Tag Archives: coloretto

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.

August Gaming Mega-Roundup

Well, August got away from me. Way too much going on, what with school holidays, work responsibilities and my increasingly obsessive cycling habit (Strava year-to-date stats now in the sidebar to the right, because… why not?), so here’s a brief roundup of everything except the early-August Newcastle Gamers session I already covered.

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 12 August

Another notch on the Stefan Feld bedpost… no, that sounds wrong. You know what I mean. I played Notre Dame for (amazingly) the first time. It was a fun little game, not quite up to the standard of his more recent work, but the modular board is an ingenious piece of physical design. I think John played a better game, but I managed a crushing win (65 points to John’s 49) entirely by exploiting one particular card that came out at the end of a round. Still a few Felds to go until I’ve played them all.

We also played the “High Form” of Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends, which I think of as a nice little abstract to fill a few minutes, but is actually a crushingly brain-searing spatial thinkfest. We fluffed the end-game slightly, in that I forgot to have an extra turn each after I’d reached 9 points, but it wouldn’t have affected my victory. As it was, I was 9–4 up. Having only played this game a couple of times, I really like it, but it doesn’t seem to engender the same sort of enthusiasm in my opponents.

EklundFest 2015 – Friday 21 August

Olly and Graham took a half-day off work to come over to my otherwise empty house (hooray for grandparents) and get in some brutal simulation time with a couple of Phil Eklund designs. First up – Bios: Megafauna.

Graham and I were proto-mammals while Olly was the sole dinosaur player. After spending quite a bit of the rules explanation stressing the importance of preparing for Catastrophes, it took ages for the first one to hit. We’d spent quite some time populating the board with biomes and creatures eating stuff in the biomes (and a few creatures eating the creatures eating stuff in the biomes), and then… BOOM. Level 4 Catastrophe. Nearly everything died, leaving us with one creature each on the map, and me stranded in the corner of the board across the Atlantic Rift. With not enough marine biomes and a relatively cool world (leaving empty spaces as land rather than sea), I was totally stuck. I could have evolved an extra marine DNA letter and deliberately died out in order to start again elsewhere, but I actually managed to set up a few creatures on the map and use a genotype card (points for later) to start a new species, which could then predate my other species in that area.

Graham was struggling to find things to eat (although he had some absolutely massive species, so he could migrate reasonable distances), while Olly was expanding nicely and picking up genotype cards for his fossil record. Graham and I ended up accelerating the end of the game in order to stop Olly running away with it too badly, but even so…

Final score – Olly: 39 / Me: 19 / Graham: 17

The end of the game, with barely an animal on the map. Mass extinction FTW.

The end of the game, with barely an animal on the map. Mass extinction FTW.

Bios: Megafauna is at least a game (it’s a little less brutally random than High Frontier, which revels in drawing you into a false sense of security before destroying everything you ever loved on the roll of a d6), but it’s still fairly unpredictable, especially to inexperienced players. There’s a certain degree of fun in looking at the ridiculous creatures you create (a horn-beaked dolphin with armour and a club tail, or a tiny burrowing tiger with infra-red sensor pits) and you can certainly make some confrontational choices on the board, but it does still kick you when you’re down. Again and again.

After a rules-muffed blast at the very beautiful Kigi, we had our second run this year at Greenland. We all took a different tribe from last time (Norse for me, Thule for Graham and Tunit for Olly) and it all worked out very, very differently. There were plenty of successful hunts, including lots of required doubles, triples and quadruples to take cards as trophies. That meant things had essentially been hunted to extinction, so the available biomes got fewer and fewer quite quickly. We coped better with decimations this time, although the Event cards with Elder die-offs were always a bit of a rude shock and could destroy plans on the roll of a die (the true Eklund colours showing through there).

Graham did very well in auctions for imported goods, with his daughter Peepeelee allowing him to break ties in his favour. I struggled for energy for a while, but managed to get back on top of that by sending hunters to the New World later in the game. After Olly converted to monotheism, I began to get increasingly worried that he’d send someone to convert my Norsemen, thus rendering my huge haul of trophy VPs worthless. To prevent this, I made sure I always had energy and cubes spare to create the relevant Elders in order to banish the missionary… should it even appear. In the end, he sent his missionary to Graham, but the conversion attempt in the final round wasn’t successful.

Graham and I stayed polytheistic to the end, with my trophy haul and population VPs edging him out for the victory. Olly had suffered huge population losses and hadn’t managed to recover them; as a result, he hadn’t had the manpower to bring in the iron and ivory he needed for a monotheistic victory.

Final score – Me: 52 / Graham: 44 / Olly: 11

I considered it payback for Bios: Megafauna.

We rounded off the evening with Roll for the Galaxy, in which I had an absolute shocker, Graham did well for a first game and Olly continued his 100% win-streak in Roll.

Final score – Olly: 42 / Graham: 31 / Me: 29

And then just 11 hours later…

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 22 August

Well, I wasn’t there at the start of this all-day session, but Olly was, launching into Antiquity nearly first thing. Hats off!

I turned up around 2 pm and sat down with Nick, Gordon and David for… Roll for the Galaxy! Yes, why not play this little beauty twice in a row (albeit separated by 15 hours or so)? After teaching the game yet again, I was feeling optimistic a few rounds in. I’d built a couple of useful developments and the others were having a slower start. But then the tile-draw went against me and the “6+” developments (the ones with endgame bonus VPs) started coming out for everyone but me. Even some extended Explore-trawling through the bag wasn’t getting me anywhere – I drew ten tiles in one round and didn’t see a single 6+.

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

In the end, Nick’s combination of shipping for VPs and building medium-value developments and planets served him well. Gordon got some nice bonuses from a few 6+ developments in his tableau, while I just had to make do with what I had. David seemed to be having the sort of game I’d had the night before.

Final score – Nick: 45 / Gordon: 38 / Me: 38 / David: 20

I jumped table as Antiquity finished (Olly victorious – clearly not enough Eklund the day before to properly melt his brain) and joined John, Michael, Olly and Camo for a quick Coloretto (Olly wins again) before a five-player Last Will plus the Getting Sacked expansion.

I had memories of really enjoying Last Will the one time I’d played it (it turned out to have been two years previously); this time was no different. The concept alone is innately fun (be the first to lose all your money by doing things like taking your horse to the theatre or putting a dog in your house in order to depreciate more rapidly) and the gameplay is simple enough to not get in the way of that storytelling fun, although with enough tough choices to make it thinky where it counts.

My only real gripe this time was that had my card draw been luckier in the last couple of rounds, I could have lost substantially more money and possibly even won. The counter-argument would, of course, be that I should have gone for something that didn’t rely on the right cards coming up, and that’s fair enough. It just irks me slightly when something key hinges on something quite random. I think in those last couple of rounds I drew something like 6 or 7 companion cards just looking for a horse but didn’t get a single one. All dogs and chefs.

Olly's player board, halfway to getting sacked from his job as a journalist

Olly’s player board, halfway to getting sacked from his job as a journalist

In the end, Camo played his first game very nicely, after being the subject of some bafflement as he extended his player board further and further along the table. He pipped John to the win by a single pound of debt, while I came in third. Olly and Michael didn’t quite manage to bankrupt themselves, although Olly came very close.

Final score – Camo: -£11 / John: -£10 / Me: -£6 / Olly: £4 / Michael: £11

Michael was replaced by Vernon for Ticket to Ride: Legendary Asia, at which I performed in my usual “fine but not enough to win” way. The Legendary Asia board has a neat little “dangerous routes” mechanism whereby some routes involve trashing trains into the corner of the board as well as placing them on the route. Each trashed train is worth 2 VPs, so it’s definitely worth bearing in mind when planning a set of routes. Unfortunately, my initial ticket draw didn’t involve much in the way of dangerous routes, so I didn’t use that corner much. Vernon, on the other hand, seemed to be using it every other turn and he ended up with a huge pile of trains in the trash corner. It turned out to be a winning strategy…

Final score – Vernon: 110 / Olly: 100 / Me: 99 / Camo: 84 / John: 83

What was left of the evening was taken up with fillers (Scream MachineNo Thanks! and 6 Nimmt! – what is it with fillers and exclamation marks?) before several of us declared ourselves too worn out to continue.

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 26 August

The final flurry of gaming in August brought Die Burgen von Burgund (that’s The Castles of Burgundy for those of you with the English edition) back to the table for the first time in a long time. I’ve played it a lot online, but it was great to come back to the cardboard version.

As usual, I neglected animals (which was a bad idea), went heavy on the knowledge tiles (which was very handy) and kept blocking John from taking valuable mines by ensuring I was first player for the beginning of each of the first few rounds, with enough workers in hand to be able to grab the mines. And, as usual, we ended up with a close final score. A very, very close final score.

Final score – Me: 186 / John: 185

After that, Averil joined us for my first ever time playing Alhambra. All I can say is… well… it was a learning game. I didn’t get my head around the importance of the wall for scoring until near the end of the game, and I kept being just beaten to the tiles I wanted, forcing me to take second-best options just so I could attempt to keep up. We were playing with the Invaders mini-expansion, but that didn’t have too much impact on either the scoring or how any of us played. Anyway…

Final score – John: 152 / Averil: 116 / Me: 77

Not the most auspicious end to the gaming month, but there it is. At least I’ve played Alhambra now (initial thoughts: it’s… OK? Nothing special) and I might be able to pull off a better performance next time.

September’s already got off to a solid gaming start, with SnowdoniaRussian Railroads and more making an appearance, and a lot of games to come in the month. I’ll be back…

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

Spring 2014 Games Weekend

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

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

Space Empires: 4X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday evening: Keyflower – Agricola – Snowdonia

Yep, the holy trinity. What an evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Snowdonia?

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

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

Honourable Mentions – other games I played

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

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 8 February 2014

or Back in Action!

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

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

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

Venn diagram

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

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

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

Scratching my head because I'm somehow winning

Scratching my head because I’m somehow winning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red: me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the board is the colour of tea.

Even the board is the colour of tea.

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

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

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

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

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.]

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 July 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 13 July 2013

Having missed the late-June session and having only had a few light, family-friendly games in the interim, I was desperate for some of the heaviness we traditionally see at Newcastle Gamers. Just a few hours prior to the session, Olly had posted on Google+ that he’d be bringing Brass, so I knew exactly what my first game of the evening would be. Nick and Amo joined us for the full complement of four.

Having played its streamlined successor Age of Industry a few times, I knew roughly what to expect. But it was the differences that made this a richer gaming experience, and a noticeably tougher gaming experience. In AoI, the board is the board and your rail network of mines, works, mills and ports just grows and grows. In Brass, you build and build through the Canal Age, with mines, works, mills and ports connected by a slightly sparse network of canals… and then the Canal Age ends and the Railway Age begins, meaning all the canals are ripped mercilessly from the board’s papery embrace, along with any “level 1” industries. That ends up meaning that most of the board suddenly empties and you start almost from scratch.

It gives the game a very different feel from AoI, and the strategy required to set up properly for the Railway Age pretty much passed me by entirely. I did, however, manage to get a couple of “level 2” cotton mills out on the board before the canals got filled in, so I had something to work towards – the shipment of goods via ports as yet unbuilt.

Experience counts – yellow rules over Lancashire with an industrial fist. At least I (red) managed to build a shipyard in Birkenhead for a welcome points-boost.

Experience counts – yellow rules over Lancashire with an industrial fist. At least I (red) managed to build a shipyard in Birkenhead for a welcome points-boost.

It was clear that experience counts in Brass, and Olly (who’s played the game quite a few times before, including online games against some very experienced players) took a commanding lead at the end of the Canal Age. He knew exactly which industries to develop through to higher levels, gaining him plenty of income and points. Even a catastrophic error which left him near-destitute near the end of the game (Olly failed to realise that as soon as the card deck is exhausted players are unable to take any more loans – he thought he’d have one more opportunity to take a loan) couldn’t hold him back, and he finished off a formidable network of railways and industries, ending with a score somewhere in the 150s–160s. Nick and I managed to tie on 104 points, with my slightly higher income level breaking the tie in my favour, while Amo trailed significantly behind, having spent nearly the whole game in negative income.

It’s clearly a very neatly designed game (and I can understand why it’s number 11 in the BoardGameGeek rankings), with a lot to keep an eye on, but it seems pretty harsh to the newcomer. I liked it a lot though, so I’ll definitely be playing it again. I’ll see if I can get some practice in online before I next face off in real life.

Just as we were finishing up, Dan arrived. Dan had mentioned in a BGG blog post how much he’d enjoyed Snowdonia, and I’d commented that I could bring along the expansion playtest bits I have, so now seemed the perfect time to build a railway up Mount Washington. The Mount Washington scenario is a little closer to the base game than the Jungfrau scenario from the upcoming expansion, so there were just a few things to go over before we started playing. Players were: me (Snowdonia veteran, many-time loser), Olly (several plays before), Nick (played it at a convention a year ago) and Dan (played it twice). I say that Dan had played it twice… as we went through the game, it became apparent that Dan had played quite a few rules incorrectly, so he’d really been playing a sort of Snowdonia-homage. A close facsimile. But there was nothing too catastrophic and we quickly got into the swing of it.

In fact, I didn’t get into the swing of it at all. Don’t get me wrong – I love the game, and I enjoyed it immensely. I just played extremely badly. I finished the game with two – TWO! – contract cards, from which I scored a magnificent zero – ZERO! – bonus points. I’d done OK from building in stations on the way up the mountain, and my surveyor (played sort of in reverse in the Mount Washington scenario) managed to slide all the way down the mountain at the end of the game for 11 points, but without those contracts I was never going to win. I also left it far too late to build a train, and I picked Padarn, which has a great bonus (extra Build action after others have resolved) but is expensive to build and costs two coal to take an extra worker from the Pub.

Typical Welsh weather... in New Hampshire. Note that the "G" action space isn't correct – I never got round to printing out the correct card, which should be a "dynamite" action.

Typical Welsh weather… in New Hampshire. Note that the “G” action space isn’t correct – I never got round to printing out the correct card, which should be a “dynamite” action.

As always with Snowdonia, we were at the mercy of the weather, with a very sunny early game lulling us into a quick pace. When the rain (and snow, which replaces rubble onto track and station spaces, even when track has been laid!) came later on, the pace naturally slowed dramatically, and the game became one of brinkmanship as we pushed each other into temptation to excavate or lay track. Suddenly, the last piece of track was being laid and the game was in its final round. The Padarn bonus paid off as I built a spot in the last station (meaning my surveyor could slide down the mountain), but nothing could save my game. Suffice to say that Olly won with 128 points, while I came a distant last with 65. Sixty-five points. Terrible.

The Mount Washington scenario is a great variation from the base game, mainly in that the event track barely lays any track at all, so the players dictate much of the pace of the game. The snow also regulates the tempo, with weather and events laying rubble (but not too much rubble) back on to the mountain on a regular basis. I’m really looking forward to the proper version coming out so I can ditch my print-and-play playtest cards.

It was interesting to play Brass and Snowdonia in quick succession, because I’ve been gestating a game idea for a few months now, and it happens to use elements from both games (although the Brass elements were entirely accidental – I hadn’t even played Age of Industry when I first had the basic ideas). I doubt I’ll ever bring it to any sort of testable state, especially as my free time will soon be diminishing by at least an order of magnitude (teacher training begins in September – yikes!), but this experience acted as a sort of reminder to me that I still had this undeveloped concept knocking around in my brain.

Olly suggested playing his brand new copy of Coloretto, which Nick wasn’t keen to play, so that left Dan, Olly and me to create matching sets of chameleons. This is one of those games that seems trivially simple on the surface; in fact, it actually is trivially simple, but it’s got a huge amount of possibility for screwing other players over. It took me a game to get a handle on the processes and strategy of the game, but it was quick enough (probably only about 10–15 minutes per game, if that) to play twice in quick succession. The second time round, I played a much more intelligent game and won by a handsome margin.

Luckily, the colours were all easily distinguishable, even under the artificial lights.

Luckily, the colours were all easily distinguishable, even under the artificial lights.

It’s got the right balance of thought and luck to make it ideal for this spot towards the end of the night, with simple choices leading to agonising decisions (“Do I draw another card and hope for a good one for me?”, “Do I add this card to this stack that I want, or do I use it to pollute this stack that someone else clearly wants?”, etc.). I’d get a copy to play with my kids, once they’re old enough to (a) figure out how to screw other players over, and (b) not weep uncontrollably if I screw them over. I give it a couple of years.

By this point, there were a few game-less people hovering around, and after we’d gone through a few suggestions, we settled on Citadels. This is a game that’s been hovering in my subconscious since it was reviewed in the very first episode of Shut Up & Sit Down. It’s one of those secret-y, backstabby, court-intrigue-y kind of games, with secretly selected roles and hidden agendas everywhere, so it’s not my natural territory, but I do remember thinking there was a good game in there. I’d need to play it again to be sure though, given that my overwhelming memory of Citadels was thinking, “These plastic coins are much nicer than the plastic coins in Brass.” I also remember being assassinated quite a lot. Clearly, my head wasn’t in the game.

After a conversation about immutable graph databases (or something like that… it was well past midnight), I headed for home. Highlight of the night was definitely Brass. I’d say it was one to tick off the “Top 10 Games on BGG” list if it hadn’t recently been usurped by Terra Mystica. *sigh* I’ll have to play that one as well now…

All photos by Olly (I really should start taking my own again), 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!