Tag Archives: codenames

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.

In August, There Were Games

Considering the general mayhem that August usually brings (school holidays being the main disruptor of sanity and routine), I managed to fit in a surprising amount of gaming. Among the usual family favourites like Ticket to RideIndigoCatan Junior and Forbidden Desert, I also introduced my eldest, J (now 9), to GIPF and we both indoctrinated his brother A (7) in the ways of Small World (in which they ganged up on me and A won his first ever game).

August’s Corbridge Gamers sessions started with a delivery from the hype-train: Scythe, which – like Jamey Stegmaier’s previous game Viticulture – I thought was fine and perfectly playable, yet completely unspectacular. Now, to be fair, I hadn’t quite got my head around exactly where the balance of VPs was going to come from, so I blithely bashed on towards my sixth star without thinking about expanding my territory and lost to John quite horribly (110–57). I mean, losing never bothers me and I would know what to do differently next time… but maybe my failure to grasp the importance of controlling hexes had dampened my opinion of the game somewhat?

Unspectacular gameplay, but fairly spectacular on the table – and we haven't even tried the enlarged side yet

Unspectacular gameplay, but fairly spectacular on the table – and we haven’t even tried the enlarged side yet

Well, skipping on to the last Newcastle Gamers session of August, I got the opportunity to play Scythe again, this time with five players instead of the Corbridge-standard two. I enjoyed it much more this time out, with a lot more going on in terms of interactions – at one point I was perfectly poised to swoop in and take the central Factory hex from John when Camo jumped in first and essentially shut me out for what turned out to be the rest of the game. Fun! (No, really.)

Five colours this time – a lot more to keep an eye on

Five colours this time – a lot more to keep an eye on

I ended up doing no better in terms of territories this time, but at least it wasn’t for want of trying. We ended up with quite a tight spread of points and a surprise victory for Olly, almost entirely by virtue of the fact he’d been hoarding cash to fulfil his secret objective card… and cash is VPs.

Final score – Olly: 59 / Pete: 54 / Me: 48 / Camo: 47 / John: 41

So… thoughts after two games? Yeah, it’s still pretty unspectacular. It’s like watching one of those lazy holodeck-based episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation: all the familiar elements are there and you’ll have a good time, but there’s something deeper missing and it leaves you feeling slightly unfulfilled. It reminds me a lot of Eclipse:

  • hex-based exploration (and some hex-to-hex routes inaccessible without certain technologies)
  • rush to a central important hex
  • hex control necessary for scoring and for producing resources
  • first-half buildup followed by second-half petty skirmishing for hex control
  • moving bits of wood from one place to another uncovers a thing and covers something else (I realise that’s a fundamental description of moving any bits of wood from one place to another, but if you’ve played the games you’ll know what I mean)

It’s mercifully shorter than Eclipse, and the main reason I don’t really play Eclipse is that I don’t enjoy it enough for the amount of time it takes, so I guess Scythe wins in that respect. It just doesn’t feel as elegant as Eclipse… or a lot of other games, frankly. I think it’s trying to do one or two things too many and it feels like a muddled experience. Oh, and the board design is a nightmare in poor lighting. Still, I’d play it again, although the alternatives would have to be reasonably poor to make me go for it.

Back to Corbridge Gamers and the inaugural (and still only-so-far) run of Guilds of London, Tony Boydell’s long-gestated area-control-with-confusing-iconography game. I’m entirely reserving judgement and comment on this game until I’ve played it more than once and with more than two players, because (a) the iconography on the cards is a complete bastard and the first game is almost entirely spent trying to figure out what each card in your hand does; and (b) the two-player game is quite possibly not much like the “real” three/four-player version.

It's quite pretty in a way, especially that massive horde of my red liverymen

It’s quite pretty in a way, especially that massive horde of my red liverymen in the Guildhall

Don’t get me wrong: we both really enjoyed the actual mechanisms and the wealth of options and decisions available with each hand of (baffling) cards. It’s just that the two-player version turns into a swingy cat-and-mouse round the scoring track. The VP leader is first player for the round, which is a disadvantage, meaning the second player is more likely to score more points and jump into the lead, thus leaving themselves at a disadvantage and likely to be overtaken again in the next round… and so on. No great surprise that the scores were close (70–68), but the winner could have been either of us.

More precisely though, it was me.

We also played Brew Crafters at John’s table this month, which was possibly the best-received Corbridge game of August in my eyes. It’s so much like Agricola that if Uwe Rosenberg wasn’t reportedly a fan of the game, I’d be expecting litigation. That makes it really easy to teach an Agricola veteran though: it’s just “these are resource-accumulating action spaces, these are Occupations, these are pretty much Improvements, let’s go”. OK, there’s a slight wrinkle with the two types of worker and the “brewery phase”, but it’s very Rosenberg.

The randomised available beers pointed me towards brewing ales for big points (8 points per brew of Belgian Quad), whereas John’s first move had telegraphed his intention to at least start off with the porters. It took a while to get going (and money is so horribly, horribly tight in Brew Crafters) but I managed to crank out a few high-value ales and over-hop a few for extra points with the Hop Infusers. My research track actions left me gaining even more extra points just for brewing beer, but I wasn’t sure if John’s more-beers-but-lower-value approach was going to squeeze me out in the final reckoning. As it turned out, I got the win 67–59; those Hop Infusers were great.

My brewery by the end of the game

My brewery by the end of the game

My only particular criticism of Brew Crafters is that the artwork is a bit… rubbish. If only Klemens Franz had put his hands on it. *sigh* You can’t have everything, I suppose. Oh, and I suppose my other criticism is that it isn’t Agricola, and if you can play Agricola… why play Brew Crafters? I guess it’s just down to thematic preference.

Let nobody try to convince you that Brew Crafters is a cuddly version of Agricola though – it’s even harder to pay your workers in BC than to feed your family in ‘Gric. So horribly, horribly, awfully, terribly tight.

Continuing this non-chronological skip through the month, the first Newcastle Gamers session started with Brass and ended with Trajan… with nothing in between. They didn’t run long; there just weren’t people available to start something new after Trajan so I called it a night. Still, any night with two of my favourite games is a win.

Even if I lost both of them.

The second Newcastle Gamers session contained the five-player Scythe experience mentioned earlier, but it started with Splotter Spellen’s Duck Dealer. I think it’s fair to say that Duck Dealer somewhat lived up to my expectations, in that I couldn’t even slightly get my head round it. I found it so opaque (and so difficult to read the board state) that I think I’d have to play it about five times to start to understand it. The thing is, I don’t want to play it even a second time, let alone the other three.

It’s like they took the beautiful simplicity of Roads & Boats and decided to remove all logic from the resource-crafting tree (rather than “some boards and stone makes a building”, you have “plastic beads and blue paint makes diet pills” and “rubber ducks plus phones makes radios”) so it takes an extra cognitive leap to understand. Then they made the movement more complex (each Move action might get you 8 points of movement, but the costs of interplanetary movement might be 12… or maybe 9 if you put some cubes on that route) and introduced a spaceship-upgrading system that slows you down as you add more cargo space and/or crew to the ship.

Maybe I’m just a bit dim, but it was about five things too many to take in at once and I couldn’t figure out what I should be doing when. That was compounded by graphic design that was inconsistent (some pieces showed the VPs you’d score by building them; others didn’t, so I didn’t remember that I could score by building those things) and just, well… hideous. I can forgive hideous design if the underlying game is enjoyable (see every other Splotter game I’ve played), but when the hideous design actually gets in the way of understanding what the hell’s going on, I’m entirely unforgiving.

Anyway, after initially realising that he’d entirely screwed himself over with his starting choice (classic Splotter there), Olly went on to unrealise that and win the game in spectacular style, 90–48–40–36. That’s my 36 at the end there. It would have been 30 if I hadn’t seen the end of the game coming and ditched my plan (such as it was) to scramble up a measly 6 points by selling satellites made from solar panels and telephones.

After being underwhelmed by Duck Dealer and Scythe, it was a delight to try Pi mal Pflaumen for the first time. Adding all sorts of fruity twists to the trick-taking genre, PmP is a lot thinkier than it might at first seem. Every card has not only a number (dictating who wins the trick and gets first choice of the played cards), but also a fruit and usually a special action or scoring opportunity. That means there’s a bunch of agonising over whether to play this card because it’s a high number or this one because I want that fruit but hold on if I play that fruit the number means I’ll lose the trick and Camo will take it first because it’s got the watchdog action on it, so maybe I should play this card with the slightly rubbish scoring combo on it and hope it’s the highest card… and I’ll throw a bunch of pi cards in with it to boost the value.

Every trick’s like that. And that’s great. I hope to play it a lot more.

Final score – John: 43 / Me: 42 / Olly: 38 / Camo: 35

A quick August mention to my week’s holiday in the Lake District, where six games of the wonderful Codenames were played with my wife and her parents. Of course, it’s a hugely fun game, but it’s also an interesting window into the way people think. With people you’ve known very well for over twenty years, it turns out it’s both hilarious and faintly worrying when you find out what their thought processes were.

“Location, 2” (on a table with HOLLYWOOD and a whole bunch of place names)

“Ummmm… POST!”

“No, that’s the other team’s… and in god’s name, why POST?”

“Because the post has to go to a location, doesn’t it?”

My view from the top of Honister Pass, looking east, having just ridden up it from the west – literally the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done

My view from the top of Honister Pass, looking east, having just cycled up it from the west

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!