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Early October Gaming

Having realised I’ve skipped over an excellent evening with John learning both YINSH and The Ravens of Thri Sahashri (delightfully brain-burning and baffling respectively), I thought I’d better start catching up before I forget everything that’s ever happened. As the autumn kicks in, my chronic fatigue syndrome tends to get a bit worse, which means worse sleep and a deterioration in mental acuity. It’ll come back, but it takes a little while.

Corbridge Gamers

Wednesday evenings have become a little congested recently, with my eldest son having decided that football is his sport of choice. That means football practice 6–7 pm on Wednesdays, which starts interfering with the traditional Corbridge Gamers slot once we factor in the little things like, y’know… eating and stuff. Harrumph.

As a result of this interference, I was running very late for our first October session, but John took matters into his own hands and set up Leaving Earth before I’d even arrived. It’s like High Frontier but… more of a game. There’s still a fair bit of maths involved in working out mass vs thrust, but there isn’t the mind-numbing fuel spreadsheet-thing and there’s no “roll a 6 and everything explodes”. Instead, all risks are mitigable by testing your components before you actually set off on your journey and fuel mass is kind of integrated into the components, which are instead simply “used up” by being fired into space.

We were playing with only some of the planets available, and it was still a total table-hog even with only two players.

Space is big. Even when it's only a little bit of space.

Space is big. Even when it’s only a little bit of space.

Of course, having said that “all risks are mitigable”, I actually fired Yuri Gagarin into orbit without doing much testing, just so I could beat John to a few of our randomly-drawn scoring criteria (first human in space and first human to return from orbit, or something like that). The luck of the draw worked out – two-thirds of the Outcome cards are successes, after all – and the VPs were mine. That put me substantially ahead, so all I needed to do was fire off a probe in the general direction of Ceres in order to get enough points to win. Well, I had to successfully land it first without it exploding.

Thankfully, it’s entirely possible to do your testing after you’ve sent your probe off on its mission, so once Suicide II was on its way to Ceres, I set about pumping probes into Earth orbit and landing them again. It turned out to be a wise programme, given that several of the rockets and probes either blew up or crashed into a hillside. By the time my probe reached Ceres, all the problems had been ironed out (and the software update presumably transmitted to the probe) and I touched down gracefully for the victory.

Leaving Earth was a lot of fun, beautifully presented in a retro fashion (and, being based on a 1950s understanding of space travel, you don’t know what the Moon’s going to be like until you land on it…) and I’m looking forward to exploring more of it with more players.

A week later, John and I returned to Concordia, this time on my recently acquired Britannia map. It’s designed to be tighter and more blocking than some of the other maps, but with the option to get around the coast quite quickly by sea. I took advantage of the sea movement to get spread out, then concentrated on Brick and Food cities (while John concentrated on the potentially-more-lucrative-but-fewer-in-number Wine and Cloth cities) and picked up the Farmer and Mason cards when they came up.

With my buildings in the vast majority of Brick and Food cities, the final scoring was dominated by my Farmer and Mason cards, along with a good showing in Saturnus scoring (I was in almost every province, while John had concentrated in the south and south-west). In a nutshell, a resounding hammering by me, 125–71. Great game; it should be played more often.

Newcastle Gamers

The first Newcastle session of the month began with a return to Nippon, which I’d been keen to play since its first outing last year. I played with Olly, plus club newcomers Alba and Jordan; it was possibly a bit heavier than the games Alba and Jordan were used to, but it’s very much medium-weight rather than truly heavy and they seemed to grasp it very quickly.

I’ll come straight out with it – this game is way better at four players than two. I remember two felt too spread out on the map, with little in the way of influence interaction and not much threat of running out of space to place trains and ships. Four was nicely tight, with several occasions where I couldn’t do the thing I wanted to do because someone else had just crept in and put a high number down where I wanted to go. The worker-colour game was a bit more interesting too. Given that you want to minimise the number of colours you take (in order to reduce your wage bill when consolidating) and you can see the colours that will be added to the options when spaces are emptied… but you can’t predict exactly where they’ll end up… there was a bit of hedging of bets and frustratingly failed predictions. Exactly the sort of thing I like in a game.

A vertiginous view of the endgame

A vertiginous view of the endgame situation – photo from an awkward angle by Olly

I’d messed up some of my early placements of score multipliers, thinking I’d excel at things I actually did quite badly at, so I ended up scoring things like 5 times 1 for the knowledge track instead of 5 times 5. That alone cost me the win; Jordan had managed his score multipliers much more effectively and actually scored well for the things he’d been good at.

Final score – Jordan: 172 / Me: 171 / Olly: 171 / Alba: 97

Yes, that’s about as tight as you can get for the top three positions (although Olly had inadvertently cheated in the early game by not paying for his first factory, so he should probably have been a few points down from there). But anyway, Nippon: it’s not amazing, but it’s very good, and the weight means it’s probably easier to get it played than other games from the same designers, like Madeira or Panamax.

Alba and Jordan left and were replaced by Ali for a three-player Age of Industry on the New England map. As usual for this map, there was a scarcity of coal so things got quite expensive quite quickly, the building slots clogged up and there was a bit of overbuilding towards the end. I didn’t get quite as much coastal presence as I would have liked (and certainly not as much as the other two), but I did manage to build up a fair few higher-level industries inland and get quite a few rail connections laid in lucrative places.

Final score – Olly: 44 / Me: 43 / Ali: 36

stuff

Not enough coastal yellow

I do prefer Brass, but Age of Industry has enough differences to feel like the comparison isn’t entirely fair; it stands up well on its own merits.

Camo joined us for Kingdom Builder, in which I played with my usual lack of panache, but at least I didn’t come last. I just don’t seem to be able to play this game well, although I do always enjoy it. One of the scoring cards was for having a large number of separate blocks of settlements; Camo and Olly picked up more of the special powers that helped with that (like shooting settlements in straight lines across the map) and that was reflected in the scores.

Final score – Camo: 69 / Olly: 61 / Me: 48 / Ali: 42

That was early October. More soon – there’s an all-day session at Newcastle Gamers starting very soon, with possibilities of A Feast for OdinGreat Western Trail and all sorts of other things old and new!

Autumn Games Weekend 2016

I must be getting older. Time is rattling past at an alarming rate and it seems like only a few weeks ago I was holed up in a Northumbrian bunkhouse playing 1862EA and Terra Mystica. A couple of weekends ago, we reconvened in a Yorkshire bunkhouse for more excellent gaming in excellent company.

We began with five-player Kingdom Builder with all the Big Box bits in the mix. I managed a couple of sneaky manoeuvres with the wagon I’d picked up, but – as so often with this game – I felt hampered by annoying card draws and came a resounding fifth. Olly managed to win without really seeing it coming.

kingdom-builder

Next was an old favourite I haven’t played in literally yearsPower Grid. We played on the Korea map, which meant some interesting choices in terms of buying from the North or South markets (you can only buy from one of them in each round, and North Korea – obviously – doesn’t have uranium). I spent much of the early game early in the turn order, which generally means worst position in most parts of the round; first to auction, last to buy fuel, last to build. I was, however, the only player out of the six of us to start my network in North Korea, which meant some unfettered building in the early game.

Regardless of my poor position in turn order, I actually managed to make a reasonable wedge of money, mainly through relying on wind power. We’d had a really odd shuffle of the power plant deck, so there were high-numbered plants available to auction in the early game; I’d snaffled an OK wind plant and thus could use it to get money for nothing, powering my beautiful, isolated North Korean cities while everyone else duked it out down south.

It wasn’t enough though. Glorious though Pyongyang may be, I needed to expand my network into and through Seoul, which became incredibly expensive and pulled me back in the endgame. First or second choice in so many auctions had left me with some less-than-desirable power plants too, so I was never really in contention.

The glorious

Even in the final round and falling behind, my network (black) is still second in turn order… *sigh*

John Sh and Toby tied on 14 cities powered in the final round, with John winning on the tiebreak of remaining cash. Camo brought up the rear on 10 cities, while Olly, Graham R and I all powered 12 cities. Great game, and a real shame I haven’t played it more recently.

While Olly prepared dinner, we regrouped for The King of Frontier, in which I usually do pretty well. I really didn’t this time, although there turned out to be several illegal tile placements once we had a good look round at the end of the game, so perhaps we can pass this one off as a blip in every regard. (Graham R took a very convincing win in his first ever game.)

After eating, Olly, Ben, Toby and I settled down to Cuba Libre, the second game in GMT’s rapidly expanding COIN series. It’s by far the simplest COIN title I own (the others being Fire in the Lake and Liberty or Death), largely by virtue of being set on a small, essentially linear island, but also in the way the factions are quite clearly delineated – no complex alliances here.

As with any game of this sort of complexity and asymmetricity (yes, Wiktionary thinks that’s a word and I’m going with it), it took a good while for everyone to figure out exactly how their faction could work towards its victory condition. Olly and Toby (as M26 and Directorio respectively) had possibly the easier job – Rally/March in, perform Terror, rack up the points – and my Government faction always has a hard time in Cuba Libre, but Ben as the Syndicate had probably the greatest apparent disconnect between his victory condition and the things he could do. You need open Casinos, fine… but to open Casinos you need money, which you then spend to open the Casinos and then you’re way off the Resource requirement for victory… and then you need to spend more to dig yourself out.

After a couple of Propaganda rounds, however, everyone was getting the hang of things and people kept pushing up towards their victory conditions. As is the nature of the COIN system (at least in Cuba Libre where everything’s tight and easy to get to), it was reasonably easy to keep bashing people off their winning spot on the score track. I was never much of a threat, especially once Havana had been set Neutral; it took me the rest of the game to get it back up to Active Support again.

askjf

This looks like the second Propaganda round, so everything was still very much in flux

Toby’s Directorio was a constant threat, with the relatively simple goal of just controlling spaces and getting his bases on the map. While Olly and I were controlling him, Ben started laying down a few extra Casinos; he never quite had enough resources to get the win at the first check of a Propaganda card, but I suspected he’d take it on the final check after the last Propaganda round. And so it turned out, but only by a very narrow margin.

Final victory margins – Ben: 1 / Toby: -1 / Me: -1 / Olly: -2

Great game and very engaging throughout, even if we didn’t get to see the Frank Sinatra card. I wonder if the gents would maybe be interested in Liberty or Death next time…

Cuba Libre had actually run overnight (with a long break for sleeping, naturally), so we’re now into day two, kicking off with Agricola. Drafting from 3E–2I–2K, I ended up with a lovely looking synergy, but it had been such a long time since my last play that I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. It turns out I could.

Delicious CLAY

Delicious CLAY – my farm at the end of the game

Clay Mixer to get 2 extra Clay every time I take Clay; Tinsmith (and later Pottery) to eat delicious, tasty Clay in each Harvest round; Clay Roof so I never had to take Reed; Clay Plasterer to lower the Renovate action cost to 1 Clay and 1 Reed (i.e. 2 Clay with Clay Roof) and build Clay rooms for 3 Clay and 2 Reed (i.e. 5 Clay). Clay Roof was particularly handy given that Pete had played Reed Buyer; that meant that the Reed + Stone + Food space often effectively became Stone + 3 Food (and a Reed for Pete) and it made it very difficult for others to build rooms or renovate their houses.

I was first to build a new room and first to take Family Growth, so I felt reasonably confident I wasn’t going to crash and burn. Olly was struggling to get much done, while James had more food than anyone could ever need but a less than impressive farm, but Pete wasn’t far behind me. Because people weren’t renovating or building Clay rooms, I always had plenty of Clay to grab from the board (and the 2 extra from the Clay Mixer went a long way once James had built the Well, pushing my Clay:Food conversion rate up from 1:1 to 2:3), which meant a bigger house and easy feeding for me.

I was late to build Fences and grab livestock, which left me without Cattle at the end of the game, but I had a reasonable showing in Sheep, Boar and both crops, with only one farm space left unused. Pete, meanwhile, had made a schoolboy error and boxed off a couple of farm spaces he couldn’t do anything with – no Wood left to fence them and they were separated from his other ploughed Fields. It turns out that mistake handed me the game – just. Excellent game, as ever.

Final score – Me: 41 / Pete: 40 / Olly: 34 / James: 26

I’m not entirely sure of the order of things that day, but I think Coloretto came next. I tend to play safe in Coloretto, and for once it paid off. I grabbed a bunch of “+2” cards (six in total, I think) and only had a couple of extra cards beyond my three positive-scoring colours. The others had been handily squabbling amongst themselves while I waltzed off with the win.

Final score – Me: 32 / James: 26 / Pete: 24 / Olly: 24

Another biggie hit the table: Roads & Boats. First-timer James joined the R&B veterans (Olly, John Sh and me) for a lesson in network planning and resource conversion. He certainly didn’t learn much about network planning from me – my road/building network was deeply inefficient and several times I took a round or two extra to get stuff from A to B in order to convert it into something useful. And he didn’t learn much about resource conversion from John, who managed to misread the resource requirements for both building and feeding into a secondary producer.

roads-boats-2

Olly provided the real masterclass, not only setting up an efficient network with the right things in the right places (and multiples of the very useful buildings too) but also utilising it to full effect, rounding off the game by producing… a share certificate [insert angelic choir here]. I would have rushed the game end with Wonder bricks if I’d had more stuff coming out of the land, but I’d failed to get a second Woodcutter or Quarry going and my resources were just too precious, even at that late stage. Still, at least I had some Trucks on which to hoard my freshly mined Gold. I was a round or two from creating my first set of Coins, but the Wonder was completed and… well… Olly scored more points than the rest of us put together. Just.

Final score – Olly: 206 / Me: 102 / John Sh: 60 / James: 43

I do enjoy Roads & Boats, but it’s very draining. Luckily, the next game was enjoyably brainless, both in gameplay and thematically: Hit Z Road. It’s hard to believe that this dice-chucking, luck-pushing, brutal-auctioning zombie-fest is a Martin Wallace game, but there it is. I suppose the brutal auction is the giveaway. It’s not really my cup of tea, but after a couple of beers (which is exactly the state I was in) it was most welcome and quite ridiculous.

We all got eaten by zombies.

After dinner, another game I haven’t touched for ages: Galaxy Trucker. We played with Olly’s Anniversary Edition copy, so there were a few expansion surprises tucked away in the card decks (such as “add two cards from the next level deck to the top of the mission deck”, which we had on every single mission – ouch). My game started in typically disastrous Galaxy Trucker style:

Just floatin' into port, devoid of engines, guns or cargo

Just floatin’ into port, devoid of engines, guns or cargo

The second mission went infinitely better, and I not only survived with most of my ship intact but also managed to sell loads of cargo for fat stacks of cash. I’d built that ship while attempting to answer rules questions on Roll for the Galaxy, which was going on at the other end of the table, so maybe distraction is the key to building a successful ship.

Mission three was a disaster for everyone. Slavers, pirates and worse strewn throughout the deck meant that none of our ships got through to the end of the mission. So, after paying for our losses, that meant I still had more cash than anyone else and was thus – astonishingly – the winner!

Final score – Me: 37 / James: 14 / John Sh: 11 / Graham B: 0

It was late and games were coming to an end, so I suggested Codenames to round things off. We ended up playing four rounds and staying up far later than anyone really intended – it’s just that good a game. John Sh and I were the first spymasters (having played before) and I was roundly heckled for (a) the slowness and (b) the quality of my clues. Once that round was complete (and we’d lost horribly), the tables were turned and people started to realise just how difficult the spymaster’s role is.

I can’t remember which teams won which games. It doesn’t matter. Everyone had a great time, and that’s what games are about.

Sunday morning consisted purely of Guilds of London, which I’d previously only experienced in its slightly odd two-player format. This was four-player, and it was gooooood. Way better than the cat-and-mouse and fixed layout of the two-player version. True, it rang longer than I would have liked (it was only slightly shorter than the four-player Caverna happening next to us – about three hours-ish), but that’s almost entirely down to the multitude of icons and much consultation of the reference sheet.

Rather than the back-and-forth oscillation of first player that I’d seen in the two-player game, the turn order was relatively constant through much of the game. Being in last position was still an obvious benefit, but it wasn’t possible to keep everyone in check with that last-player move. I was concentrating on a little Mayoral Reward card synergy I’d picked up (points for having no Liverymen in my personal supply and also points for having lots of Liverymen in the Guildhall), but as the game wound to a close, Graham B managed to pick up a few extra Mayoral Reward cards which I thought would probably cement the lead he’d already built up. And indeed I was correct.

Colourful and initially baffling – Guilds of London

Colourful and initially baffling – Guilds of London

James managed to sneak past Mark into a surprise third place; he’d spent the whole game quite a way back on the score track.

Final score – Graham B: 63 / Me: 52 / James: 48 / Mark: 46

And that was the end of a fantastic weekend of gaming. Roll on the next one!

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 May in Games

John and I managed to convene Corbridge Gamers a few times last month. First up was Merkator, Uwe Rosenberg’s super-dry European-trading cube-pusher. From a quiet start, this ramped up quite quickly to a cubic frenzy, with each round bringing a whole bunch of tough decisions – where to move (and whether that move gains you time or costs time); which contracts to sell off in order to retain the ones you think you can fulfil; how to block your opponent(s) from getting the cubes they need to fulfil their contracts; which contracts to fulfil once you get to your destination; which building or bonus cards to buy (or whether to save the money for next round); and so on.

I went for a simple strategy of buying as many bonus cards as possible, to the point where we exhausted the whole deck. That meant I was getting bonus cubes in nearly every round towards the end of the game, helping me gain a level in contracts every time. In the end, I managed to get the Peace of Westphalia by completing a level-10 contract; that triggered the final round. I was massively helped along in the final scoring by my building which gave me an extra VP for each bonus card in my possession (I think I had 13 or so by the end). That tipped things in my favour…

Final score – Me: 81 / John: 73

I really enjoyed Merkator. There was a lot of depth hidden under a sheen of simple rules, and I successfully planned and executed a series of contract upgrades. In other words, my plan worked, which always makes me feel good about a game.

A week later, we returned to Fields of Arle, Rosenberg’s table-obliterating two-player epic of farming and resource conversion. I concentrated much more on producing and converting fabric into clothing than I did the first time round, only occasionally selling goods to build up enough food for a couple of big building purchases. I felt like I had a better handle on it this time, but clearly so did John and he got his engine going just a touch quicker than I did, leading to a narrow victory for him.

Final score – John: 102 / Me: 98½

And then towards the end of the month we played Roll for the Galaxy, which has turned into a bit of a favourite (31–28 to me; we both ended up really going for the shipping VPs, which ended the game quite quickly with relatively small tableaux), followed by Kingdom Builder, which was a bit of a surprise. I’d only played it once before and found it enjoyable but a bit… light and frothy. Not much to it. Well, this time – thanks to a perfect storm of randomly-chosen game boards from John’s big box edition – we had all sorts of exotic paraphernalia (walls! nomads! useless multi-hex bits of cardboard!) and loads of ways to think about using them.

After final scoring

After final scoring

The biggest game-changer was the walls, which essentially allowed us to occasionally ignore the adjacency rules (by walling off the relevant bit we were adjacent to) and set up camp somewhere else on the board. This played in really nicely to some of the goals we were working towards, which were about building in each of the four sections of the game board. Unfortunately, I managed to wall myself in on one of the boards, which meant that scoring 3 VPs per building on that board (my least populated board) wasn’t very lucrative and it was that scoring card that settled the final score between us – everything else had been level up to that point.

Final score – John: 100 / Me: 91

So yes, Kingdom Builder was much more enjoyable and thinky (and took a lot longer) than either of us had expected. I’d be much more inclined to play it again in the future.

And that was about it for board gaming in May. I’ve got an ongoing PBEM game of Unconditional Surrender: World War 2 in Europe, this time playing through a Mediterranean scenario covering 1940–42, but that one’s going to take ages to play through. There’s a lot of naval movement and possible interceptions to check every time someone sails from one port to another, so there’s a lot of back and forth within each turn. As it stands, my Italian forces in Libya are feeling under serious threat from the British troops in Egypt, but I’m about to get German reinforcements so the tide may soon turn…

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 30 August 2014

I started off this session hoping to play Shipyard, which I’d acquired recently after the sudden drop in price (and increase in availability, both apparently due to a new distribution deal) of Czech Games products in the UK. In the end, that never happened, but I can’t complain – I played Agricola!

It was a five-player game, so I didn’t expect to perform particularly well. Clockwise from me around the table were Pete, Graham, John Sh and Olly, all battle-hardened Agricola players, so my expectations were even lower. And we were drafting cards (E/I/K, 3/2/2), which I’ve never managed to get a good result from before. It worked out a bit differently this time, though – the draft gave me a solid strategy to work at (Fieldsman and Planter Box to make mega-abundant fields to bake from, with Manure to enable a pseudo-Field-phase every round, and Sycophant as my first Occupation to get some Food from the Take 1 Grain space in the early game) and, judging from the cards that made their way back to me in the draft, there wasn’t going to be much competition along those lines.

I had a scare early on when the Clay Oven went just as I was going to grab it, so I waited a while for Stone to stack up before building the Stone Oven instead. It took me much longer than I would have liked to get my plan into action, so I was scrabbling around a little aimlessly at first (or seemingly aimlessly from an external perspective – Pete had stacked up 6 Grain ready to sow in my single field about five rounds before I actually did the sowing). I was a little late to expand my hut and fairly late to take Family Growth… but so was nearly everyone else, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. By about round 9, everybody still had a relatively poor-looking farm, although there was a lot of hoarding of resources, ready to be put to use.

Turn order worked in my favour a few times, even without having to take Starting Player (Olly took it in Round 11, allowing me to take Family Growth without room in Round 12 because he needed to do something else even more urgently… and then I got to take it again in Round 13, taking me up to five family members!) and, after the Clay Oven, I managed to avoid the Improvement-poaching that was happening to everyone else. A quick fencing off of all my remaining unused spaces, sowing more Grain and Vegetables, and building a Schnapps Distillery in the final round left me feeling reasonably hopeful of being able to feed my family and get a decent score. I was only seriously lacking in Cattle (none, for -1 point) and I only had three Clay rooms. But everyone else had also made a last-minute recovery and there were five good-looking farms around the table. (Even Olly, with his oddly meandering pathway of Fields and game-long struggle to feed his family, had amassed a solid collection of animals and fenced Stables.)

Final score – Pete: 44 / Me: 40 / Olly & Graham tied: 36 / John: 35

A fairly tight, reasonably high-scoring game, and a lot of interactivity as well. We’d had loads of “pass-to-the-left” Minor Improvements (various house Extensions, Corn Sheaf, Stable, Guest, Helpful Neighbours, etc.), lots of poaching and squabbling over spaces. Excellent stuff. And obviously I was very pleased with my score; I’ve been struggling a bit with Agricola lately, so this was maybe an indication that I’m getting back on track.

Pete left at this point, so the remaining four of us played Kingdom Builder. I’d dabbled with the iOS version when it first came out, but hadn’t been overly impressed with it. Part of that was the clunky digital implementation, and part was the fact that I didn’t really get the game – I hadn’t figured out how to do well at it, and it just seemed lacking in meaningful choices. John had convinced me that this wasn’t the case, and he was quite right… but it turns out that I still haven’t figured out how to do well at it.

That's my red kingdom, boxed into the corner, just spreading a vague tendril across the board.

That’s my red kingdom, boxed into the corner, just spreading a vague tendril across the board.

In a nutshell, Olly destroyed everybody, and I came emphatically last after boxing myself into a corner. We’d ended up with a slightly contradictory set of scoring cards (2 VPs per house on the horizontal row with the most of your houses, but also 1 VP per row with at least one of your houses on it), so I did OK from having houses on lots of rows, but I did very badly on the third goal of connecting up locations, cities, etc. By the end of the game, I at least felt like I knew how to do better next time. I can’t remember the exact scores, but I think Olly was high 70s, I was low 40s, and John and Graham were in the 50s.

It was nearly 10.00 at that point, so probably too late for Shipyard. Instead, Graham and I finally played our long-mooted session of Android: Netrunner. He’d recently picked up the core set but had yet to play it and I’d only played it in one session back in March, so (to paraphrase Flight of the Conchords) conditions were perfect – it was business time. NB: this session report now becomes one of “those” reports where it’s all game-specific terminology that looks absolutely ridiculous… even if you know the game.

We eschewed the rulebook’s suggestion of Shaper vs Jinteki for the first match-up and opted for Shaper (me) vs Weyland (Graham) to give a bit more of a “normal” feeling than all the tricks and traps of the Jinteki style. Graham instantly ICEd up his R&D and a remote server, but I got some handy cards in my initial draw (Battering Ram, Pipeline, Gordian Blade and Crypsis meant I had icebreakers for all occasions) and proceeded to use Battering Ram to make short work of his initial weak Ice Wall protection with a successful Maker’s Eye run into R&D and an easily accessed agenda in his remote server. Score.

Being Weyland, though, Graham got rich quick and was able to throw out ICE after ICE in front of his servers. I was lucky to get a glance at an Archer before he installed it in front of R&D, so I knew it was dangerous as long as he could afford the 4 credits (and forfeitable agenda, which he had) to rez it. I bided my time and built up my economy a bit, first with Armitage Codebusting and then installing Magnum Opus. That maxed out my memory, so I had to then save up (often using 3 of 4 clicks to take money from Magnum Opus) to install the Toolbox, just to be able to install Pipeline and Gordian Blade.

Once they were in place, I ran on his remote servers until he was down to 3 credits from rezzing ICE… then played Maker’s Eye to run on R&D again now he couldn’t afford to rez Archer. As luck would have it, I accessed not one but two 3-point agendas, giving me a ridiculous total (12, if I remember correctly) for the victory.

We swapped places and changed decks, in order to see some more of the core set cards – I was the Haas-Bioroid corp, while Graham chose Anarch for his runner faction. We both completely forgot about the option to mulligan the initial draw; had we remembered, I most certainly would have done. My initial hand had three agendas and only one piece of ICE, which obviously went straight on HQ so my hand agendas were relatively safe (in fact, it wasn’t even an “end the run” ICE, so they weren’t safe at all… but obviously Graham didn’t know that).

I went to all the effort of installing and paying to rez that Melange Mining... and I didn't even use it.

I went to all the effort of installing and paying to rez that Melange Mining… and I didn’t even use it.

After that, I was on a knife-edge throughout most of the game, in terms of agendas in the hand, but I don’t think Graham made any successful runs on HQ; rather, he was too busy trying to build up his cash reserves to the point where he felt confident to make runs. Instead, I managed to bluff my way to 2 points from the Accelerated Beta Test agenda (which I installed unprotected and simply advanced on my next turn after Graham left it untouched, assuming it was something like Pad Campaign), which then let me draw 3 cards and install any ICE from them at zero cost. That was it then – I drew Heimdall 1.0 and another nasty bioroid ICE and shoved them into a remote server. I knew Graham didn’t really have the resources to get past them (even though they could be clicked through rather than broken, with both of them there it would take 5 clicks to break all the subroutines without cost… which just isn’t possible), so I could install and advance agendas behind them in relative safety, and I scored another 3 easy points.

I hadn’t counted on Graham playing Stimhack, so he did manage to break through my dual bioroid ICE protection to steal a 2-point agenda, but he cleared out his funds and took a brain damage in order to do it, so I just spent the next couple of turns advancing another agenda for the win.

I do really like Android: Netrunner, so I hope I can convince Graham (or indeed anyone) to play another few rounds some time. It was a bit slow this time, because I was rusty on some of the rules and timings and Graham was new to the game, but it’s such a “switched on all the time” game that it never dragged for me.

Great session, as always. I won’t be at the next one, but John Sh and I are hoping to fit in a two-player Shipyard at some point soon.

All photos by Olly, 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!