Tag Archives: bruges

The Hunt for the Rest of October

including Hot New Stuff and Ridiculous Rocketry

John and I managed a game of Stefan Feld’s excellent Bruges a couple of weeks ago, including the faintly ridiculous but perfectly functional Pets promo mini-expansion. We’ve fairly comprehensively bounced off the City on the Zwin expansion-proper (with the exception of the extra cards, which are now forever shuffled into John’s deck), but Pets wasn’t too much of a disruption to the base game, just adding some pet cards to the deck as well as the accompanying “Look, I Have the Most Pets” majority markers. The beauty of the pets is that they can share a house with a person, but they also count as people for most game purposes. Need to lose a person due to threats/opponents? Lose a pet instead!

In an early round, I didn’t quite have enough cash to advance on the town hall track (or whatever it’s called) and fell behind for the rest of the game. I was also permanently behind on canals, simply because I hadn’t been able to draw the appropriate colours in the first round, and I never managed to catch up on the randomly distributed pet cards either. Ho hum. Other than those little niggles (one my mistake, two beyond my control), I think I did pretty well out of the cards I had, with one person in particular (Biologist, if memory serves) providing a 3-coin discount when installing new people in houses. Brilliant for getting out those high-value, high-scoring people. In the end, though, my brilliant people couldn’t topple John’s dominance on the majority markers and the town hall track, with John winning 67–54.

Bruges is a really solid game that gets lost in the sea of really solid Stefan Feld games. I’m interested in having a closer look at his new Essen release, The Oracle of Delphi – it seems to take a few mechanisms he’s used previously and throw them together into a… race game?! Yep, a race game: first to complete the objectives wins. Should be interesting if nothing else.

The bulk of the late-October gaming came in the form of an all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. For once, I arrived before lunchtime and stayed until about 1am… and still only managed to play four games. But it’s quality that counts, not quantity – and what quality!

I kicked off with Uwe Rosenberg’s A Feast for Odin with John, Olly and Camo. This absolute beast of a game combines mechanisms from previous Rosenberg titles (a little like Feld’s Oracle of Delphi or Rosenberg’s own Fields of Arle) – worker placement, resource conversion, spatial tile-placement puzzling, feeding the family, negative points everywhere – in a true smörgåsbord of a game. In fact, the Feast phase of each round features rules for creating an actual smörgåsbord – there has to be a variety of foodstuffs on the feasting table to ensure the Vikings get a balanced diet. Seriously.

In a way, that illustrates what I found exceptionally tough about A Feast for Odin as a first-time player. I struggle with spatial elements in games at the best of times, so when a game has lots of different rules about where different resource types can be slotted into your board, I struggle even more. Every time I thought I had a plan figured out, I’d carry it out and then realise there was a reason why it couldn’t work (because green tiles can’t be adjacent to each other, or because you can’t cover an income space without also having covered all the spaces below and to the left of it), leaving me with a bunch of resources and treasures I couldn’t position sensibly.

The worker placement – in other words, the meat of the gameplay – had everyone puzzling for a while over the best moves to make. Rather than the Agricola-style approach of having a small number of possible spaces which increases slowly over the course of the game, Feast goes all-out with 61 spaces available from the start of the game to the end. (63, in fact, in our four-player game – two “imitate” spaces are added to the action board with four players.) The four columns require differing numbers of workers to activate and some spaces have preconditions like boats or certain goods, so they’re not all sensible from the beginning of the game, but even so… a huge number to choose from.

I allowed my starting Occupation card to shape my game, and I wish I hadn’t – the Catapulter directed me towards lots of pillaging and collecting blue/grey treasures. I didn’t realise how horribly inefficient that would be compared with other people’s more balanced approaches; each Pillage action required two or three workers and only yielded one tile to go onto my board, while others could collect multiple tiles per action.

The end of the game – notice how full everyone's board is, except mine (right)

The end of the game – notice how full everyone’s board is, except mine (right)

By the end, I was just feeling a bit frustrated that I hadn’t got it at all. The spatial element had eluded me and I hadn’t figure out how to make the action spaces work to my benefit. At least I’d pillaged the Crown of England. In the end, I did very well on positive points (having emigrated two boats’ worth of Vikings, taken Iceland and built two buildings) with 110 to my name, but then managed to score 65 negative points from uncovered “-1” spots. John’s experience with the game – although only one two-player game prior to this one – helped him along to a win and no one had quite the negative-point disaster that I did.

Final score – John: 76 / Camo: 68 / Olly: 57 / Me: 45

I ended up feeling a bit mixed about A Feast for Odin – it was interesting and engaging to play, with all the usual fun and frustration of worker placement, but I hadn’t grokked the spatial puzzle and the action spaces themselves were clearly going to take another few plays to figure out the useful paths through them. As it happens though, I’ve had another play since this one and it worked out much better – read more in a future post.

Next was Paris Connection, which I won in roughly the time it’s taken you to read this sentence.

And then the next meaty beast – Leaving Earth. Having already played once earlier in the month, John and I talked Olly and Alex through the intricacies of rocketry and component testing. There’s a lot to take in, although once grasped, the rules seem fairly intuitive; it reminds me in that way of a Splotter game, alongside the slightly homespun feel to the production and presentation.

We were playing on the next difficulty level up from our initial outing, which meant adding two scoring objectives from the Hard deck; they turned out to be (a) returning a sample from Ceres to Earth and (b) returning a sample of extraterrestrial life to Earth. The latter was worth a whopping 40 points, which just about eclipsed the sum of the rest of the points available… but there was, of course, no guarantee that there would be extraterrestrial life anywhere in the solar system! That in itself would be the factor that decided the game.

We started off slowly, with my opening turn bringing in a 1-point objective – getting a working probe into space (strap a probe to an Atlas rocket and get it suborbital), and the other low-value objectives got snapped up pretty quickly. Some of them came with a certain amount of morbid comedy – Olly got the prize for first man in space and first man in space at the start of a year, by blasting Jim Lovell into orbit, feeding him once and then… well… just letting him starve to death. Houston, he had a problem, but it was a net gain in VPs. It was either starve him or let him burn up on reentry; Olly decided that leaving a capsule in orbit might be beneficial for future missions, even if it did have a pioneering corpse in it. And, meanwhile, John had quickly strapped Yuri Gagarin into his capsule atop an untested Saturn rocket, which promptly exploded. Alex (who’s Russian) didn’t seem to mind us blowing up one of his national heroes.

Another monster table-hog, but this game is beautifully presented

Another monster table-hog, but this game is beautifully presented

After that, things slowed down a lot as we settled into long rounds (“It’s my turn, but I’ll pass for now so you can get on with things while I redo all my maths.”) and the thing that niggles me slightly about Leaving Earth – it can be so very obvious that someone is definitely going to complete the mission that you were aiming for, and that they’ll complete it before you do, which means you abandon all the plans you had and start all over again. However, there’s still the chance that you can figure out a quicker way of doing it, which is how I ended up winning the game when it looked like there was no chance at all.

Alex had already successfully used ion thrusters to get to Ceres and back when it became obvious (via his and John’s surreptitious scanning) that the Moon was hiding something valuable – presumably life. I’d figured out a way to get a probe to the Moon and back just in case of this exact situation, but it involved seven Saturn rockets and eight Atlas rockets, all strapped together in a ridiculously Heath-Robinson-cum-Kerbal-Space-Program contraption. Luckily, due to a bunch of objectives being completed by other players (which results in a $10m boost each time for every other player) and some wheeling and dealing of technologies (which, for me, elevated the four-player game far above the two-player version), I’d had a few rounds with substantial extra cash to spend on Saturn and Atlas rockets.

Alex had sent an ion-thruster-powered mission off to the Moon, and he looked like he’d have the sample back on Earth before anyone else could do anything about it… but ion thrusters take a long time to get anywhere and he wouldn’t touch back down to Earth until the following round. Thankfully, I only needed one more Saturn rocket to create my preposterous mega-rocket (seriously, this thing was about ten times bigger than anything NASA has ever even envisaged) and I was first in turn order, still having only 1 VP, so I bought it and fired my mission into space. Everything was fully tested, so it landed beautifully on the Moon (still consisting of about 4 Atlas rockets), blasted off with a sample of Moon microbes on board, and touched back down on Earth that same turn for 40 VPs and the win.

My glorious French space agency at the end of the game

My glorious French space agency at the end of the game

Honestly, it was a ridiculous win but that’s space flight, folks. It was a long but very enjoyable game, with plenty of silly table talk and loads of, “Well, I think I’ve done the maths right, so let’s try it.” It was just about to start outstaying its welcome; I think those two Hard-level objectives at least doubled the potential length of the game, so I wouldn’t want to up the level any further without a lot more practice. I can see how you’d get a lot quicker with more experience as the rocket science got more intuitive.

The last game of the day (with Andrew replacing Alex) was Alexander Pfister’s new Great Western Trail. It’s a game of deck/hand-management, worker management, careful bonus selection and movement across a board that essentially creates an expanding, branching action rondel – in other words, there are a lot of moving parts. I think I explained it about as concisely as possible though, and one of the great things about this game is that the turns rattle round at a fair old pace. Move your cattleman, do the action of the building where you land (usually) and draw back up if you discarded any cards. It doesn’t mean that turns are short of decisions though – it’s a careful balancing act between making money, hiring workers, buying cattle, constructing buildings and rushing for Kansas City in order to sell cattle and deliver them for (hopefully) points.

This game looks like a baffling mess at first glance, but it honestly makes a lot of sense once you're playing!

This game looks like a baffling mess at first glance, but it honestly makes a lot of sense once you’re playing!

I was aiming to get some high-VP buildings on the board and build up some valuable cattle in my deck (cattle have a sort of double-goodness, due to being VPs themselves and also allowing you to ship your cattle to higher-valued spots from Kansas City), but I kind of messed up a couple of building placements. I never felt quite like I had enough workers; maybe I should have concentrated on hiring workers instead of building or buying cattle on one of my trips to Kansas. I was well served by getting rid of my two hand-limit-limiting discs as quickly as possible though – six cards tend to score substantially better than four when you reach Kansas City!

Anyway, I’m already over 2000 words on this post, so suffice to say that I really enjoyed Great Western Trail and am keen to play it again soon. It’s exactly the sort of game that grabs me straight away, with lots of simple parts that slot together to make a challenging whole. I didn’t win though:

Final score – John: 103 / Me: 88 / Olly: 83 / Andrew: 66

November could turn out to be interesting – I’m hoping this year’s Splotter reprints will turn up soon, I’ve got a few new Sierra Madre titles on order (having yet to even play last year’s Neanderthal), and there are still a few more new Essen titles I’m keeping an eye out for!

My January in Games

There isn’t usually enough gaming between sessions at Newcastle Gamers to make a song and dance about. Maybe an evening here and there; perhaps a weekend afternoon with the kids.

Well, January 2015 has been chock-full of gaming goodness. It started in fine form on New Year’s Day, introducing my friends Ben and Rachel to Pandemic – playing with my wife, a hardened Pandemic veteran. Perhaps it would have been a little smoother to have played before an entire bottle of red wine went down one person’s throat (identity protected for purposes of dignity), but everyone had a good time and enjoyed the game. Oh, and we won with two cards left in the player deck. Perfect!

After the early-January all-day session in Newcastle, I met up with fellow Corbridge gamer John on three consecutive Wednesday evenings. It’s as close as I’ve ever been to having a regular game night, and it was only the sudden blizzard last Wednesday that prevented a four-week run. We’ve had two games of Viticulture, one of which was with the Mamas & Papas expansion from Tuscany (really enjoyed both those games – an excellent light worker placement game, with potential to become substantially meatier as the Tuscany expansions get added in). There’s been Targi (slightly mind-bending with its spatial aspects), Bruges with bits of The City on the Zwin (always enjoy Bruges, and the bits of Zwin we used were a neat addition) and Rosenberg’s Fields of Arle.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge for a two-player-only game.

Fields of Arle deserves a paragraph of its own, because it’s a really neat ‘greatest hits’ compilation of bits from Rosenberg games over the years. There are obvious bits of Agricola in there, plus a few elements from Caverna (where it differs from Agricola). Le Havre comes to mind when considering all the paths to upgrade and convert resources, along with all the different uses for them, and Glass Road is the clear progenitor of the random selection of buildings available for construction once spaces have been cleared on your board (and that’s also a bit Farmers of the Moor). I won, 97½ to 92½, but John and I had adopted utterly different strategies. I’m sure there are a whole bunch of paths to victory – mine was just building shedloads of buildings, while John actually did some proper farming, harvesting flax, converting it to linen, then sending that off on his selection of carts to be turned into clothing. I really enjoyed the game, and I should play it again soon before I forget not only the rules but also the resource-conversion paths.

Gaming with the kids has been plentiful, with Bandu (Bausack by a slightly more Anglo-friendly name) being a particular hit. Camel Up has also been popular with my 7-year-old; it’s got just the right mixture of randomness, tactical positioning, brightly coloured stacking camels and a pyramidal dice dispenser. Rampage remains my 5-year-old’s favourite. It seems a bit of wanton destruction is quite appealing to a small boy. Who’da thunk it?

Brilliant oddity of the month was my friend Sarah’s out-of-the-blue request to play Twilight Struggle. Stats-wrangling site FiveThirtyEight had run a few blog posts on board games, and she’d seen Twilight Struggle referred to as “the best board game on the planet”. Like a moth to a flame, Sarah was drawn to the glimmering beacon of Twilight Struggle and invited me over to teach her the game. We had an excellent evening, with me playing USSR in an attempt to drive the game to an early-ish conclusion while giving Sarah a feel for the game (and repeatedly stopping her from committing DEFCON suicide). Some very duff hands in the first few turns put paid to that plan, and I didn’t win until Turn 7. That was lucky really, because the game was undergoing its natural later swing in favour of the USA and my unlucky card draws had returned late in the Mid War.

War

Into the Mid War, with the Americas and Africa virtually untouched.

January also saw the end of play-by-email games of Paths of Glory and Twilight StrugglePaths was against Gareth; although I’d held his Central Powers forces quite well for a long time (even after my western front collapsed), eventually the Russians fell to bits as well and there were Germans and Austro-Hungarians everywhere. A crushing defeat. Twilight Struggle was Olly’s second game, which he won as the USA after ten turns and final scoring. Later analysis has revealed that I missed an opportunity to DEFCON suicide him in the middle of the game… but I probably would have just pointed it out to him had I noticed and suggested he play a different card.

I’ve still got a PBEM game of Unconditional Surrender!: World War 2 in Europe on the go, playing the USSR 1941 scenario as the USSR. It’s going terribly for me, so the less said the better. The game system skews heavily in favour of aggressive Axis play (hefty combat DRMs for German units, especially Panzer armies), and that combines with the option for multiple mobile attacks by single units to create a situation where it’s easy to get overrun by the German forces in the first turn. That’s exactly what happened to me, anyway. The USSR can keep creating cheap leg units in each turn, but that just creates more targets for the Germans to attack. It won’t be long until Moscow falls. Ho hum.

Digital

I don’t usually mention non-board-games on here, but a new laptop has enabled me to get up to date with some computer gaming too, so… whatever. It’s my blog. Here we go.

I’ve been starting to explore space-fantasy civ-style game Endless Legend, which takes all sorts of concepts from old stalwart Civilization V and spruces them up with quests, different species, changing weather and gorgeous graphics. I’m not sure if it’ll have staying power for me like Civ V (or any Sid Meier Civ game, for that matter), simply because I prefer the pseudo-historical human aspect of Civ, but it’s a wonderful alternative to have. Which reminds me – I should get back to trying to figure out Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II. They’re right up my street, but the depth is ridiculous.

That's a nice city you've got there. Shame if something were to... happen to it.

That’s a nice city you’ve got there. Shame if something were to… happen to it.

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game, clearly influenced by the Portal games, but playing as a humanoid robot AI working its way through a series of challenges in utterly stunning outdoor environments. This game is seriously beautiful, and the puzzles present just the right amount of challenge without being annoyingly difficult. So far, anyway. There’s also a wonderful lack of ‘action’; I’m not a fan of games involving rapid button mashing and sprinting around, and this is definitely not one of those games. Most of the time is spent staring at the screen and wondering how to keep that gate open while shining a beam of light through it simultaneously. Then trying it, failing and going back to figure it out again.

It’s all set against a backdrop of philosophical enquiry and debate regarding consciousness and post-human humanity (play it and you’ll find out), and it gets a bit sixth-form-philosopher about it IMHO, but it certainly isn’t enough to spoil the atmosphere and pleasure of the puzzles. I just wish it had done away with the tetromino-tessellating block puzzles that unlock further areas of the game. They’re usually so easy as to be pointless, and when they’re harder it’s frustrating because you just want to get on with the actual game.

The Talos Principle. It's even lovelier in motion.

The Talos Principle. It’s even lovelier in motion.

And just towards the tail-end of January came the release of Grim Fandango Remastered – a reissue of one of my favourite games from the 1990s, with updated visuals, audio and UI. As an old-school point-and-click-style adventure, it had the potential to feel very dated, even with the spruced-up bits and bobs, but the characterisation and humour keep it fresh (and the black bars at the sides of the screen – an artefact of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 – only add to the vintage fun vibe). Even better, I’ve forgotten the solutions to most of the puzzles in the fifteen years since I last played it.

It's the Day of the Dead, so it's quiet in the office. Note the black bars at the sides – a legacy of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 screen ratios.

It’s the Day of the Dead, so it’s quiet in the office. Hold on… how does a skeleton get a sweaty back?

So that was January. February’s already looking pretty good too (snow permitting), except for the fact that I won’t be able to make either of the Newcastle Gamers sessions this month.

[sad face]

Newcastle Gamers – October 2013

Catching up here with a double-whammy of turbo reports, given that I failed to write anything in the immediate aftermath of the 12 October session. I’ve been a little busy, working dawn-to-dusk, seven days a week, running to stand still. Such is the new life I’ve chosen – it’s great, but it’s hard.

Saturday 12 October

I was a few hours late to this session, so it was a relatively short one for me, filled with some relatively short games. First up was my second play of Bruges, which I’d enjoyed a lot on the previous occasion. Playing with John S, Amo and Chris, I was repeatedly let down by the card draw, meaning I couldn’t hire any heavily-VP-laden people into my buildings. Still, as a Feld game it provides plenty of alternatives when your first choice doesn’t pan out, so I was able to build some glorious canals, but it wasn’t enough to catch up with new-to-Bruges Chris. He took a decisive victory, and well-deserved it was too. Great game again – I really like this one.

All those lovely canals (bottom right)... still not enough to win me the game.

All those lovely canals (bottom right)… still not enough to win me the game.

I’d brought along Reiner Knizia’s hex-tile colour-matching Ingenious, which would fit perfectly into the time Chris had before needing to catch a bus, so the four of us played that. I never would have claimed to be an expert player of Ingenious, but I have played it quite a bit on iPad and Android, so maybe that little extra experience paid off. Whatever it was, I started as I meant to go on, getting my first “ingenious” (i.e. maxing out one of the six colour scores) in four turns, and finishing up with five ingeniouses altogether and a final score of 14.

That's me in the bottom right again, rocking a score of 14.

That’s me in the bottom right again, rocking a score of 14.

John’s very respectable 11 points wasn’t enough to catch me, and I finished the game by gilding the lily with my fifth ingenious. A glorious win. It’s nice to get this one out every now and then; it was one of the games I played in my first ever session at Newcastle Gamers, so it always feels right.

Chris slipped away into the night, so Amo, John and I played Love Letter to fill in time while other games finished. I am pathologically terrible at Love Letter, but I do enjoy it. Again, we played with John’s limited Japanese-artwork edition, playing with the bespectacled Princess. I do love a princess in glasses. Amo took an early lead, but John powered through to victory, getting the requisite 5 letters to the Princess, leaving Amo on 3 and me on 1.

Last game of the evening was 6 Nimmt! (also known on BoardGameGeek as Category 5), which has recently joined John’s burgeoning selection of small-box filler card games. Amo had drifted away, being replaced at the table by Peter (or Piotr, or something… I really should find out one of these days… it’s pronounced “Peter” anyway). John blasted through the very simple rules of this very simple card game, and we played it twice. From what I remember, it was quick, it was fun, it was light, and I may have won one of the games.

After that, I decided to make a move, but not before saying hello to club founder Gareth, with whom I play Twilight Struggle by email. Well, I actually left about an hour later, having had a fascinating conversation about games, wargames, monster wargames, physical size of monster wargames, science, teaching, being a student again, more games, more wargames… It was a great way to round off the evening.

And then two weeks later…

Saturday 26 October

This is the way it goes sometimes at Newcastle Gamers. I arrived at 4.34pm – some four minutes after the official start of the session – and everybody in the room was already embroiled in a game. No problem though. John F had arrived at exactly the same time, so I pulled out my copy of Hive and we played a couple of games. Neither of us had played for a little while so we weren’t at the top of our games, but Hive is so good that it wasn’t a problem.

I took white for the first game, meaning I was a move ahead from the start. I nearly threw it away, but I held the advantage and ploughed onwards to victory. To even things out, I took black for the second game. It’s a very different feeling, always playing the reaction game, trying to duck and dive, twist and wheel, prod and poke in an effort to swing the momentum round to your favour. Even though I got a beetle up on top of John’s queen bee, I couldn’t take enough advantage of it, and the inevitable defeat came.

The second game, just before that inevitable defeat for me (black).

The second game, just before that inevitable defeat for me (black).

We finished just as a game of Indigo came to an end, at which point Olly proposed Brass. Who am I to say no to Brass? I can’t think of a better card/tile-based industry-‘n’-network-building game representing the industrial revolution in Lancashire over two consecutive ages. It’s a no-brainer. John F joined us and Graham made us up to the maximum four.

John F and Graham were new to Brass, so Olly went through the rules; it was handy for me too, given that I’d last played it back in July and some of the intricacies had slipped from my mind. One thing that hadn’t slipped my mind was the memory of how well you could score by building canal and rail links between cities and towns. I hadn’t done anywhere near enough of that last time, so I entered into the game with that as my major strategy.

It didn’t work out that well in the canal age, but I did manage to get a bit of income rolling in, allowing me to keep building industries right up to the end of the age. Along with a bit of development, this meant that I had some level-two industries on the board at the end of the canal age – most crucially, some coal mines. At the end of that first age, I made sure to spend as little as possible so I could go early in the turn order at the start of the railway age. It worked out beautifully, and the little base I’d built up in Wigan allowed me to build railways out to Liverpool and across to Manchester, all on the first turn with a clean board. As long as those places got filled up and their industries flipped (i.e. utilised), I was going to be raking in points at the end of the game, and I had a good, connection-rich foundation to build my network on throughout the second half.

Early in the railway age, I've built my red railway across from Liverpool to Manchester, via Wigan and Bolton. I love the setting of this game.

Early in the railway age, I’ve built my red railway across from Liverpool to Manchester, via Wigan and Bolton. I love the setting of this game.

As we entered the last few rounds, I took a couple of loans and was finally dealt the card I’d been waiting for: something that would let me build a shipyard in Liverpool for 18 glorious victory points. I’d extended my rail network down through Stockport and Macclesfield, which allowed me to build through the Midlands to ensure even more points at the end. The last couple of turns were just spent building the most points-lucrative connections that were left.

Although my industries didn’t score a huge amount, my rail network netted me 65 points in the final reckoning, tipping my final score just over 130. Olly and Graham were both just over 100, with John a little way back. For once, the strategy I’d set out with had really paid off!

Results aside, it’s a great game. It was clear that experience counts in Brass – as we entered the railway age, for example, Olly and I both had coal mines on the board, meaning that our coal would be used up quite quickly as people expanded their rail networks, thus providing us with income and victory points. But Graham put up a very good fight, leading the field on the income track throughout most of the game, getting up above £20 a turn for a while. A little money can go a long way in Brass, so that made Graham feel quite dangerous. He’ll be one to reckon with next time, now he’s seen the rhythm of the game.

I nearly managed to get people to play Puerto Rico at this point, but there were just the wrong numbers of people in between games, so I sat down with Michael and John S for a quick filler: For Sale. I’d heard the name and knew it was well liked, so I thought I’d give it a go… and it was pretty good fun. Very light, very simple, very quick, but with enough decision-making to make it interesting. I particularly liked the two-phase aspect of the game: first we bid money for houses, then we bid houses for money in an effort to make the most money by the end of the game. I lost quite badly, which didn’t surprise me at all. I had a pretty good start, netting myself two of the highest-valued houses in the first phase, and I sold them for decent prices at the beginning of the second phase, but then it all went downhill and I was rapidly overtaken.

Next was Fresco, which I know John S had enjoyed playing at the last session, and he was keen to play again. Michael stuck with us and we were joined by Graham. Fresco is a game of renaissance artists painting a cathedral ceiling, portrayed via a medium of coloured cubes and worker placement. We threw in all the expansions John had – well, they’re included in the box, so they’re more inspansions – to make it as hefty as possible. It’s a slightly intimidating-looking game, but underneath the seeming myriad of options lie a few simple mechanics, so the rules didn’t take too long to run through.

I started out with a rough strategy of “paint the bits of ceiling that I can do without too much hassle”, which was OK through the early part of the game but lacked any punch later on. Michael went for “saving up paint to mix into the secondary and tertiary colours to score big points after a long build-up”, which looked crazy to start with, but having zero VPs for several rounds left him with first choice of wake-up time, usually meaning first choice of paint at the market and a general all-round air of freedom.

Where's that pope? I need to pelt him with pocket change...

Where’s that Pope? I need to pelt him with pocket change…

A week (and substantial amounts of developmental/educational psychology) later, I can’t recall a huge amount of detail from the game, with the exception of “throwing a penny at the Pope”. While this might sound like a deviant practice from the pages of Viz’s Roger’s Profanisaurus, it’s actually much more innocent. The large white pawn/meeple was supposed to represent the bishop of the cathedral we were competing to decorate, but I couldn’t help thinking of it as the Pope. When painting a section of the ceiling, you can pay 1 coin to move the papal meeple closer to the section you’re painting in order to score more points – thus “throwing a penny at the Pope”.

All in all, everyone felt that Fresco was a little gem of a game. Light enough to be accessible, yet hefty enough to encourage some serious thought and planning. I’m pretty sure John won, just a few points clear of Michael (if memory serves). I was a long way back, finishing my game without flourish, simply painting the altar for the dregs of VPs.

The rest of the night was Coloretto and Eight-Minute Empire. I honestly can’t remember which order they came in, but I’ve played Coloretto plenty of times now so there’s not much more to say. Cracking little game.

So. Eight-Minute Empire. Hmmmm. As with For Sale earlier in the evening, I’d heard some good things about the game, so I thought I’d give it a crack. After all, if it’s rubbish, it’s only eight minutes, right? Right? Well, no. It’s about twenty minutes the first time out.

And was it rubbish? Well, no. But all three of us (Michael and John S were the other imperial overlords) felt fairly underwhelmed. It’s like a bizarre cross between Dirk Henn’s Shogun and the aforementioned little cracker Coloretto. Card set collection and cube shuffling across a map. Really quite odd.

150% longer than advertised, but... kind of... not too bad... ish

150% longer than advertised, but… kind of… not too bad… ish

This was another one of those occasions where I had no idea what I was really doing and still managed to win quite comfortably, which always makes me very wary. That said, we were all inexperienced with the game so it could have been fairly random anyway. The gameplay was simple, with an odd and slightly meaty mixture of too much freedom (the map’s a bit of a sandbox at times – where should I move my cubes and why?) and not enough freedom at all (severely limited funds for “buying” cards from the table) keeping things moving.

I’d be hard-pressed to put my finger on exactly why we were all so underwhelmed. Perhaps we’d had high expectations. Perhaps the components promise so much, yet the gameplay yields so little. Perhaps it was really, really late. But underwhelmed we were. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think any of us hated it, and I wouldn’t set anyone on fire for suggesting a game of Eight-Minute Empire. I might well play it again, in fact, just to see if I missed something… and it’s so short that it wouldn’t be any great loss if I hadn’t.

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 14 September 2013

A relatively quick rundown of the last Newcastle Gamers session before the next one looms too near…

I started off with Bruges, one of Stefan Feld’s 2013 releases. It’s his twist on the card-tableau-building genre, with a little bit of board play (but only insofar as building small canals and moving a meeple up a single track). With eleventy-thousand different cards in the deck (well… somewhere around 150), it’s both highly replayable and highly baffling the first time round. I took to a strategy of populating as many houses as I could with as many high-scoring people as I could, while making sure a couple of them were “Underworld” types who would cause a little devastation and mayhem with my opponents, John S and Michael. This happened to work out rather nicely, and I pipped John to a very narrow victory.

Final score – Me: 46 / John: 45 / Michael: 38

I really enjoyed this one. It felt very Feld, but played much more quickly than most of his games. Second time round, I think I would have a better handle on what I was doing… which would probably result in me losing.

Next, the three of us played Trains. Its inaugural play at the previous session had been a hit with me and with my fellow players, so I was keen to get it on the table again. A slightly different mixture of cards was drawn from the Randomisers this time, but the Amusement Park was still in the mix, bringing huge boosts to buying power, and the Viaduct negated the extra costs of laying track in a city. We also had the Tourist Train, which (I think) is the only way to score VPs while the game is in progress.

I didn’t get off to a great start with my tracks and stations, so my strategy board-wise shifted to “wait for someone else to build a city up, then use the Viaduct to swoop in there as well, with a relatively low cost/Waste penalty”. Combined with snaffling shedloads of buildings (bringing me 24 VPs at game-end), this turned out to be a cracking strategy, and I ended up absolutely hammering the competition.

Final score – Me: 67 / Michael: 51 / John: 45

I’m not sure if my previous play gave me an advantage (we used the Osaka side of the board, so at least the map wasn’t the same), or if I just managed to strike lucky with my cards enough times to buy loads of buildings. Either way, it was enjoyed by all.

Indigo. What can I say about Indigo? It’s beautiful (see the image at the top of this post), it’s simple and it’s fun. It’s Reiner Knizia’s take on Tsuro-style path-laying games, and suffice to say that once the three of us had finished playing Michael’s copy, both John and I had vowed to get copies of our own… which I duly followed up on. I’ve already played it with my family, and it’s been a bit of a hit with them too. John pipped Michael and me by a single point: 9 / 8 / 8.

Love Letter was next, and we played with John’s fancy-pants new edition, featuring the original Japanese artwork and packaged in (shock, horror!)… a box, of all things. Michael stole John’s early lead for a tight victory, while I wallowed in third. I like this game a lot, but I’m not a good bluffer. John managed to target the Princess every time I held her, so I’ve clearly got some sort of horrendous tell. This is why I don’t play poker face-to-face.

John brought out his new copy of Coloretto, which is fast becoming a favourite filler at Newcastle Gamers. John’s is the 10th Anniversary Edition, which features the Russian edition’s artwork (slightly more garish than the original, and a bit clearer for colour recognition) and a gold wild-card with its own tweaked rule. We’d been joined by Amo and Peter, bringing us up to five players. I’ve always found Coloretto difficult to keep track of with more than three players, but I somehow managed to do much better than I thought I was doing… or perhaps everyone else did much worse… anyway, I took the win by a few points, with only one extra card counting for negative points.

I’d heard good things about No Thanks! before, so I was pleased to have it suggested as the next game. Only a couple of us were new to the game, but it’s so simple that we were up and running in no time. The combination of perfect information (everyone can see what cards everyone else has taken) and horrifyingly imperfect information (nobody knows exactly which cards are in the deck) makes for a tense little filler, full of decisions. I seemed to make the right sort of decisions, and I ended up with only a few cards (which is a good thing) and a large pile of plastic chips in my sweaty palm (also a good thing, apart from the sweat), easily ending up with the lowest score. Another win! I was on something of a roll.

Peter left, leaving four of us to play Last Will. Turned out to be a cracking game, this, combining the thematic twists of Brewster’s Millions and a classic MB game from my childhood, Go for Broke, with modern worker-placement and action-spending mechanics. I misjudged my early game a bit, slightly overwhelmed as I was with the cards and options in front of me, so I ended up with two properties (not a good thing, because although you can spend money on their upkeep, you have to sell them before the game ends, which means you get more money, which is the opposite of what you want in Last Will!) and I mistook horses for dogs. That’s right – I can’t tell the difference between outline-icons of horses and dogs. It’s a sort of ludotaxonomic blindness.

That early mistake aside, I did OK, settling into the rhythm of the game reasonably quickly. An early boost for me was the acquisition of an “Old Friend” (or something like that) card, which grants the owner an extra action on each turn. This left me able to choose to have fewer actions but more cards in each turn, knowing that I could use the extra action to make up the difference. A final spending flurry did leave me slightly in debt once I’d sold off my properties, but not as much as Michael, who finished up with a glorious minus £10. As I say, a corker of a game, and it seems well thought out with double-sided boards and extra side-boards to accommodate different numbers of players.

To finish the night off, the four of us played San Juan. It’s a bit of a classic for a very good reason, and I always enjoy it (I play it a lot on the iPad). Even though I had some terrible card draws this time, and I wasn’t able to get much of a production/trading engine going until very late in the game, it was still good fun. Michael absolutely destroyed everyone else (not literally, although I can see room for an expansion there), finishing with another glorious score – this time, 42 points.

And that was that. As ever, a great night of games.

[Apologies for the photo-austerity this time. There are a whole bunch on the G+ event page.]