Tag Archives: agricola

Autumn Games Weekend 2016

I must be getting older. Time is rattling past at an alarming rate and it seems like only a few weeks ago I was holed up in a Northumbrian bunkhouse playing 1862EA and Terra Mystica. A couple of weekends ago, we reconvened in a Yorkshire bunkhouse for more excellent gaming in excellent company.

We began with five-player Kingdom Builder with all the Big Box bits in the mix. I managed a couple of sneaky manoeuvres with the wagon I’d picked up, but – as so often with this game – I felt hampered by annoying card draws and came a resounding fifth. Olly managed to win without really seeing it coming.

kingdom-builder

Next was an old favourite I haven’t played in literally yearsPower Grid. We played on the Korea map, which meant some interesting choices in terms of buying from the North or South markets (you can only buy from one of them in each round, and North Korea – obviously – doesn’t have uranium). I spent much of the early game early in the turn order, which generally means worst position in most parts of the round; first to auction, last to buy fuel, last to build. I was, however, the only player out of the six of us to start my network in North Korea, which meant some unfettered building in the early game.

Regardless of my poor position in turn order, I actually managed to make a reasonable wedge of money, mainly through relying on wind power. We’d had a really odd shuffle of the power plant deck, so there were high-numbered plants available to auction in the early game; I’d snaffled an OK wind plant and thus could use it to get money for nothing, powering my beautiful, isolated North Korean cities while everyone else duked it out down south.

It wasn’t enough though. Glorious though Pyongyang may be, I needed to expand my network into and through Seoul, which became incredibly expensive and pulled me back in the endgame. First or second choice in so many auctions had left me with some less-than-desirable power plants too, so I was never really in contention.

The glorious

Even in the final round and falling behind, my network (black) is still second in turn order… *sigh*

John Sh and Toby tied on 14 cities powered in the final round, with John winning on the tiebreak of remaining cash. Camo brought up the rear on 10 cities, while Olly, Graham R and I all powered 12 cities. Great game, and a real shame I haven’t played it more recently.

While Olly prepared dinner, we regrouped for The King of Frontier, in which I usually do pretty well. I really didn’t this time, although there turned out to be several illegal tile placements once we had a good look round at the end of the game, so perhaps we can pass this one off as a blip in every regard. (Graham R took a very convincing win in his first ever game.)

After eating, Olly, Ben, Toby and I settled down to Cuba Libre, the second game in GMT’s rapidly expanding COIN series. It’s by far the simplest COIN title I own (the others being Fire in the Lake and Liberty or Death), largely by virtue of being set on a small, essentially linear island, but also in the way the factions are quite clearly delineated – no complex alliances here.

As with any game of this sort of complexity and asymmetricity (yes, Wiktionary thinks that’s a word and I’m going with it), it took a good while for everyone to figure out exactly how their faction could work towards its victory condition. Olly and Toby (as M26 and Directorio respectively) had possibly the easier job – Rally/March in, perform Terror, rack up the points – and my Government faction always has a hard time in Cuba Libre, but Ben as the Syndicate had probably the greatest apparent disconnect between his victory condition and the things he could do. You need open Casinos, fine… but to open Casinos you need money, which you then spend to open the Casinos and then you’re way off the Resource requirement for victory… and then you need to spend more to dig yourself out.

After a couple of Propaganda rounds, however, everyone was getting the hang of things and people kept pushing up towards their victory conditions. As is the nature of the COIN system (at least in Cuba Libre where everything’s tight and easy to get to), it was reasonably easy to keep bashing people off their winning spot on the score track. I was never much of a threat, especially once Havana had been set Neutral; it took me the rest of the game to get it back up to Active Support again.

askjf

This looks like the second Propaganda round, so everything was still very much in flux

Toby’s Directorio was a constant threat, with the relatively simple goal of just controlling spaces and getting his bases on the map. While Olly and I were controlling him, Ben started laying down a few extra Casinos; he never quite had enough resources to get the win at the first check of a Propaganda card, but I suspected he’d take it on the final check after the last Propaganda round. And so it turned out, but only by a very narrow margin.

Final victory margins – Ben: 1 / Toby: -1 / Me: -1 / Olly: -2

Great game and very engaging throughout, even if we didn’t get to see the Frank Sinatra card. I wonder if the gents would maybe be interested in Liberty or Death next time…

Cuba Libre had actually run overnight (with a long break for sleeping, naturally), so we’re now into day two, kicking off with Agricola. Drafting from 3E–2I–2K, I ended up with a lovely looking synergy, but it had been such a long time since my last play that I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. It turns out I could.

Delicious CLAY

Delicious CLAY – my farm at the end of the game

Clay Mixer to get 2 extra Clay every time I take Clay; Tinsmith (and later Pottery) to eat delicious, tasty Clay in each Harvest round; Clay Roof so I never had to take Reed; Clay Plasterer to lower the Renovate action cost to 1 Clay and 1 Reed (i.e. 2 Clay with Clay Roof) and build Clay rooms for 3 Clay and 2 Reed (i.e. 5 Clay). Clay Roof was particularly handy given that Pete had played Reed Buyer; that meant that the Reed + Stone + Food space often effectively became Stone + 3 Food (and a Reed for Pete) and it made it very difficult for others to build rooms or renovate their houses.

I was first to build a new room and first to take Family Growth, so I felt reasonably confident I wasn’t going to crash and burn. Olly was struggling to get much done, while James had more food than anyone could ever need but a less than impressive farm, but Pete wasn’t far behind me. Because people weren’t renovating or building Clay rooms, I always had plenty of Clay to grab from the board (and the 2 extra from the Clay Mixer went a long way once James had built the Well, pushing my Clay:Food conversion rate up from 1:1 to 2:3), which meant a bigger house and easy feeding for me.

I was late to build Fences and grab livestock, which left me without Cattle at the end of the game, but I had a reasonable showing in Sheep, Boar and both crops, with only one farm space left unused. Pete, meanwhile, had made a schoolboy error and boxed off a couple of farm spaces he couldn’t do anything with – no Wood left to fence them and they were separated from his other ploughed Fields. It turns out that mistake handed me the game – just. Excellent game, as ever.

Final score – Me: 41 / Pete: 40 / Olly: 34 / James: 26

I’m not entirely sure of the order of things that day, but I think Coloretto came next. I tend to play safe in Coloretto, and for once it paid off. I grabbed a bunch of “+2” cards (six in total, I think) and only had a couple of extra cards beyond my three positive-scoring colours. The others had been handily squabbling amongst themselves while I waltzed off with the win.

Final score – Me: 32 / James: 26 / Pete: 24 / Olly: 24

Another biggie hit the table: Roads & Boats. First-timer James joined the R&B veterans (Olly, John Sh and me) for a lesson in network planning and resource conversion. He certainly didn’t learn much about network planning from me – my road/building network was deeply inefficient and several times I took a round or two extra to get stuff from A to B in order to convert it into something useful. And he didn’t learn much about resource conversion from John, who managed to misread the resource requirements for both building and feeding into a secondary producer.

roads-boats-2

Olly provided the real masterclass, not only setting up an efficient network with the right things in the right places (and multiples of the very useful buildings too) but also utilising it to full effect, rounding off the game by producing… a share certificate [insert angelic choir here]. I would have rushed the game end with Wonder bricks if I’d had more stuff coming out of the land, but I’d failed to get a second Woodcutter or Quarry going and my resources were just too precious, even at that late stage. Still, at least I had some Trucks on which to hoard my freshly mined Gold. I was a round or two from creating my first set of Coins, but the Wonder was completed and… well… Olly scored more points than the rest of us put together. Just.

Final score – Olly: 206 / Me: 102 / John Sh: 60 / James: 43

I do enjoy Roads & Boats, but it’s very draining. Luckily, the next game was enjoyably brainless, both in gameplay and thematically: Hit Z Road. It’s hard to believe that this dice-chucking, luck-pushing, brutal-auctioning zombie-fest is a Martin Wallace game, but there it is. I suppose the brutal auction is the giveaway. It’s not really my cup of tea, but after a couple of beers (which is exactly the state I was in) it was most welcome and quite ridiculous.

We all got eaten by zombies.

After dinner, another game I haven’t touched for ages: Galaxy Trucker. We played with Olly’s Anniversary Edition copy, so there were a few expansion surprises tucked away in the card decks (such as “add two cards from the next level deck to the top of the mission deck”, which we had on every single mission – ouch). My game started in typically disastrous Galaxy Trucker style:

Just floatin' into port, devoid of engines, guns or cargo

Just floatin’ into port, devoid of engines, guns or cargo

The second mission went infinitely better, and I not only survived with most of my ship intact but also managed to sell loads of cargo for fat stacks of cash. I’d built that ship while attempting to answer rules questions on Roll for the Galaxy, which was going on at the other end of the table, so maybe distraction is the key to building a successful ship.

Mission three was a disaster for everyone. Slavers, pirates and worse strewn throughout the deck meant that none of our ships got through to the end of the mission. So, after paying for our losses, that meant I still had more cash than anyone else and was thus – astonishingly – the winner!

Final score – Me: 37 / James: 14 / John Sh: 11 / Graham B: 0

It was late and games were coming to an end, so I suggested Codenames to round things off. We ended up playing four rounds and staying up far later than anyone really intended – it’s just that good a game. John Sh and I were the first spymasters (having played before) and I was roundly heckled for (a) the slowness and (b) the quality of my clues. Once that round was complete (and we’d lost horribly), the tables were turned and people started to realise just how difficult the spymaster’s role is.

I can’t remember which teams won which games. It doesn’t matter. Everyone had a great time, and that’s what games are about.

Sunday morning consisted purely of Guilds of London, which I’d previously only experienced in its slightly odd two-player format. This was four-player, and it was gooooood. Way better than the cat-and-mouse and fixed layout of the two-player version. True, it rang longer than I would have liked (it was only slightly shorter than the four-player Caverna happening next to us – about three hours-ish), but that’s almost entirely down to the multitude of icons and much consultation of the reference sheet.

Rather than the back-and-forth oscillation of first player that I’d seen in the two-player game, the turn order was relatively constant through much of the game. Being in last position was still an obvious benefit, but it wasn’t possible to keep everyone in check with that last-player move. I was concentrating on a little Mayoral Reward card synergy I’d picked up (points for having no Liverymen in my personal supply and also points for having lots of Liverymen in the Guildhall), but as the game wound to a close, Graham B managed to pick up a few extra Mayoral Reward cards which I thought would probably cement the lead he’d already built up. And indeed I was correct.

Colourful and initially baffling – Guilds of London

Colourful and initially baffling – Guilds of London

James managed to sneak past Mark into a surprise third place; he’d spent the whole game quite a way back on the score track.

Final score – Graham B: 63 / Me: 52 / James: 48 / Mark: 46

And that was the end of a fantastic weekend of gaming. Roll on the next one!

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.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 31 January 2015

Having introduced my good friend Sarah to the joys of Twilight Struggle a few weeks ago, she’d expressed an interest in popping along to Newcastle Gamers for a few hours. What better way to introduce her to the club than with a lovely cooperative game, right?

So, yeah. Ghost Stories.

As far as notoriety goes, Ghost Stories is right up there with Vlad the Impaler. Nobody wins Ghost Stories the first time they play. Or the second. Or usually the third, fourth, fifth… It’s not an easy game to win, even on ‘Initiation Level’ as we played it. At least one bad thing happens on every turn, and no good deed goes unpunished, with many ghosts doing horrible things as you exorcise them.

We had a good thing going at the start, with Olly (green, with an extra tao die and never rolling the curse die) taking custody of any ghosts with an ongoing “roll a curse die every turn” characteristic. With those ghosts not triggering, we were more free to go about our business elsewhere, performing minor exorcisms and gearing up Graham (yellow, taking a free tao token on each turn) to deal with some tough customers.

Wow. Don't we look competent here? Full of fight and vigour. There's even a buddha in play on the far side of the board. (Although clearly Graham and Sarah have both just visited the Sorcerer's Hut.)

Wow. Don’t we look competent here? Full of fight and vigour. There’s even a buddha in play on the far side of the board. (Although clearly Graham and Sarah have both just visited the Sorcerer’s Hut, losing valuable Qi in the process.)

I was red, flying around the board to pick up buddhas and deal with some low-level bad guys, while Sarah’s blue taoist had the super-handy power of being able to use a village tile and attempt an exorcism on the same turn… except the most useful village tiles (Sorcerer’s Hut, I’m looking at you) ended up next to ghosts she had no hope of defeating.

There was a tipping point about ten or twelve cards before the Wu Feng incarnation arrived, after a couple of Black Widow ghosts had been and locked up our tao tokens for a few turns, not to mention the constant onslaught of haunter ghosts on Graham’s yellow board. (We got rid of a Hopping Vampire, only to have it immediately replaced with… a Hopping Vampire.) Suddenly, Sarah and I had full boards and only one Qi each, meaning death was inevitable. Two village tiles were flipped already, and Olly and Graham made a semi-valiant flailing attempt to salvage some hope, but all was lost. It was a matter of moments before we were all dead via overrun boards. Wu Feng would return and the land of the living would be forever lost.

Oh well.

All just having a nice lie down in the graveyard. Not a problem at all. The land of the living wasn't that great anyway.

All just having a nice lie down in the graveyard. Not a problem at all. The land of the living wasn’t that great anyway.

I’d messed up – or failed to mention – a couple of rules in my explanation, although Olly picked up on one halfway through the game (you can share the tao tokens of other players on the same tile when attempting an exorcism… although that wouldn’t have changed anything up to that point). The other one was a timing thing with Graham’s ability – it had been a little while since I’d played Ghost Stories in any form, and I thought the free tao token was taken at the beginning of his turn, before a new ghost is revealed. In fact, it should be taken just before his move, after the new ghost arrives. Again, probably not a huge difference made to our game, but I did make it a bit harder on us because I didn’t remember this one until the day after.

We still would have died, I’m sure.

Anyway, losing and rules aside, I really enjoyed my first play of Ghost Stories with other actual humans. I’ve played it to death (pun slightly intended) on the iPad, using various combinations of soloing multiplayer or the proper solo rules, and I’ve soloed the cardboard version several times. Using the solo rules in the rulebook (three neutral boards) and playing as the yellow taoist, I can quite happily beat the game most of the time on most difficulty levels – and I’m even pretty confident on the nastiest, ‘Hell’ level. Playing with others is substantially more difficult… but substantially more fun. It’s a game that feels – quite literally – laughably unfair the first time you play it. The shared despair was really enjoyable.

After dropping Sarah back home (she’d only planned a couple of hours of games) and losing Graham to a night on the town, I returned to that shining jewel in the world of games, Agricola. Four-player this time, with Pete, Ali and Olly. I far prefer four to five, just in terms of being able to keep track of everything that’s going on; in Agricola, there’s the added bonus of the four-player game having three Wood-accumulating spaces, and I’m always happy when there’s plenty of Wood. Oh, and the Reed+Stone+Food space too.

We drafted from 1E, 3I, 3K, which made for an interesting mixture of cards doing the rounds… and a lot of dross. Sometimes it’s nice to have plenty of those stalwart E-deck cards you get in a 3-2-2 draft, but I still managed to pull together a feasible combo, if only a small one. As Round 1 start player, I played Serf as my first occupation (when using ‘Sow and/or Bake Bread’, before sowing, take 1 Grain, or exchange 1 Grain for 1 Vegetable), then Pig Whisperer a few rounds later (free boars in the future… but too late to get a third free boar, sadly), giving me the required two Occupations to play Planter Box and get some ridiculously fertile Fields sown next to my house. With Wildlife Reserve also in play, I had room for those few animals that didn’t end up in my Fireplace, until I managed to get round to fencing off some Pastures. (My fencing was inefficiently done over two separate rounds, but it meant that I could actually hold on to some breeding pairs and build up my livestock.)

Meanwhile, Ali had drafted an incredible Clay-based food engine. Clay Worker gave him extra Clay from the outset, while Tinsmith meant he could eat the Clay at a 1 Clay = 1 Food rate; after Pete built the (inevitable) Well, that rose to 2 Clay = 3 Food. With a Clay Deposit as well, there was never any shortage of Clay for Ali to eat (and it seemed to accumulate a lot on the board too), so he could concentrate on getting some proper farming done.

Pete threw a spanner in the works by playing Taster, allowing him to pay 2 Food to the Starting Player in order to take the first action in a round. After a round or two with Ali getting that Taster payment, I took Starting Player… and kept it for seven or eight rounds. Pete paid me to take the first action on at least five of those rounds (mainly using the Food drip-fed from his Chicken Coop and Well improvements), which kept me pretty much fed through two Harvests, and took the strain off my animal population. It also meant, with Pete to my left, that the player order went Pete–Me–Pete–Ali–Olly. Having fifth choice in several consecutive rounds left Olly trailing wildly – he was first to build a third room, but last to take Family Growth. His Pieceworker Occupation started to pay off towards the end, especially in terms of extra Grain and Vegetables, but it was too little too late. He was also hoping to take advantage of his Master Baker, having assumed that my hefty Grain Fields meant I would be baking… but I didn’t bake even once.

Pete’s play of the Chamberlain in the late game left me thinking that he’d have it all wrapped up, but he’d left it so late to develop a food engine that he had to put that into effect in the dying stages. Meanwhile, I’d grown 8 Grain and several Vegetables, and I had breeding pairs in all three animals. My final-round flourish was to Renovate my three-room Clay hut to Stone, then play the Tavern as my Minor Improvement. It was 2 VPs on its own, and I hoped to use it for 2 bonus VPs with my final worker, but Pete immediately jumped on it for the 3 Food it offered, blocking me.

After the traditional final-Harvest VP-counting think-fest (“If I cook this, I gain 3 Food but lose 1 VP…”), Pete tallied the final scores. I could tell he and I were close, but I suspected he might have edged the win with his VPs from played cards. In fact, I took victory by a single point! (I may have then gloated slightly for a few minutes; to be fair, it’s not often I get to beat Pete. Not ever before, actually. He did point out a few mistakes before I made them though, so… maybe not entirely a flawless, unaided victory.) Ali realised in the final scoring that he’d forgotten to use his Hut Builder ability in Round 11, and he had all the relevant resources to have Renovated even with the extra room, so he should really have had several extra points. Olly’s six empty farmyard spaces counted heavily against him, as did not having a single Pasture fenced.

Final score – Me: 43 / Pete: 42 / Ali: 31 / Olly: 21

I think that’s my best ever score in a face-to-face game! Post-game analysis contained much regret at leaving Starting Player with me for so many rounds. It had crippled Ali and Olly in many ways, but Pete’s Taster ability had left them thinking it wasn’t as valuable as it really was. Second choice is way better than fourth or fifth, and the extra Food I got left me happily grabbing Wood, animals and new family members when I might otherwise have been attempting to mitigate an upcoming Harvest.

Pete left and Dave joined us for four-player Ticket to Ride on the India map. I hadn’t played on this map before, but its only unusual feature was the bonus points for ‘mandala’ routes – if you complete a ticket in more than one way, you get a bonus; the more tickets completed like this, the more bonuses you get.

As it turned out, there were only a handful of tickets completed like that. Once I saw that my initial two tickets were going to be far too congested to manage the mandala bonus, I decided to go for my usual TtR strategy of claiming the longest routes for mega-points and trying to do everything in one long train to take the 10 VPs for longest route. There aren’t many huge routes on the India map, but I took both 6-length ferries and the one 8-length ferry (that’s 51 points for those three alone) and just managed to end the game with all 45 of my trains in one continuous line. Everyone else had taken loads of tickets, while I took only one extra, finishing the game with three. It was enough though, and I narrowly squeaked a win over Ali.

Final score – Me: 117 / Ali: 111 / Olly: 100 / Dave: 98

The India map is very congested with short routes in the middle, and it’s often hard to identify which city is which (standing up helps enormously with this), but it was good fun as Ticket to Ride always is. A relatively gentle way to end the evening.

A superb evening it was too. Highlight of the night… I’d almost always say Agricola, but I think Ghost Stories might just edge it for the novelty of a first play and its sheer fun factor. It’s also beautiful on the table, which never hurts when you’re being absolutely pummelled. No more Newcastle Gamers for me until March, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about before then.

All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 30 August 2014

I started off this session hoping to play Shipyard, which I’d acquired recently after the sudden drop in price (and increase in availability, both apparently due to a new distribution deal) of Czech Games products in the UK. In the end, that never happened, but I can’t complain – I played Agricola!

It was a five-player game, so I didn’t expect to perform particularly well. Clockwise from me around the table were Pete, Graham, John Sh and Olly, all battle-hardened Agricola players, so my expectations were even lower. And we were drafting cards (E/I/K, 3/2/2), which I’ve never managed to get a good result from before. It worked out a bit differently this time, though – the draft gave me a solid strategy to work at (Fieldsman and Planter Box to make mega-abundant fields to bake from, with Manure to enable a pseudo-Field-phase every round, and Sycophant as my first Occupation to get some Food from the Take 1 Grain space in the early game) and, judging from the cards that made their way back to me in the draft, there wasn’t going to be much competition along those lines.

I had a scare early on when the Clay Oven went just as I was going to grab it, so I waited a while for Stone to stack up before building the Stone Oven instead. It took me much longer than I would have liked to get my plan into action, so I was scrabbling around a little aimlessly at first (or seemingly aimlessly from an external perspective – Pete had stacked up 6 Grain ready to sow in my single field about five rounds before I actually did the sowing). I was a little late to expand my hut and fairly late to take Family Growth… but so was nearly everyone else, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. By about round 9, everybody still had a relatively poor-looking farm, although there was a lot of hoarding of resources, ready to be put to use.

Turn order worked in my favour a few times, even without having to take Starting Player (Olly took it in Round 11, allowing me to take Family Growth without room in Round 12 because he needed to do something else even more urgently… and then I got to take it again in Round 13, taking me up to five family members!) and, after the Clay Oven, I managed to avoid the Improvement-poaching that was happening to everyone else. A quick fencing off of all my remaining unused spaces, sowing more Grain and Vegetables, and building a Schnapps Distillery in the final round left me feeling reasonably hopeful of being able to feed my family and get a decent score. I was only seriously lacking in Cattle (none, for -1 point) and I only had three Clay rooms. But everyone else had also made a last-minute recovery and there were five good-looking farms around the table. (Even Olly, with his oddly meandering pathway of Fields and game-long struggle to feed his family, had amassed a solid collection of animals and fenced Stables.)

Final score – Pete: 44 / Me: 40 / Olly & Graham tied: 36 / John: 35

A fairly tight, reasonably high-scoring game, and a lot of interactivity as well. We’d had loads of “pass-to-the-left” Minor Improvements (various house Extensions, Corn Sheaf, Stable, Guest, Helpful Neighbours, etc.), lots of poaching and squabbling over spaces. Excellent stuff. And obviously I was very pleased with my score; I’ve been struggling a bit with Agricola lately, so this was maybe an indication that I’m getting back on track.

Pete left at this point, so the remaining four of us played Kingdom Builder. I’d dabbled with the iOS version when it first came out, but hadn’t been overly impressed with it. Part of that was the clunky digital implementation, and part was the fact that I didn’t really get the game – I hadn’t figured out how to do well at it, and it just seemed lacking in meaningful choices. John had convinced me that this wasn’t the case, and he was quite right… but it turns out that I still haven’t figured out how to do well at it.

That's my red kingdom, boxed into the corner, just spreading a vague tendril across the board.

That’s my red kingdom, boxed into the corner, just spreading a vague tendril across the board.

In a nutshell, Olly destroyed everybody, and I came emphatically last after boxing myself into a corner. We’d ended up with a slightly contradictory set of scoring cards (2 VPs per house on the horizontal row with the most of your houses, but also 1 VP per row with at least one of your houses on it), so I did OK from having houses on lots of rows, but I did very badly on the third goal of connecting up locations, cities, etc. By the end of the game, I at least felt like I knew how to do better next time. I can’t remember the exact scores, but I think Olly was high 70s, I was low 40s, and John and Graham were in the 50s.

It was nearly 10.00 at that point, so probably too late for Shipyard. Instead, Graham and I finally played our long-mooted session of Android: Netrunner. He’d recently picked up the core set but had yet to play it and I’d only played it in one session back in March, so (to paraphrase Flight of the Conchords) conditions were perfect – it was business time. NB: this session report now becomes one of “those” reports where it’s all game-specific terminology that looks absolutely ridiculous… even if you know the game.

We eschewed the rulebook’s suggestion of Shaper vs Jinteki for the first match-up and opted for Shaper (me) vs Weyland (Graham) to give a bit more of a “normal” feeling than all the tricks and traps of the Jinteki style. Graham instantly ICEd up his R&D and a remote server, but I got some handy cards in my initial draw (Battering Ram, Pipeline, Gordian Blade and Crypsis meant I had icebreakers for all occasions) and proceeded to use Battering Ram to make short work of his initial weak Ice Wall protection with a successful Maker’s Eye run into R&D and an easily accessed agenda in his remote server. Score.

Being Weyland, though, Graham got rich quick and was able to throw out ICE after ICE in front of his servers. I was lucky to get a glance at an Archer before he installed it in front of R&D, so I knew it was dangerous as long as he could afford the 4 credits (and forfeitable agenda, which he had) to rez it. I bided my time and built up my economy a bit, first with Armitage Codebusting and then installing Magnum Opus. That maxed out my memory, so I had to then save up (often using 3 of 4 clicks to take money from Magnum Opus) to install the Toolbox, just to be able to install Pipeline and Gordian Blade.

Once they were in place, I ran on his remote servers until he was down to 3 credits from rezzing ICE… then played Maker’s Eye to run on R&D again now he couldn’t afford to rez Archer. As luck would have it, I accessed not one but two 3-point agendas, giving me a ridiculous total (12, if I remember correctly) for the victory.

We swapped places and changed decks, in order to see some more of the core set cards – I was the Haas-Bioroid corp, while Graham chose Anarch for his runner faction. We both completely forgot about the option to mulligan the initial draw; had we remembered, I most certainly would have done. My initial hand had three agendas and only one piece of ICE, which obviously went straight on HQ so my hand agendas were relatively safe (in fact, it wasn’t even an “end the run” ICE, so they weren’t safe at all… but obviously Graham didn’t know that).

I went to all the effort of installing and paying to rez that Melange Mining... and I didn't even use it.

I went to all the effort of installing and paying to rez that Melange Mining… and I didn’t even use it.

After that, I was on a knife-edge throughout most of the game, in terms of agendas in the hand, but I don’t think Graham made any successful runs on HQ; rather, he was too busy trying to build up his cash reserves to the point where he felt confident to make runs. Instead, I managed to bluff my way to 2 points from the Accelerated Beta Test agenda (which I installed unprotected and simply advanced on my next turn after Graham left it untouched, assuming it was something like Pad Campaign), which then let me draw 3 cards and install any ICE from them at zero cost. That was it then – I drew Heimdall 1.0 and another nasty bioroid ICE and shoved them into a remote server. I knew Graham didn’t really have the resources to get past them (even though they could be clicked through rather than broken, with both of them there it would take 5 clicks to break all the subroutines without cost… which just isn’t possible), so I could install and advance agendas behind them in relative safety, and I scored another 3 easy points.

I hadn’t counted on Graham playing Stimhack, so he did manage to break through my dual bioroid ICE protection to steal a 2-point agenda, but he cleared out his funds and took a brain damage in order to do it, so I just spent the next couple of turns advancing another agenda for the win.

I do really like Android: Netrunner, so I hope I can convince Graham (or indeed anyone) to play another few rounds some time. It was a bit slow this time, because I was rusty on some of the rules and timings and Graham was new to the game, but it’s such a “switched on all the time” game that it never dragged for me.

Great session, as always. I won’t be at the next one, but John Sh and I are hoping to fit in a two-player Shipyard at some point soon.

All photos by Olly, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Spring 2014 Games Weekend

I was delighted to be invited by John Si (occasional Newcastle Gamers attendee and regular iOS Agricola antagonist) to his biannual gaming weekend away. Fifteen guys, a huge pile of games and 48 hours in a large building – how could I say no? Well, health reasons, yes. But I’ve been on a largely upward recovery trajectory recently, so I committed myself and trundled down to the North Pennines for what turned out to be a great weekend of gaming. I won’t go into huge detail about each game I played, but I’ll certainly relate a few highlights.

Looking back, I realise that I only played one game that was new to me (Saboteur), which is probably a good thing. It was while playing that game that I realised I’d simply run out of energy to absorb or retain information. I couldn’t remember who’d done what; I couldn’t even remember if I was a saboteur or not. It was a handy reminder that I still really need to pace myself exertion-wise, so that was the point that I dragged myself off for a nap.

Space Empires: 4X

This was being mooted just after I’d arrived on Friday evening and I knew the game well enough (from solo plays) to just jump in and get on with it. It’s entirely and unashamedly a hex-and-counter wargame (with a bit of exploration and empire-building on the side), so it’s not the sort of thing that gets played often at sessions like Newcastle Gamers; it needs the right players at the right time in the right place. We had the players; we had the time; we had the place. Ben and I kept each other in check rules-wise while attempting to convey the key aspects to new players Renny and Graham as we went along.

There’s a surprisingly different feel from the solo scenarios (or maybe it’s not so surprising…) when playing against three opponents. With everyone pursuing their own personal routes up the tech tree, it’s a real guessing game in the early stages, with wonderful moments of revelation when someone trundles into your empire and reveals what you thought was a scout ship… and it turns out to be a battlecruiser. One key aspect you need to get your head around is the sheer scale of the game: with most early-built ships moving just one hex per movement, you can send one out towards an enemy empire, confident in its awesome firepower and defensive capabilities… and by the time it arrives two or three rounds later, the opponent has teched up and completely outgunned you so your previously amazing battlecruiser is dashed against the wall like a spacefaring water balloon.

Nearing the end: my Red empire is pushing the "Bringers of Fear" fleet towards Graham's flailing Blue empire, while Renny's Yellow empire pokes and prods Blue's other border and Ben's Greens just kind of... sit there.

Nearing the end: my Red empire is pushing the “Bringers of Fear” fleet towards Graham’s flailing Blue empire, while Renny’s Yellow empire pokes and prods Blue’s other border and Ben’s Greens just kind of… sit there. This is the sort of game that inspires looks of awe, terror and respect from passersby. It has secret spreadsheets, for heaven’s sake!

I got a solid economic foundation early in the game, affording me the ability to level up in ship size by one level per round, until I was cranking out battleships and dreadnoughts in every economic phase. Graham was very unlucky in exploring deep space, losing ship after ship to “Danger!” counters, while Ben and I were largely surrounded by Black Holes. (They formed a useful funnel through which we were generally reluctant to attack each other, after a few early skirmishes involving Ben brutally bombarding my innocent civilian colony. Won’t somebody think of the children?)

After a few rounds of general stand-off, I tooled up and headed into Blue territory. Even though Graham had teched up by that point and built dreadnoughts with attack and defence tech bonuses (yowch!), there was little he could do against my seven-ship fleet of battleships and dreadnoughts. Victory (achieved by destroying another player’s homeworld) was within my grasp but by this point we’d been playing for six hours and it was well after midnight, so we stopped and resolved to finish things off in the morning.

In the cold light of day, it was decided that there was little anyone could do to stop me winning within a couple of rounds, so everyone forfeited the game in my favour. A slightly underwhelming finish to an excellent (if slightly epic) game, but a win’s a win, right? The table banter made it all the more fun, with highlights including a cruiser with schoolchildren strapped to the front firing AK-47s at enemy colonies, and Warp Points connecting to a entirely different game of SE:4X being played out somewhere in France.

Saturday evening: Keyflower – Agricola – Snowdonia

Yep, the holy trinity. What an evening.

I hadn’t played Keyflower in nearly a year, so it was a very welcome suggestion. Of the six playing, only Camo and I had played it previously, but that didn’t stop newcomer Eddy from blasting to victory with a very high score (somewhere in the eighties, I think), around ten points ahead of me in second place. The score spread was huge, with the lowest in the low twenties. Keyflower now occupies the much-coveted title of “my favourite game that I don’t actually own”. Brilliant stuff.

Agricola was a four-player affair, playing with the 2011 World Championship decks against Pete, Olly and James. I’d never played these decks before, and the discarding phase before the game began was pretty full-on. I had the α deck (the others had β, γ and δ, with ε not in use this time), meaning I had the option of the Village Fool occupation. I didn’t play it, and I really should have; it’s the equivalent of the Chapel card from San Juan, giving 1 VP for each card (minus a few of them) discarded underneath it at the beginning of each round. As it was, I had a reasonable-looking farm in the mid-game, but I didn’t renovate beyond wood and was fairly limited in terms of the card and bonus points I played. After missing out on Family Growth a few times, I fell well behind.

I expected to get beaten by Pete and Olly (both substantially better Agricola players than me), but I feel like I did OK in the end given my massive fatigue (this was after I’d had to crash out in the afternoon) and freshness to the World Championship decks.

Final score – Pete: 47 / Olly: 42 / Me: 32 / James: 21

To round off Saturday (starting at about 11.30pm!), Olly and I ran a playtest game of Tony Boydell’s latest expansion idea for Snowdonia: the London Necropolis Line. (Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for the London Necropolis Railway is a fascinating read.) In this scenario, your Surveyor has died (RIP) and you have to ferry his body to Brookwood Cemetery and build a stone monument there before the game ends. Olly got a handy train/card combo going and ransacked the resource bag every round, which felt slightly gamey/broken and in line with some changes Tony had suggested might be in order. Alongside this, I let Olly get away with hoarding all the stone in the game; I blame tiredness, but really I just wasn’t paying enough attention and kind of expected him to actually use the stone at some point rather than just stockpiling it.

The net result of all this was that I couldn’t build the monument to my late Surveyor, meaning I lost 21 points in the final scoring and lost the game by… 20 points. Yes, had I had the stone, I could have won. Still, we got some decent questions and feedback for the designer out of the session and it was an enjoyable scenario with quite a different feeling from the base game and other expansions.

More Snowdonia?

Yes! Sunday morning found me teaching Snowdonia to James and Graham (not Space Empires Graham – the other Graham). This time it was just the base game, and it turned out to be the longest game of base Snowdonia I’ve ever had (around two hours of play), due to a long, sustained run of rain and fog in the first part of the game. Suddenly, the sun emerged and the game finished itself off within a few rounds! Graham was going for heavy track-laying bonuses (40 points for five track cards laid), but the game finished off the track before he had a chance to get those last couple of cards laid. I’d concentrated on getting my Surveyor to Yr Wyddfa, which teamed up with Surveyor-related contract cards for a bonus of 38 points on top of the 21 for the Surveyor himself.

I won with 127 points, with Graham in second on 107 and James on 102. Graham would have easily taken the win if he’d been able to get those last couple of track cards laid, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles in Snowdonia. It was hugely enjoyable, as always, and both Graham and James said they were very seriously considering picking up copies for themselves too. I don’t think I’ve yet found a euro-gamer who doesn’t like Snowdonia!

Honourable Mentions – other games I played

  • Hive vs Olly: playing with the Pillbug expansion, and an unexpected win for me! Had the Pillbugs been used more than a couple of times, things might have been different…
  • Alien Frontiers with expansions: it’s an enjoyable game, but I’m not sure I’d want to play it all the time. Having the faction with the planetary rover (allowing the benefit from a region to be used without needing control there) certainly made it a little more interesting, but the lack of die-modifying tech cards in this particular play meant some rounds were just frustrating.
  • Coloretto and Ingenious: a great filler and a wonderfully agonising abstract. (Ingenious was made particularly agonising by getting my blue score to 16 quite early on and then not drawing a single blue tile for the rest of the game.)
  • Saboteur: the game that made me realise my limitations this weekend! It did seem far too easy for the non-sabotaging dwarves to win in the nine-player game though. Needed more saboteurs!

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

  • I’d learned Hegemonic pretty thoroughly, hoping to play it this weekend… and then the right moment never really came. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have managed very well with it. It’s a complex game and I wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
  • Just as I dragged myself off to bed on Saturday afternoon, Brass came out. I would have loved a game of Brass. Bad timing!

All in all, a fantastic weekend. My thanks go to John for organising it all, to Olly and Camo for cooking in the evenings, and to all the attendees for being all-round good guys.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 8 February 2014

or Back in Action!

Saturday afternoon saw my return to Newcastle Gamers after a long, illness/work-enforced hiatus. It wasn’t exactly a triumphal return given that I’m still ill (and given that I can’t drive far yet, my thanks go to John Sh for the lift into Newcastle), but it was great to get out of the house and get some gaming in. My plan for the session was to keep the cognitive load relatively light by sticking to games I already knew.

I’d made arrangements earlier in the day to play Agricola with Olly, John Si and Pete “10-Point-Agricola-Handicap” M at about 6.30. That gave me two hours to fill at the start of the session. Olly adopted his role of Fabulous Host to a few newcomers hanging around the door, so we decided to kick off with a few lighter games before the main agricultural meat of the evening. Out came String Railway.

“But Owain,” you cry, “what about your plan to stick to games you already knew?” Yeah, I know. But there’s this:

Venn diagram

It’s a small intersection at the moment, but luckily String Railway ∈ ( AB ). It starts off nice and simple (place a station, lay a string), but by the time you get to the last of your four turns it’s like a noodle-network nightmare. Olly had played it a few times before, John Sh just once and I and the two newbies (Louise and Richard) had never touched it.

Richard took an aggressive expansionist approach early on, moving into the mountain range directly in front of his home station and eventually making it all the way across to Olly’s station opposite. My lines intertwined quite a bit with John’s, seated to my right, while Olly and Louise both spidered out a bit and bothered everyone everywhere.

As discovered later, we fluffed a few rules, leaving players early in the turn order at a disadvantage and leaving me at a slight advantage due to the type of station I kept drawing, but that didn’t stop the game from being fun. Of course, I would say that because I won.

Scratching my head because I'm somehow winning

Scratching my head because I’m somehow winning

It is a fun game though, and I like the idea of potentially limitless variation provided by the “mountain” and “river” strings, along with the different island shapes for different player numbers. I’ll definitely play this one again.

The same crowd followed up with a couple of small card games from John’s collection – No Thanks! and Newcastle Gamers favourite Coloretto. (Seriously, Coloretto‘s like Power Grid or The Resistance – it always seems to make an appearance at these sessions.) No Thanks! is about as simple as games come. I got off to a good start, but ran out of precious chips in the mid-to-late game, meaning I racked up points (which is a bad thing) and Olly ended as the victor, continuing his unbeaten run in No Thanks!

In Coloretto, I played my usual fairly conservative game (aim for exactly three colours or maybe four at most, taking small piles if necessary). It has a reasonable success rate, but it didn’t work out this time. I’ve won previous games with 24 points, but not this time; Olly won again with substantially more points than that.

And then Agricola. Pete had turned up during our Coloretto game, so Olly and I assisted him in the ritual of setting up for a four-player game while we waited for John Si to arrive. We opted for a “deal 10 cards, discard down to 7” scheme for Occupations and Minor Improvements, with four from the E deck and three from each of I and K. The discard process is a game in itself, especially when you have a bit of experience with the other people at the table. I’ve played a few times with Olly in face-to-face games, and quite a few more with Pete and John Si on the iOS version, so I had some ideas about the ways they might play. I know, for example, that a game without Pete building the Well is a rare game indeed, so the Flagon Minor Improvement was a clear choice for me to keep (4 Food for me and 1 Food for everyone else when the Well is built).

The only decent card combo I had screaming out at me was the Writing Desk (when playing an Occupation, pay 2 Food to play a second Occupation) and Bookshelf (before paying for an Occupation, gain 3 Food… yes, even for the second one played with the Writing Desk, so that’s a net gain of 3 Food and 2 Occupations for one action), but given the prerequisites of 2 and 3 Occupations respectively, they wouldn’t be coming out in the early game and would be a late-game Food-boost at best.

It turned out to be a bit of an odd game. Pete had bemoaned the poor quality of his cards and ended up playing no Occupations at all, taking no Family Growth until the very last round (thus playing the game with the minimum 28 actions), with a two-room Stone house and his entire agricultural achievements consisting of one massive 12-space pasture with a few boar in it. He took no Wood until somewhere around round 9. And still he got 31 points, even while playing a very silly game.

I’d been the first to build a third room, so I had the early advantage in terms of Family Growth and extra actions, but I tend to get flabby and lose track of what I should be doing in the mid-to-late game, so I never really capitalised on that momentum. I ended up with six Occupations played (a couple mainly for the Writing Desk / Bookshelf combo Food boost) but not much in the way of a farm. 32 points.

Red: me.

Red: me. Blue: John. White: Olly. Green: Pete. Check out Pete’s pasture.

John Si and Olly were both playing their typically sensible, balanced games and I couldn’t instinctively pick out a winner. They’d both played Occupations involving the Travelling Players space, so there was the occasional bit of intrigue as to who might take that spot. John also had Harvest Helper, allowing him to nick Grain from other people’s fields. (Thankfully, my farm was so poor that I didn’t have any fields sown until the final round.)

Final scores – Olly: 42 / John: 33 / Me: 32 / Pete: 31

Like I said, an odd game. All four of us ended up with Stone houses. I seem to remember I was Starting Player for the last five rounds. For once, I didn’t lose (these guys are all a class above me when it comes to Agricola, even when I’m not enfeebled), but the only person I’d beaten had only had 28 actions for the whole game. I need to get even more practice in.

Pete slipped away into the night, so Camo and John Sh joined Olly, John Si and me for a five-player Puerto Rico. It’s a game I really, really rate, but don’t often get the chance to play. It’s always a bonus to have a table full of people who already know the game, so we were off to a flying start.

Starting fourth in player order, I got a Corn plantation, which is my preferred start. I quickly went down a Tobacco-as-cash-crop route which combined with my Small and Large Markets with Office to create a fairly powerful money machine. I got shut out of the Trading House a couple of times by being fifth in line for a tile with only four spaces, but I similarly got revenge by generating 7 doubloons when there was only space left for me to trade. There was huge competition around the table for Indigo (and hence space on the Indigo boat when Captain was taken), which I kept out of entirely. By the time Camo filled the last of his building spaces and brought on the end of the game, I was feeling pretty confident.

It's a classic, but it's, er... not very photogenic. That's my board down at the bottom-left. Note the relative lack of plantations.

It’s a classic, but it’s, er… not very photogenic. That’s my board down at the bottom-left. Note my relative lack of plantations.

My confidence was well-founded: 45 points and victory. Camo was second with 39, while Olly and John Si were in the 30s and John Sh in the high 20s.

I love Puerto Rico‘s interactivity: you’ve always got to be aware of everyone else’s agendas and how your actions will affect them (and on the flipside, how their actions will affect your plans). If you do something to benefit you, it might benefit someone else twice as much, so you’re sometimes better off waiting for someone else to do that something… and hoping that they actually do, rather than letting it go for another round and picking up another doubloon so the wrong person will be tempted into taking it, thus scuppering your devious scheme. Ah, it’s a great game.

It was getting late, so what better time to bring out a new, heavy-ish euro from the 2013 Essen crop? John Sh was keen to play Yunnan, so I thought I’d give it a crack. After all, I’d just given a table of good gamers a solid thrashing at Puerto Rico, so I must be reasonably capable, right?

No. No, no, no. I’ve never been so confused by a game in my life. And it’s not that it’s a particularly complicated game; I play more complicated games even now (I can quite happily manage Mage Knight or Cuba Libre solo at home). It’s just that at the moment I can’t take in the rules at that sort of pace. At any one point, I think I had about 50% of the rules in my head, but exactly which 50% kept changing from round to round. I never at any point managed to retain the simple fact of which workers come back to my hand and which go to Pu’er.

Anyway… it’s a tea-based euro by German first-time designer Aaron Haag. There are workers, trading posts, tea houses… tea horses for heaven’s sake. The worker placement system involves a bit of an auction feel, with the possibility of displacing other players’ lower-paying workers. At the end of each round, you have to divide up your income between cash and victory points, which is a horrible decision in itself.

Even the board is the colour of tea.

Even the board is the colour of tea.

I accidentally stumbled on a strategy of taking the bank action to gain plenty of cash and then taking all my income as VPs. In the next round I could bid to actually do things and take income as cash, then back to the bank in the round after that. It ended up working pretty well, somehow, and I took second place with 108 points to Camo’s winning 113. If I’d just taken a few steps up the border crossing and imperial influence tracks I could have edged him out (each track scores n2 points for n steps up the track), but then I would have had to have spent cash on those steps.

I honestly can’t form any sort of opinion on Yunnan without playing it again, and I don’t think I managed to learn much about the game from my initial play. There were a lot of moving parts and areas that seemed to influence each other, but I didn’t really figure out how. I’m sure it’ll come out again in future and I’ll be able to gather some thoughts about it. For now, in summary: brown.

And that was that. Creeping up on 1am, John and I zoomed back to Corbridge. It was great to be back at Newcastle Gamers. I probably won’t make the next one (birthday of offspring), but watch this space for more gaming.

All photos by Olly and John Sh, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

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.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 July 2013

I’m a bit pressed for time at the moment, so it’s a turbo-report this time.

First game of the night: Dungeon Petz, with Olly and John S (all three of us having played it last time Olly brought it) as well as John F (new to the game). I paced myself much better through this play, ending up with nearly all my possible imps, making decent sales and scoring OK in exhibitions all the way through. I made sure I had nice, clean cages for the final scoring exhibitions (my downfall last time), but it wasn’t quite enough to beat John F, who’d beaten me into placing imps on the selling platform for the last round, selling a pet for a whopping 24 points.

Final score – John F: 59 / Me: 56 / John S: 52 / Olly: 44

It felt a little… flatter this time round. No one struggled much to satisfy their pets’ needs – there were no magical mutations, very few suffering cubes and no dead pets at all. (The worst thing to happen was having my fish, Bubl, swimming in a bowl cage full of his own filth, but my Employee of the Month imp cleaned it out admirably.) I guess it’s all just the luck of the draw, and I’m sure next time will be riddled with disasters.

John S suggested Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, and I wasn’t going to say no. I’d been wanting to play this game for months, and I’d just never quite coincided with the right table at the right time. This was the table; this was the time. Olly, having played it before and not been entirely convinced, went off for a round of 7 Wonders, and was replaced at the table by Jérôme.

It’s worker placement, but it’s also a game of worker removal, with a hefty amount of forward-planning and engine-building required to make things happen when you want/need them to. It’s frustrating; it’s complicated; it’s a game it would take several plays to get the hang of; and it’s PRETTY.

Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel...

Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…

The cogs are a very clever way of managing worker placement, with the possible actions you can take when you remove your worker becoming more powerful the longer you leave your worker on the cog. It’s pretty complex at first glance, though, and it took me half the game to get a handle on how everything worked. By about three-quarters of the way through (i.e. around the third of four worker-feeding phases), I’d figured out a strategy and just went for it. This involved having built enough farms to feed all five of my workers without needing corn resources, so I could collect corn and channel it into hopping up the temple piety tracks. Meanwhile, I built a monument with a hefty points bonus for moving well up a temple track of my choice, so by the time it came to final scoring, I had plenty of bonus points, giving me an emphatic win. I didn’t note the exact scores, but I was somewhere around the low 60s, with the others some 20 points behind or so.

I enjoyed the game a lot. It initially reminded me of a Stefan-Feld-type design, with many ways to make points in various areas of the board, but John F quite rightly pointed out that Feld usually presents the player with several good options on each turn, whereas Tzolk’in throws plenty of non-optimal choices in your direction. Definitely one I’d like to play again, although I’m always slightly concerned when I win a game by accident the first time I play it, especially against someone (John S) who’s played it quite a few times.

And then on to the meat in any good gaming-session sandwich (um… what?): Agricola. And not just any old Agricola; I’d brought along my bargain-purchased-but-as-yet-unplayed copy of the Farmers of the Moor expansion. It adds a few twists to the usual farming formula, throwing in horses, starting farmyards covered in forest and moor tiles, the need to heat your house lest your family fall ill, Special Action cards to be taken instead of placing a family member, new Major Improvements, two whole new decks of Minor Improvements… actually, there are more than just a few new twists. It feels quite different. Different enough for me to be completely thrown and get distracted by the shiny, shiny new Major Improvements (I ended up with a Peat-Charcoal Kiln and a Museum of the Moors, while still completely lacking any method of producing food for myself).

Final round. My woeful farm is bottom-left, with Olly's game-winning corker top-left. Note all my cards in play down the bottom. Not enough to compensate though.

Final round. My woeful farm is bottom-left, with Olly’s game-winning corker top-left. Note all my cards in play down the bottom. Not enough to compensate though.

My fellow farmers, Olly and John S, took it much more in their stride and actually built… y’know… farms. Like you’re supposed to. At the end of the game, I had no pastures, no sheep, no cattle, no horses… my saving grace was that the Stonecutter occupation and Clay Supports and Clay Roof Minor Improvements had made it easy for me to expand and renovate my house. Here, for posterity, is the final score breakdown (showing points in each category, not number of things – my HTML-table-fu is too rusty to figure out column spanning and things so I can show both):

Olly John Me
Fields 4 1 2
Pastures 4 2 -1
Grain 3 3 1
Vegetables 3 -1 2
Sheep 2 1 -1
Wild boar 3 2 2
Cattle 3 2 -1
Horses 9 4 -1
Fenced stables 4 0 0
Unused spaces 0 0 -1
House/hut rooms 0 8 8
Family members 12 15 12
Points on cards 6 4 9
Bonus points 3 5 2
Total 56 46 33

Yep, a solid loss for me. Farmers of the Moor was an interesting variant, but I certainly wouldn’t want to play with it all the time. The base game of Agricola is so beautifully tight and elegant that it made Farmers of the Moor feel a little like the bloatware that comes pre-installed on a big-brand Windows laptop. It might be useful bloatware, and some of it might be fun, but it slows things down a bit and it’s ultimately unnecessary. Still, I’d be willing to give it another crack of the whip (horse-related reference there, y’see?).

After that, it was time for a bit of Coloretto, with Nick and Jérôme joining us after we’d played a round with three. The additional players gave it quite a different feel, with a different set of tactics coming into play. It’s a really nice little game, this, and it plays so quickly that you don’t mind if absolutely nothing goes your way. Besides which, you’ll be too busy having fun messing with other people’s colour collections.

And that was the end of the night. A solid session with some excellent games played.

All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 11 May 2013

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Jo(h)ns

One of the wonderful things about Newcastle Gamers is the variety of people there, from all sorts of places and backgrounds, and with a huge range in gaming tastes. One of the slightly more confusing things about Newcastle Gamers is the fact that every other person seems to be called John. Even the ones who aren’t called John probably have it as a middle name (and I’m one of those). The upshot of all this Johnnery is that, every so often, you’ll hear something like this:

“Whose turn is it?”

“Oh, it’s John’s.”

“Ummm… John..?”

“Oh, yeah. THAT John.”

The evening started at DEFJOHN 5, with John S and Olly teaching me the microgame of the moment, Love Letter. Featuring only a deck of sixteen cards (sixteen!) and a small bag of score-keeping tokens (in this copy, borrowed from club treasurer Nick, said tokens were little red hearts… awww), it’s as simple a game as I’ve played since Hungry Hippos. Our nominal aim is to get love letters to the Princess and win her heart. In reality, we each hold a hand comprising a single card. One card! On your turn, you draw another card from the deck, then play one of the two cards to the table. The eight ranks of card have varying powers, from number 1, the Guard (name another card rank to a player – if they have that card, they discard it and are out of the round) to number 8, the Princess herself (the highest rank, but discard the Princess and you’re out of the round).

Not exactly the most photogenic game in the world... but I was winning at this point

Not exactly the most photogenic game in the world… but I was winning at this point

It’s super-simple, there’s a fair dose of luck in it and a little bit of bluffing, which makes it a nice little filler. For me, it wasn’t quite the amazing experience that it’s been made out to be on BoardGameGeek and the like, but it was a fun way to kick things off. After taking an early lead, we finished on 3 hearts each for John and Olly, with me on 2. So I lost. The game is intended to play until someone has 5 hearts, but there was a good reason we’d decided to kick off with a filler… and the reason is creeping into the top of that photo.

Yes, Agricola was on the cards. Pete had made plans to play it with another club member, and Olly, John and I had joined in to round things out to the maximum five players. We played Love Letter until our outstanding Agricolan arrived. Naturally, that “other club member” was called John. Now at DEFJOHN 3. In fact, it was another John S – the same John S with whom I’d played Power Grid in a previous session. Clearly, new nomenclature is called for. John who’d been playing Love Letter will be John Sh for the remainder of this post, while the new arrival will be John Si. Phew. So. Agricola. With Pete.

I’ve played Agricola quite a few times, and I know it well. I know the rules, I know the basic strategies, I know the rhythm of the game. Pete, on the other hand, knows all the cards. All the cards. The base game has 169 Occupations and 139 Minor Improvements, and Pete knows them, knows which ones work well together and has strategies to make his cards work for him no matter what he ends up with. Pete is a formidable opponent in any game, but particularly in Agricola. Indeed, there’s a running joke with Pete’s regular gaming group that everyone who isn’t Pete gets 10 extra points to level things up.

This was my first time drafting Occupations and Minor Improvements at the start of the game, so that was a novel twist for me. We had a straightforward mix of E and K decks, so I’d come across a lot of the cards before, but there was still a lot to take in when we picked up our hands to pick the first card. I didn’t time it, but I reckon we must have spent at least twenty minutes just drafting our cards. It was also my first time with five players, so I spent a couple of minutes getting my head around the slightly different actions available with the full player complement.

So we played. The start-player marker spent a lot of time flitting back and forth between John Si (seated directly to my left) and Pete (two seats to my right), so after a couple of rounds as start player early on, I ended up being either third or fifth in player order for much of the game. In hindsight, I really should have grabbed start player more often, but with only two workers for the vast majority of the game, it seemed like a weak option at the time. Lesson learned. As a result of being late in player order, I often took my second- or third-choice actions, bringing out a raft of Minor Improvements and Occupations rather than… y’know… actually farming.

Some of them were great though. The Clay Deliveryman gave me 1 clay per round from Round 6 to the end of the game, while the Fishing Rod allowed me to take 1 extra food (or 2 extra from Round 8 on) when taking the Fishing action – very handy when you’re not growing anything or raising any animals. My surfeit of clay (or, as it was described at the time, “a f—ton of resources”) meant that it made sense to renovate to clay very early in the game, and in combination with the Clay Supports Minor Improvement (pay 2 clay, 1 wood and 1 reed to build a clay room, rather than 5 clay and 2 reed), I ended up with a five-room clay house. And still no crops or animals.

Meanwhile, John Si was ploughing and sowing like there was no tomorrow, and he brought forth the oven to end all ovens – the Bakehouse. Worth a massive 5 points at the end of the game, the Bakehouse can also convert 1 grain to 5 food… twice per bake action. 10 food in one bake. Once John had his baking engine up and running, he was never short of food. Olly had utilised his Hedge Keeper Occupation to build all fifteen fences in one go, so he was going heavy on the animals. Pete was creating a nicely balanced farm, with crops, pastures and animals everywhere. John Sh had played the Wet Nurse, a card so powerful that many people refuse to play with it – when you build a room, you can pay 1 food to create a baby worker therein. It’s a potential starvation trap, but it’s well worth it if you’ve got the food to back it up. John did indeed have the food, in mammalian form. I’d ploughed a couple of fields and built two stables, but nothing was sown and nothing was living in the stables. Not looking great for me.

After breaking for a little food after Round 8, I resolved to get my act together and get some points. Once “Plough 1 Field and/or Sow” came out, it was my best friend, and I managed to get five fields planted with a mixture of grain and vegetables. I knew the vegetables would largely get eaten (1 veg for 3 food in my Cooking Hearth), and I had enough to sustain me to the end of the game, thanks to the Greengrocer Occupation (take 1 vegetable when you use the “take 1 grain” action) and its reciprocal Occupation, the Land Agent (take 1 grain when you use “take 1 vegetable”). After renovating again to stone and making sure I had the maximum five family members by the end of the game, I’d made about the best I could of a bad job. 3 unused spaces, no sheep, no cattle (and only 1 boar), so quite a few -1 points.

You can see my slightly bare-bones approach to farming in the upper right, just behind John Si's despairing head

You can see my slightly bare-bones approach to farming in the upper right, just behind John Si’s despairing head

In the end, John Sh and Olly had quite sparse but balanced-looking farms (although Olly was without fields, if I remember correctly), John Si was awash with grain and vegetables in a landscape of ploughed fields, Pete had a farm that looked nice but without boar (mitigated by his having played the Horse Minor Improvement, giving him 2 points for one animal type he lacked) and my farm… well, there was a nice, big farmhouse full of people (and with an Outhouse for 2 points), a few fields and crops, and a single pig. Again, not looking great for me. Of course, being Agricola, there can be some surprises in the final reckoning. Enough of a surprise for Pete to not have won?

Well, no. But not by much.

Final score – Pete: 37 / John Si: 35 / Me: 32 / John Sh: 25 / Olly: 25

So Pete won by a Horse. I was pleased with how I did, given it was my first time (a) drafting, and (b) with five players. Ah, Agricola. Always a pleasure.

Olly had to leave at that point, so after the traditional break for standing around and wondering what to play, I pulled out Snowdonia and we set up for a five-player game. Who replaced Olly at the table? Yep, we’re going to DEFJOHN 1. Well, OK. Not quite a John. This time it was Jon. So – just to clarify – that’s me, Pete, John, John and Jon. Glad we’ve got that sorted.

I hadn’t played Snowdonia in a while – which is a crying shame, because it’s great – and neither John Si nor Pete had played it at all. These two factors combined (along with my immense fatigue) to create one of my most shambolic rules explanations ever… but the whole thing gave rise to the renaming of the start-player marker as the “SEXY TRAIN”. Glorious.

I played an absolute stinker of a game. It was interesting to note that the three of us who’d played before were the ones who didn’t build a train until quite late in the game (certainly after the “train maintenance” event), and I didn’t build a train at all. Pete had Moel Siabod, which is cheap to buy (1 steel) and comes with 2 coal, but has no benefit beyond the third-worker capability. John Si had Snowdon – again, a cheap buy, but this time with 1 coal and 9 points at the end of the game. Just like in Agricola, I was late in player order for most of the game (with only myself to blame), so I ended up taking a contract card with bonus points for getting my surveyor high up the mountain, and concentrated on doing exactly that, building a few bits of station and laying the odd piece of track along the way.

John Sh built the Padarn engine, granting him an extra build action after all other build actions are finished, which was pretty powerful, and Jon controlled the timing of the game end by building Ralph, thus giving him +1 to the track-laying rate. By the time the final track was laid, I had indeed managed to get my surveyor all the way up Snowdon, but so had Pete… and he’d built a lot of station sections on the way up. Yes, Pete had grasped the game immediately and pulled out a solid win.

Final score – Pete: 94 / Jon: 89 / John Sh: 83 / Me: 80 / John Si: 71

The SEXY TRAIN takes pride of place in the coal stockyard while I do the final scoring

The SEXY TRAIN takes pride of place in the coal stockyard while I do the final scoring

Pete and John Sh had done extremely well off station spaces, while Jon and I did well from our contract cards (my surveyor got 15 bonus points on top of the 21 for being at the summit; I also got 15 bonus points from two track pieces laid and 4 points from 2 coal picked up in the final round). Considering how badly I felt I played, I could have done a lot worse. I really, really should have built a train, but resources and iron–steel conversion did seem quite tight (which is part of the reason the game flowed nicely – there was no resource-hoarding and the white event cubes came out relatively slowly). I was pleased to hear John Si and Pete say how much they’d enjoyed the game; it’s a little gem which deserves a much wider audience than it’s had so far.

After four of us had arranged to play an online game of Eclipse on iPad (we’ll see how many weeks that takes us…), Pete and John Si called it a night. With three of us left gameless and 11pm looming, I suggested Eminent Domain, and John Sh and Jon were happy to give it a whirl.

John describes this game as having taken Race for the Galaxy and Dominion and mashed them together. I haven’t played RftG, but I can imagine that’s about right. It’s a space-empire-building deckbuilder in which your deck gets more and more specialised in doing the things you do most often. This can be really handy when you want to survey new planets and attack or colonise them to benefit from them, but then when you want to do things to generate more points (like producing and trading goods, or doing technology research) your deck and hand are clogged up with survey and warfare cards. So it’s a neat little balancing act.

It’s a simple game to explain, so we got Jon up to speed and set about taking roles, following, dissenting, colonising planets… there’s not a huge amount to say about it, really. John and Jon went for the colonisation route to take control of their planets, while I went military and attacked all of mine into submission. I had an early boost from my second planet giving me +1 to my hand limit, which meant I could end up with eight cards in hand if I dissented on both the others’ turns. This allowed me to quickly expand my empire and indulge in a little production and trading.

I entirely failed to get a picture on the night, so here's a vague reconstruction of my empire on my desk at home

I entirely failed to get a picture on the night, so here’s a vague reconstruction of my empire on my desk at home

The three-player game has the same game-end condition as the two-player game (one role deck is depleted or all the VP chips run out), so it seemed to have come around pretty quickly when John took the last VP chip and declared the end of the game… but wait! Everyone gets an equal number of turns, so Jon had a turn remaining. He colonised the last planet in his tableau, giving him the last few points he needed for victory, snatching the game from John and me. Only just, though!

Final score – Jon: 26 / Me: 25 / John: 24

As close as can be! Eminent Domain isn’t an amazing game, but it’s a solid game and it plays reasonably quickly (about an hour this time round) so it’s definitely got its niche in my collection.

And that was the end of the night for me. The highlight was definitely Agricola. Frankly, the highlight will probably always be Agricola on evenings when it hits the table. Such a great game. The low point of the night was forgetting that the easternmost end of the A69 was going to be closed on my way home, so I took a slightly circuitous route around the western suburbs of Newcastle before finally making it back to the A69 and trundling home.

All photos by Olly, John Sh and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

A Short Break. Maybe.

Family growth

I know this blog is only a few posts old, but I’ll be taking a short break from session reports and the like, because… my wife and I have taken Family Growth! Baby boy number three was added to the household last week, so I’ll be gaming a bit less for a little while.

Or will I? I’ve got quite a few solo-playable games and quite a few lonely evenings on which the poor, beleaguered Mrs Cardboard will take to her bed with our mini-meeple in a vain attempt to recover some of her lost sleep. So I might start writing up a few session reports for my solo escapades, if the games tell a good enough story…