Tag Archives: hive

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.

My March in Games

In many ways, my gaming highlight in March was (finally) teaching Hive to my seven-year-old son. Not just because it’s a great game, but because he got it. I barely had to re-explain anything and he could recognise when things were going well and when they were turning bad. Admittedly, I helped him along in quite a few places (because there’s nothing fun about steamrollering a child at a game notorious for requiring an even match of player ability), but he understood exactly why the bad decisions he was mulling over were bad decisions. I foresee many matches of Hive to come in the future – and I foresee him beating me before too long.

The month began excellently (after an early session at Newcastle Gamers) with a game of Madeira against John Sh. I’d recently picked it up at a vaguely bargainous price, intrigued by its reputation as a brutally heavy euro and heartened by the knowledge that it’s a real favourite of Newcastle Gamers chairman John B.

At this point, I’d love to go into a detailed report and analysis of our beautifully constructed strategies and well timed moves. Instead, I’ll just present you with how the board looked at the end of the two-hour game as we sat with our heads in our hands, muttering things like “probably the heaviest euro I’ve ever played” and “that was exhausting”.

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

Yes, it felt very heavy… but not from being overburdened by elaborate rules. The rules themselves are relatively straightforward (I mean, it’s not Ticket to Ride, but it’s certainly not Mage Knight either); the heaviness comes from the complexity and depth of the interlocking mechanisms and the decisions you have to make on each turn. Resources are tight, in true brutal-euro style, and you only have a small handful of actions available in each round, so there are points where you’re inevitably failing to maintain your boats (if you have to buy wood, the cost scales using the triangular number sequence: 1 wood costs 1 coin, 2 wood costs 3 coins, 3 wood costs 6… all the way up to 6 wood for a horrifying 21 coins) or feed your workers. And failing to do things means pirates. And pirates give you negative points at the end of the game.

I ended up winning, 72 to 51, but it was kind of accidental. I fell into a heavy shipping strategy early on (mainly because of the first crown demand tile I was dealt) and it threw a reasonable number of points my way over the first couple of scoring rounds (end of rounds 1 and 3), plus a big bonus at the end of round 5 (my three red wine ships you can see on the board pulled in 18 points from a single tile). John had also overtaken me – way, way, way overtaken me – for pirates in the last round, so he got the larger points reduction at the end of the game.

So it was very much an exploratory first game, and I reckon Madeira would need a good four or five games before you get a decent handle on how everything fits together. I did really enjoy it, but it’s not an “every day” game. It’s probably not even an “every month” game, given its weight. But I’ll float it some time at Newcastle Gamers and see if I get any takers.

The middle of the month brought another wonderful gaming weekend (see this post for last spring’s report). I could only make it for about 24 hours, but I managed to fit in some excellent gaming. In brief:

  • Formula Dé – This was much better fun than I’d anticipated, taking roll-and-move to a level that actually engages the brain. The highlight was watching Olly dance on the verge of death for most of the race before spinning and crashing out on the penultimate bend. I played it steady and very nearly won, being pipped to the post by John in the last roll of the die.
  • Roads & Boats – Having scared everyone else away by (correctly) stating it had taken 6 hours last time we played, Olly and I then polished off a game in 90 minutes, both rushing to complete the wonder rather than bothering with mines and all that nonsense. Not the most satisfying of games, but at least it showed us another way it could be played.
Yes, we set up all those hexes, then didn't even bother getting beyond wagons. I didn't even get beyond donkeys, and I crushed all my geese into delicious wonder bricks.

Yes, we set up all those hexes, then didn’t even bother getting beyond wagons. I didn’t even get beyond donkeys, and I crushed all my geese into delicious wonder bricks.

  • In the Year of the Dragon – Finally managed to play this excellent Stefan Feld game. It didn’t feel much like a Feld as we know them these days; it was much more a game of managing crises than building opportunities and creating combos. Really good fun, with an enjoyable schadenfreude in watching Camo (who has played the game a billion times) accidentally screw himself over and have a disastrous last few rounds.
  • Suburbia – My first play with the Suburbia Inc expansion, which adds borders, bonuses, challenges and a whole bunch of new tiles. Camo, Olly, Graham and I were experienced enough to take it in our strides, and we ended up with some ridiculous-looking border-riddled boroughs (except Graham’s, which looked like someone had actually put some thought into its layout). I struggled for income throughout, but just managed to scrape together a win by sneaking down to score the “lowest income” goal.
My winning "borough". I don't know why anyone wanted to live there, but they did.

My winning “borough”. I don’t know why anyone wanted to live there, with a checkpoint sandwiched between a desert and a national park. Maybe it was just those contiguous lake tiles that brought the people flooding in.

  • Earthquake – A very odd little set-scoring game, with Magic: The Gathering artwork and a whole shedload of luck involved.
  • Android: Netrunner – I tried out a Noise (Anarch) bullshit deck against Graham’s Jinteki Replicating Perfection deck. I can’t think of a better way to describe the deck I was using. It’s just a complete confrontational arsehole of a deck, tweaked to my liking from the Can o’ Whupass build. Virus after virus after virus, milling through the corp deck, bringing out Incubators, Hivemind and three Chakanas… I can’t imagine what it’s like to play against as a corp. Indeed, Graham was heard to mutter, “Y’know, we could fall out over this.” I managed to faceplant into a Cerebral Overwriter and accidentally kill myself; I really shouldn’t have run at all, even with a super-strong Darwin running off Hivemind. You live and learn. Really good fun to try something like this out, and it’s now become my proper runner deck after a few tweaks.
  • Fungi – I’ve had a copy of this sitting around unplayed for ages, and Graham happened to have brought his along. I wish I’d played my copy ages ago. What a lovely little set-collection game. The morels seemed very powerful, but I think Graham struck lucky in managing to get all three of them out for 18 points.
  • Love Letter – For once, I didn’t do terribly… but I didn’t win either.
  • Space Alert – At last, I tried this Vlaada Chvátil game, but I couldn’t stay long enough to get beyond the first couple of training missions. I was enjoying it a lot, although the real-time aspect of it did make me realise how much my CFS still affects my mental function. I struggled to keep up with what was going on… but of course, that’s partially the idea of the game anyway! Hopefully I’ll get another chance to play it before I’ve entirely forgotten how it works.

I had a fantastic time with superb games in excellent company, and was gutted to have to miss half of the weekend. I even missed two games of Agricola. [sad face]

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the month trying to get my head round the rules for Salerno, the first in MMP’s Variable Combat Series. It had been on my radar for well over a year – the system, the map, the counters… it all looked like my sort of wargame, and one I could play solo fairly easily too. I’d read the system rules a couple of times, and it seemed so simple; it was largely a collection of standard hex-and-counter wargaming staples.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t looked at the exclusive rules for the Salerno game. They’re twice as long as the system rules, and make it substantially more complex. I’m not a massive wargamer, but I’ve never had trouble getting my head round a ruleset once I put some effort into it. Salerno was the first wargame to make me feel like a complete idiot. It’s not just that the rules could be much clearer in places; it’s that they make assumptions about your knowledge of military terminology. For a lot of grognards, this wouldn’t be a problem. I, on the other hand, have struggled enormously to figure out which counters are the parent units to others, and to figure out how the unit designations listed in the reinforcement schedule correspond to what’s printed on the counters.

Maybe I’ve been coddled by the likes of Red Winter, which prints the turn of entry on each unit, or Unconditional Surrender, in which each ground unit counter is an entire army with a simple number on it. Either way, Salerno‘s back on the shelf for now. I hope I can understand it some day.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 13 December 2014

TWILIGHT STRUGGLE!

It was about time Twilight Struggle hit the table again. Although I’ve played six or seven games over email (using the VASSAL engine), I hadn’t had a face-to-face game since the first time I played it back in May 2013. Much as I love the game by email – and I do love it – it’s really not the same as sitting down opposite an opponent and trying to judge their bluffs and misdirections.

Olly had expressed an interest in trying The Beautiful Game for quite a while, so we finally took the opportunity to commandeer a club table and give it a go. There are two schools of thought regarding taking sides in a teaching game: (a) the newbie should play the USA, so the old hand can show them how the USSR drives the game in the early turns – it will probably be a short game, but it will be a fairly ‘normal’ game; or (b) the newbie should play the USSR, so they have a greater chance of not being utterly crushed in the early turns – it should be a longer game, but the USSR might leave openings for the experienced USA player.

I opted for (c): “Which side do you want?” As it turned out, Olly picked USSR, so I guessed we were in for a longer, more unpredictable game, which suits me just fine. I’m by no means a brilliant player, so I expected us to be fairly even in the early game. As it turned out, I had some horrendous US hands early on (nearly all USSR events, without the Ops values to make up for it), so although I notched the score up to 14 VPs at one point with some solid Domination in Asia, Olly managed to pull back a lot of points mainly by attempting a Europe-Control win. He was a couple of cards away from pulling it off after an excellently orchestrated round of Realignment Rolls in West Germany, but a lucky Coup in Italy (yes, DEFCON had remained high enough to pull that off!) meant I took back a Battleground country. That denied him the win when he played Europe Scoring, but he did score a metric shedload of points. Unfortunately for Olly, that came in Turn 4, meaning Europe Scoring would be in the discard pile for several turns to come.

Trouble at t'mill... or, more accurately, crisis averted in Europe

Trouble at t’mill… or, more accurately, crisis averted in Europe

Meanwhile, Asia and Central America were swinging round to the USSR as well (after a lengthy Panamanian Coup / counter-Coup / Brush War debacle), but the Middle East was fairly solidly in support of the USA (no danger of OPEC points for USSR) and I had grand plans for South America. DEFCON was in my ‘happy-zone’ of 2–3 and I was starting to see some excellent USA events coming out in both hands.

It all came to a sudden end in the headline phase of Turn 6. DEFCON had just risen from 2 to 3, as per the start-of-turn routine, and I played Junta for my headline card, in order to Coup the last Battleground in South America (having South America Scoring in my hand), although I had the option of playing the Coup elsewhere if Olly played a DEFCON-dropping card in his headline. It turned out to be the other way round: Olly played Olympic Games, so my Junta triggered first. I played the Coup in Venezuela, taking Control of South America and dropping DEFCON to 2… then I boycotted the Olympics and DEFCON dropped to 1 when Olly was the phasing player. Instant win for me.

The tide may have turned eventually, but it's always nice to get the insta-win

The tide may have turned eventually (check out South America), but it’s always nice to get the insta-win rather than crawl all the way back up from 2 VPs

Twilight Struggle‘s always a pleasure, and Olly seemed to enjoy it quite a bit (while appreciating that the game depends enormously on experience and knowledge of the cards), so I may make a regular opponent of him yet. With the digital implementation supposedly just a few months away, I imagine there’ll be quite a surge of interest in the game, alongside a sudden increase in playing ability across the world as thousands of gamers can get more games under their belts in less time. Maybe it’ll become a regular feature at various Newcastle Gamers tables.

After a quick round of Olly’s long-forgotten copy of Roman-themed trick-taking game Triumvirate (verdict: meh) and a similarly quick game of Hive with Pillbug expansion (I won, but only after Olly pointed out my stupid move, so it’s a moral draw), it was time for another bit of mental workout as John Sh joined us for three-player Trajan.

Astonishingly, I pulled off the win with a Beetle on top of my Queen. That's usually the kiss of death for me.

Astonishingly, I pulled off the win with a Beetle on top of my Queen. That’s usually the kiss of death for me.

Trajan remains my favourite of the Stefan Feld games I’ve played, and it’s all because of the mancala. At first utterly brain-melting, after a few plays the mancala mechanism becomes a beautiful engine of selection and planning, allowing the slightly more experienced player the opportunity to line up several actions in a row. And I am that slightly more experienced player, with a few face-to-face games and substantially more web-based games under my belt. Unfortunately, for all my elegant planning and diabolical scheming, the game just didn’t work out for me.

I was trying something a little different to my usual strategies, this time mainly concentrating on instant gratification and VP bonuses wherever possible (and largely ignoring senate votes) rather than spending the early game building an engine for a later payoff. That meant I raced ahead in the first quarter, kept the lead in the second, lost it in the third and came last by the end of the game. It’s nice to try different strategies now and then, but the lesson was learned.

John looked in trouble early on, but saved up to play a blinding bit of shipping and remained strong in the senate to narrowly retain his margin over me in the final tally.

Olly, meanwhile, having never played before, exercised his long-standing Feld-affinity and did spend the early game collecting +2 markers and the corresponding extra-action markers to take several bouts of “three actions in one turn”. That set him up nicely with Trajan tiles and allowed him to collect plenty of forum/extra-action tiles, both in the forum itself and across the military areas. He powered into an unassailable lead through the third and fourth quarters, with a huge tableau of shipped commodity cards only adding to his bonus points.

Final score – Olly: 134 / John: 101 / Me: 96

A shameful showing for me! And I only did that well because I’d picked up a couple of wild-card construction tiles earlier on, giving me 20 bonus VPs in the final scoring. *shakes head*

Note the foamboard insert bits

Note the foamboard insert bits, including the card draw- and discard-pile holder to the left

Another excellent session. The next Newcastle Gamers (all-day!) session falls two days after Christmas Day, so I imagine turnout will be low and I certainly won’t make it. I’ve got some plans for gaming over the Christmas period though, so there’ll hopefully be more on here before the New Year.

All photos by Olly, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne, but this month’s second session is an all-dayer (10:00 am until late on 27 December) and there’s an extra one on 3 January (also 10:00 am until late), so even more opportunities for gaming!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 September 2014

Why do I always put “Saturday” in the title of these Newcastle Gamers reports? They’re always Saturdays. Well, it’s de facto house style now, so I’m sticking to it.

In the month since the last Newcastle session I attended, John Sh and I had an evening of games in Corbridge, including Shipyard (great game if you like rondels; I like rondels), Crokinole (hours spent playing Rampage with my kids nearly put me in with a chance), Istanbul (fun, but I had little-to-zero idea of what to do in a first play) and Province (there’s a lot of game in that tiny package). We’d liked Shipyard so much that I brought it to Saturday’s Newcastle Gamers session, but John brought his newly acquired (and rapidly super-pimped) copy of Splotter Spellen’s Antiquity, so that kind of trumped everything. John’s done a beautiful job with this game, spending hours – and an undisclosed sum – creating new, clearer artwork for resources, printing and attaching stickers, sourcing mini-meeples to replace cubes… It really is a tour de force.

The main board tiles are original. The city tiles are original. And I'm pretty sure everything else in this picture is stuff that John made/bought. It's looovely.

The main board tiles are original. The city tiles are original. And I’m pretty sure everything else in this picture is stuff that John made/bought. It’s looovely. And what’s more, it’s a lot more user-friendly than the original piles-o’-chits would have been.

Like its sibling Roads & BoatsAntiquity is relatively simple in terms of rules, but utterly brain-devastating when it comes to actual gameplay. And, like Roads & Boats, there’s no safety net. If you screw up the early game, you screw up the whole game.

After building the requisite Houses, Storage and Cart Shop in my starting city (and realising in the second or third turn that a Granary was going to be über-handy too, given the ridiculous and escalating requirements of the Famine phase in each round), I set about growing food. Olives and fish were my staples throughout the game, and with the Faculty of Alchemy I could clear off huge swaths of Pollution markers to reuse the land and water.

John was first to build a Cathedral (indeed, he was the only one with space left in his starting city in which to fit a Cathedral, the rest of us having failed dismally in our Tetris-like city building), which he dedicated to San Christofori. That set his victory condition to “have three of each Food and Luxury Goods resource in Storage” – 24 resource tokens altogether, which seemed a long way off, but it was a simple mission of collecting.

After a bit of expansion via Inns, we were starting to butt heads slightly for territory. Olly was the first to construct a second city, closely followed by John and me. Les took a little longer, due to being heavily boxed in by John and Olly, with much of their side of the board covered in black Pollution discs. Olly built a Cathedral in his second city, devoting his game to San Nicolo: “have twenty workers”, which amounts to “build all twenty houses”. The San Nicolo perk of building two houses for the price of one was definitely handy for this, but it was still expensive to carry out, with each of the higher-cost houses requiring several Food and several Luxury Goods resources.

Hey, look! I finally built a Cathedral!

Hey, look! I finally built a Cathedral! Now to dig up some graves…

A central mountain range that I was just about to mine for Stone was grabbed by John and turned into Gold-producing mountains. That was the turning point for me in deciding which victory condition to head for: San Nicolo, just like Olly. I was going to be swimming in Gold (a Luxury Good, obviously), I had a couple of renewable sources of Food (bless you, alchemists) and another nearby lake to fish for Pearls or Dye (Luxury Goods again). Of course, in order to build a Cathedral, I had to first build a Hospital in order to clear Graves out of my cities (Hospital? Necromancer, more like!) to make room, so it was a few rounds before I could make a decent start on my House-building.

Meanwhile, John was piling up his goal resources in his Cathedral of Holding and Olly was churning out two Houses per round, so I knew I wasn’t going to make it to my victory condition before either of them. I don’t think Les ever built his Cathedral; he was feeling very limited in his options by the late game, surrounded as he was by Pollution and unable to dump any near Olly’s satellite cities because of Olly’s Dump/Stables combo. (I, on the other hand, was blissfully free of Pollution, with my Dump limiting the damage and my Faculty of Alchemy ensuring I could ravage the land time and time again.)

The world at the end of the game. Notice how blissfully free from black Pollution discs I am (red, top-right). Sympathise with Les (blue, bottom-left) as you realise how boxed in he is. Marvel at Olly (yellow, bottom-right) and his commandeering of half the map.

The world near the end of the game. Notice how blissfully free from black Pollution discs I am (red, top-right). Sympathise with Les (blue, bottom-left) as you realise how boxed in he is, although he did manage to sneak through the barricades to build a second city. Marvel at Olly (yellow, bottom-right) and his commandeering of half the map.

And then, just like that, we reached the end of a round – Victory Check – and John declared that he had indeed collected the appropriate 24 resources in his infinitely large Cathedral. An actual round of applause (albeit a small one) ensued – after all, this had been a three-and-a-half-hour game and for a long while it hadn’t been clear how anyone could possibly achieve victory under the constant onslaught of Pollution and the ever-increasing Famine.

Just as with Roads & Boats, I felt like I’d been battered round the head with a variety of firm-yet-yielding weapons – presumably the limbs of the beneficiaries of St Nicolo’s Necromantic Hospital. But it was agreed to be a great game, with lots of fun and a surprising level of thematic engagement. I think I slightly prefer Roads & Boats, just for the fact it’s a touch more intuitive, but I’d happily play Antiquity again.

And so from suffering a virtual head-battering to sustaining actual in-game brain damage: yes, Graham and I played Android: Netrunner again. This time, we were using some decks that Graham had “thrown together while watching TV”.

[alarm bells]

No, it was good fun, but there were definitely a few sub-optimal choices in there (seemingly not enough money for the Runner, and few ways to dig through the deck for desired cards), which we dissected a little after we’d played. We’re both very inexperienced players, so it’s good to try things out and see what works… and what really, really doesn’t.

I played the Runner (Shaper, Chaos Theory), against Graham’s Haas-Bioroid “Stronger Together” identity, giving +1 strength to Bioroid ICE – a bonus I would forget every single time it was relevant. I really need to learn to remember those things.

This turned into a proper epic. After a couple of early-ish Agenda steals for me, putting me up to 5 points, Graham finally got some decent ICE up. Unfortunately, he was swimming in money at just the wrong time during one of my runs, so although I accessed and scored an Agenda, he’d rezzed Janus 1.0 at a cost of 15 credits. I couldn’t come close to the 8 strength needed to break it with my Pipeline breaker, and I’d run on my third click, so I clicked once to break the first subroutine… and then suffered the other three “do 1 brain damage” subroutines.

Ouch. I could just afford the damage, but… ouch.

So, down to a hand limit of two cards, I had to limp on and try to prod and poke where I could, seeing if I could nab something here or there. I was strapped for credits throughout the game, only managing to get Magnum Opus into play a couple of rounds from the end. Public Sympathy put me back up to a hand limit of four, giving me a little more flexibility, but I was still drawing cards that were little-to-no use. Graham, meanwhile, had managed to install, advance and score a couple of Agendas, taking him up to 5 points too.

After Magnum-Opus-ing and drawing for a couple of rounds, I had a bit of money in the bank and I had breakers installed for all eventualities. Graham installed another obvious Agenda behind his Janus / Ichi mega-Sentry-wall, along with a mysterious card in that server’s Root. Being inexperienced, I couldn’t remember the options of what it might be. I suspected I had enough money to break all the ICE and access the server, and I knew if I didn’t on this turn, Graham would finish advancing the Agenda and win the game. All or nothing, do or die – it’s time to run.

So click 1 was to pull an All-Nighter, trashing that card for an extra two clicks. Then I ran. Graham rezzed the Rototurret he’d stuck in front of the Janus / Ichi combo, so I broke that at minimal expense. Ichi 1.0 had me spending credits to the point where I couldn’t afford to break the last subroutine (so a successful Trace left me with a Tag and another brain damage), and then I still had four clicks left to get through Janus 1.0 without dying. Success! I accessed the server…

And then Graham paid to rez the ridiculously named Ash 2X3ZB9CY, running another Trace (I had no money to counter the Trace at this point) and leaving me unable to access anything in the server apart from Ash 2X3ZB9CY. Not the Agenda. Game over. Graham advanced to victory on his next turn.

A lot of servers, quite a few programs, and so, so much brain damage.

A lot of servers, quite a few programs, and so, so much brain damage.

A great game. I’m enjoying Android: Netrunner more each time I play, so I hope I can get some more plays in soon. Hopefully they won’t end up with me looking like this:

Poor, poor Chaos Theory. She had so much ahead of her...

Poor, poor Chaos Theory. She had so much ahead of her…

Graham and I rounded off the evening with Hive. I hadn’t played in quite a while, so I’m sure I was sub-optimal here and there, but I overcame the inherent Black disadvantage and took the win reasonably quickly.

Beetle down, then Grasshopper jump for the win.

Beetle down, then Grasshopper jump for the win.

Another quality evening at Newcastle Gamers. I think I might shy away from anything very long at the next Newcastle session; it’d be nice to fit in more than two or three games in an evening.

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

Spring 2014 Games Weekend

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

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

Space Empires: 4X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday evening: Keyflower – Agricola – Snowdonia

Yep, the holy trinity. What an evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Snowdonia?

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

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

Honourable Mentions – other games I played

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

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – 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 27 April 2013

After a long day of herding buskers around Hexham (don’t ask), there was nothing I wanted more than to get over to Newcastle and play some games. Luckily, it was the right Saturday for that to happen, and I actually made it in time for the start of the session! With punctuality comes choice, so John F seized the moment (and me) to request Power Grid: Factory Manager. We roped in John S and Olly to make it up to the sensible maximum of four players, and we started setting up.

PG:FM has a rather tedious set-up, involving arranging the factory tiles on the main board ready for purchase, as well as sorting out the appropriate starting tiles for player boards, tiles for turn order (which are different for different numbers of players), tiles for energy price rises, selecting three “X” tiles to seed the first market… it drags on a bit. I usually like to explain bits of the game as they get set up, but PG:FM doesn’t really lend itself to that approach, so this time I made sure we could see all the bits before explaining anything. It’s a relatively simple game, so I hope I didn’t make too much of a hash of the rules explanation. I’d decided beforehand to explain the end of the round before explaining how the earlier parts of the round work, because everything you do earlier in the round is geared towards optimising the result of the Bureaucracy phase at the end. I think it was a successful approach, and it probably took roughly the same length of time to explain as it had to set up the table.

PG:FM is Power Grid in name only. Yes, it’s a Friedemann Friese game; yes, it’s got artwork by Maura Kalusky; and yes, it’s got the same paper currency. The only gameplay element that feels similar is in balancing two factors as you increase your capacities through the game – here, it’s Production and Storage; in Power Grid, it’s cities built and cities you can power. PG:FM introduces a nice little twist in that the auction phase (where you bid for turn order, rather than factory tiles) is carried out with available worker meeples rather than money. In principle, this makes it a short, tight auctioning round; in practice, it means that most turn-order tiles go for a zero bid. Bit of an anti-climax.

We ploughed through the game’s five rounds in about 90 minutes, including rules explanation, so it didn’t outstay its welcome. However, I quite quickly felt that we were playing relatively isolated solitaire games on our own player boards. Interaction was minimal (opportunities for opponent-screwage are limited to the aforementioned auction and buying tiles before your opponents can) and… well… it was just very dry.

Now, I don’t normally mind dry. Sometimes I take a perverse pleasure in enjoying a game despite its apparent dryness. But this was seriously dry. Dry like a snorer’s uvula. Drier than a vulture’s armpit. Like a lake of fun had been soaked up with a giant enjoyment-sponge, leaving just a cracked bed of ultra-dry game-mud. It was engaging, yes, but engaging in the same way that once I’ve started filling in a tax return, I can’t stop until I’ve got to the end.

You could dry it out a bit more by setting fire to it, I suppose.

You could dry it out a bit more by setting fire to it, I suppose.

So yes, the end. The winner is simply the richest person at the end of the game. John F won, comfortably into the 300s, with Olly and me hovering in the middle (304 and 295 respectively) and John S down in the low 200s. There was a general feeling of “meh” around the table, and I agree. I’m glad I got to try out Power Grid: Factory Manager with more than two players, but it’ll probably be out of the door when the next UK maths trade comes up on BoardGameGeek.

We toyed with the idea of Bios: Megafauna at that point, but I could see lots of hesitant faces, so I ended that discussion with the words, “Let’s play something fun.” And thus Myrmes hit the table. It was my first four-player game of Myrmes (having played a three-player game at Newcastle earlier in the year, and a two-player game online at Boîte à Jeux), and it played out similarly to my previous experiences: players who lose a nurse early in the game (in this case, John S and John F) by completing a challenge for the Council of Queen Ants end up lagging behind because they’re severely limited in the number of actions they can take per round. Meanwhile, the other players (in this case, Olly and me) can afford to create extra nurses, dig their nests deeper, leave bigger pheromone trails and just generally crank out the victory points. Myrmes doesn’t shy away from punishing early mistakes like that, and so we ended up with isolated battles between first–second and third–fourth places. It probably didn’t help the imbalance that Olly and I were diagonally opposite on the main garden board, so we didn’t really restrict each other’s pheromonal ramblings until very late in the game.

Olly (black) and I (red) dominate the board with our pheromone trails

Final game state – Olly (black) and I (red) dominate the board with our pheromone trails

I did manage to frustrate Olly’s plans for expansion in the last of the three game “years” – my five-hex trail on the bottom-left in the picture was exactly where Olly had wanted to put his, leaving his worker-ant options severely restricted – but that wasn’t enough to hold him back from the win. Some final-round challenge completion left Olly with 48 points and me with 42, while John S and John F trailed on 27 and 24 respectively. It’s a really enjoyable game, but horribly, horribly tight on resources and workers. Very thinky and very frustrating, especially when you make what seems like a good scoring move early on and it brutally punishes you for the rest of the game. Not one for the faint of heart.

A few games finished around the same time, so there was a slight reshuffle at the table, with Amo replacing Olly for a game of Spectaculum. I didn’t really know anything about it except that it was a Reiner Knizia design, but if I hadn’t known that, I would have been able to guess within thirty seconds of rules explanation. It’s so Knizia. Route-laying, buying and selling, values going up and down – it’s like several Knizia games thrown into one box, and it’s good fun. The travelling-circus theme is, of course, utterly superficial. It’s really a stock-trading game, with the coloured tokens placed onto the map board altering the values of the stocks, as well as creating dividend payouts and taxes (or, in the language of the theme, payday and sickness).

Stock market games aren’t really my forte, and I struggled to marry the price-manipulating route-building to the buying and selling until about halfway through the game. Once I’d got that sorted, I started doing OK, but it was a bit late by that point to do much about it. A fun game, ending in a very close win for John S (84) over Amo (83), with John F and I a little further behind.

Caption?

I felt like a bit of a Dizzy Dancing Bear myself for about half the game

John F was keen to get in his traditional play of Power Grid at this point. Now, I know I said last time that “I’m not one to turn this game down”, but, well… I was wrong. I don’t know if it was having already played Factory Manager, or just that I’d played Power Grid at the last Newcastle Gamers session, but I just didn’t fancy it. I think that when my gaming opportunities are as slim as they are, I like to get as much variety as I can at the Newcastle evenings, but I’ll probably be ready for Power Grid next time.

John S was feeling much the same (although I can’t speculate on his reasons), so we left John F and Amo scouting for more Power Grid players and set up for a quick round of vanilla Hive. Obviously, I’d played this too at the last Newcastle session, as well as in between, so maybe my reasoning for not wanting to play Power Grid is flawed… but it’s a very quick game, so that makes a substantial difference.

I felt like I had the edge from the start (probably to do with being White and thus having the first turn), but I had to engineer the rescue of my Queen at a couple of points through the game. Once I got onto the attack, however, there was a point where I still had six tiles left to place, while John was down to three, so I had much more flexibility in the later game. After foolishly placing a spider instead of an ant (and giving John an easy chance to block my win), I had to go for victory with a grasshopper placement instead, and I took the win a couple of turns later. Great game. Swingy, thinky and pleasantly short.

One grasshopper jump from victory

One grasshopper jump from victory

Olly had just finished London at that point (verdict: “It’s… alright.”), so he joined us for Survive: Escape from Atlantis!, complete with John’s newly acquired expansions: the Giant Squid, Dolphins and Dive Dice. We went all-out and threw everything onto the table, hoping for a newly chaotic experience. It turned out pretty similar to normal Survive, but the new elements did add a certain fun novelty. I’d expected the Squid to play a much larger role than it ended up playing – its power to eat meeples off adjacent land hexes and pick individual meeples off boats sounds outrageously powerful on paper, but I think we only lost two or three meeples to squid attack throughout the whole game.

It may have been that the sheer number of creatures on the board diluted the effects somewhat (we’d added five squid and four or five dolphins), and the Dive Dice meant that we were quite often able to manoeuvre the creatures away from our swimmers / rowers / unsuspecting squid-victim walkers. It might be best to go for one expansion at a time to retain as much “take that!” screwery as possible… or we may have just had an unusual game.

"Mmmmm. Your friend was tasty."

“Mmmmm. Your friend was tasty.”

Olly managed to rescue eight of his ten meeples for a total of 23 points, which was bigger than the combined total of my rescues (12) and John’s (8). Double-win for Olly.

The final game of the night was also from John’s bag of goodies: Fearsome Floors. In fact, being a copy of the cheaper German edition, it was Finstere Flure, but John gave a us a very thorough rules run-down in English. It’s a race game designed by Friedemann Friese, in which the object is to get your four young, delicious humans across the board from one corner to the opposite without them being eaten by a monster. The monster moves according to a simple set of rules after everyone has moved their people, so each round sees the players trying to strike a balance between moving towards the exit and guiding the monster towards their opponents.

There are a couple of key things that you need to get your head round to function properly in Fearsome Floors:

  • After a player piece has been moved, it’s flipped over to its other side for the next round. The movement points on the two sides of each piece add up to 7, which is fairly even for the pieces with a 3 and 4… but the 6-and-1 piece really needs some thought to be used effectively.
  • The player who moves the last piece of the round can make dramatic changes to the movement of the monster, so it’s a fairly powerful position to be in (typical Friese!).

One of the immediate joys of this game is the ability to create your own monster from various slot-together card body-parts. Lloyd was hovering near the table, with not quite enough time to play a game but not quite wanting to leave yet either, so he helped construct our monster. As a result, we ended up with a pink slime monster with a very dapper right arm and leg (complementing Lloyd’s après-dance waistcoat and bow-tie), as well as a top hat balanced on his eyeball head. Oh, and a second head as well.

"And tonight, performing the merengue... err... how do you pronounce this? Rrrffththlllaagaagahhhghh? Is that right?"

“And tonight, performing the merengue… err… how do you pronounce this? Rrrffththlllaagaaghhhghh? Is that right?”

And with the Frankenbeast assembled, we set about getting our humans out of danger. It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to do very well at this game. I could attribute it to fatigue (I think it was well after 11 pm when we started), but it’s probably just a personal weakness when it comes to spatial puzzling. I often don’t “see” things that others do – I’d made a few unforced errors in Hive earlier on – which is easily turned to my disadvantage. I got more of a handle on it towards the end of the game, but by then I’d had at least four pieces sent back to the start (which is what happens to them if they’re attacked by the monster in the first seven rounds), so I was well behind.

John got his second piece out of the exit before either Olly or I had saved even one. Given that the game is won when a player gets their third piece out of the exit, even after we’d got some pieces out, Olly and I had to join forces to try to delay John’s victory. I had everything sorted – I would sacrifice one of my gang to lead the monster through a secret passage to near the exit; meanwhile, Olly and I had cleared our pieces near the exit out of the way so that the emerging monster would turn and eat John’s piece. The only way it could fail was if the monster movement card that round was the one with a value of 5.

And, of course, it was exactly that card. Bum. John took an easy victory. It was a fun game, even if it wasn’t one to which I’m particularly well suited. It plays up to seven players, which is (a) useful for larger groups, and (b) potentially hilariously chaotic, so I’ll look out for it being played at future sessions.

It was well after midnight by that point, and there was only The Resistance being played, so I called it a night. I’m not sure anything stands out as a highlight this time. It was just a good, solid evening of quality gaming!

[Speaking of The Resistance, it was interesting to note that it was played a lot over the course of the evening. (You can always tell when it’s happening, because there’s someone loudly declaiming things like,”Everybody close their eyes… Now all the spies open their eyes…”. If it’s the Avalon version, it’s even weirder because they’re doing stuff with their thumbs.) I wonder if its recent appearance on the web series TableTop has resulted in more people buying and playing it. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that it’s not really my sort of thing. It’s a “people” game rather than a “things” game, and I like “things” (boards, cards, wooden bits, bakelite invertebrates, whatever)… but I think if I could round up six or seven good friends – people I know really, really well – who were willing to play it, I’d probably love it.]

For once, I took all my own pictures, but I’ll point you in the direction of the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page anyway for promotional purposes. Second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Corbridge Gamers – Sunday 21 April 2013

Having discovered through Newcastle Gamers that we weren’t the only gamers in Corbridge, John S and I often meet up between Newcastle sessions, so we get a nice, steady flow of solid gaming. Last night was one of those nights, so here’s a little mini session-report.

We kicked off with K2. I’d picked this up in Travelling Man a few months ago (it was a little self-reward for something or other… no idea what that something was, but I remember feeling justified in my slightly whim-based purchase), but hadn’t played it other than as a solo game. The solo game is… OK. Nothing special. But it had given me the hint that it could be a really fun game with more players, so we dragged it out (literally: it’s on my shelf under Pastiche, which weighs a ton) and tried it with two.

K2 is a race game, with each player attempting to get their two climber meeples as high as they can up the eponymous mountain, with the side-goal of keeping the meeples alive until the end of the 18th turn. The higher the climber reaches, the more victory points it gains, but if it dies… it loses all its points. Each turn consists of the players simultaneously playing three cards face down from a hand of six, then using the movement and acclimatisation points from the played cards to move climbers and increase their acclimatisation score (essentially a measure of oxygen levels – if it hits zero, the climber dies). That’s the basic gist of the game, although there’s a little twist in that whoever plays the most movement points in a turn has to take a “risk token”, which decreases the value of their cards by 0, 1 or 2 points. So those who aim for a big rush up the mountain may find themselves unable to achieve their goals, possibly leaving them exposed to the weather, which changes every turn and can have potentially severe effects on a climber’s chances of survival.

Before we started, John asked me if there was a good strategy. “Get your climbers as high as you can without them dying,” I joked… but there’s a nugget of truth in that flippancy. As a card-driven game, it depends on the luck of the draw. The fact that you play only half your cards each turn means there can be some planning, but you can be stuck for for or five turns waiting for the valuable 3-movement-points cards to come up so you can make that final dash to the summit without spending too long outside your tent.

As it happened, I had quite a few lucky draws, meaning I was able to get one of my climbers up to the summit (10 points if he survives the game) and back down to the safety of his tent with about six turns left in the game. John seemed to be fighting his cards a bit, but he did push both climbers up to just below the 8000m mark. I’d lucked out again though, getting just the right cards to jump my second climber over John’s and block his path up to the summit (in the two-player game, the uppermost spaces have a limit of one climber stopping in each space), also netting another 7 points for me. As long as he remained in John’s way, I didn’t need to risk sending him up one more space to the summit. The last couple of turns just saw our climbers sitting pretty in their tents, either unable or unwilling to move up or down the mountain, giving me a comfortable victory, 17–12.

If all this talk of luck makes it sound like I didn’t like the game, that’s not the case. It’s really good fun. It’s just that it makes it very much a turn-to-turn tactical game, rather than a long-term strategic game. I’ve got room in my life for both, and I’d definitely like to try K2 with more players. I can imagine five players being a particularly brutal crush, with the upper mountain spaces still highly capacity-limited, and player order would be a much weightier factor.

We followed that up with our jeu du moment, the very wonderful Keyflower. The tile draw ended up a little odd in that we didn’t get any tiles to improve our transport capabilities, but if I remember correctly, neither did we have any tiles that scored points for having resources on them at the end of the game (I certainly didn’t anyway, and I don’t think John did either), so that kind of evened out.

This time round (being my third play of Keyflower), I attempted to remember the rough distribution of John’s meeple colours once they’d been taken back behind his player screen. I didn’t do too badly with that task, but we did have a few of the tiles that magically convert normal meeples into the rare green meeples, so that threw my memory off a bit. And when I say “rare”… they really weren’t by the end of the game. In this two-player game, we had twelve green meeples enter play, which just goes to show how heavily the green-conversion tiles were being used.

I was occasionally profligate with my meeples for bidding, and I ended every season without a single meeple left in my house. I’m really starting to see the merits of holding on to a few to carry over to the next season, and that’s certainly something I’ll try next time round.

In the winter season, John placed the Craftsmen’s Guild tile up for auction, which gives 3 points for each tricolour set of red–blue–yellow meeples in the owner’s house at the end of the game. Once he’d irreparably outbid me for that tile (a bid of two green meeples, with no way for me to get any more greens), I knew he had the game, because I knew he had a really solid distribution of meeple colours, and plenty of them too. I had some pretty high-scoring tiles in my village (Sawmill for 10 points, a few 5s and 3s) and a bunch of gold, meaning I finished on 49 points, but John’s 24 points from the Craftmen’s Guild helped him to an easy victory with 60 points. Great, great game.

John attempted to leave at that point, but I detained him with a quick round of Hive. As promised after the last Newcastle Gamers session, I’d ordered a copy of Hive Carbon and it had arrived just the previous day. After John had recovered from the size of the pieces (he’d only seen the Pocket version, which is substantially smaller), we tucked into the standard base game. I’d like to get my head round the base game properly before I start adding the Mosquito and Ladybird back in.

It felt like a very different game from the ones I’d played with John F the previous weekend. I don’t know if it was that we were much more evenly matched, or that I was actually fully awake, or just that I’d been subconsciously grokking Hive over the intervening days. Whatever it was, I felt much more in control of what I was doing, and – to a certain extent – a little bit in control of what John was doing. We’d immobilised each other’s Queens quite early in the game, so it was a case of wrestling for a single turn’s advantage in order to mount an effective attack. I managed to get into a situation where I was pretty sure I could win by a single turn, and that’s exactly how it turned out. John managed to hold me off for a couple of turns longer than I’d planned by immobilising my pieces as I played them, but I had more pieces unplayed, leaving me a little more freedom to attack. And that was the key tangible difference from my games with John F – rather than playing a defensive game, which is never going to win in Hive, I actually went on a decent attack.

Still so much to learn with Hive, but it’s a fabulous game.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 13 April 2013

Having missed the previous Newcastle Gamers meet (it was an all-day session too – curses!), I was keen to get back in for this session. Keenness wasn’t enough to get me out of my family responsibilities, however, so I turned up around 6 pm, some 90 minutes after kick-off. Well… it turned out to be about 70 minutes after kick-off, due to a little hiccup involving a locked car park and a non-functioning padlock (or possibly just the wrong key) meaning that things at the club were about 20 minutes late getting started.

As always, there’d been a bit of discussion on Google+ regarding who was bringing which games. I’d mentioned Bios: Megafauna and Power Grid: Factory Manager, both of which got positive noises flung in their general direction (I also mentioned Outpost, which has been languishing unplayed on my shelf for about three months now, but no one ever seems interested in that one – it surely has to get played at some point, right? …right?), so I’d slung them in my bag along with an assortment of other gaming oddities. Of course, the problem with turning up late is that when you arrive, you can see that the people who might have been interested in tackling one of those games are already deep into other things, usually separately, and the chances of things synchronising are slim indeed. And so it was on Saturday.

Never mind. As luck would have it, in a room full of Caylus, Keyflower and Battlestar Galactica in full swing, Freddie and Graham were tucked away at the side of the room setting up Pergamon on a tiny table. I’d never heard of it before, but it turned out to be a lovely little archaeology-themed game, with push-your-luck worker placement and very pretty tile-matching mechanics. Somewhat criminally, I failed to get a picture of Pergamon – it was just far too engaging.

Each round consists of placing workers along a track denoting how much money you might receive and how far down through the five archaeological levels you can dig. The problem is that the money available in each round is limited (varying from 2 to 12 coins) and you only have a rough guide as to how much it might be (the backs of the money cards show the range of amounts within which each card falls). So if Red places his worker on a space that gains 6 money, then Yellow places his worker on a space to the right of that one that gains 4 money, and Blue to the right of that one again on a 1-money space… then the cards reveal that there’s only 7 money to distribute that round, then resolving from the right, Blue gets the full 1 for his space, Yellow gets the full 4, but Red only gets the remaining 2, potentially leaving him underfunded for the digging. Nasty!

Ah, the digging. Each one of the five digging levels contains artefact tiles (five new ones coming out every round), with the oldest artefacts placed towards the bottom levels. It costs more to dig deeper, but you can end up with some much older – and thus better scoring – artefacts. The trouble is that each tile only contains halves of two artefacts, so the aim is to create museum exhibits by matching up a string of halves by artefact type (masks, urns, rings, etc.), and the older the artefacts, the higher the score and the longer the exhibit will stay in the Pergamon Museum.

At first by accident (still fumbling around the rules and mechanics), and later by design, I managed to get a special bonus in every one of the four scoring rounds in the game. I even managed to get the maximum possible score for one of my exhibits as I placed it into the museum! This meant I eventually took a comfortable victory after the final scoring round (something like 38 points to Graham’s 31ish and Freddie’s 20-something).

It really was a lovely little start to the evening – an unexpected gem. It didn’t outstay its welcome, lasting only about an hour, even with the rules explanation. And so pretty – even the victory-point tiles were in the shape of torn museum ticket stubs! I’d definitely play it again as a perfect semi-filler.

One of the two simultaneous games of Keyflower had finished by that point, so there was a general reshuffling of gamers. We ended up with six people going spare, which is never the most comfortable number. After contemplating splitting into two threes, we instead sat down for a quick six-player blast through King of Tokyo to see if anyone else would be finished by the time we were done.

I hadn’t played King of Tokyo before, but I knew the general premise – giant monsters doing battle in and around Tokyo. That’s the thematic premise, anyway. The actual gameplay is basically Yahtzee with monsters. You roll six (enormous) dice, re-rolling as many as you like up to two times, and then carry out actions depending on what you’re left with. It could be gaining victory points, or gaining energy cubes (used to buy power-up cards), or it could be claws. Claws deal damage to whichever one monster is “in Tokyo” at that moment, but when a monster in Tokyo takes damage, it can choose to move out of Tokyo, forcing the attacking monster to move in… thus becoming the new punchbag for everyone else. The upside to being in Tokyo is that any claws you roll deal damage to everyone else, so it’s not all bad.

This was actually a whole other game of King of Tokyo that was played on the same night. We didn't use the Power Up expansion as pictured here, so no pandas for us. :-(

This was actually a whole other game of King of Tokyo that was played on the same night. We didn’t use the Power Up expansion as pictured here, so no pandas for us. 🙁

It has virtually no depth and a lot of luck, but King of Tokyo is really good fun. I can imagine my kids loving this game when they’re old enough. The six-player game ran a little long for me (with a couple of monsters getting killed off pretty early on), but I did at least manage to stay in the game long enough to be one of the last two monsters standing. My beautiful Gigazaur (non-branded Godzilla clone) was destroyed without mercy, leaving Jérôme’s weird spiky alien thing victorious. At least, I think Jérôme won. I was having enough fun to not notice.

Another reshuffle left me with Graham, John S and John F, with John F keen to get in his traditional play of Power Grid. I’m not one to turn this game down, so we picked Brazil out of his box of boards and got going. Graham was a Power Grid virgin, so I took it upon myself to explain the rules. I’m not sure why – the other two are much more experienced PG players than I am! But I think I did a reasonable job, and he seemed to get into the rhythm of the game after a round or two.

After a few rounds, on the transition into Step 2

After a few rounds, on the transition into Step 2

There’s nothing odd about the Brazil expansion (apart from a heavy reliance on garbage-burning plants, here re-themed as “biogas”), so it was perfect for a beginner. It seemed fairly tight all the way through, with no one developing much of a lead or lagging much behind. I spent quite a lot of the game in the last couple of positions in player order, meaning I could snaffle up plenty of cheap oil (which is plentiful in Steps 1 and 2, trailing off in Step 3) and build pretty much where I wanted. I’d started off on my own in the relatively expensive Amazon area on the western side of the board, while everyone else butted heads around the cheap coastal areas, so expanding my network was relatively straightforward (if costly) in the early game.

The Flux Capacitor promo card (burning three of any fuel to power 6 cities) had come out relatively early in the game, and it seemed like it was going to make its way up into the current market on several occasions, but it got held back in the future market for ages. Finally, the stars aligned and it came up at just the moment I could grab it for face value, leaving me free to buy whatever was cheapest in order to power it. A really handy power plant!

Towards the end of the game, we were all pretty much level, going into the final round with two players on 14 cities and the other two on 15. After the final auction (in which I was sorely tempted by the fusion plant, but let John F take it in the hope that it’d leave him unable to build all 18 cities he had capacity to power), the last round of building left everybody on 17 cities built (so it had paid off to let John F take the fusion plant!), with everybody able to power all 17. A pretty unusual endgame result! The tie-breaker is money left in hand, so we counted up. The two Johns and I all had single-digit amounts remaining, while Graham was counting, “10, 20, 30…”. He’d won his first ever game of Power Grid!

During the final round. My yellow network had finally reached the coast, while my original Amazonian stronghold had remained relatively untouched by other players

The final round. My yellow network had finally (just) reached the coast, while my original Amazonian stronghold had remained relatively untouched by other players

It was a good game, as always, but I did find Brazil a little… unexciting. Having experienced the United Kingdom and Russia maps in my first couple of games of Power Grid, I’ve got used to the little oddities and unique factors in some of the expansions. Maybe Japan next time…

Graham had to leave at that point, and Andrew was taking refuge from a game of Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery that was kicking off in another corner of the room, so he joined me and Johns S and F for a spot of Dominion. This game doesn’t get played much at Newcastle Gamers (I think a lot of regulars burned out on it a year or two back), so it was a nice change of pace. I nipped out to grab a drink before the Sainbury’s next door closed for the night, and returned to find they’d decided on adding some cards from the Cornucopia expansion (selected by randomiser). I’d only played Cornucopia once before – just a few weeks earlier in a little Corbridge session, when I utterly demolished John S by repeatedly battering him with the Young Witch, filling his deck with Curse cards and with no way to trash them – so it was interesting to see a different subset of that expansion on the table. No Young Witch this time! We still had quite a few different Attack cards though, so we knew it would be a highly interactive game.

After a brief rules rundown for Andrew, we set off. I concentrated on the Jester from the outset, getting a few of them into my deck. It may not have been a smart move, but it had its moments, giving out a few Curses and allowing me to pick up a few interesting action cards and Golds. John S, however, built up a nice little engine, using Horse Traders as a Reaction card to expand his hand to six cards on virtually every round. He had enough Golds in his deck to quite often have the 8 money required to pick up a Province, so once things got going, we ploughed through the Provinces at quite a rate. John S took the victory by quite a margin – 32 points, I think, to everyone else around 20ish.

I always enjoy Dominion. This was no exception, although the Attack-heavy card selection made it a bit “Thief… Thief… Jester… Thief… Jester… Thief…”, with everyone cycling through their decks pretty quickly and cards often changing hands. I missed the Young Witch though…

Andrew drifted back over to Spartacus to replace a home-going gamer, so John S suggested Hanabi for the three of us remaining. John F had never played it, so we had a quick rules explanation and then we prepared a cooperative firework display. It became apparent pretty early on that we might have an extra obstacle in this particular play.

Colour-recognition problems (mainly red–green colour blindness) occur in around 8% of men. Our table bucked the statistics a bit, with two out of three of us having colour issues. I have mild trouble with red/orange/brown/pink under many lighting conditions (which had caused me problems playing Village in a previous session at Newcastle Gamers – I was waiting for a cube colour to come out of the bag when it didn’t even exist), while John F can’t easily distinguish blue and green under artificial light. The colour suits in Hanabi are red, yellow, white, green and blue, so I had no problem at all. John F, on the other hand, couldn’t tell the difference between the green and blue suits, so we lost an early 2 card.

Hanabi

John S has a brain meltdown, John F ponders his move and I smile wryly because I have no idea what any of my cards are

Once we’d sussed the problem, John S and I pointed out the shape symbols that accompany each colour on the cards and we were fine from that point. Still, it was a lesson learned for the future – a well designed game has symbols as well as colours for a reason, and we should always point them out to new players in case they haven’t been able to see the colour differences!

I love this game. I hate its tiny, evil, black heart while I’m playing it. It’s so tight in terms of “resources” (clue tokens) that it feels like the harshest of Euros. John S insisted that we play without being able to ask what each other remembered about their cards (remember, of course, that in Hanabi you can’t see your own cards – you can only see everyone else’s). This is absolutely in the spirit of the rules, and I agree that it’s the way the game should ideally be played… I just find it really difficult, because it involves remembering not only what I know about my own cards, but also what everyone else knows about their cards as well. As a result of not being able to remember who knew what, we wasted a couple of clues. I was also in the situation late in the game where I had been told that one of my cards was a 5, and from what I could see in the discards and the others’ hands, I deduced that it was a white 5. Of course, not everyone has access to all the same information, so nobody else knew that I knew it was white, so another clue was wasted telling me that.

Such a wonderfully designed game, and such good fun. We managed to scrape together a score of 18 out of 25, with an evaluation of “Excellent! Charms the crowd.” Not bad, especially considering we finished after midnight!

John S slipped away into the night. We looked around; everyone else was engaged in games, so John F said, “Do you know Hive?” I replied that I’d played it a bit on iOS quite a while ago, but it had almost entirely slipped from my mind. He dug out his copy of Hive Carbon (which, for me, is a hundred times prettier than the original coloured version) and refreshed my memory. It was all tucked away somewhere in my mind, so it didn’t take long to get the basic rules back.

It’s a wonderfully simple game, reminiscent of chess on an ever-shifting hex-based board. It’s also a wonderfully deep game, and John has (obviously) had a lot more experience in exploring its depths, breadths and… well, all dimensions. He could have utterly obliterated me in our first game, but he gently guided me through a few good and bad choices here and there in that game, meaning I almost managed to hold him off. Almost. Once he’d taken my stabilisers off, I felt distinctly wobbly in my reasoning and move choices, but the key points he’d shown me helped to guide my choices. Naturally, he surrounded my Queen Bee and I lost.

We’d played that first game with the Mosquito expansion piece (which sucks the movement power of a piece it’s adjacent to). We then played a second game with the Ladybird(/bug) expansion piece instead (which moves in a very specific but potentially quite powerful way). I’m going to attribute this to fatigue (remember we’d finished Hanabi after midnight, so we must have been knocking on towards 1 am by the time we started the second run at Hive, plus I’ve got a 7-week-old baby – yep, I’ve got all the excuses lined up), but I completely sucked the second time round. I knew I was sucking hard too, but my brain just wasn’t functioning in the right way to do much about it. After a few rounds of extremely sub-optimal/bad/illogical moves, I don’t think there was anything I could do to hold John back.

Watch me lose! For those who don't know the game, I'm playing the black pieces with white insects. Those who DO know the game won't need telling.

Behold me losing! For those who don’t know the game, I’m playing the black pieces with white creatures. Those who do know the game won’t need telling.

Some people don’t enjoy games they don’t win. I loved this game. Just playing it made me want to play it more, to improve, to uncover the strategies and tactics. And oh, the tactility! The pieces are beautiful bakelite chunks, with a wonderful heft in the hand. Every move feels imbued with meaning, every clack represents a new attack or an attempt at defence (usually a failed attempt in my case). Wonderful. I’m going to get hold of a copy of Hive, play it with everyone who’ll play it (preferably outside, just because you can), play it online, brush up on some better play and actually offer some challenge to a more experienced player.

I don’t usually get excited about abstract games like this, but… yes. This one has it for me. It had wormed its way into my head. I said to John and Olly (who was watching me flounder like a beached… er… flounder) that I’d have dreams about Hive that night. It happens every time a game really gets under my mental skin on the first play. Puerto Rico, Power Grid, KeyflowerThunderbolt Apache Leader… all have entered my dreamworld in some way. And I did indeed dream about Hive.

That was the last game of my night, seeing as it was about 1:30 am, so I left the remaining gamers to enjoy The Resistance and trundled back to Corbridge… with only one functioning headlight. Not much fun once you leave the bright lights of the city.

Highlight of the night for me… well, I guess it would be Hive. I wasn’t at my best while playing it, but it was fantastic. Pergamon was also a bit of a highlight, in that it was such an unexpected treat.

All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page.