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October Gaming Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the weekend, we managed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September Gaming Roundup

huge month of gaming, even when you exclude the Newcastle Gamers session I’ve already covered. It started with a weekend where Mrs Cardboard took two of our three kids away and left me with the middle one (aged 6), so he picked some of his favourite “proper games” to play. Two games of Indigo, one of Carcassonne (no farmers and playing nicely – no stealing cities, much to my dismay) and an unusually long Rampage in which we both struggled to properly demolish buildings and kept missing things when throwing trucks. As ever, I absolutely destroyed him points-wise (and the city, physically) because he’s far more interested in having fun knocking stuff over than in collecting full sets of meeples for points. 65 to 12. He didn’t care; he’d thrown bits of wood around for nearly an hour.

That weekend also included a Corbridge Gamers session with John Sh, featuring Snowdonia with the Neuhauser Bockerlbahn expansion. I nearly sneaked a win by doing really nicely out of station building and having just the right set of contracts to fulfil, but John got some excellent bonuses from track-based contracts and took the win by 10 points (134–124). The Neuhauser Bockerlbahn adds some interesting ideas to the Snowdonia formula, including wood and the ability to power trains (of which you can own two!) with said wood once you’ve felled it. I really should play Snowdonia a lot more.

We also played Russian Railroads, which was new to me. I’d somehow missed every opportunity to play it over the nearly two years since its release. I now massively regret that, because I really enjoyed it! It’s got that magical combination of being relatively rules-light while always having some fairly deep choices to think through, with early engine-building (not literally… although also literally) guiding you to an overall strategy that can work out really well… or go horribly wrong. I managed to sneak a win, basically by collecting enough engineers to score an obscene bonus towards the end of the game (28 points or something like that). John had warned me that the scoring would accelerate rapidly. Even with that warning, after the first round of six ended with the scores at 11–7, there was no way I would have suspected I’d win 299–274. Ridiculous. But brilliant. Very keen to play this one again with more players.

The major gaming event of the month came on the final weekend, with another fantastic two days away organised by the other gaming John in my life (Simmo when he comments here). These weekends have become little highlights of my year, with the opportunity to get some longer, heavier games played without fear of running out of time or taking up too much space.

Our view for the weekend

Our view for the weekend

Friday was almost entirely taken up with 1830, which I’ve wanted to play for a long time. I’ve had a copy of the Mayfair edition since I saw it briefly going cheap (£25-ish?) a while back. Simmo has had a copy of the Avalon Hill edition for a lot longer; indeed, the last time his copy got played was almost eight years ago. John, Ali, Olly and I all had a basic understanding of the rules, but it still took at least an hour to set everything up and make sure we were all on the same page (some slight rules differences and clarifications between the AH and Mayfair editions threw up some early stumbling points).

The initial auction for private companies left Olly with the B&O – very expensive, but with the bonus of the President share in the B&O railroad – and me with the C&A, giving me one normal share in the PRR (and obviously I went for the presidency straight away). Both of those railroads floated early and paid out often. Ali ended up with four shares in PRR, which meant I could have dumped the railroad on him just before its trains rusted and left him short of cash. As it turned out, at the crucial point he was swimming in cash and I slightly mistimed it anyway, so I ended up paying up about $750 for a diesel from my personal fortune, which pretty much scuppered my game.

The board was pretty full with tiles towards the end of the game, with only minor adjustments between operating rounds; unfortunately, we hadn’t thought this bit through and ended up recalculating entire train revenues every time, which ate up loads of time that could have been saved with a revenue table (I’ve printed one out and stuck it in my copy for next time). After about seven-and-a-half hours of play, we finished a set of operating rounds with only about $50 left in the bank, so we called the game there and saved probably another 45–60 minutes of recalculations that wouldn’t have changed the final position much.

Final score – Olly: $6,547 / Ali: $5,494 / John: $5,296 / Me: $4,227

A sound win for Olly, and a solid thrashing for me. I had a wide spread of shares across various companies, but without deep holdings in anything except PRR (50%). Coupled with mistiming the diesel buy, I think that was the crucial factor in my woeful performance. Olly, meanwhile, was heavily invested in two companies (B&O and C&O) with only a few shares from others, which meant he could get hefty dividend payouts from his presidencies. We all played nicely with each other (apart from my early blocking of C&O with awkward track tiles), given that it was very much a learning game (and I mistimed dumping PRR on Ali). Next time, I think we’re all armed to be a bit more vicious. And I’ve found myself looking at other 18xx games since; it’s clearly struck a chord with me.

Saturday was a lot more varied, with Age of Industry (New England map, Graham winning a low-scoring 5-player game on a tiebreak) and Ticket to Ride: Märklin (enjoyed this more than any other TtR variant I’ve played, even played at breakneck speed to fit it in before Ali had to leave – he thrashed us all in absentia) taking up the morning. I got in a 3-player Trajan (my favourite of all the Felds) with Olly and James; I made a couple of silly errors, which is normal for me playing Trajan, but still won by a single point over James.

The end of Trajan

The end of Trajan; just peeking into shot, bottom-left, is Olly’s impressive collection of shipped goods

After that came Erosion, a Sierra Madre Games card game, not designed by Phil Eklund, but developed by him and bearing all the Eklund hallmarks – terrible graphic design, cards filled with educational text and preposterous game terminology. It proved to be one of the strange little highlights of the weekend, partly for the fact that it’s a game about being a mountain, but mainly for the constant giggling about having “handfuls of schist” and asking people if they would be “uplifting”. Ridiculous, with a narrow win for James.

After introducing Jude to Ingenious (Jude placed second behind Graham, with me in third and Olly bringing up the rear after a little scrap where I made sure I wasn’t going to be last), I played the first of two end-of-WWII-themed games that rounded off the weekend – 1944: Race to the Rhine. In some ways, RttR could suffer slightly from its theme, in that it’s clearly a war-themed game (evident from the box art) but at its heart it’s a resource-management and racing eurogame. That means that wargamers could be a bit disappointed by the euro-style play, while euro-lovers never try it because it’s a “wargame”. Me? I loved it.

Ben played the sole British role of Montgomery, while Toby (Patton) and I (Bradley) represented the US generals pushing eastward towards Germany. As Brad, my problems were apparent from the start – I had no opportunity to capture limited supply bases on the way, so all of my supplies had to be brought onto the board at the “bottom” (the west-hand side) and taken all the way to my corps by truck. Monty and Patton had the option of bringing in supplies much closer to their corps, which meant they could be a little more responsive and flexible.

It turned out to be less of a Race to the Rhine and more of a (in Ben’s words) Casual Stroll to the Rhine, with each of us being fairly cautious in our advances. Toby did shoot ahead to the east in the first few turns, but then was brought up short by a lack of supply… alongside Ben and I using the Axis markers to hamper his advance quite drastically. Ben, meanwhile, mopped up some German forces as he sauntered to the east, and I pushed on in a fairly measured and even fashion, bringing each of my three corps forward together. I nearly came completely unstuck when Toby carried out Axis counterattacks into my supply lines; I was one turn away from being completely cut off, but I just managed to sneak some fuel and ammo through to keep things moving. Bradley does have the potential to be completely cut off (and effectively out of the game) without sufficient care, so that’s something to watch out for in future!

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine – I do love the graphic design work on this one

It got a bit gamey towards the end, with Ben clearly having a lead in medals (the win condition if nobody actually crosses the Rhine before Axis markers run out) and thus wanting to end the game, while Toby and I wanted to catch up a bit… or even cross the Rhine, which Toby was perilously close to. We got there in the end though, with Ben winning on 7 medals, me on 6 and Toby on 5. A really fun game, which I’d like to play again soon… but I imagine I won’t get the chance because the theme probably puts a lot of people off. Shame.

One night’s sleep later, the three of us reconvened for Churchill on Sunday morning. An odd and very effective mix of negotiation, seemingly simple card play and abstracted warfare, Churchill covers the closing months of WWII, simulating the conferences between Churchill, Roosevelt (and later Truman) and Stalin. We played the tournament scenario, which covers the last five of ten possible conferences (the ten-conference game would take a fairly long session…), although we missed off the final conference through a lack of time.

The card-play in the Conference phases seems initially trivial, but it soon becomes apparent how important it is to (a) keep turn order in mind and (b) hold back powerful cards for late in the conference. Winning the Agenda segment at the start of each Conference phase not only lets you get a headstart on winning a conference Issue (represented by counters on the Conference Table tracks), but also ensures that you’re last in turn order, which is a huge advantage for winning that all-important Issue.

Ben (as Stalin) kept the “Nyet!” feeling alive by regularly debating Issues after they’d been advanced by either Toby (Roosevelt) or me (Churchill); conversely, neither of the Western allies felt the need to do much debating. I think I did it once, just to keep Ben from being able to debate (only one player can debate an issue after it’s advanced). It’s little touches like that which keep the theme alive through simple mechanisms – the USSR player debates so often, as Stalin did historically, because they get a +1 bonus to card strength when they do. Clever design.

Debates continued in another form after the Conference phase was over, with the assignment of support on various war fronts in the Military phase. There was a fair bit of jostling and (non-binding!) conversation going on as to which fronts would receive support and for what reason. I didn’t want to support the Normandy landings until my UK troops had entered Northern Italy; conversely, Ben was desperate to make Normandy happen so the Germans would divert some of their horde of troops to the Western front. That meant nobody could be happy until I’d got my precious advance in Italy and was ready to commit to the Normandy effort.

I pushed a couple of Global Issues early on, meaning I could place Political Alignment markers in Colonies when no one else could. That was going to be my key to VPs – Political Alignment and clearing out other people from the Colonies, keeping my head down so the others might not notice. Meanwhile, Ben and Toby kept the fronts moving forward as best they could, stealing the odd bit of Production from me (either directly or with Directed Offensives) and each other.

At the point that we cut the game short, neither Axis power had surrendered, so we knew we were in for a bit of a die-roll-fuelled resolution to the final score – it’s Mark Herman’s penalty for players who don’t bother finishing the war. The leader subtracts 1d6 from their score, the second-place player subtracts (1d6)/2 and the player in last adds 1d6. Before the d6-randomised score adjustments, I had a lead of several points over Ben, with Toby just behind him; after the adjustments, it was a different story.

Final score – Toby: 36 / Me: 32 / Ben: 31

A sneak win for the US. I’m not entirely satisfied with the “victory condition 3” ending with random score adjustments – had I not rolled a 6 and had Toby not rolled a 5, things would have been very different – but I guess that’s the idea. It’s not supposed to be a satisfying ending if the Allies don’t even bother to win the war.

And that was the end to a superb weekend of games.

John Sh and I managed to squeeze in another Corbridge Gamers on the last day of the month, featuring Tash-Kalar (deathmatch duel this time, which I think is a slightly better variant for beginners now I’ve played it – I still won 20–15), The King of Frontier, which manages to combine elements of Puerto RicoCarcassonne and a bunch of generic euro mechanisms into a genuinely successful and enjoyable little game (I won, 49–44) and Reiner Knizia’s venerable Battle Line, which is fine but not spectacular (John won with 5 flags overall).

An epic post for an epic month. October will be a little lighter on the gaming, I suspect, but there’s always hope.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 9 August 2014

Well hello, my long-neglected blog. Nice to see you again. I didn’t even write a report on my last session at Newcastle Gamers, and that was a couple of months ago. Blimey. I’ve really let things slide.

I was feeling intrepid on Saturday, determined to get in some serious gaming in spite of my CFS, so I arrived just before 2pm to an all-day Newcastle Gamers session for a pre-planned game of legendary proto-euro Roads & Boats. I picked up this game (and the & Cetera expansion) around Christmas, just after its most recent print run, safe in the knowledge that if I hated it, it would be out of print for years and I could sell it for more than the £100-ish I paid for it all.

Well, that ain’t happening. It finally had its inaugural play, and it’s a beauty.

I chose the four-player scenario “The Valley”, which is described as “suitable for inexperienced players”. That was perfect for us – I had stumbled through a few of the solitaire “puzzle” scenarios, Camo had played half a game some seven or eight years ago, while Olly and Graham were completely new to the game – and we got underway after about an hour of setup and rules. [I’ll pause briefly here to praise the rulebook – it’s truly excellent. Over the fifteen years since the release of the first edition, Splotter Spellen have clearly been able to pick up on every FAQ and corner case and weave them into the rules. There is no rules question whose answer cannot be found quickly and easily in this fourth edition rulebook, and it flows from start to finish with every rule sounding like utter common sense. Superb.]

Early in the game, with just a few buildings built by each player. Olly (green) has just built the first mine, while I (red) grow concerned about the proximity of our borders.

Early in the game, with just a few buildings built by each player. Olly (green) has just built the first mine, while I (red) grow concerned about the proximity of our borders, especially my unguarded breeding geese.

The first few turns are fairly scripted: build a woodcutter and a sawmill, and a quarry if you have nearby rock and some common sense. After that, we started to diverge a bit. Everyone except Olly was spending some resources in each round to contribute bricks to the Wonder, especially through the early rounds when bricks are cheaper. That allowed Olly to build extra woodcutters and quarries and build the first mine of the game. I got in on the mining action fairly early on, which is when I made my first major mistake. In protecting my geese from Olly (geese being vital to research), I’d ended up unable to protect my three pieces of mined gold, which were just sitting on a mountainside. I’d thought this a reasonable sacrifice at the time – after all, I could mine more gold, but once my geese were gone, they’d be virtually impossible to replace – but it turned out to be disastrous. For me at least. Quite the opposite for Olly.

Olly and I had a bit of a war of walls, after which we settled down into our own little areas. (Well, mine was little; everyone else seemed to be sprawling across the map with wild abandon.) Of course, then I made my second major mistake, in building a road that allowed Olly’s wagon containing the stolen gold to bypass my walls and escape back to his territory, where he could utilise his mint to convert it into coins and thus more points.

Walls! My attempts to keep Olly off my land came too late.

Walls! My attempts to keep Olly off my land came too late. I had successfully walled his wagon (bottom-left) into my corner of the map… but not for long.

I started down the road towards my grand plan of specialised mines (lots of gold) and steamers on my local two-hex sea carrying gold and minted coins around so no one could steal it. Graham put on a sudden flurry of mine-building (after having a little tussle with Olly and walling in Olly’s goose-thieving rowboat), while Olly had minted a few sets of coins and built a stock exchange. Suddenly, the Wonder was filling up quickly (helped along by Camo contributing several bricks made of compacted waterfowl) and the end of the game was looming. I wouldn’t have time to get my third mine built, or plough extra gold into any of the existing mines, or mint any more than one set of coins. Gah.

I say “suddenly”. In reality, the game was six hours long, but it certainly felt sudden to us. We knew the final brick would go into the Wonder in the next round, and we were all pretty certain that Olly had it in the bag. It became like this year’s Tour de France, with Olly as Vincenzo Nibali and the rest of us just jostling for the lower podium positions. Much of the last round was pointless (no point moving stuff around to build things that wouldn’t change the score), so the final couple of bricks went in the Wonder and we totted up the points.

Very near the end.

A couple of rounds from the end. I’ve got steamers, I’ve built a mint, I’ve minted some coins… but it’s not enough. Graham (blue) and Camo (yellow) had a fight over a woodcutter for a while (hence the walls), but they’ve retreated to maximise their gains.

We scored the Wonder first and Camo was well ahead, having been present (and dominant) on most of the rows. And then we realised what a pointless endeavour that Wonder-work had been when we added on our score from gold, coins and stock certificates (nobody actually had stock certificates, thankfully – Olly hadn’t been able to get paper to his stock exchange in time for the last production phase). The Wonder score was completely dwarfed by the score from everything else. The only thing it had achieved was making the game slightly shorter than it could have been, thus limiting Olly’s winning margin to just 65.

Final score – Olly: 172 / Camo: 107 / Graham: 103 / Me: 101

A resounding win from Olly, certainly helped along by the three gold I’d essentially produced for him early in the game, for a swing of at least 30 points. We all enjoyed the game immensely, and discussion quickly turned to arranging a second game. Given that it was a six-hour game, that’s quite something. Part of the beauty of the game comes from its simultaneous action, so there’s almost always something to do.

Roads & Boats isn’t without its flaws though. It’s almost comically fiddly, with hundreds of counters strewn across the board, being shunted around and transformed from one form to another. It can be brutally unforgiving, and it’s entirely possible to be effectively knocked out of the game (or, even worse, to inadvertently knock yourself out of the game). While I had plenty of interaction (and a prolonged phase of cold war afterwards) with Olly, I didn’t interact much with Graham, and not at all with Camo, who was in the opposite corner of the map. And I have a personal niggle in that if I’d drawn a gold instead of an iron from one of my mine bags in the last production round, I would have scored 10 more points and come second rather than last. [But you should have built a specialised mine – you certainly had the research for it, you cry. And yes, you’re right. But I needed the iron for my grander plan which we suddenly ran out of time for, and I don’t really like my final score being decided by the (literal) luck of the draw.]

Overall: superb game.

We followed up with String Railway and Ingenious, with Olly and Camo sharing victory in the former and Olly winning the latter. After six hours of spatio-logistical horrors, String Railway was a bit much for my brain, and I wasn’t helped by drawing dull, dull, low-scoring stations in the first three rounds, but it’s a fun game and I was happy to have the chance to play it again. Ingenious is always a joy, and we all did pretty well (except Camo, who got repeatedly locked out of scoring more in red, finishing on 6 points).

A very silly-looking game indeed. Lots of thinking though, and a lot of fun.

A very silly-looking game indeed. Lots of thinking though, and a lot of fun.

An excellent day of games. Conversation afterwards turned to films (OK, so I apparently must see L.A. Confidential) and game design (I’ll be attempting to get back on that horse very soon – or perhaps just crafting an entirely new horse) before I yet again (!) managed to get caught by roadworks on the A69 heading westbound on the way home, resulting in a detour through scenic (?) Walbottle. There’s something about Saturday nights and the A69 that rarely turns out right. I’ll put up with it for quality gaming.

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!

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!