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Gametown Top Ranking

While listening to Heavy Cardboard episode 52 (Amanda and Edward revealing their top 50 games each), I naturally started thinking about the games that would make it into my “Top N” list. I don’t think I could sensibly manage N=50; even with the length of time I’ve been seriously gaming, I’d probably struggle to drum up 50 games I’ve played more than once and I don’t think I can legitimately pass judgement on a game I’ve only touched on a single occasion. N=10 would be manageable, but liable to change on a moment’s notice.

So I thought I’d do something a bit different: a couple of favourite games in each of ten different categories, giving me a “sort of top 20 games list” to come back to in a year or two and scoff at.

All-Time Classics

You know, the sort of games that are always hovering around people’s top-10 lists, usually in the top 10 or 20 on BGG and often more than a few years old.

Agricola

Agricola

Yeah, you know it’s still the best game ever. Building a food engine, improving the farm, grabbing stuff, keeping an eye on everyone else and making sure you know when they’re going to be grabbing stuff, making sure you have enough food for Harvest… The game wants to kill you, but it wants you to have fun anyway.

I haven’t played it for ages though, which is partly due to the constant influx of new games and partly due to the company I keep – quite a few people don’t want to play with certain other people because those certain other people are so good at Agricola that there’s no chance of winning. Doesn’t bother me though. Agricola‘s always a good time, win or lose.

Twilight Struggle

If I’ve got 3–6 hours and a single willing victim, this is the game of choice for me. Of course, those being fairly restrictive criteria and being married to someone who (by and large) doesn’t play board games… again, this one doesn’t get played enough for my liking. The new digital adaptation by Playdek does an OK job and I need to dig into it more to get my head round the interface, but nothing beats the raw tension of playing TS in person.

Heavy Euros

The real brain-burning brutes with plenty of bits of wood being pushed around.

Madeira

See all my red workers in the fields? See my red square action marker in Moinho? That's my engine, that is.

Sounding like a stuck record already, but… I need to play this more. It’s fun, it’s long, it’s oddly lovely to look at and sweet lord it hurts. It’s (usually) obvious what you need to do in order to score in the next scoring round, but how you actually get to do those things and pay for them… that’s a whole other challenge.

Through the Ages

Possibly cheating with this one, because I’ve never played it face-to-face and I haven’t played the new version; it’s all been on BGO with the original (or very slightly tweaked) rules. It’s a masterpiece of horribly tight resource management and tableau building, which are two of my favourite things in games.

Lighter Euros

Shipyard

Rondels, rondels, rondels. Ships so long they look like oil tankers. The weird canal-maze-tile-laying subgame. This one’s greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are pretty great.

Trajan

Trajan

So simple, yet tough to pull off well because of that mancala mechanism for action selection. And it works really well at all player counts from two to four.

Economic Games

Basically a way to get a few more heavy euro-type games in. Brass nearly got in here, so consider it an “honourable mention”.

Food Chain Magnate

FCM Olly

Like most Splotter games, FCM is non-stop tough from start to finish and things can go horribly wrong for you… but it’s quite often your fault when that happens and you can learn a lesson for the next time you play. And then you’ll mess up something else and get better again. So many strategies I’ve yet to try.

1865: Sardinia

This is really here as a representative of 18xx as a whole, but I think 1865 might well be my favourite. It’s small and tight, and it eliminates a lot of the fiddliness of more traditional 18xx games by virtue of players never having to calculate their most lucrative routes. So where the final rounds of many 18xx games can bog down into hours of “well, if I put a station there it blocks that, but if I upgrade this track then I get $10 extra…”, 1865 retains all the good stuff and skips along nicely to the end.

Cooperative Games

Pandemic

Pandemic

Quite enough has already been said and written across the web about Pandemic; I’ll say nothing other than that I think it’s the best cooperative game around.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

While Ghost Stories isn’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination, it’s hard. Really hard. And really fun, as long as you can cope with the fact you’ll very probably lose.

Two-Player Abstract Games

I do love a good two-player abstract, and I’m trying to indoctrinate my kids in the joys of the classic white-vs-black board game.

Hive

Hive

Yes, white should win in an evenly matched game, but it’s still an excellent game. Although it looks like you’ve got loads of choices on your turn, there are very often only one or two that make any tactical sense, so it’s usually quick to play and easy to convince your opponent to play another round.

YINSH

Definite cheating here because I’ve only played this once, but I think this might be a truly excellent game and I want to play it a lot to get better at it.

Family Games

Stuff that my kids – and even my wife – will happily play and/or request.

Indigo

Indigo

For some reason, my kids love this Knizia game. I think it’s pretty good too, and it has the added benefit of being really handsome on the table.

Ticket to Ride series

Ticket to Ride

OK, I’m not a huge fan of TtR (especially the original US board), but I think it helps consolidate a lot of basic game concepts for my kids and will hopefully prove to be a decent stepping stone to more complex games.

Wargames

D-Day at Omaha Beach

DDaOB featured image

Because I don’t have any face-to-face wargaming buddies I can play with on a regular basis, it’s obvious that the king of all solitaire wargames is sitting here. Never mind that it’s incredibly tough and your troops will be picked off by the Wiederstandsnests as they move up the beach; this is a beautifully designed challenge for the solo gamer.

Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland 8–12 December 1939

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was my real introduction to hex-and-counter gaming, and it remains my absolute favourite two-player wargame. Why? Low counter density, relatively low rules complexity and a beautiful map that – while as free as any other – encourages certain types of movement and play while leaving the door open for the odd surprise manoeuvre. Fantastic design. I’ve been trying to get my head into the sequel, Operation Dauntless, but the added chrome and armour rules mean it’s been a bit opaque.

Solitaire Games

Mage Knight

If I’ve got a whole evening alone, I’ll quite often set this up and… well, usually lose. But the puzzle! Oh, the puzzle. Every hand of cards is a different puzzle with loads of solutions, but usually only one of those solutions will get you where you wanted and with the right cards left over to successfully defeat the next challenge.

Friday

I could write almost exactly the same about Friday as I did about Mage Knight, except it doesn’t take a whole evening. Simple, yet satisfying.

Fillers / Party Games

Codenames

I’ve only played this a handful of times, and never with more than four players (so I have yet to experience the chaos and fun of larger teams) but I know it’s a genuine masterpiece of game design. So, so simple, yet so, so tough on the brain whichever side of the table you’re sitting.

Coloretto

Coloretto

I don’t think I’ve played another filler that engenders such furious bouts of swearing as Coloretto. It’s one of those “gentle” games where you can be genuinely horrible to people without directly stealing from them or anything like that. Again, a brilliant bit of game design.

So there it is. My pseudo-top-20 list. What did I miss off? What entire categories of game did I neglect to include? Let me know.

Oh, and I couldn’t neglect to include this little pop gem.

July – There Were Games

Yes, there were indeed gamings, including one session at Newcastle Gamers which I haven’t blogged about so far. It’s been another busy month, including a ramping up of volunteering responsibilities (which is good because I can – just about – handle it), a family holiday (which is good because holidays are apparently A Good Thing) and watching the Tour de France (which is good because it’s the Tour), which hasn’t left a huge amount of time for blogging. And so to a whistle-stop round-up of the month…

July started with a first play of La Granja, which I’d been on the lookout for since its original release in 2014. Who can resist another farming game? It’s a bit of everything euro, with the rulebook going as far as naming the specific design “influences” (that’s in scare quotes because in reality they’re directly lifted from the original games): Stefan Feld’s Luna, Carl Chudyk’s Glory to Rome and more. It could have ended up feeling pasted together, but it holds up really well and was a hugely enjoyable game. I was a bit slow getting stuff onto market barrows, concentrating too hard on craft buildings at the start, which was reflected in the fact that John beat me 65–62. The bonus tiles from craft buildings don’t necessarily cancel out the fact you’re short on VPs!

We also managed to fit in Welcome to the Dungeon that evening, with John’s wife Averil making us up to three. It’s not entirely my sort of game (push-your-luck bluffing), but I preferred it with three compared to the four-player game a few days later…

Talking of which, Newcastle Gamers on the 11th was a treat, starting with Panamax. Sharing two designers and a certain degree of “complex play from relatively simple rules” with my beloved Madeira (which I’ll surely get a chance to play for a second time soon), Panamax uses dice-based action selection to create a surprisingly tight and brutally interactive game of goods shipping.

Olly and Graham had both played before, while John and I were fresh to it. I hadn’t quite twigged some of the details from a single read-through of the rules, so it wasn’t until about halfway through the first of the three rounds that I realised why I might want to do some things rather than others – the importance of getting my own boats through the Panama canal suddenly became clear. I hit lucky with some early contracts and my initial financial advisor card tied in well with that, giving me bonus points for each flag token.

Hello sailor!

Hello sailor!

It took a round or two to get a handle on all the movement options as well, including grouping and re-grouping as ships move through the canal. It doesn’t matter how many times it’s explained; it’s not until I’m actually doing it that I understand all the implications. And I still ended up getting it wrong in the final round, leaving many of my goods and ships pointlessly stuck in the middle of the canal.

By the end, Olly had beautifully manipulated the relationship between his company and his personal fortune, pushing him to a comfortable victory. (John, meanwhile, had misunderstood his financial advisor card and thus played the whole game to the wrong goal. Oops!)

Final score – Olly: 127 / Me: 107 / Graham: 86 / John: 58

Great game – I’d definitely play it again. After a quick Welcome to the Dungeon (as stated before, not quite as good with four as with three – not enough information for my taste to make sensible decisions), we attempted the “short” version of Uwe Rosenberg’s Ora et Labora. This was supposed to take one hour; in reality it took just over three, including a rules explanation. Regardless, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, although it left me with an unshakeable fear of the full-length game.

Another Rosenberg game that takes up a whole massive table.

Another Rosenberg game that takes up a whole massive table.

The short game is ridiculously generous with free goods, getting steadily more valuable as the game progresses through its 13 rounds. I spotted some of the late-game free goods a few rounds in advance and figured out a way to just (and only just) make two Wonders in the final couple of rounds, utilising the start player’s double-action ability. That was enough to tip me over the edge for a win.

Final score – Me: 211 / Olly: 202 / Graham: 169 / John: 168

Again, a really fun game (albeit a bit long for a “short” version) which edged me one step closer to having played all of the big-box Rosenberg games. Spoiler: I’ll complete that challenge in about two paragraph’s time.

A few days later, I teamed up with John and Averil to save the world in Pandemic, playing with the In the Lab expansion for the first time. I thought the lab challenge added a really nice new element to the game, both thematically and mechanically, which has tempted me to buy the upgrade kit for my own original-edition copy of Pandemic so I can get the latest expansions for myself. Anyway, we lost, but – in typical Pandemic fashion – only just. The yellow disease had been a problem from the outset, and the outbreaks got away from us just as the player deck came to an end.

And then the final gaming evening of the month was At the Gates of Loyang with John, completing my “big Rosenberg” checklist. Agricola, At the Gates of LoyangCavernaFields of ArleGlass RoadLe HavreMerkatorOra et Labora… I’ve played them all now. And what a treat this one was! Right up there with his very best, full of tight resources, tough decisions, brain-burn… and the oddest card-drafting phase I’ve come across. Still, it worked well and I got my head round the game quickly enough.

We both ended up at 17 on the Path of Prosperity, so it came down to the tiebreaker: cash. John had 1 coin left over; I had none. A win for John, even though I helped him figure out how to end up with 1 coin left. 😉

Not a bad month for games, but I’m hoping August will be even better with (hopefully) three Newcastle Gamers sessions and as much extra gaming as I can fit in.

My January in Games

There isn’t usually enough gaming between sessions at Newcastle Gamers to make a song and dance about. Maybe an evening here and there; perhaps a weekend afternoon with the kids.

Well, January 2015 has been chock-full of gaming goodness. It started in fine form on New Year’s Day, introducing my friends Ben and Rachel to Pandemic – playing with my wife, a hardened Pandemic veteran. Perhaps it would have been a little smoother to have played before an entire bottle of red wine went down one person’s throat (identity protected for purposes of dignity), but everyone had a good time and enjoyed the game. Oh, and we won with two cards left in the player deck. Perfect!

After the early-January all-day session in Newcastle, I met up with fellow Corbridge gamer John on three consecutive Wednesday evenings. It’s as close as I’ve ever been to having a regular game night, and it was only the sudden blizzard last Wednesday that prevented a four-week run. We’ve had two games of Viticulture, one of which was with the Mamas & Papas expansion from Tuscany (really enjoyed both those games – an excellent light worker placement game, with potential to become substantially meatier as the Tuscany expansions get added in). There’s been Targi (slightly mind-bending with its spatial aspects), Bruges with bits of The City on the Zwin (always enjoy Bruges, and the bits of Zwin we used were a neat addition) and Rosenberg’s Fields of Arle.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge.

Fields of Arle is a real table-eater. Huge for a two-player-only game.

Fields of Arle deserves a paragraph of its own, because it’s a really neat ‘greatest hits’ compilation of bits from Rosenberg games over the years. There are obvious bits of Agricola in there, plus a few elements from Caverna (where it differs from Agricola). Le Havre comes to mind when considering all the paths to upgrade and convert resources, along with all the different uses for them, and Glass Road is the clear progenitor of the random selection of buildings available for construction once spaces have been cleared on your board (and that’s also a bit Farmers of the Moor). I won, 97½ to 92½, but John and I had adopted utterly different strategies. I’m sure there are a whole bunch of paths to victory – mine was just building shedloads of buildings, while John actually did some proper farming, harvesting flax, converting it to linen, then sending that off on his selection of carts to be turned into clothing. I really enjoyed the game, and I should play it again soon before I forget not only the rules but also the resource-conversion paths.

Gaming with the kids has been plentiful, with Bandu (Bausack by a slightly more Anglo-friendly name) being a particular hit. Camel Up has also been popular with my 7-year-old; it’s got just the right mixture of randomness, tactical positioning, brightly coloured stacking camels and a pyramidal dice dispenser. Rampage remains my 5-year-old’s favourite. It seems a bit of wanton destruction is quite appealing to a small boy. Who’da thunk it?

Brilliant oddity of the month was my friend Sarah’s out-of-the-blue request to play Twilight Struggle. Stats-wrangling site FiveThirtyEight had run a few blog posts on board games, and she’d seen Twilight Struggle referred to as “the best board game on the planet”. Like a moth to a flame, Sarah was drawn to the glimmering beacon of Twilight Struggle and invited me over to teach her the game. We had an excellent evening, with me playing USSR in an attempt to drive the game to an early-ish conclusion while giving Sarah a feel for the game (and repeatedly stopping her from committing DEFCON suicide). Some very duff hands in the first few turns put paid to that plan, and I didn’t win until Turn 7. That was lucky really, because the game was undergoing its natural later swing in favour of the USA and my unlucky card draws had returned late in the Mid War.

War

Into the Mid War, with the Americas and Africa virtually untouched.

January also saw the end of play-by-email games of Paths of Glory and Twilight StrugglePaths was against Gareth; although I’d held his Central Powers forces quite well for a long time (even after my western front collapsed), eventually the Russians fell to bits as well and there were Germans and Austro-Hungarians everywhere. A crushing defeat. Twilight Struggle was Olly’s second game, which he won as the USA after ten turns and final scoring. Later analysis has revealed that I missed an opportunity to DEFCON suicide him in the middle of the game… but I probably would have just pointed it out to him had I noticed and suggested he play a different card.

I’ve still got a PBEM game of Unconditional Surrender!: World War 2 in Europe on the go, playing the USSR 1941 scenario as the USSR. It’s going terribly for me, so the less said the better. The game system skews heavily in favour of aggressive Axis play (hefty combat DRMs for German units, especially Panzer armies), and that combines with the option for multiple mobile attacks by single units to create a situation where it’s easy to get overrun by the German forces in the first turn. That’s exactly what happened to me, anyway. The USSR can keep creating cheap leg units in each turn, but that just creates more targets for the Germans to attack. It won’t be long until Moscow falls. Ho hum.

Digital

I don’t usually mention non-board-games on here, but a new laptop has enabled me to get up to date with some computer gaming too, so… whatever. It’s my blog. Here we go.

I’ve been starting to explore space-fantasy civ-style game Endless Legend, which takes all sorts of concepts from old stalwart Civilization V and spruces them up with quests, different species, changing weather and gorgeous graphics. I’m not sure if it’ll have staying power for me like Civ V (or any Sid Meier Civ game, for that matter), simply because I prefer the pseudo-historical human aspect of Civ, but it’s a wonderful alternative to have. Which reminds me – I should get back to trying to figure out Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II. They’re right up my street, but the depth is ridiculous.

That's a nice city you've got there. Shame if something were to... happen to it.

That’s a nice city you’ve got there. Shame if something were to… happen to it.

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game, clearly influenced by the Portal games, but playing as a humanoid robot AI working its way through a series of challenges in utterly stunning outdoor environments. This game is seriously beautiful, and the puzzles present just the right amount of challenge without being annoyingly difficult. So far, anyway. There’s also a wonderful lack of ‘action’; I’m not a fan of games involving rapid button mashing and sprinting around, and this is definitely not one of those games. Most of the time is spent staring at the screen and wondering how to keep that gate open while shining a beam of light through it simultaneously. Then trying it, failing and going back to figure it out again.

It’s all set against a backdrop of philosophical enquiry and debate regarding consciousness and post-human humanity (play it and you’ll find out), and it gets a bit sixth-form-philosopher about it IMHO, but it certainly isn’t enough to spoil the atmosphere and pleasure of the puzzles. I just wish it had done away with the tetromino-tessellating block puzzles that unlock further areas of the game. They’re usually so easy as to be pointless, and when they’re harder it’s frustrating because you just want to get on with the actual game.

The Talos Principle. It's even lovelier in motion.

The Talos Principle. It’s even lovelier in motion.

And just towards the tail-end of January came the release of Grim Fandango Remastered – a reissue of one of my favourite games from the 1990s, with updated visuals, audio and UI. As an old-school point-and-click-style adventure, it had the potential to feel very dated, even with the spruced-up bits and bobs, but the characterisation and humour keep it fresh (and the black bars at the sides of the screen – an artefact of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 – only add to the vintage fun vibe). Even better, I’ve forgotten the solutions to most of the puzzles in the fifteen years since I last played it.

It's the Day of the Dead, so it's quiet in the office. Note the black bars at the sides – a legacy of the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 screen ratios.

It’s the Day of the Dead, so it’s quiet in the office. Hold on… how does a skeleton get a sweaty back?

So that was January. February’s already looking pretty good too (snow permitting), except for the fact that I won’t be able to make either of the Newcastle Gamers sessions this month.

[sad face]

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 9 February 2013

I’d again made tentative plans prior to Saturday’s session at Newcastle Gamers, this time to play Eclipse with Olly and John S, so we managed to avoid the awkward standing around and got stuck straight in to a bit of 4X fun. Well, not straight in – the setup and brief rules run-down (John and I being Eclipse newbies but having read the rules) took just over 30 minutes, and that was mainly just setup. There are a lot of bits in this game. Tiles in bags, tiles in piles, tiles in boxes, cubes and discs on player boards and on hexes that make up the main playing area, plastic ships in three sizes, player aids and more. We had to enlist a second table to help us accommodate everything. Kyle joined us to round out to four players, all playing human factions – no aliens for the first time out – and we set off into the void.

It felt very much like a learning game for me. For the first few rounds, I found it hard to judge how many actions to take and how best to deal with the results of my actions. As a consequence, I kind of hobbled myself for the remainder of the game by almost entirely cutting myself off from everyone else (which I thought would help keep me safe), while at the same time drawing (and keeping!) lots of hexes that didn’t give me the types of income I needed. I struggled for money for nearly the entire game, although a few lucky discovery tiles (three +5 science resource tiles!) gave me a research boost in the early rounds. Yes, I had “turtled”. And no, it didn’t work out well for me.
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