Tag Archives: love letter

My March in Games

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

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

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

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

So, so, so, SO MANY things to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 11 October 2014

or Three is the Magic Number

Five very different games, all with three players. Now that’s a good session.

I began with Vladimír Suchý’s Shipyard, which looked to be a two-player game with Olly until Chris turned up just as I was about to embark (no ship-related pun intended) on the rules. Many of my favourite euros (particularly Stefan Feld games) are simply a vaguely connected bunch of mechanisms that slot together into a semi-coherent whole, and Shipyard fits into that category beautifully. With the industrial-revolution-era-shipbuilding theme tacked on, it’s so far up my street that it shares my postcode. Where Shipyard differs from many Feld games is that there’s only one main way to obtain victory points: building and sailing your ships.

If you don’t like rondels, look away now. Shipyard is full of rondels. There’s a rondel on which players place their workers to choose an action (four of which direct the player to another rondel); there’s a rondel governing commodity prices; there’s a rondel for choosing which employee to take; there’s even a concentric pair of rondels. Yes, rondels within rondels. This is rondel madness. But it works, especially the very elegant worker-placement rondel which not only defines income and the choices of players as it progresses, but also acts as the game timer, with an n-player game lasting laps of the rondel.

The rondels on the board go round and round... [Note: this picture isn't from Saturday. I didn't get a decent picture on the night, so here's one from a different session.]

The rondels on the board go round and round… [Note: this picture isn’t from Saturday. I didn’t get a decent picture on the night, so this one’s from a different session.]

The initial draw of government contracts left me feeling a little deflated; I had no killer combos and barely anything to aim towards. I settled into the groove for “5 VPs for each ship with all three safety features” and “3 VPs per propeller”, nabbing early in the game the employee that allows the fitting of an extra propeller. Chris, meanwhile, got his first ship built and sailed within the first half-lap of the action rondel. Olly took several employees quite early on (I think he had five by the end of the game), giving him some very handy bonuses when taking actions. A free businessman here, a free advance around a rondel there… I felt like I had some catching up to do.

Chris seemed to be churning out ships at an alarming rate, sailing them with very little on board and often with quite low speed, but there was clearly some grand scheme at play. (He let slip that he was aiming towards the government contract offering points for ships of exactly five ship tiles.) My ships were all reasonably fast and loaded with propellers, but not much more. Olly, on the other hand, took a while to sail his first ship, but when he did it was a thing of beauty. A supertanker, seven tiles long, loaded to the gunwales with businessmen, cranes and as many other bits as he could fit on board. It was worth a pile of points, but it seemed unlikely he’d get more than two such beasts finished in the game; I, on the other hand, was going for medium length and strength in numbers.

The thing with Shipyard is that the end of the game rolls around really quickly. Each player gets 25 actions for the whole game, and the last lap of the action rondel can take you by surprise. So it was for Olly and Chris, who ended up in the situation of having a final action that was pointless (Chris) or unaffordable (Olly). I make it sound like I’d planned everything perfectly, but no – although I could make full use of my final actions, I could tell they weren’t going to be enough to win the game. Olly’s behemoths had pushed him well ahead, while Chris’s steady churning of ships from his yard had been a solid points-winner.

My final, slightly dismal sihpyard

My final, slightly dismal shipyard

We revealed our secret government contracts to little surprise. Scoring them was a different matter. Olly was aiming for businessman–crane pairs (and scored lots thereof) and long ships (memory fails me here, but I think he sailed two, which gave the maximum bonus anyway), giving a bonus of 30 points; I had three ships with all three safety features, and five propellers across my fleet, for an identical bonus of 30; Chris, however, stunned us with his 16 points from used canal tiles. On top of his 22 from four length-five ships, his 38-point bonus sneaked the win by a single point.

Final score – Chris: 94 / Olly: 93 / Me: 72

Yes, an uninspiring performance from me. I definitely felt hampered by my government contracts, but even if I’d chosen a different pair to go for I don’t think I would have kept up with the other two.

Chris left and was replaced at the table by Jack, game designerformer game publisher and co-host of Newcastle Playtest. I’d brought Trains, which Olly recommended we play as a research tool for Jack’s deckbuilding work-in-progress Codename: Vacuum. Having not played Trains for over a year, I had to have a quick dive through the rules, but most of the concepts are so generic to all deckbuilders that it wasn’t long before we were up and running.

I was attempting the Trains equivalent of Dominion‘s simple “big money” strategy: use money to buy bigger money, then eventually spend lots of money on victory points. As a result, once I’d built enough rails to make it unappealingly expensive to invade “my” territory, I started passing up chances to lay more rails and it felt like I was falling behind a bit on the board. Then – kapow – the big money kicked in and I was able to buy a few Control Room cards. With a simple power of “draw three cards”, these quickly turned into a bit of a killer combo. Several times, I played a Control Room to draw three cards, one of which was a Control Room which allowed me to draw three more. There was very often a Landfill and some Waste in amongst my now massive hand, so I could keep my deck relatively lean of Waste and buy the VP cards.

I still wasn’t sure if I’d done enough on the board though, and the endgame went on a little longer than any of us expected, allowing everyone to get in on the VP-card-buying action. When the last station was built, marking the end of the game, I was well behind on the board scoring. Thankfully, my early switch to buying VP cards worked out in the end, giving me something like 26 points from cards alone and boosting me to a solid win (49 points, with Olly and Jack on 41 and 40… and no, I can’t remember which way round they were).

All of us agreed that Trains is substantially more interesting than Dominion, and I’d like to play it a lot more often than annually. With thirty card types from which to select eight per game, there are (by my calculations) 5,852,925 different card combinations to explore. Not to mention two sides of the board. And that’s just the base game. So yeah – a few more plays until that one’s exhausted its possibilities.

Next was Jack’s copy of Carcassonne: The City; this isn’t one of the many expansions, but a standalone cousin to the ubiquitous tile-laying euro gateway game. I like Carcassonne quite a bit, and it sees a fair bit of time on the table at home – it’s one of the few games that my kids can play and, crucially, want to play. (Note: we play without farmers with the kids. Give them a few years…) So I was very happy to try the City variation, if only to play spot-the-difference.

It turned out to be a strange conceptual battle between the familiar, the novel and the needlessly confusing… but oh! How beautiful!

SPOILER ALERT: this is the end of the game.

SPOILER ALERT: this is at the end of the game.

Yes, it’s a very pretty game on the table. I mean, I think normal Carc is pretty, but this is something else when you enter the second phase and start building the city walls.

The first phase introduces the main bit of needless confusion: the brown and green colour scheme from Carcassonne is reversed. Green means markets, which hold a meeple until they’re completed; brown means residential areas, which retain their meeple in repose until the end-game scoring. This kept confusing me for at least two-thirds of the game. But with that comes the first novel mechanism: the only features that need to match at tile edges are roads. This has the benefit of making it much easier to complete markets (which can be achieved by simply butting them up squarely to a residential area), but that’s not necessarily something you want to do.

Why? Well, the second phase introduces the walls, which are built in sections every time a feature within the city is scored. Finish a market? Everyone builds a bit of wall. Complete a road? Everyone builds a bit of wall. And with walls come guards, who watch over the city in a straight line and score points for buildings of historical interest in their view. While this is a very interesting (and yes, visually attractive) addition, it does mean the game suddenly bogs down heavily. And while each player only has two possibilities for placing their wall piece, there’s all sorts of looking along lines and counting up possible points totals in order to avoid gifting a huge guard bonus to the next player. When you reach the third phase and each completed feature heralds two rounds of wall-building… it starts to feel a bit mechanically stodgy.

There are also little tweaks like roads scoring 1–2–3–8–10–12–…, meaning there’s a huge benefit to getting to four tiles on a road; also the fact that you can’t place a meeple to score a feature that will be completed by the tile you’re placing. Just a few extra things to bear in mind.

Olly fell behind slightly in points towards the end of the game, but he completely overhauled me in the final scoring of residential stewards (that’s farmers for those of you playing along at home), while Jack powered away to win by about ten points over Olly.

Looking back, I’ve used all sorts of negative words and phrases, but I did actually really enjoy the game. Yes, it’s fiddly and slow in places, and irritatingly familiar-yet-alien, but I’d absolutely play it again.

There was a quick round of Love Letter before Jack left (we played to four points, Jack winning 4–3–3 by virtue of Olly playing the Baron on my Countess with his Princess… meaning I was out and it was obvious to Jack’s Guard exactly which card Olly was holding) and then Graham joined Olly and me for Quantum. Olly had forewarned us about sticky, misshapen dice, but… wow. They really were manky things, like a fine layer of cheap strawberry jam had been permanently applied to each surface. Presumably this was part of the manufacturing process.

Petrochemical/confectionery mishaps aside, there was a lot to like about Quantum. It’s pretty straightforward, plays quickly and has a lot of interaction/conflict/in-yer-face-stuff going on throughout. It was almost over before we properly got started when Graham found the beauty of the 3–5 combo (use the special power of the 3-die to swap places with the 5-die, then easily move the 5-die into orbit with the 3-die for an instant required total of 8) and placed most of his quantum cubes in the early rounds, but then Olly and I kept him in check with a constant barrage of brutal attacks.

Graham probably felt a little ganged-up-on after he’d leapt ahead, but it just seems to be that sort of game. It’s a fairly tight little board for three players, giving it that “knife fight in a phone booth” feel. Because there was so much combat going on, my Dominance die (add one per combat victory) was slowly creeping up towards 6. With two cubes left to place, I managed to place both in one turn – one from battering a ship to death with my Battlestation thus pushing my Dominance up to 6, which grants an instant cube placement, and the last one from the 3–5 combo we’d seen Graham use in the early game. Instant win for me, even though I’d spent most of the game struggling to spot the right moves to make.

If Quantum had been a longer game, I don’t think I’d be that keen on it. But as an end-of-the-night, swingy, conflict-heavy, 45–60-minute space game, I think it hits the spot. Once Olly’s got some non-sticky replacement dice out of the publisher, it’ll be great.

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 midnight at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Newcastle Gamers – October 2013

Catching up here with a double-whammy of turbo reports, given that I failed to write anything in the immediate aftermath of the 12 October session. I’ve been a little busy, working dawn-to-dusk, seven days a week, running to stand still. Such is the new life I’ve chosen – it’s great, but it’s hard.

Saturday 12 October

I was a few hours late to this session, so it was a relatively short one for me, filled with some relatively short games. First up was my second play of Bruges, which I’d enjoyed a lot on the previous occasion. Playing with John S, Amo and Chris, I was repeatedly let down by the card draw, meaning I couldn’t hire any heavily-VP-laden people into my buildings. Still, as a Feld game it provides plenty of alternatives when your first choice doesn’t pan out, so I was able to build some glorious canals, but it wasn’t enough to catch up with new-to-Bruges Chris. He took a decisive victory, and well-deserved it was too. Great game again – I really like this one.

All those lovely canals (bottom right)... still not enough to win me the game.

All those lovely canals (bottom right)… still not enough to win me the game.

I’d brought along Reiner Knizia’s hex-tile colour-matching Ingenious, which would fit perfectly into the time Chris had before needing to catch a bus, so the four of us played that. I never would have claimed to be an expert player of Ingenious, but I have played it quite a bit on iPad and Android, so maybe that little extra experience paid off. Whatever it was, I started as I meant to go on, getting my first “ingenious” (i.e. maxing out one of the six colour scores) in four turns, and finishing up with five ingeniouses altogether and a final score of 14.

That's me in the bottom right again, rocking a score of 14.

That’s me in the bottom right again, rocking a score of 14.

John’s very respectable 11 points wasn’t enough to catch me, and I finished the game by gilding the lily with my fifth ingenious. A glorious win. It’s nice to get this one out every now and then; it was one of the games I played in my first ever session at Newcastle Gamers, so it always feels right.

Chris slipped away into the night, so Amo, John and I played Love Letter to fill in time while other games finished. I am pathologically terrible at Love Letter, but I do enjoy it. Again, we played with John’s limited Japanese-artwork edition, playing with the bespectacled Princess. I do love a princess in glasses. Amo took an early lead, but John powered through to victory, getting the requisite 5 letters to the Princess, leaving Amo on 3 and me on 1.

Last game of the evening was 6 Nimmt! (also known on BoardGameGeek as Category 5), which has recently joined John’s burgeoning selection of small-box filler card games. Amo had drifted away, being replaced at the table by Peter (or Piotr, or something… I really should find out one of these days… it’s pronounced “Peter” anyway). John blasted through the very simple rules of this very simple card game, and we played it twice. From what I remember, it was quick, it was fun, it was light, and I may have won one of the games.

After that, I decided to make a move, but not before saying hello to club founder Gareth, with whom I play Twilight Struggle by email. Well, I actually left about an hour later, having had a fascinating conversation about games, wargames, monster wargames, physical size of monster wargames, science, teaching, being a student again, more games, more wargames… It was a great way to round off the evening.

And then two weeks later…

Saturday 26 October

This is the way it goes sometimes at Newcastle Gamers. I arrived at 4.34pm – some four minutes after the official start of the session – and everybody in the room was already embroiled in a game. No problem though. John F had arrived at exactly the same time, so I pulled out my copy of Hive and we played a couple of games. Neither of us had played for a little while so we weren’t at the top of our games, but Hive is so good that it wasn’t a problem.

I took white for the first game, meaning I was a move ahead from the start. I nearly threw it away, but I held the advantage and ploughed onwards to victory. To even things out, I took black for the second game. It’s a very different feeling, always playing the reaction game, trying to duck and dive, twist and wheel, prod and poke in an effort to swing the momentum round to your favour. Even though I got a beetle up on top of John’s queen bee, I couldn’t take enough advantage of it, and the inevitable defeat came.

The second game, just before that inevitable defeat for me (black).

The second game, just before that inevitable defeat for me (black).

We finished just as a game of Indigo came to an end, at which point Olly proposed Brass. Who am I to say no to Brass? I can’t think of a better card/tile-based industry-‘n’-network-building game representing the industrial revolution in Lancashire over two consecutive ages. It’s a no-brainer. John F joined us and Graham made us up to the maximum four.

John F and Graham were new to Brass, so Olly went through the rules; it was handy for me too, given that I’d last played it back in July and some of the intricacies had slipped from my mind. One thing that hadn’t slipped my mind was the memory of how well you could score by building canal and rail links between cities and towns. I hadn’t done anywhere near enough of that last time, so I entered into the game with that as my major strategy.

It didn’t work out that well in the canal age, but I did manage to get a bit of income rolling in, allowing me to keep building industries right up to the end of the age. Along with a bit of development, this meant that I had some level-two industries on the board at the end of the canal age – most crucially, some coal mines. At the end of that first age, I made sure to spend as little as possible so I could go early in the turn order at the start of the railway age. It worked out beautifully, and the little base I’d built up in Wigan allowed me to build railways out to Liverpool and across to Manchester, all on the first turn with a clean board. As long as those places got filled up and their industries flipped (i.e. utilised), I was going to be raking in points at the end of the game, and I had a good, connection-rich foundation to build my network on throughout the second half.

Early in the railway age, I've built my red railway across from Liverpool to Manchester, via Wigan and Bolton. I love the setting of this game.

Early in the railway age, I’ve built my red railway across from Liverpool to Manchester, via Wigan and Bolton. I love the setting of this game.

As we entered the last few rounds, I took a couple of loans and was finally dealt the card I’d been waiting for: something that would let me build a shipyard in Liverpool for 18 glorious victory points. I’d extended my rail network down through Stockport and Macclesfield, which allowed me to build through the Midlands to ensure even more points at the end. The last couple of turns were just spent building the most points-lucrative connections that were left.

Although my industries didn’t score a huge amount, my rail network netted me 65 points in the final reckoning, tipping my final score just over 130. Olly and Graham were both just over 100, with John a little way back. For once, the strategy I’d set out with had really paid off!

Results aside, it’s a great game. It was clear that experience counts in Brass – as we entered the railway age, for example, Olly and I both had coal mines on the board, meaning that our coal would be used up quite quickly as people expanded their rail networks, thus providing us with income and victory points. But Graham put up a very good fight, leading the field on the income track throughout most of the game, getting up above £20 a turn for a while. A little money can go a long way in Brass, so that made Graham feel quite dangerous. He’ll be one to reckon with next time, now he’s seen the rhythm of the game.

I nearly managed to get people to play Puerto Rico at this point, but there were just the wrong numbers of people in between games, so I sat down with Michael and John S for a quick filler: For Sale. I’d heard the name and knew it was well liked, so I thought I’d give it a go… and it was pretty good fun. Very light, very simple, very quick, but with enough decision-making to make it interesting. I particularly liked the two-phase aspect of the game: first we bid money for houses, then we bid houses for money in an effort to make the most money by the end of the game. I lost quite badly, which didn’t surprise me at all. I had a pretty good start, netting myself two of the highest-valued houses in the first phase, and I sold them for decent prices at the beginning of the second phase, but then it all went downhill and I was rapidly overtaken.

Next was Fresco, which I know John S had enjoyed playing at the last session, and he was keen to play again. Michael stuck with us and we were joined by Graham. Fresco is a game of renaissance artists painting a cathedral ceiling, portrayed via a medium of coloured cubes and worker placement. We threw in all the expansions John had – well, they’re included in the box, so they’re more inspansions – to make it as hefty as possible. It’s a slightly intimidating-looking game, but underneath the seeming myriad of options lie a few simple mechanics, so the rules didn’t take too long to run through.

I started out with a rough strategy of “paint the bits of ceiling that I can do without too much hassle”, which was OK through the early part of the game but lacked any punch later on. Michael went for “saving up paint to mix into the secondary and tertiary colours to score big points after a long build-up”, which looked crazy to start with, but having zero VPs for several rounds left him with first choice of wake-up time, usually meaning first choice of paint at the market and a general all-round air of freedom.

Where's that pope? I need to pelt him with pocket change...

Where’s that Pope? I need to pelt him with pocket change…

A week (and substantial amounts of developmental/educational psychology) later, I can’t recall a huge amount of detail from the game, with the exception of “throwing a penny at the Pope”. While this might sound like a deviant practice from the pages of Viz’s Roger’s Profanisaurus, it’s actually much more innocent. The large white pawn/meeple was supposed to represent the bishop of the cathedral we were competing to decorate, but I couldn’t help thinking of it as the Pope. When painting a section of the ceiling, you can pay 1 coin to move the papal meeple closer to the section you’re painting in order to score more points – thus “throwing a penny at the Pope”.

All in all, everyone felt that Fresco was a little gem of a game. Light enough to be accessible, yet hefty enough to encourage some serious thought and planning. I’m pretty sure John won, just a few points clear of Michael (if memory serves). I was a long way back, finishing my game without flourish, simply painting the altar for the dregs of VPs.

The rest of the night was Coloretto and Eight-Minute Empire. I honestly can’t remember which order they came in, but I’ve played Coloretto plenty of times now so there’s not much more to say. Cracking little game.

So. Eight-Minute Empire. Hmmmm. As with For Sale earlier in the evening, I’d heard some good things about the game, so I thought I’d give it a crack. After all, if it’s rubbish, it’s only eight minutes, right? Right? Well, no. It’s about twenty minutes the first time out.

And was it rubbish? Well, no. But all three of us (Michael and John S were the other imperial overlords) felt fairly underwhelmed. It’s like a bizarre cross between Dirk Henn’s Shogun and the aforementioned little cracker Coloretto. Card set collection and cube shuffling across a map. Really quite odd.

150% longer than advertised, but... kind of... not too bad... ish

150% longer than advertised, but… kind of… not too bad… ish

This was another one of those occasions where I had no idea what I was really doing and still managed to win quite comfortably, which always makes me very wary. That said, we were all inexperienced with the game so it could have been fairly random anyway. The gameplay was simple, with an odd and slightly meaty mixture of too much freedom (the map’s a bit of a sandbox at times – where should I move my cubes and why?) and not enough freedom at all (severely limited funds for “buying” cards from the table) keeping things moving.

I’d be hard-pressed to put my finger on exactly why we were all so underwhelmed. Perhaps we’d had high expectations. Perhaps the components promise so much, yet the gameplay yields so little. Perhaps it was really, really late. But underwhelmed we were. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think any of us hated it, and I wouldn’t set anyone on fire for suggesting a game of Eight-Minute Empire. I might well play it again, in fact, just to see if I missed something… and it’s so short that it wouldn’t be any great loss if I hadn’t.

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 14 September 2013

A relatively quick rundown of the last Newcastle Gamers session before the next one looms too near…

I started off with Bruges, one of Stefan Feld’s 2013 releases. It’s his twist on the card-tableau-building genre, with a little bit of board play (but only insofar as building small canals and moving a meeple up a single track). With eleventy-thousand different cards in the deck (well… somewhere around 150), it’s both highly replayable and highly baffling the first time round. I took to a strategy of populating as many houses as I could with as many high-scoring people as I could, while making sure a couple of them were “Underworld” types who would cause a little devastation and mayhem with my opponents, John S and Michael. This happened to work out rather nicely, and I pipped John to a very narrow victory.

Final score – Me: 46 / John: 45 / Michael: 38

I really enjoyed this one. It felt very Feld, but played much more quickly than most of his games. Second time round, I think I would have a better handle on what I was doing… which would probably result in me losing.

Next, the three of us played Trains. Its inaugural play at the previous session had been a hit with me and with my fellow players, so I was keen to get it on the table again. A slightly different mixture of cards was drawn from the Randomisers this time, but the Amusement Park was still in the mix, bringing huge boosts to buying power, and the Viaduct negated the extra costs of laying track in a city. We also had the Tourist Train, which (I think) is the only way to score VPs while the game is in progress.

I didn’t get off to a great start with my tracks and stations, so my strategy board-wise shifted to “wait for someone else to build a city up, then use the Viaduct to swoop in there as well, with a relatively low cost/Waste penalty”. Combined with snaffling shedloads of buildings (bringing me 24 VPs at game-end), this turned out to be a cracking strategy, and I ended up absolutely hammering the competition.

Final score – Me: 67 / Michael: 51 / John: 45

I’m not sure if my previous play gave me an advantage (we used the Osaka side of the board, so at least the map wasn’t the same), or if I just managed to strike lucky with my cards enough times to buy loads of buildings. Either way, it was enjoyed by all.

Indigo. What can I say about Indigo? It’s beautiful (see the image at the top of this post), it’s simple and it’s fun. It’s Reiner Knizia’s take on Tsuro-style path-laying games, and suffice to say that once the three of us had finished playing Michael’s copy, both John and I had vowed to get copies of our own… which I duly followed up on. I’ve already played it with my family, and it’s been a bit of a hit with them too. John pipped Michael and me by a single point: 9 / 8 / 8.

Love Letter was next, and we played with John’s fancy-pants new edition, featuring the original Japanese artwork and packaged in (shock, horror!)… a box, of all things. Michael stole John’s early lead for a tight victory, while I wallowed in third. I like this game a lot, but I’m not a good bluffer. John managed to target the Princess every time I held her, so I’ve clearly got some sort of horrendous tell. This is why I don’t play poker face-to-face.

John brought out his new copy of Coloretto, which is fast becoming a favourite filler at Newcastle Gamers. John’s is the 10th Anniversary Edition, which features the Russian edition’s artwork (slightly more garish than the original, and a bit clearer for colour recognition) and a gold wild-card with its own tweaked rule. We’d been joined by Amo and Peter, bringing us up to five players. I’ve always found Coloretto difficult to keep track of with more than three players, but I somehow managed to do much better than I thought I was doing… or perhaps everyone else did much worse… anyway, I took the win by a few points, with only one extra card counting for negative points.

I’d heard good things about No Thanks! before, so I was pleased to have it suggested as the next game. Only a couple of us were new to the game, but it’s so simple that we were up and running in no time. The combination of perfect information (everyone can see what cards everyone else has taken) and horrifyingly imperfect information (nobody knows exactly which cards are in the deck) makes for a tense little filler, full of decisions. I seemed to make the right sort of decisions, and I ended up with only a few cards (which is a good thing) and a large pile of plastic chips in my sweaty palm (also a good thing, apart from the sweat), easily ending up with the lowest score. Another win! I was on something of a roll.

Peter left, leaving four of us to play Last Will. Turned out to be a cracking game, this, combining the thematic twists of Brewster’s Millions and a classic MB game from my childhood, Go for Broke, with modern worker-placement and action-spending mechanics. I misjudged my early game a bit, slightly overwhelmed as I was with the cards and options in front of me, so I ended up with two properties (not a good thing, because although you can spend money on their upkeep, you have to sell them before the game ends, which means you get more money, which is the opposite of what you want in Last Will!) and I mistook horses for dogs. That’s right – I can’t tell the difference between outline-icons of horses and dogs. It’s a sort of ludotaxonomic blindness.

That early mistake aside, I did OK, settling into the rhythm of the game reasonably quickly. An early boost for me was the acquisition of an “Old Friend” (or something like that) card, which grants the owner an extra action on each turn. This left me able to choose to have fewer actions but more cards in each turn, knowing that I could use the extra action to make up the difference. A final spending flurry did leave me slightly in debt once I’d sold off my properties, but not as much as Michael, who finished up with a glorious minus £10. As I say, a corker of a game, and it seems well thought out with double-sided boards and extra side-boards to accommodate different numbers of players.

To finish the night off, the four of us played San Juan. It’s a bit of a classic for a very good reason, and I always enjoy it (I play it a lot on the iPad). Even though I had some terrible card draws this time, and I wasn’t able to get much of a production/trading engine going until very late in the game, it was still good fun. Michael absolutely destroyed everyone else (not literally, although I can see room for an expansion there), finishing with another glorious score – this time, 42 points.

And that was that. As ever, a great night of games.

[Apologies for the photo-austerity this time. There are a whole bunch on the G+ event page.]

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 11 May 2013

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Jo(h)ns

One of the wonderful things about Newcastle Gamers is the variety of people there, from all sorts of places and backgrounds, and with a huge range in gaming tastes. One of the slightly more confusing things about Newcastle Gamers is the fact that every other person seems to be called John. Even the ones who aren’t called John probably have it as a middle name (and I’m one of those). The upshot of all this Johnnery is that, every so often, you’ll hear something like this:

“Whose turn is it?”

“Oh, it’s John’s.”

“Ummm… John..?”

“Oh, yeah. THAT John.”

The evening started at DEFJOHN 5, with John S and Olly teaching me the microgame of the moment, Love Letter. Featuring only a deck of sixteen cards (sixteen!) and a small bag of score-keeping tokens (in this copy, borrowed from club treasurer Nick, said tokens were little red hearts… awww), it’s as simple a game as I’ve played since Hungry Hippos. Our nominal aim is to get love letters to the Princess and win her heart. In reality, we each hold a hand comprising a single card. One card! On your turn, you draw another card from the deck, then play one of the two cards to the table. The eight ranks of card have varying powers, from number 1, the Guard (name another card rank to a player – if they have that card, they discard it and are out of the round) to number 8, the Princess herself (the highest rank, but discard the Princess and you’re out of the round).

Not exactly the most photogenic game in the world... but I was winning at this point

Not exactly the most photogenic game in the world… but I was winning at this point

It’s super-simple, there’s a fair dose of luck in it and a little bit of bluffing, which makes it a nice little filler. For me, it wasn’t quite the amazing experience that it’s been made out to be on BoardGameGeek and the like, but it was a fun way to kick things off. After taking an early lead, we finished on 3 hearts each for John and Olly, with me on 2. So I lost. The game is intended to play until someone has 5 hearts, but there was a good reason we’d decided to kick off with a filler… and the reason is creeping into the top of that photo.

Yes, Agricola was on the cards. Pete had made plans to play it with another club member, and Olly, John and I had joined in to round things out to the maximum five players. We played Love Letter until our outstanding Agricolan arrived. Naturally, that “other club member” was called John. Now at DEFJOHN 3. In fact, it was another John S – the same John S with whom I’d played Power Grid in a previous session. Clearly, new nomenclature is called for. John who’d been playing Love Letter will be John Sh for the remainder of this post, while the new arrival will be John Si. Phew. So. Agricola. With Pete.

I’ve played Agricola quite a few times, and I know it well. I know the rules, I know the basic strategies, I know the rhythm of the game. Pete, on the other hand, knows all the cards. All the cards. The base game has 169 Occupations and 139 Minor Improvements, and Pete knows them, knows which ones work well together and has strategies to make his cards work for him no matter what he ends up with. Pete is a formidable opponent in any game, but particularly in Agricola. Indeed, there’s a running joke with Pete’s regular gaming group that everyone who isn’t Pete gets 10 extra points to level things up.

This was my first time drafting Occupations and Minor Improvements at the start of the game, so that was a novel twist for me. We had a straightforward mix of E and K decks, so I’d come across a lot of the cards before, but there was still a lot to take in when we picked up our hands to pick the first card. I didn’t time it, but I reckon we must have spent at least twenty minutes just drafting our cards. It was also my first time with five players, so I spent a couple of minutes getting my head around the slightly different actions available with the full player complement.

So we played. The start-player marker spent a lot of time flitting back and forth between John Si (seated directly to my left) and Pete (two seats to my right), so after a couple of rounds as start player early on, I ended up being either third or fifth in player order for much of the game. In hindsight, I really should have grabbed start player more often, but with only two workers for the vast majority of the game, it seemed like a weak option at the time. Lesson learned. As a result of being late in player order, I often took my second- or third-choice actions, bringing out a raft of Minor Improvements and Occupations rather than… y’know… actually farming.

Some of them were great though. The Clay Deliveryman gave me 1 clay per round from Round 6 to the end of the game, while the Fishing Rod allowed me to take 1 extra food (or 2 extra from Round 8 on) when taking the Fishing action – very handy when you’re not growing anything or raising any animals. My surfeit of clay (or, as it was described at the time, “a f—ton of resources”) meant that it made sense to renovate to clay very early in the game, and in combination with the Clay Supports Minor Improvement (pay 2 clay, 1 wood and 1 reed to build a clay room, rather than 5 clay and 2 reed), I ended up with a five-room clay house. And still no crops or animals.

Meanwhile, John Si was ploughing and sowing like there was no tomorrow, and he brought forth the oven to end all ovens – the Bakehouse. Worth a massive 5 points at the end of the game, the Bakehouse can also convert 1 grain to 5 food… twice per bake action. 10 food in one bake. Once John had his baking engine up and running, he was never short of food. Olly had utilised his Hedge Keeper Occupation to build all fifteen fences in one go, so he was going heavy on the animals. Pete was creating a nicely balanced farm, with crops, pastures and animals everywhere. John Sh had played the Wet Nurse, a card so powerful that many people refuse to play with it – when you build a room, you can pay 1 food to create a baby worker therein. It’s a potential starvation trap, but it’s well worth it if you’ve got the food to back it up. John did indeed have the food, in mammalian form. I’d ploughed a couple of fields and built two stables, but nothing was sown and nothing was living in the stables. Not looking great for me.

After breaking for a little food after Round 8, I resolved to get my act together and get some points. Once “Plough 1 Field and/or Sow” came out, it was my best friend, and I managed to get five fields planted with a mixture of grain and vegetables. I knew the vegetables would largely get eaten (1 veg for 3 food in my Cooking Hearth), and I had enough to sustain me to the end of the game, thanks to the Greengrocer Occupation (take 1 vegetable when you use the “take 1 grain” action) and its reciprocal Occupation, the Land Agent (take 1 grain when you use “take 1 vegetable”). After renovating again to stone and making sure I had the maximum five family members by the end of the game, I’d made about the best I could of a bad job. 3 unused spaces, no sheep, no cattle (and only 1 boar), so quite a few -1 points.

You can see my slightly bare-bones approach to farming in the upper right, just behind John Si's despairing head

You can see my slightly bare-bones approach to farming in the upper right, just behind John Si’s despairing head

In the end, John Sh and Olly had quite sparse but balanced-looking farms (although Olly was without fields, if I remember correctly), John Si was awash with grain and vegetables in a landscape of ploughed fields, Pete had a farm that looked nice but without boar (mitigated by his having played the Horse Minor Improvement, giving him 2 points for one animal type he lacked) and my farm… well, there was a nice, big farmhouse full of people (and with an Outhouse for 2 points), a few fields and crops, and a single pig. Again, not looking great for me. Of course, being Agricola, there can be some surprises in the final reckoning. Enough of a surprise for Pete to not have won?

Well, no. But not by much.

Final score – Pete: 37 / John Si: 35 / Me: 32 / John Sh: 25 / Olly: 25

So Pete won by a Horse. I was pleased with how I did, given it was my first time (a) drafting, and (b) with five players. Ah, Agricola. Always a pleasure.

Olly had to leave at that point, so after the traditional break for standing around and wondering what to play, I pulled out Snowdonia and we set up for a five-player game. Who replaced Olly at the table? Yep, we’re going to DEFJOHN 1. Well, OK. Not quite a John. This time it was Jon. So – just to clarify – that’s me, Pete, John, John and Jon. Glad we’ve got that sorted.

I hadn’t played Snowdonia in a while – which is a crying shame, because it’s great – and neither John Si nor Pete had played it at all. These two factors combined (along with my immense fatigue) to create one of my most shambolic rules explanations ever… but the whole thing gave rise to the renaming of the start-player marker as the “SEXY TRAIN”. Glorious.

I played an absolute stinker of a game. It was interesting to note that the three of us who’d played before were the ones who didn’t build a train until quite late in the game (certainly after the “train maintenance” event), and I didn’t build a train at all. Pete had Moel Siabod, which is cheap to buy (1 steel) and comes with 2 coal, but has no benefit beyond the third-worker capability. John Si had Snowdon – again, a cheap buy, but this time with 1 coal and 9 points at the end of the game. Just like in Agricola, I was late in player order for most of the game (with only myself to blame), so I ended up taking a contract card with bonus points for getting my surveyor high up the mountain, and concentrated on doing exactly that, building a few bits of station and laying the odd piece of track along the way.

John Sh built the Padarn engine, granting him an extra build action after all other build actions are finished, which was pretty powerful, and Jon controlled the timing of the game end by building Ralph, thus giving him +1 to the track-laying rate. By the time the final track was laid, I had indeed managed to get my surveyor all the way up Snowdon, but so had Pete… and he’d built a lot of station sections on the way up. Yes, Pete had grasped the game immediately and pulled out a solid win.

Final score – Pete: 94 / Jon: 89 / John Sh: 83 / Me: 80 / John Si: 71

The SEXY TRAIN takes pride of place in the coal stockyard while I do the final scoring

The SEXY TRAIN takes pride of place in the coal stockyard while I do the final scoring

Pete and John Sh had done extremely well off station spaces, while Jon and I did well from our contract cards (my surveyor got 15 bonus points on top of the 21 for being at the summit; I also got 15 bonus points from two track pieces laid and 4 points from 2 coal picked up in the final round). Considering how badly I felt I played, I could have done a lot worse. I really, really should have built a train, but resources and iron–steel conversion did seem quite tight (which is part of the reason the game flowed nicely – there was no resource-hoarding and the white event cubes came out relatively slowly). I was pleased to hear John Si and Pete say how much they’d enjoyed the game; it’s a little gem which deserves a much wider audience than it’s had so far.

After four of us had arranged to play an online game of Eclipse on iPad (we’ll see how many weeks that takes us…), Pete and John Si called it a night. With three of us left gameless and 11pm looming, I suggested Eminent Domain, and John Sh and Jon were happy to give it a whirl.

John describes this game as having taken Race for the Galaxy and Dominion and mashed them together. I haven’t played RftG, but I can imagine that’s about right. It’s a space-empire-building deckbuilder in which your deck gets more and more specialised in doing the things you do most often. This can be really handy when you want to survey new planets and attack or colonise them to benefit from them, but then when you want to do things to generate more points (like producing and trading goods, or doing technology research) your deck and hand are clogged up with survey and warfare cards. So it’s a neat little balancing act.

It’s a simple game to explain, so we got Jon up to speed and set about taking roles, following, dissenting, colonising planets… there’s not a huge amount to say about it, really. John and Jon went for the colonisation route to take control of their planets, while I went military and attacked all of mine into submission. I had an early boost from my second planet giving me +1 to my hand limit, which meant I could end up with eight cards in hand if I dissented on both the others’ turns. This allowed me to quickly expand my empire and indulge in a little production and trading.

I entirely failed to get a picture on the night, so here's a vague reconstruction of my empire on my desk at home

I entirely failed to get a picture on the night, so here’s a vague reconstruction of my empire on my desk at home

The three-player game has the same game-end condition as the two-player game (one role deck is depleted or all the VP chips run out), so it seemed to have come around pretty quickly when John took the last VP chip and declared the end of the game… but wait! Everyone gets an equal number of turns, so Jon had a turn remaining. He colonised the last planet in his tableau, giving him the last few points he needed for victory, snatching the game from John and me. Only just, though!

Final score – Jon: 26 / Me: 25 / John: 24

As close as can be! Eminent Domain isn’t an amazing game, but it’s a solid game and it plays reasonably quickly (about an hour this time round) so it’s definitely got its niche in my collection.

And that was the end of the night for me. The highlight was definitely Agricola. Frankly, the highlight will probably always be Agricola on evenings when it hits the table. Such a great game. The low point of the night was forgetting that the easternmost end of the A69 was going to be closed on my way home, so I took a slightly circuitous route around the western suburbs of Newcastle before finally making it back to the A69 and trundling home.

All photos by Olly, John Sh 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!