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Spring Games Weekend 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming into the final set of operating rounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My dismal little village.

My comparatively dismal little village.

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

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

The end of the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My February in Games

No Newcastle Gamers for me during February, and a bout of the nastiest illness I’ve ever had (tonsillitis coupled with hand, foot and mouth disease, for that bacterial–viral double-whammy) limited most of my other gaming opportunities too, but there were a couple of solid gaming sessions with John S in Corbridge.

At the beginning of the month, we played Keyflower, with the Farmers expansion. It was my first Keyflower in about a year, and my first ever with the Farmers, but there’s something so natural about the game that I didn’t need much in the way of rules-refreshment and Farmers only adds a couple of new mechanisms.

It was a bit of an oddity of a game, mainly because every single green meeple came into play. Most of them ended up in my village as part of a massive meeple population (meepulation?), because I was building towards some big winter-tile bonuses from green meeples and sets of three meeples. I kept using green meeples to activate the green-meeple-gathering hexes in my own village, thus locking John out  of those hexes because he didn’t have enough green meeples… and so the cycle continued until the box of green meeples was exhausted.

My village during final scoring. Lots of points from the (promo) Emporium and

My village during final scoring. Lots of points from the (promo) Emporium and Key Market.

John played a much more ‘normal’, rounded game, but it wasn’t quite enough to offset my big winter scoring (even taking into account that I’d misremembered a scoring rule) and I took the win, 74–68. As ever, I really enjoyed it. My favourite game I don’t own.

John's Pigville. This is how a normal village looks.

John’s final village. This is how a normal village looks.

The other excellent session involved a Stefan Feld game I’d somehow never got around to playing – Amerigo. Quite how I’d never played it is beyond me, given that (a) it’s a Feld, and (b) it’s got a massive great gimmicky cube tower in it.

It also ended up as an odd session, because the random board layout left us with an archipelago almost entirely bisected by a massive island. It was the only ‘large’ island in the game, and one of the only islands not to be fully built up by the end of the game. Still, it didn’t bother me, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first play of Amerigo. In typical Feld style, there’s always a valid-feeling choice on every turn, and the real meat of the game is in trying to figure out which choice is actually the good one. I think I squandered a couple of turns here and there, and I wished I’d stocked up on cannonballs instead of going for a more immediately appealing option early in the game – that could have saved me a good 12 points lost through piracy and possibly won me the game. Instead, John showed his experience and won 156–146.

love the cube tower too. Great use of an existing mechanism.

We also managed to fit in games of Patchwork (the least Rosenberg-feeling of any Uwe Rosenberg game I’ve played, but still good fun) and BraveRats (which was… fine, if a little inelegant – I don’t expect a 16-card microgame to need a combat results table).

And that was pretty much my February in board games. Not much action at all.

But during my recovery from the aforementioned devil-plague, I found myself back at the controls of Crusader Kings II on my computer. Having not played for at least a year, I’d forgotten just how much fun it is, especially when your character has traits like ‘Lunatic’ and you get events like this:

I also introduced The Pants Act, banning everyone from wearing pretty much anything from the waist down.

I also introduced The Pants Act, banning everyone from wearing pretty much anything from the waist down.

But beyond the ridiculousness… it’s a great game with huge breadth and depth, especially with some of the later expansions and additions to the base game mechanisms. The down side is that it’s a massive time sink – to play a normal game from 1066 to 1453 apparently takes 30 to 40 hours, and I’ve barely gone over a century in any of my games. Given that the Charlemagne expansion takes the start date back to 769, I can’t imagine I’ll ever play a game that covers the full possible span.

Still, I’m having fun just pootling around in the 12th century, marrying my children and close relatives off to (a) distant kings so I can call on their new lieges’ massive armies; (b) next-door neighbours so I can more easily expand my realm; and (c) just occasionally… each other. There’s still only a smallish chance of their children having the ‘Inbred’ trait…

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.

My 2013 in Games

Well, just like I did in May, I’m getting an odd compulsion to look back over my gaming in 2013, now that it’s all over.

Games with others

Most Played

The games I played with other people more than any other in 2013?

Coloretto and Pandemic (8 plays each)

No, neither are a surprise. Coloretto‘s quick, light and very popular at Newcastle Gamers. I’ve even got my own copy now, although I haven’t had the chance to inflict it on anyone yet. Great game, and I’m sure it’ll continue to get played a lot.

As for Pandemic, it’s one that I’ve used to introduce a few non-gamers to the world beyond Monopoly. It’s my infection vector (subject-related reference intended). Co-op, fairly quick, relatively simple… again, it’ll continue to be played for a long time to come.

Runner-up

Special mention has to go to Hanabi and Hive with 6 plays each. Both wonderful games in different ways. I need to find someone to regularly play Hive with. It shouldn’t be too hard to talk someone into it…

Best New Games of 2013

Keyflower. Keyflower, Keyflower, Keyflower. Love that game (and yes, I know it was technically published in 2012, but I didn’t get to play it until 2013). Tragically, according to BoardGameGeek, I haven’t played it since April! April! That needs to be rectified sharpish.

Terra Mystica should get an honourable mention here too. I’ve only played it once (and only two-player), but it was a corker.

Classics Discovered in 2013

Every board gamer has a few classic games in their mind that they’d “like to play”. Every so often, that opportunity presents itself. Here are a few I got to play in 2013. (I use the word “classic” fairly loosely – it’s a mixture of oldies and well-regarded-ies.)

Twilight Struggle: I’ve still only played this once face-to-face, but with a few more play-by-email games under my belt (using the Vassal engine), this has taken its place in my pantheon of favourite games. A stunningly good game.

Brass and Age of Industry: I’ve lumped these two together, what with AoI being a streamlined reworking of Brass. I got to play each of these twice in 2013, and they’re both fantastic games. I imagine Brass would be the harder sell to many people, and it’s a much more brutally unforgiving game, but I do prefer it in many ways (not least the north-west England setting).

El Grande: I wasn’t blown away by El Grande, but it’s such a classic that it was impossible to say no to a game.

High Frontier: Almost exactly a year ago, I played High Frontier. I would very much like to play it again. Olly now has the Colonization expansion. This is a delightful confluence of factors, which I’m sure will result in space-based awesomeness at some future point.

Solo Cardboard

I spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting at my desk staring at cardboard and wood in front of me. I love board gaming alone. It’s quiet, it’s intense and it’s (usually) challenging.

Leading the 2013 field in number of plays is Onirim (25 plays), followed by Friday (15 plays). I much prefer the gameplay of Friday, but Onirim takes about half the time and doesn’t need quite as much thought. It’s quite telling that 18 of those 25 plays were in December, during my current illness. It’s about all I could do in those early weeks.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? is the next most popular solo game in my 2013, with 8 plays. I haven’t played it for a while, so maybe it’s time to have another run at keeping the world safe from terrorists. Thunderbolt Apache Leader, Field Commander Napoleon, Cuba Libre, Cruel Necessity, Space Empires: 4X and D-Day at Omaha Beach have all had multiple airings over the year (and it’s a little ambition to get a proper multiplayer game of Cuba Libre in this year). I seem to have settled into a fairly wargamer-ish solo regime, I think largely due to the sense of narrative gained through playing these games (as well as the substantial educational value in historical gaming). Nevertheless, euro-favourites Agricola and Snowdonia have also hit the table a fair few times in a solo capacity. In fact, Agricola‘s set up behind me right now.

Digital Board Gaming

It’s been a pretty full year for digital versions of board games across various platforms. I’ve been playing a few games by email using Vassal (most notable being Twilight Struggle and Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland: 8-12 December 1939), playing a few on Boîte à Jeux (mainly The Castles of Burgundy and Trajan, with a smattering of Agricola and an exploratory Dungeon Petz thrown in for good measure) and playing a lot on the iPad.

Carcassonne is still my gold standard for iPad gaming, and it’s still getting a lot of play even now. Eclipse put in a very good showing on its iOS release this summer, but Eclipse tends to shine with four or more players so asynchronous multiplayer games can get a little unwieldy in terms of downtime between turns.

Agricola on iOS… gaaaahhh. I love Agricola. I absolutely don’t love the iOS version. There’s too much visual faff, too much scrolling required, too much pictorial representation of what the print version does so well with words. I don’t find it user-friendly at all. I’m finding it manageable (just) in two-player games, where the number of action spaces is at a minimum (and thus the scrolling is at a minimum) and I can keep a vague idea in mind of what my opponent is doing without having to constantly look across several different screens of information. I know the iOS version of Le Havre is ugly, but at least you can see everything you need to see on a single screen. It’s brilliant. Agricola isn’t.

I’ve recently been putting in a fair few plays of Shenandoah Studios’ Battle of the Bulge and Drive on Moscow. They’re lovely little (well, Bulge is little… DoM is substantially bigger) wargames with an area-impulse system rather than a hex-and-counter approach. There’s a lot of challenge just against the AI, and I keep coming back again and again to Bulge‘s “Race for the Meuse” three-day scenario. It’s so tight for time for the Axis forces to hit the Meuse river by the end of the third day – love it.

Looking Forward

What will 2014 bring in terms of gaming? Well, for now it depends on my recovery from this post-viral fatigue syndrome… and once I’m past that it’ll depend on my work and studies, assuming I’m well enough to fully return to them.

I have a copy of Splotter Spellen classic Roads & Boats arriving in the next few days, plus the &cetera expansion. It’s always sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d love (resources, networks, building, hexes, wet-erase pens… geese, for heaven’s sake) so I’ve jumped on a copy from the latest printing before it sells out and becomes unavailable for the next five years. Even if I hate it, I can wait a couple of years and sell it on for at least double what it’s cost me. And it’s cost me quite a bit.

January should also finally see the arrival of my Kickstarter copy of Hegemonic, pretty much one year on from when I first backed it. I’m still really looking forward to it – it seems like just my sort of twist on the whole space 4X thing. It’s a lot more like a cross between Dominant Species and Tigris & Euphrates than anything like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium. I know one thing for sure in 2014 though: I can’t be bothered with backing stuff on Kickstarter again, unless it’s proven to be beyond awesome and genuinely requires the backing to get published. If a game’s on Kickstarter, chances are it’ll hit the usual retail channels earlier and cheaper than the Kickstarter copies, and stretch goals generally aren’t going to make enough difference. (Still, Hegemonic genuinely wouldn’t have had the double-layered anti-slipping player boards if it hadn’t been on Kickstarter, so at least that’s something.)

Anyway, here’s to more gaming in 2014!

Agricola schnaps

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 9 March 2013

One month older and with a +1 modifier to Progeny, I returned to Newcastle Gamers. Visiting in-laws meant I was able to make the 4:30 start of the session, and I’m so glad I did. If I hadn’t, I would have missed Keyflower.

This had been one of John S’s birthday games, received just a few days beforehand; having given it an inaugural two-player run at home, he was keen to try it with a larger group. Keyflower plays up to six, but we kept things sensible with a group of four: John, me, Olly and Camo. My psychic powers had foretold that this game would be hitting the table (i.e. John had mentioned it on Google+), so I’d watched through Richard Ham’s excellent play through video in an attempt to get a handle on the rules. (I’d also had a go at reading the rulebook, but it wasn’t desperately clear to my baby-addled brain.) John’s excellent rules explanation bolstered my confidence in my grasp of the gameplay, and we entered into the first of four seasons in the “Key” world – actually, given the designers’ penchant for calling everything “Key-x“, it’s probably called the “Keyniverse”. Continue reading