Having missed the previous Newcastle Gamers meet (it was an all-day session too – curses!), I was keen to get back in for this session. Keenness wasn’t enough to get me out of my family responsibilities, however, so I turned up around 6 pm, some 90 minutes after kick-off. Well… it turned out to be about 70 minutes after kick-off, due to a little hiccup involving a locked car park and a non-functioning padlock (or possibly just the wrong key) meaning that things at the club were about 20 minutes late getting started.
As always, there’d been a bit of discussion on Google+ regarding who was bringing which games. I’d mentioned Bios: Megafauna and Power Grid: Factory Manager, both of which got positive noises flung in their general direction (I also mentioned Outpost, which has been languishing unplayed on my shelf for about three months now, but no one ever seems interested in that one – it surely has to get played at some point, right? …right?), so I’d slung them in my bag along with an assortment of other gaming oddities. Of course, the problem with turning up late is that when you arrive, you can see that the people who might have been interested in tackling one of those games are already deep into other things, usually separately, and the chances of things synchronising are slim indeed. And so it was on Saturday.
Never mind. As luck would have it, in a room full of Caylus, Keyflower and Battlestar Galactica in full swing, Freddie and Graham were tucked away at the side of the room setting up Pergamon on a tiny table. I’d never heard of it before, but it turned out to be a lovely little archaeology-themed game, with push-your-luck worker placement and very pretty tile-matching mechanics. Somewhat criminally, I failed to get a picture of Pergamon – it was just far too engaging.
Each round consists of placing workers along a track denoting how much money you might receive and how far down through the five archaeological levels you can dig. The problem is that the money available in each round is limited (varying from 2 to 12 coins) and you only have a rough guide as to how much it might be (the backs of the money cards show the range of amounts within which each card falls). So if Red places his worker on a space that gains 6 money, then Yellow places his worker on a space to the right of that one that gains 4 money, and Blue to the right of that one again on a 1-money space… then the cards reveal that there’s only 7 money to distribute that round, then resolving from the right, Blue gets the full 1 for his space, Yellow gets the full 4, but Red only gets the remaining 2, potentially leaving him underfunded for the digging. Nasty!
Ah, the digging. Each one of the five digging levels contains artefact tiles (five new ones coming out every round), with the oldest artefacts placed towards the bottom levels. It costs more to dig deeper, but you can end up with some much older – and thus better scoring – artefacts. The trouble is that each tile only contains halves of two artefacts, so the aim is to create museum exhibits by matching up a string of halves by artefact type (masks, urns, rings, etc.), and the older the artefacts, the higher the score and the longer the exhibit will stay in the Pergamon Museum.
At first by accident (still fumbling around the rules and mechanics), and later by design, I managed to get a special bonus in every one of the four scoring rounds in the game. I even managed to get the maximum possible score for one of my exhibits as I placed it into the museum! This meant I eventually took a comfortable victory after the final scoring round (something like 38 points to Graham’s 31ish and Freddie’s 20-something).
It really was a lovely little start to the evening – an unexpected gem. It didn’t outstay its welcome, lasting only about an hour, even with the rules explanation. And so pretty – even the victory-point tiles were in the shape of torn museum ticket stubs! I’d definitely play it again as a perfect semi-filler.
One of the two simultaneous games of Keyflower had finished by that point, so there was a general reshuffling of gamers. We ended up with six people going spare, which is never the most comfortable number. After contemplating splitting into two threes, we instead sat down for a quick six-player blast through King of Tokyo to see if anyone else would be finished by the time we were done.
I hadn’t played King of Tokyo before, but I knew the general premise – giant monsters doing battle in and around Tokyo. That’s the thematic premise, anyway. The actual gameplay is basically Yahtzee with monsters. You roll six (enormous) dice, re-rolling as many as you like up to two times, and then carry out actions depending on what you’re left with. It could be gaining victory points, or gaining energy cubes (used to buy power-up cards), or it could be claws. Claws deal damage to whichever one monster is “in Tokyo” at that moment, but when a monster in Tokyo takes damage, it can choose to move out of Tokyo, forcing the attacking monster to move in… thus becoming the new punchbag for everyone else. The upside to being in Tokyo is that any claws you roll deal damage to everyone else, so it’s not all bad.
It has virtually no depth and a lot of luck, but King of Tokyo is really good fun. I can imagine my kids loving this game when they’re old enough. The six-player game ran a little long for me (with a couple of monsters getting killed off pretty early on), but I did at least manage to stay in the game long enough to be one of the last two monsters standing. My beautiful Gigazaur (non-branded Godzilla clone) was destroyed without mercy, leaving Jérôme’s weird spiky alien thing victorious. At least, I think Jérôme won. I was having enough fun to not notice.
Another reshuffle left me with Graham, John S and John F, with John F keen to get in his traditional play of Power Grid. I’m not one to turn this game down, so we picked Brazil out of his box of boards and got going. Graham was a Power Grid virgin, so I took it upon myself to explain the rules. I’m not sure why – the other two are much more experienced PG players than I am! But I think I did a reasonable job, and he seemed to get into the rhythm of the game after a round or two.
There’s nothing odd about the Brazil expansion (apart from a heavy reliance on garbage-burning plants, here re-themed as “biogas”), so it was perfect for a beginner. It seemed fairly tight all the way through, with no one developing much of a lead or lagging much behind. I spent quite a lot of the game in the last couple of positions in player order, meaning I could snaffle up plenty of cheap oil (which is plentiful in Steps 1 and 2, trailing off in Step 3) and build pretty much where I wanted. I’d started off on my own in the relatively expensive Amazon area on the western side of the board, while everyone else butted heads around the cheap coastal areas, so expanding my network was relatively straightforward (if costly) in the early game.
The Flux Capacitor promo card (burning three of any fuel to power 6 cities) had come out relatively early in the game, and it seemed like it was going to make its way up into the current market on several occasions, but it got held back in the future market for ages. Finally, the stars aligned and it came up at just the moment I could grab it for face value, leaving me free to buy whatever was cheapest in order to power it. A really handy power plant!
Towards the end of the game, we were all pretty much level, going into the final round with two players on 14 cities and the other two on 15. After the final auction (in which I was sorely tempted by the fusion plant, but let John F take it in the hope that it’d leave him unable to build all 18 cities he had capacity to power), the last round of building left everybody on 17 cities built (so it had paid off to let John F take the fusion plant!), with everybody able to power all 17. A pretty unusual endgame result! The tie-breaker is money left in hand, so we counted up. The two Johns and I all had single-digit amounts remaining, while Graham was counting, “10, 20, 30…”. He’d won his first ever game of Power Grid!
It was a good game, as always, but I did find Brazil a little… unexciting. Having experienced the United Kingdom and Russia maps in my first couple of games of Power Grid, I’ve got used to the little oddities and unique factors in some of the expansions. Maybe Japan next time…
Graham had to leave at that point, and Andrew was taking refuge from a game of Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery that was kicking off in another corner of the room, so he joined me and Johns S and F for a spot of Dominion. This game doesn’t get played much at Newcastle Gamers (I think a lot of regulars burned out on it a year or two back), so it was a nice change of pace. I nipped out to grab a drink before the Sainbury’s next door closed for the night, and returned to find they’d decided on adding some cards from the Cornucopia expansion (selected by randomiser). I’d only played Cornucopia once before – just a few weeks earlier in a little Corbridge session, when I utterly demolished John S by repeatedly battering him with the Young Witch, filling his deck with Curse cards and with no way to trash them – so it was interesting to see a different subset of that expansion on the table. No Young Witch this time! We still had quite a few different Attack cards though, so we knew it would be a highly interactive game.
After a brief rules rundown for Andrew, we set off. I concentrated on the Jester from the outset, getting a few of them into my deck. It may not have been a smart move, but it had its moments, giving out a few Curses and allowing me to pick up a few interesting action cards and Golds. John S, however, built up a nice little engine, using Horse Traders as a Reaction card to expand his hand to six cards on virtually every round. He had enough Golds in his deck to quite often have the 8 money required to pick up a Province, so once things got going, we ploughed through the Provinces at quite a rate. John S took the victory by quite a margin – 32 points, I think, to everyone else around 20ish.
I always enjoy Dominion. This was no exception, although the Attack-heavy card selection made it a bit “Thief… Thief… Jester… Thief… Jester… Thief…”, with everyone cycling through their decks pretty quickly and cards often changing hands. I missed the Young Witch though…
Andrew drifted back over to Spartacus to replace a home-going gamer, so John S suggested Hanabi for the three of us remaining. John F had never played it, so we had a quick rules explanation and then we prepared a cooperative firework display. It became apparent pretty early on that we might have an extra obstacle in this particular play.
Colour-recognition problems (mainly red–green colour blindness) occur in around 8% of men. Our table bucked the statistics a bit, with two out of three of us having colour issues. I have mild trouble with red/orange/brown/pink under many lighting conditions (which had caused me problems playing Village in a previous session at Newcastle Gamers – I was waiting for a cube colour to come out of the bag when it didn’t even exist), while John F can’t easily distinguish blue and green under artificial light. The colour suits in Hanabi are red, yellow, white, green and blue, so I had no problem at all. John F, on the other hand, couldn’t tell the difference between the green and blue suits, so we lost an early 2 card.
Once we’d sussed the problem, John S and I pointed out the shape symbols that accompany each colour on the cards and we were fine from that point. Still, it was a lesson learned for the future – a well designed game has symbols as well as colours for a reason, and we should always point them out to new players in case they haven’t been able to see the colour differences!
I love this game. I hate its tiny, evil, black heart while I’m playing it. It’s so tight in terms of “resources” (clue tokens) that it feels like the harshest of Euros. John S insisted that we play without being able to ask what each other remembered about their cards (remember, of course, that in Hanabi you can’t see your own cards – you can only see everyone else’s). This is absolutely in the spirit of the rules, and I agree that it’s the way the game should ideally be played… I just find it really difficult, because it involves remembering not only what I know about my own cards, but also what everyone else knows about their cards as well. As a result of not being able to remember who knew what, we wasted a couple of clues. I was also in the situation late in the game where I had been told that one of my cards was a 5, and from what I could see in the discards and the others’ hands, I deduced that it was a white 5. Of course, not everyone has access to all the same information, so nobody else knew that I knew it was white, so another clue was wasted telling me that.
Such a wonderfully designed game, and such good fun. We managed to scrape together a score of 18 out of 25, with an evaluation of “Excellent! Charms the crowd.” Not bad, especially considering we finished after midnight!
John S slipped away into the night. We looked around; everyone else was engaged in games, so John F said, “Do you know Hive?” I replied that I’d played it a bit on iOS quite a while ago, but it had almost entirely slipped from my mind. He dug out his copy of Hive Carbon (which, for me, is a hundred times prettier than the original coloured version) and refreshed my memory. It was all tucked away somewhere in my mind, so it didn’t take long to get the basic rules back.
It’s a wonderfully simple game, reminiscent of chess on an ever-shifting hex-based board. It’s also a wonderfully deep game, and John has (obviously) had a lot more experience in exploring its depths, breadths and… well, all dimensions. He could have utterly obliterated me in our first game, but he gently guided me through a few good and bad choices here and there in that game, meaning I almost managed to hold him off. Almost. Once he’d taken my stabilisers off, I felt distinctly wobbly in my reasoning and move choices, but the key points he’d shown me helped to guide my choices. Naturally, he surrounded my Queen Bee and I lost.
We’d played that first game with the Mosquito expansion piece (which sucks the movement power of a piece it’s adjacent to). We then played a second game with the Ladybird(/bug) expansion piece instead (which moves in a very specific but potentially quite powerful way). I’m going to attribute this to fatigue (remember we’d finished Hanabi after midnight, so we must have been knocking on towards 1 am by the time we started the second run at Hive, plus I’ve got a 7-week-old baby – yep, I’ve got all the excuses lined up), but I completely sucked the second time round. I knew I was sucking hard too, but my brain just wasn’t functioning in the right way to do much about it. After a few rounds of extremely sub-optimal/bad/illogical moves, I don’t think there was anything I could do to hold John back.
Some people don’t enjoy games they don’t win. I loved this game. Just playing it made me want to play it more, to improve, to uncover the strategies and tactics. And oh, the tactility! The pieces are beautiful bakelite chunks, with a wonderful heft in the hand. Every move feels imbued with meaning, every clack represents a new attack or an attempt at defence (usually a failed attempt in my case). Wonderful. I’m going to get hold of a copy of Hive, play it with everyone who’ll play it (preferably outside, just because you can), play it online, brush up on some better play and actually offer some challenge to a more experienced player.
I don’t usually get excited about abstract games like this, but… yes. This one has it for me. It had wormed its way into my head. I said to John and Olly (who was watching me flounder like a beached… er… flounder) that I’d have dreams about Hive that night. It happens every time a game really gets under my mental skin on the first play. Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Keyflower, Thunderbolt Apache Leader… all have entered my dreamworld in some way. And I did indeed dream about Hive.
That was the last game of my night, seeing as it was about 1:30 am, so I left the remaining gamers to enjoy The Resistance and trundled back to Corbridge… with only one functioning headlight. Not much fun once you leave the bright lights of the city.
Highlight of the night for me… well, I guess it would be Hive. I wasn’t at my best while playing it, but it was fantastic. Pergamon was also a bit of a highlight, in that it was such an unexpected treat.
All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page.