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Spring Games Weekend 2016

Last weekend was the spring 2016 instalment of the biannual “weekend away playing games in a bunkhouse”, featuring John Sh (of Corbridge Gamers) for the first time and lacking John Si, even though he’d organised the whole thing as usual. We also lost regular attendee Ben at the last minute, due to a situation involving train tickets, credit cards and flatmates.

We kicked off Friday afternoon in the usual “quick, light games while people are arriving” style with Camel Up, this time with the extended racetrack and supporting dice, just to spice things up a little. After spending most of the game thinking I had it in the bag, Graham R completely overhauled me in the final scoring, getting 8 Egyptian pounds in each of the “overall winner” and “overall loser” betting.

Final score – Graham R: 40 / Me: 33 / Graham B: 29 / Olly: 20 / Ali: 17 / Camo: 11

With all likely interested people present, four of us settled into 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties for the rest of the day. It actually wasn’t that long in the playing (somewhere around the seven-hour mark), but rules explanation was lengthy and intense and we broke off for Ali to cook for everyone, as well as to eat. 1862 is a really small, tight map with up to sixteen companies fighting it out in East Anglia; with great leniency in terms of forced train purchases and company refinancing, it’s much more a route-engineering game than a stock-market-manipulation game, so it was a nice change of pace from 1830.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies. And no, it’s not winning any graphic design awards, but it’s 18xx so no one cares.

Financial leniency doesn’t mean rules simplicity though, with each company potentially being either chartered (via an auction in the Parliament Round and fully capitalised) or non-chartered (started by buying shares in the typical 18xx way, but only partially capitalised), and each one having a random permit to run only one type of train (Freight, Local or Express, with Local being the most like the standard 1830 sort of train and Freight being… genuinely a bit weird). Coupling all that with rules for company mergers and acquisitions, it felt a bit daunting to begin with, but we quickly hit the usual sort of rhythm.

The game opens with two Parliament Rounds, which we all took as a sort of indication that we should probably start two chartered companies each. Well, maybe we shouldn’t have in reality – starting two chartered companies in the opening of a four-player game means setting a par price at the very low end of the spectrum (both of mine were at £54, on the £54–100 scale), which came back to bite me in the arse royally towards the end of the game.

With eight companies started in the opening minutes of the game, there was a massive train rush and we hit the green tiles very quickly. To be honest, the train rush never stopped; I’d be surprised if we played more than seven or eight whole rounds in the entire game, so quickly were the companies ploughing through the pile of trains. I spent much of the early game (or, really, much of the game) deliberately blocking people from my lucrative routes and keeping them away from the juiciest connections near me, which meant my companies (L&H running Freight trains, FDR running Express) were among the highest earners in the early game.

Talking of blocking, it was a key component of this game. Combinations of tile choice and station token placement meant that the board was essentially divided into a north half and south half, with only a couple of railroads able to run through the division. I don’t think any of us twigged early enough that “normal” cities (i.e. without special named tiles) didn’t get any bigger than two station spots, so congestion was guaranteed on this tiny map.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds, just after the collapse of the FDR.

There were a few mergers and a fair few bouts of refinancing in order to be able to afford trains, but I got bitten heavily just before the end of the game when there was an even faster rush through the last few train types. My FDR found itself with neither a train nor much money. Because the opening par price had been set at £54, refinancing would only bring in £540 and that was nowhere near enough for an £800 train. That meant the FDR was bankrupt and folded immediately. Disaster – that was my big earner. If I’d withheld revenue just once, I think I could have managed, but the train rush really was that fast. I went from feeling safe to utterly destroyed.

That was the end of my game, really. I think the FDR collapsed in the last set of normal ORs, and the final set (once the first H train had been bought) were simply “work out your revenue and get it three times”. Graham had played the centre of the map really nicely (he could run trains through that central divide I mentioned), but Ali had worked well to overcome all my blocking manoeuvres and he was director of three pretty good earners by the end and had a large portfolio of other shares. It was pretty obvious he’d taken the win, but the margins weren’t clear until the final reckoning.

Final score – Ali: £7835 / Graham B: £6413 / Olly: £5949 / Me: £5705

A decisive victory, and a cracking game. Really enjoyed this one, even though we didn’t finish until after 1 am.

Late finish, bad night’s sleep and woken at the crack of dawn by road noise and daylight (both things I’m unused to at home) meant my brain was pretty frazzled on the Saturday morning. I wasn’t the only one, and much of the day was spent on lighter fare.

John, Olly, Camo and I started with Kingdom Builder, with loads of oddities from the Big Box edition. Wagons, boats, soldiers… it was no surprise that I came in last, with John’s win nearly doubling my 43 points. I nearly made it up in The King of Frontier, but a rough tile draw (and John’s good fortune with the tiles) meant I came in just two points behind his winning 39.

Graham R joined us for Keyflower, in which he schooled us all on his first play (just like Camel Up the day before) by getting a tile that scored for every good on it and just piling those goods on. Olly managed to get close, but the rest of us… well… see for yourself:

Final score – Graham R: 80 / Olly: 70 / John: 45 / Me: 44 / Camo: 26

My dismal little village.

My comparatively dismal little village.

Terra Mystica took up what felt like the bulk of the afternoon, but it was only 2.5 hours, so it might just have taken up the bulk of my brain power for the afternoon. Graham R was replaced by Graham B, and Camo by Ali. Playing the Dwarves for the first time was interesting – tunnelling is great, not only for building further afield but also for just getting 4 points every time. Olly’s Nomads had the “sandstorm” power, allowing for an extra build once per round (and he built his Stronghold in the first round, so he got plenty of use out of that power) so it was nigh-on impossible to keep up with him for the largest-settlement bonus at the end of the game. Didn’t stop me trying though, so I at least ended up in second place for that competition.

Ali didn’t get his Witches’ Stronghold built until much later on, so he couldn’t get much use out of his flying power, although he did build a few towns and get the bonus points for doing so as Witches. John’s Mermaids were terrifyingly agile when it came to spreading around the board, but I largely concentrated on consolidating one large settlement and racking up the tunnelling points.

The end of the game.

The end of the game. Dwarves (grey) clearly stuck to the bottom-right corner. Halflings (brown) don’t look too intimidating on the board, but…

As I can imagine often happens, I regretted a couple of late decisions regarding losing VPs to gain Power (I really should have taken the Power), but I don’t think it would have greatly affected the final result, even though it turned out very tight indeed. In a clear sign of a Well Balanced Game, there was an eight-point spread across five players.

Final score – Graham: 97 / Me: 94 / Ali: 93 / Olly: 91 / John: 89

Great stuff – I’d been wondering how it would play with more than two, and I’m glad it turned out to be just as excellent.

After Paperclip Railways (so tired that I have no idea what happened or how I drew for first place with Olly – losing on the tie break), Trans Europa (a runaway win, but at least this one’s really simple) and a meal, Graham B, Ali and I settled into Tigris & Euphrates for the rest of the evening. I’d played the old iOS version a fair bit and Graham knew the game, but Ali has played T&E hundreds of times since it first came out 19 years ago. For reasons of table space and novelty value, we played on my new Fantasy Flight edition rather than Ali’s German first edition. (I think the new leaders are easier to read on the table, but the plastic monuments are just horrible. Thankfully, in two games, we only had one monument on the board.)

It's Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

It’s Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

With his experience, Ali vigorously schooled us in the first (relatively quick) game (13/6/6), so we reset and played again. This time we were more cautious, although we all started out fairly close together in the middle of the board and there were a lot of conflicts. Graham came out on top in quite a few of them, which boosted his scores a fair bit and he took the win, 12/8/8.

Nobody makes games like Tigris & Euphrates any more, which is kind of a shame, but at the same time it’s hard to improve on that mixture of points-accumulation and insane aggression. Maybe nobody needs to make games like this any more. Knizia got it right the first time.

At the point where we should have gone to bed, we played Splendor. Graham’s played this a lot more than Ali or I have, so Graham’s 19/7/6 win wasn’t a surprise.

After sleeping like the dead, we didn’t have long before being turfed out on the Sunday morning so Graham, Ali and I were joined by Camo to continue our “classic aggressive-euro Knizia in FFG edition” theme with Samurai. Ali and I both felt the pain of the tile draw, although I managed to do OK for castles. It wasn’t quite OK enough; tying with Camo, no one took the scoring tile for castles. He and Graham took one scoring tile each so it went to the first tiebreaker, with Camo winning on most other pieces won.

We couldn’t go an entire day without a train game, so five of us had a last-minute bash at Paris Connection / SNCF. It turned out a bit odd, with one colour not getting off 0 on the stock value track, one on 5 and the other four all on 10. That meant high chances of ties, and indeed…

Final score – Me: 100 / Graham B: 100 / Graham R: 95 / Olly: 90 / James: 90

With no tiebreaker in the rules, a shared victory was an excellent way to end an excellent weekend of excellent games with excellent people. Roll on the next one!

January Catch-Up

Aaaarrghh. Lagging behind, but the broadband is back on now. (N.B. If you ever want to make anything happen, just go and find some Openreach engineers working on a cabinet.) Must catch up…

January has so far been dominated by Pandemic Legacy, with games on the 4th, 9th, 15th and 16th (I know – consecutive marital gaming nights!) taking us up to the completion of August. We’ve only lost one game so far (early June), but for a fair few of the games the wins have been down to the luck of the draw. I can’t say much without filling this post with spoilers (and this is a game you really don’t want to have spoiled), so all I’ll say is this: it’s just brilliant. M has declared that she’ll “miss it when it’s over”.

Rolling back to the beginning of the month, there was the now-traditional New Year all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. And as is now traditional for these all-day sessions, I rolled in at about 2.00 and looked around for a game to play. Caylus! It wasn’t my first game (although the first was so long ago that it isn’t logged on BoardGameGeek), but I still needed nearly as much rules explanation as newcomers Phil and Alison. Fortunately, John B is an old hand with Caylus and explained everything beautifully, getting us off to a quick start. Given that it was Alison’s first time playing a worker placement game, she got her head round it remarkably quickly and started planning ways to block people. I trundled along, trying not to attract too much attention, but making sure I had consistently reasonable scoring throughout. Towards the end, John was clearly gearing up to build the 25-VP cathedral, which Alison immediately stymied by blocking the one prestige building space available. I’d been shunting my way gradually up the VP-awarding King’s Favour track, so the last few actions I took gave me about 15 VPs in total, creeping me into a narrow victory.

Final score – Me: 57 / Alison: 52 / Phil: 45 / John B: 38

Great game; certainly one I should play more often. I’ll dig out the iOS version again and have a few more plays of that.

Alison, John B and I had a quick gap to fill before the meat of the session (of which more in a moment), so John Sh kindly leaned over with his copy of The King of Frontier, which I discovered I could just about successfully teach. I also discovered I was capable of losing – yes, for the very first time, I lost The King of Frontier. John B grabbed the Altar (or maybe Shrine… I forget what it’s called), which cancels out the negative points for empty spaces at the end of the game. And that was enough to just get the edge on me. I had a slightly rubbish tile draw throughout, although I was lucky enough to end up with only a couple of spaces left empty.

Final score – John B: 33 / Me: 30 / Alison: 24

Now to the main course – Pax Pamir. It turns out that this is an absolute swine to teach. This should come as no surprise, given its Sierra Madre Games heritage, but there it is. So many things are connected to so many other things that it’s difficult to know where to start. Even explaining the victory conditions is a nightmare, because there are four different victory conditions, but for each one the winning empire must also have other types of pieces in play… it gets complicated. Even a familiarity with its ancestor Pax Porfiriana doesn’t help that much; it has two rows of cards to buy and play into tableaux, and there are Topple cards, and… that’s about it.

We were a four-player table, with John Sh and Olly joining John B and me as Alison drifted away to Thunder Alley. With only three empires to be loyal to in the Great Game (Britain, Russia and the native Afghans), that meant that at least two players would share an initial (secretly-chosen) loyalty, and so it was that the two Johns were loyal to Britain, while Olly was loyal to the Afghans and I favoured the Russians.

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn't matter... but then it ended up mattering a lot. :\

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn’t matter… but then it ended up mattering a lot. :-\

I can’t relate much of what happened over the next hour and 45 minutes, partly because it was nearly three weeks ago and partly because it was really quite complex. It felt like the last 45 minutes or so was spent with Olly and I trying to figure out ways to stop one of the Johns from winning (and the Johns naturally trying to figure out ways to stop each other winning). As it turned out, I managed to offload a useless card to Olly in order to free up a space in my hand for a game-winning twist… and then I was one action short of actually pulling it off. In the end, John Sh accidentally handed victory in the Intelligence War to John B, but it was probably only a matter of time before that happened anyway.

I sort of enjoyed it a lot, and sort of felt like my brain was being forced through a fine mesh. There was a lot going on, all the time, and I need to play it again soon in order to make things coalesce in my understanding. Very, very Eklund, although with more of a “game” feeling than usual – this is, of course, the result of Pax Pamir being primarily a Cole Wehrle design.

John B left, leaving the three of us who’d played Food Chain Magnate a few sessions back so… repeat run! Again, the details escape me, except the important milestones:

  • I took an Errand Boy in round 1, meaning I got the freezer (allowing me to store food and drink between rounds) and extra drinks when collecting them.
  • John Sh marketed first, meaning his marketing campaigns would all be eternal.
  • Olly took a Trainer in round 1 so he was first to train someone, giving him $15 discount on salaries.

I suspected Olly had the best opening gambit, and it certainly paid off, with his lead feeling ever more unassailable as time passed. Once he’d hit $100 and got the pseudo-CFO milestone, it just got worse for the rest of us. Just as in our first game, there was a broad smattering of timing errors which cost us, but I felt much more like I knew what I was doing this time. Again, I played a large structure with lots of slots for employees… but that isn’t necessarily a good thing unless they’re doing exactly what you need them to.

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message while the Pizza Plane seals the deal.

It turned out that we fluffed the timing of the end of the game – with a couple of bonus payments for John overlooked, the game should have ended a round earlier, so it shouldn’t have been quite as embarrassing a thrashing as it turned out…

Final score – Olly: $872 / Me: $259 / John Sh: $120

Very very good fun again. It’s becoming a bit of a favourite with me.

John headed off and Olly and I were joined by Camo and Jon (no “h”) for a light desert-dessert of Camel Up. We decided to throw in the Photographer module from the Supercup expansion, which added a little spice to the proceedings without too much extra complication and without extending the game unnecessarily.

Camel Up is always ridiculous, but this one was even more ridiculous than usual. It’s very unusual to see a full stack of five camels just two spaces from the finish line, but that’s what happened. It had been such a changeable race that quite a few of the cards for the winning camel were in the “betting on the loser” pile. Great fun, and it never really matters who wins with Camel Up – it’s the stupidity of it that counts. (For posterity though, Jon and I drew for the win with 24 Egyptian pounds each.)

That was the end of the session, and that’s quite enough January for now. More at a later date!

October Gaming Roundup

Picking back through my logged plays on BoardGameGeek has got a bit more difficult now that I’ve made the decision to log plays of digital/online games as long as they’re against real people. It was starting to feel ridiculous having only two or three logged plays of, say, Castles of Burgundy when I’ve played it online (on Boîte à Jeux) 18 times against real people. I’ve also been playing online quite a bit recently, not only on Boîte à Jeux but also Board Game Arena and Yucata. As I write, I’ve got two games of Trajan on the go, plus one each of HivePuerto Rico and Tash Kalar.

But I’ll concentrate here on face-to-face gaming, facing real people with their real faces. John Sh and I played Nations at the start of October, which was (as I so often seem to say) something I’d wanted to play for a while. I like Through the Ages a lot (although I’ve only played it online and not for a while, so… no logged plays on BGG – sigh), so I was interested to play this apparently streamlined distillation of the essence of TtA, especially in advance of the new edition of TtA. The influence is blatant, but the differences are abundant – and nothing is more different than the military system, which removes virtually all of the player-vs-player nastiness of TtA.

We opted to play the “advanced” sides of our player boards, even though it was my first time playing. I’m a big fan of asymmetry and it wasn’t a change of rules – simply a difference in starting resources and a small special power. My empire of Rome pushed me towards a military strategy straight away, while John’s Egyptians were clearly much more peaceful; indeed, John renounced the military game pretty much immediately, in favour of being able to build more stuff while I pummelled him as much as the game would allow… which wasn’t actually much. A few bonuses here, a few things taken away there – I probably lost just as much stuff from being behind on the stability track for much of the game.

Everything progressed in a fairly TtA-ish way, with bigger and better cards coming out as each era began, slowly replacing our buildings and/or military units. The last couple of rounds became a slightly mathsy parallel-solo optimisation puzzle, which wasn’t a problem in and of itself, but it did detract a little from the civ-building theme. In the end, we totted up our points to find that my Romans had beaten Egypt, 36 to 28.

Overall, Nations does a decent job of simmering the civ-building genre down into a palatable play-length. It just doesn’t quite match the grand feeling of Through the Ages, but that’s OK – it’s a very enjoyable game in its own right.

A week later (and after a Newcastle Gamers session in the middle), John and I met again for Suburbia. Astonishingly, this was only John’s second play of Suburbia, having played it when I picked it up just after Essen 2012. That first time round, he’d taken an early lead, which is generally a Very Bad Idea in Suburbia, and he spent the rest of the game being pummelled by the red lines on the Population board reducing his Income and Reputation. Not an enjoyable introduction to the game, and he’d understandably been a bit put off.

The pain had dimmed to a dull ache after three years, so we attacked the base game again. It was all fairly close (and John edged ahead for a while) until very late on in the game, when my experience showed through (with a bit of good luck) and I was ready for the uncertainty of the game-end timing in the C stack. John got slightly too hammered by the red lines again, but not quite enough to push his income down to -5 on the last turn like mine. That meant I took the Miser goal (lowest income) and the Aquaphobian goal (fewest lakes), because John had to build a second lake when he had no money left and had used all three of his Investment Markers. We each made our private goals, but that wasn’t enough to stop me soaring ahead in the final scoring: 169–130. I’m pretty sure that’s my highest score ever. I mean, 130 is pretty damn good, but 169 is ridiculous.

The key thing is that John enjoyed Suburbia much more this time round, which means there’s less chance of it languishing on the shelf – that’s great, given that I’ve just bought the Suburbia 5★ expansion.

We finished off with John introducing me to Arboretum, which is a fabulously thinky little card game. It’s like a two-dimensional Lost Cities, with elements of tableau building and hand management thrown together into a simple-yet-oh-so-AP-inducing super-filler. John was planting some lucrative-looking trees in his arboretum, so I made sure to hang on to high-value cards in those suits so he hopefully couldn’t score them. Meanwhile, I was struggling to plant anything useful in my own tableau, with a hand full of 6s, 7s and 8s. At the end, the vast majority of my success came from denying John the ability to score his trees, so it was a low-scoring victory for me, 16–11.

Continuing the “gaming weekend” theme from last month, I had a weekend alone with our 8-year-old. J (as I shall refer to him, given that it’s his initial) has enjoyed a few of the games from my collection over recent years, but he’s just turning a developmental corner which means he can really start planning ahead. Oh, and he can read fluently now, which is a great help for games covered in text. Being an 8-year-old boy (and a voracious reader), he’s much more interested in fantasy creatures and exciting gameplay than economic models and quiet contemplation of worker placement, so we took a trip to Travelling Man in Newcastle, to see if there was anything we both fancied the look of. We ended up leaving with Small World, which is pretty distant from my usual gaming territory, but I know it has a reputation for being ‘fun’, if nothing else, and J was drawn to the artwork, the presence of wizards and dragons (just like in his favourite books) and the fact it was for “age 8+”. (As an aside, I’m quite proud that he declared the newly released Star Wars Carcassonne to be “a ridiculous idea”; it certainly looks it.)

Over the weekend, we managed:

  • Castle Panic × 2 (too light for me, and too easy to win, but just right for J – again, including the theme)
  • Small World (what fun there is largely comes from the race/power combos – J got Heroic Halflings and thrashed me 95–75)
  • Carcassonne (probably the last time we’ll play this for a while – I’m just too nasty, which is what I enjoy about 2-player Carcassonne)
  • Labyrinth (the old Ravensburger maze one, not the GMT global terrorism one)
  • Forbidden Island (we died pretty early on, even on Novice level)
  • Jungle Speed Safari × 3 (my hands hurt for about four days afterwards)
  • Ingenious (against all odds, J loved this on his first play)

Yes, a weekend of games that aren’t entirely to my taste (except Carc and Ingenious), but that’s not the point. A weekend of games with one of my kids. That’s the point.

Another evening session with John featured the most painful game of Snowdonia I’ve had in a long while. We were trying out the Trans-Australian Railway expansion, but we can’t blame the expansion for our woes. Every so often, the card draw in Snowdonia just doesn’t work out nicely. We had rain after rain after rain, including the Australian “extreme weather” version – floods – meaning the excavation and track-laying were painfully slow. The whole thing took nearly twice as long as it should (we played for getting on towards two hours) and just felt like being battered about the head with a Mallet of Obduracy. I finished the game at the earliest opportunity and won 121–86, essentially by accident. (It possibly should have been 124–90, because we forgot to score double points for the Nullarbor Plains track cards.)

Just over a week later, we held another Corbridge Gamers session, this time swollen in both length and numbers. Olly and Graham came over in the afternoon as well as John, bringing us to four for a good ten hours or so of games. We started with my newly acquired copy of Poseidon, an 18xx-euro hybrid which condenses most of the key elements of 18xx into a fixed-length game full of wooden discs.

We all synchronised fairly well: everybody set up a nation in the first round (my Megalopolis got a bit screwed by John slightly unexpectedly cutting me off, but my plan from the outset had been to keep Megalopolis slow and steady until the final few rounds so it wasn’t too much of a bother) and then we all started a second nation in the same merchant round a while later.

We’d all played 1830 before (although for Graham it had been eight years and for John probably about 25), so there was much “ah, just like 1830” and “oh, this isn’t at all like 1830“. The huge difference is that Poseidon features recapitalisation as part of the game flow. At the start of Phases 2 and 3, nations can add more Potentials (wooden discs) to the Merchant Pool to raise more money for their coffers. That means that (a) there’s a careful balancing element between issuing Potentials as Merchants and using Potentials as Trading Posts on the map; and (b) it’s much more forgiving in terms of being forced to buy trains Ships from personal funds. That latter point, combined with the fact you can’t ever forcibly dump a nation onto someone else – even if they have more shares Merchants than you – makes it a much, much gentler financial game than 1830, and I certainly ended up concentrating very heavily on the map and getting the most out of my remaining Potentials once I’d figured out how many to issue as new Merchants.

Should the Merchant Pool be that full at the end of the game?

Should the Merchant Pool be that full at the end of the game? With a limit of 15 Merchants per player in a 4-player game, it seems likely… although we could maybe have managed nations better and got more Trading Posts on the board instead.

Megalopolis (purple) became very profitable indeed over the last two Operating Rounds Exploration Rounds, but it was too little too late. Olly had run Larissa (orange) very well for the whole game and, although it wasn’t generating a huge revenue in the last rounds, he had seven Merchants from Larissa (and a couple from Megalopolis) so he was bringing in a fair chunk of money each time it set sail. Graham was the only one of us to get seriously burned by the forced purchase of a Ship, which took several hundred drachmas from his personal funds and scuppered his game somewhat in the closing stages.

Final score (in drachmas) – Olly: 3626 / Me: 3296 / John: 3128 / Graham: 2649

I know a few things I did badly and a few things Olly did well, so I reckon I could play substantially better next time. I’m starting to get really excited by the idea of 18xx as a game series. I’ve got my eye on the imminent 1844/1854 double-package from Lookout Games and Olly’s already picked up 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties, so there’s plenty of possibility for more diverse 18xx in future.

After a quick pub trip for food, we spent the rest of the day engaged in substantially lighter (but excellent) fare. I maintained my 100% win streak in the superb The King of Frontier (Me: 52 / Graham: 44 / John: 42 / Olly: 28), failed miserably at Codenames (which could do with more than four players, to be fair) and came an honourable second in the mayhem that is Camel Up (Graham: 34 / Me: 29 / Olly: 28 / John: 20).

Tucked in among that lot was a successful run through Ghost Stories – yes, we defeated Wu-Feng! OK, it was only on Initiation level, but I tried to avoid quarterbacking too much (I’d had a solo refresher game on Nightmare level that morning and won fairly easily as the yellow Taoist). It was a really tough start to the game, with multiple Haunters coming out early on and several player boards being perilously full, but getting through a tough start means it should be easier later on. And it was for a short while… until Wu-Feng himherself turned up, as the Dark Mistress.

Victory! (A pyrrhic one for Graham, lying dead in the Graveyard.)

Victory! (A pyrrhic one for Graham, lying dead in the Graveyard. And clearly not an easy one for the rest of us.)

Obviously, none of the incarnations of Wu-Feng are exactly fun, but the Dark Mistress is my least favourite of the lot. Throughout the rest of the game, the dice are largely mitigable – in fact, my general rule of thumb is not to bother attempting an exorcism unless I have the Tao tokens available to do it without dice. The Dark Mistress takes that away, requiring three blue dice/tokens to exorcise… except it locks Tao tokens so you can’t use them. You can still use the Circle of Prayer so that’s only two blue (or wild white) dice needed once you’ve put a blue token on the Circle, but even so… it reduces the final encounter to simply rolling dice until either you succeed or you die.

So it wasn’t the greatest ending to Ghost Stories, but at least we won. Hooray!

These monthly roundups are getting out-of-hand lengthy, so I’m going to attempt to do little and often in future. Hopefully there’ll be enough gaming to justify it!

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]