful of meaningful decisions in each session of play – so it had to go once I was starting to feel a touch better.

Digital Board Gaming

Loads of VASSAL by email in 2014, mainly with Newcastle Gamers semi-regular Gareth: three games of Twilight Struggle (plus another ongoing with Olly now), two of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, one of 1989: Dawn of Freedom (yes, those cousins of Twilight Struggle are very popular with us), a Cuba Libre and the beginning of our ongoing recreation of WWI with Paths of Glory. In the realms of hexes and counters, we’ve also played a short Red Winter scenario and I resoundingly lost the Sickle Cut scenario in France ’40 to someone from BGG (to be fair to me, it was an accurate historical result!). With a game of Unconditional Surrender just getting underway with another BGG stranger (Operation Barbarossa – I’m the USSR and the Luftwaffe have just grounded my entire air force in the first turn), 2015 is already looking excellent on the digital front.

Not so much board gaming on the iPad this year, although a special mention goes to the excellent Galaxy Trucker app released in the autumn. It captures the ridiculousness of the tabletop game in a super-slick package with a compelling solo campaign mode.

Looking Forward

It’s already been an excellent start to the gaming year and, as my health gradually improves, I hope to be a bit more regular at Newcastle Gamers. I also want to get back on track with my game design ideas (the Battle of the Bands game needs a lot of bashing into shape before anyone else sees it, but I also have an idea for a solo terraforming/survival game which I’d like to explore) and get along to a few sessions of Newcastle Playtest.

My eldest son is now seven and a half, which means he’s starting to be able to play some slightly more advanced games. It doesn’t mean he always makes sensible decisions, but he’s getting there and – most importantly – he’s interested in playing games. 2015 may well be the year of the family game in this house.

A Good Kicking – a component overview of Hegemonic

(with apologies to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber)

Way, way back many centuries ago,
Not long after the Bible began
Jacob lived in the land of Canaan…

…and I backed Hegemonic on Kickstarter. A game of rival houses wrestling for control of the galaxy in a distant future, it looked right up my street, like Dominant Species and Tigris & Euphrates had a space-baby made of hexes. It’s an abstract-ish euro game dressed up with Ameritrash bits. (We clearly need a new term for this. Abstrurotrash? Ameurostract? Abstrameriro?) You can read the rules here and watch the designer’s instructional video here.

Anyway, it funded and it hit loads of stretch goals, some of them fantastic (metal coins, dual-layered player boards so bits don’t get knocked around everywhere, à la Eclipse, etc.) and some of them less amazing (I always would have preferred wooden pieces to the plastic bits it ended up with, but ç’est la vie). With the stretch goals came manufacturing delays, so the estimated delivery date of July 2013 came and went. Finalising the design of the plastic miniatures clearly took far longer than anyone had anticipated, and the metal coins got cross-pollinated with another Kickstarter campaign, so they became a much larger project and resulted in delays of their own.

The delays didn’t particularly bother me. I’d rather stuff was late and correct than on-time and wrong.

Well, Hegemonic arrived this Monday, 24 February 2014 (yes, over a year after successfully funding and seven months later than the estimated date) and it looks like the extra time getting everything looking beautiful was time well spent. It really does look the business. If that sounds like a shallow response, it is. I haven’t even played the game yet. It just looks nice.

And to that end, I present some pictures of it looking lovely. Although to start, I’ve got a picture of the nearly-impossible-to-photograph Kickstarter-exclusive foil-text box.

Hegemonic box

The foil lettering means the game title and designer’s signature on the lid either burn like a thousand suns or blend into the background.

A (faked) four-player game in progress, probably somewhere around halfway through the game.

A (staged) four-player game in progress, probably somewhere around halfway through the game. The red edges denote regions for scoring at the end of each round, with scores based on relative power within each region.

(L–R:) Fleet, Agent, Martial Outpost, Political Embassy and Borg Cube... sorry, Industrial Complex. The original plan was to have wooden squares, circles and discs (and custom shapes for the fleet and agent), and I think I would have preferred that. Still, they're well made, although the pyramidal Outpost is a nightmare to pick up.

(L–R) Fleet, Agent, Martial Outpost, Political Embassy and Borg Cube… sorry, Industrial Complex. The original plan was to have wooden squares, circles and discs (and custom shapes for the fleet and agent), and I think I would have preferred that. Still, they’re well made, especially the solid, slightly rubbery Industrial Complex, although the pyramidal Outpost is a nightmare to pick up.

The sector tiles that form the meat of the game. These are thick, linen-textured hexes with clean, crisp print.

The sector tiles that form the meat of the game. These are thick, linen-textured hexes with clean, crisp print.

Each player has their own set of action cards with artwork colour-coded to their "great house". These cards determine the actions taken in each action phase, as well as the order in which players take those actions.

Each player has their own set of action cards with artwork colour-coded to their “great house”. These cards determine the actions taken in each action phase, as well as the order in which players take those actions.

Each player has a hand of five "semi-permanent" technology cards that can be used to gain special powers, or used in conflicts to boost power in a particular field (industrial, political or martial).

Each player has a hand of five “semi-permanent” technology cards that can be used to gain special powers, or used in conflicts to boost power in a particular field (industrial, political or martial).

A player board, housing all the bases and units a player can build in each of the three types.

A player board, housing all the bases and units a player can build in each of the three types.

A close-up on the player board, showing the dual-layered construction to hold bases in place. Bump-proof! (Not immune to table-flipping.)

A close-up on the player board, showing the dual-layered construction to hold bases in place. Bump-proof! (Not immune to table-flipping.)

Hegemonic is completely symmetrical out of the box, but if you want to mix things up a bit, the 12 Leader cards give each player a few unique powers for that game. Some of the Leader art is really cool too.

Hegemonic is completely symmetrical out of the box, but if you want to mix things up a bit, the 12 Leader cards give each player a few unique powers for that game. Some of the Leader art is really cool too.

And here's what held the whole thing up. Metal coins!  (And a 2p for comparison.) These are really hefty, well-made coins, with different designs on the obverse and reverse. And as you can see, they're big too.

And here’s what held the whole thing up. Metal coins! (And a 2p for comparison.) These are really hefty, well-made coins, with different designs on the obverse and reverse. And as you can see, they’re big too.

It’s not all kittens and cake though – I’ve got some minor niggles regarding colour. As I’ve said before, I’m not colour-blind per se, but I do have trouble distinguishing several colours in certain lighting conditions. When I first opened Hegemonic, I thought I’d been sent two sets of plastic pieces in one of the colours and none of the sixth. On switching on a desk lamp, I discovered that I just couldn’t tell the difference between the yellow and green pieces without strong light. With a camera flash…

Not a problem with a flash.

…no problem at all. But I’m not likely to play this game under lighting that strong. I’ll just have to request that with five players, the unused colour is one of those two. With six, I’d have to bring a torch to shine across the board.

There’s one more colour problem, and this one’s a bit more universal. The Quantum Gates are represented by small cardboard tokens, three pairs in each player colour. Unfortunately, the orange and red tokens are very similar in colour:

Orange-red gates

An enterprising BGGer has figured out a simple solution, but as James Mathe of Minion Games points out there, it’s rarely relevant which gates are whose because their effects are available to every player so this is one instance where colour shouldn’t be a problem.

After seven months of waiting, I’m keen to get this to the table. I’m hoping to get along to Newcastle Gamers next weekend, so maybe I’ll find some willing volunteers to take Hegemonic for a spin. The designer has helpfully written a “teaching script”, so I’d better start studying that now!

Thoughts on Agricola as a solo game

I was going to write a fairly condensed session-report-ish-type thing on a solo series of Agricola using the E and K decks (indeed, I have a draft of that post knocking around in the system here), but it got to the point where there was simply no challenge to the series. I could have gone on for probably twenty games in total before the target scores caught up with my farms. This sort of thing had started happening:

Agricola 14 food

Yes, that’s 14 Food left on the Fishing space at the end of the game – not once in the whole game did I deem it worthwhile to use an action to take that Food. That happened in two consecutive games.

I think once you realise there’s exactly 28 Wood available (2 Wood per round for 14 rounds), which is exactly enough to build 1 Wooden Hut room, 4 Stables and 15 Fences, that guides you down a certain path. Yes, there are Occupations and Improvements that might take you down a different route, but I just found myself in a routine of Plough*, Grain, Plough, Grain, Sow, Occupation (assuming I had spare Food from the previous game in the series), Fishing, whatever… and then the first Harvest. Of course, with an Occupation like Seasonal Worker (take a bonus Grain when using Day Labourer*, or a Vegetable from round 6), getting that Grain becomes a little easier.

So you’ve realised you’ve got enough Wood for one room. Then you Renovate to Clay at three rooms and build up to four rooms. Four rooms leaves enough space for five Fields and four Pastures (2 single-space, 2 double-space), each with a Stable, giving maximum points for Fields, Pastures and fenced Stables.

And then you realise that as long as you can get a Stone Oven by the third Harvest, you’re sorted for Food, so you can just go for a heavy baking strategy. And then you realise that means you don’t need any animals on your farm until the very last round, so you can always max out on points for each animal… oh, unless Cattle don’t come out until round 11, in which case you need to take 2 or 3 Cattle in round 12 or 13 so you can breed them once and then also take them in round 14 for a total of 6 Cattle and thus 4 points.

And then you find yourself with a whole different challenge: “How many of these Improvements and Occupations will get me points at the end of the game?” But by the time you get past the third or fourth game in the series, you’ve only got a small number of new Occupations to play each time and the Improvements are generally fairly weak for points and won’t change things much.

Yes, there are exceptions. With a combination like Master Builder and Mansion, it might make more sense to go for a much bigger Stone house and maybe sacrifice a Field or two… but those are just variations on the general theme. I’m pretty much always going to end up with a farm that looks like this:

83 points. EIGHTY-THREE.

83 points. EIGHTY-THREE.

A lot of these thoughts come via the iOS Agricola app, which enables you to rattle through a solo game and series much quicker than the print version (although as I’ve said previously, I much, much prefer the print version). I’ve played quite a few solo series with quite a few different combinations of Occupations and Minor Improvements, and they’ve all ended up pretty samey.

So what? Well, I suppose the Agricola solo series has lost its charm a bit. Maybe some different decks might spice things up a bit (I only have the base E, I and K decks), or maybe I should add in my underplayed copy of Farmers of the Moor, but as it stands it’s just trundle–trundle–trundle–do–some–maths–HUGE–SCORE.

Any spicing ideas gratefully received.

Maybe I should just play it with other people a bit more, eh?

* I know, I know. It should be Plow, Day Laborer, etc. if I’m to quote the names correctly. I’m British and it just doesn’t come naturally.

My 2013 in Games

Well, just like I did in May, I’m getting an odd compulsion to look back over my gaming in 2013, now that it’s all over.

Games with others

Most Played

The games I played with other people more than any other in 2013?

Coloretto and Pandemic (8 plays each)

No, neither are a surprise. Coloretto‘s quick, light and very popular at Newcastle Gamers. I’ve even got my own copy now, although I haven’t had the chance to inflict it on anyone yet. Great game, and I’m sure it’ll continue to get played a lot.

As for Pandemic, it’s one that I’ve used to introduce a few non-gamers to the world beyond Monopoly. It’s my infection vector (subject-related reference intended). Co-op, fairly quick, relatively simple… again, it’ll continue to be played for a long time to come.

Runner-up

Special mention has to go to Hanabi and Hive with 6 plays each. Both wonderful games in different ways. I need to find someone to regularly play Hive with. It shouldn’t be too hard to talk someone into it…

Best New Games of 2013

Keyflower. Keyflower, Keyflower, Keyflower. Love that game (and yes, I know it was technically published in 2012, but I didn’t get to play it until 2013). Tragically, according to BoardGameGeek, I haven’t played it since April! April! That needs to be rectified sharpish.

Terra Mystica should get an honourable mention here too. I’ve only played it once (and only two-player), but it was a corker.

Classics Discovered in 2013

Every board gamer has a few classic games in their mind that they’d “like to play”. Every so often, that opportunity presents itself. Here are a few I got to play in 2013. (I use the word “classic” fairly loosely – it’s a mixture of oldies and well-regarded-ies.)

Twilight Struggle: I’ve still only played this once face-to-face, but with a few more play-by-email games under my belt (using the Vassal engine), this has taken its place in my pantheon of favourite games. A stunningly good game.

Brass and Age of Industry: I’ve lumped these two together, what with AoI being a streamlined reworking of Brass. I got to play each of these twice in 2013, and they’re both fantastic games. I imagine Brass would be the harder sell to many people, and it’s a much more brutally unforgiving game, but I do prefer it in many ways (not least the north-west England setting).

El Grande: I wasn’t blown away by El Grande, but it’s such a classic that it was impossible to say no to a game.

High Frontier: Almost exactly a year ago, I played High Frontier. I would very much like to play it again. Olly now has the Colonization expansion. This is a delightful confluence of factors, which I’m sure will result in space-based awesomeness at some future point.

Solo Cardboard

I spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting at my desk staring at cardboard and wood in front of me. I love board gaming alone. It’s quiet, it’s intense and it’s (usually) challenging.

Leading the 2013 field in number of plays is Onirim (25 plays), followed by Friday (15 plays). I much prefer the gameplay of Friday, but Onirim takes about half the time and doesn’t need quite as much thought. It’s quite telling that 18 of those 25 plays were in December, during my current illness. It’s about all I could do in those early weeks.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? is the next most popular solo game in my 2013, with 8 plays. I haven’t played it for a while, so maybe it’s time to have another run at keeping the world safe from terrorists. Thunderbolt Apache Leader, Field Commander Napoleon, Cuba Libre, Cruel Necessity, Space Empires: 4X and D-Day at Omaha Beach have all had multiple airings over the year (and it’s a little ambition to get a proper multiplayer game of Cuba Libre in this year). I seem to have settled into a fairly wargamer-ish solo regime, I think largely due to the sense of narrative gained through playing these games (as well as the substantial educational value in historical gaming). Nevertheless, euro-favourites Agricola and Snowdonia have also hit the table a fair few times in a solo capacity. In fact, Agricola‘s set up behind me right now.

Digital Board Gaming

It’s been a pretty full year for digital versions of board games across various platforms. I’ve been playing a few games by email using Vassal (most notable being Twilight Struggle and Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland: 8-12 December 1939), playing a few on Boîte à Jeux (mainly The Castles of Burgundy and Trajan, with a smattering of Agricola and an exploratory Dungeon Petz thrown in for good measure) and playing a lot on the iPad.

Carcassonne is still my gold standard for iPad gaming, and it’s still getting a lot of play even now. Eclipse put in a very good showing on its iOS release this summer, but Eclipse tends to shine with four or more players so asynchronous multiplayer games can get a little unwieldy in terms of downtime between turns.

Agricola on iOS… gaaaahhh. I love Agricola. I absolutely don’t love the iOS version. There’s too much visual faff, too much scrolling required, too much pictorial representation of what the print version does so well with words. I don’t find it user-friendly at all. I’m finding it manageable (just) in two-player games, where the number of action spaces is at a minimum (and thus the scrolling is at a minimum) and I can keep a vague idea in mind of what my opponent is doing without having to constantly look across several different screens of information. I know the iOS version of Le Havre is ugly, but at least you can see everything you need to see on a single screen. It’s brilliant. Agricola isn’t.

I’ve recently been putting in a fair few plays of Shenandoah Studios’ Battle of the Bulge and Drive on Moscow. They’re lovely little (well, Bulge is little… DoM is substantially bigger) wargames with an area-impulse system rather than a hex-and-counter approach. There’s a lot of challenge just against the AI, and I keep coming back again and again to Bulge‘s “Race for the Meuse” three-day scenario. It’s so tight for time for the Axis forces to hit the Meuse river by the end of the third day – love it.

Looking Forward

What will 2014 bring in terms of gaming? Well, for now it depends on my recovery from this post-viral fatigue syndrome… and once I’m past that it’ll depend on my work and studies, assuming I’m well enough to fully return to them.

I have a copy of Splotter Spellen classic Roads & Boats arriving in the next few days, plus the &cetera expansion. It’s always sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d love (resources, networks, building, hexes, wet-erase pens… geese, for heaven’s sake) so I’ve jumped on a copy from the latest printing before it sells out and becomes unavailable for the next five years. Even if I hate it, I can wait a couple of years and sell it on for at least double what it’s cost me. And it’s cost me quite a bit.

January should also finally see the arrival of my Kickstarter copy of Hegemonic, pretty much one year on from when I first backed it. I’m still really looking forward to it – it seems like just my sort of twist on the whole space 4X thing. It’s a lot more like a cross between Dominant Species and Tigris & Euphrates than anything like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium. I know one thing for sure in 2014 though: I can’t be bothered with backing stuff on Kickstarter again, unless it’s proven to be beyond awesome and genuinely requires the backing to get published. If a game’s on Kickstarter, chances are it’ll hit the usual retail channels earlier and cheaper than the Kickstarter copies, and stretch goals generally aren’t going to make enough difference. (Still, Hegemonic genuinely wouldn’t have had the double-layered anti-slipping player boards if it hadn’t been on Kickstarter, so at least that’s something.)

Anyway, here’s to more gaming in 2014!

Agricola schnaps

Grey Matter

So I’m ill. Not life-threateningly ill, but not shake-it-off-in-a-couple-of-days ill either. Medium-term-debilitatingly ill. I’ve got post-viral fatigue syndrome, and not for the first time.

The practical upshot of this is that I feel like I’ve spent a day walking in the Alps and then consumed half a bottle of fine Swiss wine. (I can draw this parallel because I’ve done exactly that in the past, but this isn’t anywhere near as enjoyable.) Physically wiped and mentally sub-par, I’m struggling to hold concentration, meaning I can’t read anything with any degree of complexity and it’s a real battle to write things (I’ll note at the end of this post how long it took me to write it*). I’ve been off work/training/study for a month now, with no idea of when I’ll be capable of returning.

Naturally, I’ve been trying to use games to (a) alleviate boredom and (b) keep my brain working. It’s not always easy, what with the reading problems and everything, so I’ve been sticking to games I already know or at least games I can refresh my knowledge of pretty quickly. Rulebooks presented in short, snappy numbered paragraphs are ideal, so GMT and other wargame publishers are my saviours at the moment.

So far I’ve logged 16 (!) plays of Onirim, with various expansions, 3 solo runs of Cuba Libre (variously as the Government or Castro’s 26July insurgents – check out one of my crushing defeats in the picture at the top), 2 of Cruel Necessity and 1 of Friday. The Christmas holidays have also brought with them more opportunities for playing with my kids, so Carcassonne, Catan: Junior, Forbidden Island, Indigo, Rat-a-Tat Cat and more have had outings.

It’s disappointing that I’ll be unlikely to make it to any Newcastle Gamers sessions until I’m recovered (can’t drive, generally need a nap at the drop of a hat, struggle to learn new games, certainly can’t teach games, etc.), so I’ll be continuing with the solo regime and trying to engineer some more opportunities for playing at home.

I’m considering writing a full card-by-card run-through of Cuba Libre or D-Day at Omaha Beach… just as something to do.

* About 80 minutes. Eighty minutes!

On Being a Loser

When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.

– Reiner Knizia

I don’t have the original source for the above quote, but it gets thrown around so much that I just have to believe he did say or write it at some point. And I have to agree with it.

I’ve never understood the traditional quadrennial sacking of international football managers when their teams fail to win the World Cup. I mean, seriously – there are 32 teams at the beginning of the finals. They can’t all expect to win. That’s just misjudged expectation. And so it is when I sit down to play a game, be it face-to-face or (increasingly these days) online. We can’t all win. But we can have a really good time trying.

I’ve just finished my first ever game (against someone who isn’t me, anyway) of Vlaada Chvátil’s Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization. I was playing against Olly in a 2-player game on Boardgaming Online. It certainly wasn’t Olly’s first game, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to win… but I wasn’t quite expecting the utter demolition I experienced. Final culture score? 245–108.

Through the Ages is an utterly brutal game, where a mistake in round 3 or 4 can still be haunting you (and ruining your civilisation) in round 20. Being as inexperienced as I am, I made a few mistakes through Age I (the first third of the game), which led to me falling behind in pretty much everything later on. The major problem was falling behind in military strength, and during Age III, Olly suddenly bumped up to pretty much double my military strength and engaged me in a War Over Culture. (He said he was actually being kind by not waiting for Air Force technology to come out, which would have allowed him to attack me with “Napoleon in a plane”. Kind, maybe, but it still nearly wiped me out, score-wise.) I hadn’t really been competitive up to that point, but at least our culture scores had been on the same order of magnitude. Not after that war. I think it was something horrific like 106–13.

Not in a plane, but still a very effective military leader

Not in a plane, but still a very effective military leader

But the whole thing was fun. Really enjoyable. Yes, it felt like I’d been punching myself repeatedly in the face for most of the game, before Olly came and kicked me in the back of the head later on… but it was fun. And that’s the key thing.

Take Galaxy Trucker (another brutal Chvátil game, come to think of it…). Yes, players with more experience are more likely to win, but the real fun of the game isn’t in the winning – it’s in watching your ships being blasted to bits, reduced to a single, drifting crew cabin, hoping and praying it doesn’t reach open space and need those engines it doesn’t even have. It’s a game that encourages you to actively enjoy failing. Well… it depends on your demeanour, I suppose. But the Shut Up & Sit Down guys love the brutality.

Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I love playing games. I play to win, and winning’s a little icing on the Grand Cake of Game, but I enjoy it either way, win or lose.

Olly and I are just kicking off another Through the Ages now, so it’s a good thing I don’t mind losing…

Pandemic – Bad stuff's going down in Essen

My Gaming Year So Far

As we hit the beginning of May, I feel oddly compelled to mark this point with a round-up of what I’ve been doing game-wise through the first third of 2013. So, without further preamble, I present my plays from 1/1/13 to 30/4/13, as logged on BoardGameGeek. First, the games I played with other actual living, breathing humans:

  • Pandemic: 8 (twice with the purple virus from On the Brink)
  • Hive: 4
  • Loopin’ Louie: 4 (this is grossly inaccurate – the actual number is more like 40 or 400)
  • Hanabi: 3
  • Keyflower: 3
  • Age of Industry: 2
  • Dominion: 2 (oddly, both times with the Cornucopia expansion)
  • Le Havre: The Inland Port: 2
  • Hey, That’s My Fish!: 2
  • Myrmes: 2
  • Power Grid: 2 (1 with Brazil, 1 on the Russia board)
  • Snowdonia: 2 (both playtests of expansion scenarios)
  • Survive: Escape from Atlantis!: 2 (1 with Giant Squid, Dolphin and Dive Dice expansions)
  • Agricola: 1
  • The Castles of Burgundy: 1
  • Catan: Junior: 1
  • Eclipse: 1
  • Elder Sign: 1
  • Eminent Domain: 1
  • Fearsome Floors: 1
  • Galaxy Trucker: 1
  • High Frontier: 1
  • K2: 1
  • King of Tokyo: 1
  • Light Speed: 1
  • Make You Gunfighters: 1
  • Panic Lab: 1
  • Pastiche: 1
  • Pergamon: 1
  • Power Grid: Factory Manager: 1
  • Québec: 1
  • RoboRally: 1
  • Spectaculum: 1
  • Ticket to Ride: 1
  • Tsuro: 1
  • UNO: 1 (I know, I know… the kids wanted to)
  • Würfel Bohnanza: 1

And then the solo games:

  • Friday: 12
  • Onirim: 8
  • Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?: 5
  • Thunderbolt Apache Leader: 5
  • Rallytaire: 4
  • Suburbia: 4
  • Mage Knight Board Game: 3
  • Agricola: 2
  • K2: 2
  • Utopia Engine: 2
  • Bios: Megafauna: 1
  • Space Empires: 4X: 1

Wow. I’ve clearly spent a lot of time on my own.

So what does all this tell me? I’ve been spreading myself around a bit. I’d like to concentrate a little on a few games, to get to know them deeper. I need to get in more plays of Snowdonia, Age of Industry, Galaxy Trucker, Hive and (especially) Agricola. They’re all great games that I’d like to be better at. I also need to give Le Havre: The Inland Port more plays; I’m almost scared of suggesting it to people, given how achingly dry it is, but I have enjoyed it on the two occasions it’s been out.

One thing I haven’t been logging is all the Castles of Burgundy activity I’ve been putting in on Boîte à Jeux. I’ve had twelve two-player games against Newcastle Gamers regular Olly (Olly 7 / me 5), with a thirteenth on the boil right now. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be burning to get more face-to-face CoB action, but my estate-building itch is satisfied with the digital version for now. It’s had the side-effect of me starting to look at other Stefan Feld games, and with Trajan hitting an all-time low price on Amazon UK today, it might be time to dip my toes further into the Feldian waters. Mind you, Bora Bora looks like good fun…

Counter Culture

Having been nestled firmly in the bosom of eurogames, I hadn’t realised how coddled and cosseted my experience of die-cut counters had been. So many times I’ve opened the box, lifted out a counter sheet and found half of the counters literally falling out of their surround, with beautifully smooth edges and delightfully rounded corners. Elegant, simple and effortless.

Having recently started to spread my gaming wings a bit, I’ve been delving into the murky depths of the wargaming genre. Not the full-on hexes-with-stacks-of-chits experience (well… I downloaded and printed a copy of Battle for Moscow, but that’s a pretty simplified, no-stacking version of wargaming), but more the fringe oddities of the genre: Labyrinth: War on Terror, 2001 – ? and Thunderbolt Apache Leader. It turns out that war-type-games, with their heavy roster of counters, chits and markers, aren’t quite so simple when it comes to punching out the pieces. In an effort to fit all the counters on, rather than having each counter perfectly, pristinely die-cut, they tend to be partially cut in crammed rows and left for the user to push out and pull apart, which leads to a plethora of beautifully printed square counters with horrible tufty corners.

So I suddenly understood what those odd-sounding BoardGameGeek threads on “counter clipping” were all about. To clip or not to clip? To remove these shabby tufts or leave the counters hirsute? I’d never thought about it before, yet I found myself with chits in one hand and nail clippers in the other. And it’s really rather satisfying. Continue reading