Considering the general mayhem that August usually brings (school holidays being the main disruptor of sanity and routine), I managed to fit in a surprising amount of gaming. Among the usual family favourites like Ticket to Ride, Indigo, Catan Junior and Forbidden Desert, I also introduced my eldest, J (now 9), to GIPF and we both indoctrinated his brother A (7) in the ways of Small World (in which they ganged up on me and A won his first ever game).
August’s Corbridge Gamers sessions started with a delivery from the hype-train: Scythe, which – like Jamey Stegmaier’s previous game Viticulture – I thought was fine and perfectly playable, yet completely unspectacular. Now, to be fair, I hadn’t quite got my head around exactly where the balance of VPs was going to come from, so I blithely bashed on towards my sixth star without thinking about expanding my territory and lost to John quite horribly (110–57). I mean, losing never bothers me and I would know what to do differently next time… but maybe my failure to grasp the importance of controlling hexes had dampened my opinion of the game somewhat?
Well, skipping on to the last Newcastle Gamers session of August, I got the opportunity to play Scythe again, this time with five players instead of the Corbridge-standard two. I enjoyed it much more this time out, with a lot more going on in terms of interactions – at one point I was perfectly poised to swoop in and take the central Factory hex from John when Camo jumped in first and essentially shut me out for what turned out to be the rest of the game. Fun! (No, really.)
I ended up doing no better in terms of territories this time, but at least it wasn’t for want of trying. We ended up with quite a tight spread of points and a surprise victory for Olly, almost entirely by virtue of the fact he’d been hoarding cash to fulfil his secret objective card… and cash is VPs.
Final score – Olly: 59 / Pete: 54 / Me: 48 / Camo: 47 / John: 41
So… thoughts after two games? Yeah, it’s still pretty unspectacular. It’s like watching one of those lazy holodeck-based episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation: all the familiar elements are there and you’ll have a good time, but there’s something deeper missing and it leaves you feeling slightly unfulfilled. It reminds me a lot of Eclipse:
- hex-based exploration (and some hex-to-hex routes inaccessible without certain technologies)
- rush to a central important hex
- hex control necessary for scoring and for producing resources
- first-half buildup followed by second-half petty skirmishing for hex control
- moving bits of wood from one place to another uncovers a thing and covers something else (I realise that’s a fundamental description of moving any bits of wood from one place to another, but if you’ve played the games you’ll know what I mean)
It’s mercifully shorter than Eclipse, and the main reason I don’t really play Eclipse is that I don’t enjoy it enough for the amount of time it takes, so I guess Scythe wins in that respect. It just doesn’t feel as elegant as Eclipse… or a lot of other games, frankly. I think it’s trying to do one or two things too many and it feels like a muddled experience. Oh, and the board design is a nightmare in poor lighting. Still, I’d play it again, although the alternatives would have to be reasonably poor to make me go for it.
Back to Corbridge Gamers and the inaugural (and still only-so-far) run of Guilds of London, Tony Boydell’s long-gestated area-control-with-confusing-iconography game. I’m entirely reserving judgement and comment on this game until I’ve played it more than once and with more than two players, because (a) the iconography on the cards is a complete bastard and the first game is almost entirely spent trying to figure out what each card in your hand does; and (b) the two-player game is quite possibly not much like the “real” three/four-player version.
Don’t get me wrong: we both really enjoyed the actual mechanisms and the wealth of options and decisions available with each hand of (baffling) cards. It’s just that the two-player version turns into a swingy cat-and-mouse round the scoring track. The VP leader is first player for the round, which is a disadvantage, meaning the second player is more likely to score more points and jump into the lead, thus leaving themselves at a disadvantage and likely to be overtaken again in the next round… and so on. No great surprise that the scores were close (70–68), but the winner could have been either of us.
More precisely though, it was me.
We also played Brew Crafters at John’s table this month, which was possibly the best-received Corbridge game of August in my eyes. It’s so much like Agricola that if Uwe Rosenberg wasn’t reportedly a fan of the game, I’d be expecting litigation. That makes it really easy to teach an Agricola veteran though: it’s just “these are resource-accumulating action spaces, these are Occupations, these are pretty much Improvements, let’s go”. OK, there’s a slight wrinkle with the two types of worker and the “brewery phase”, but it’s very Rosenberg.
The randomised available beers pointed me towards brewing ales for big points (8 points per brew of Belgian Quad), whereas John’s first move had telegraphed his intention to at least start off with the porters. It took a while to get going (and money is so horribly, horribly tight in Brew Crafters) but I managed to crank out a few high-value ales and over-hop a few for extra points with the Hop Infusers. My research track actions left me gaining even more extra points just for brewing beer, but I wasn’t sure if John’s more-beers-but-lower-value approach was going to squeeze me out in the final reckoning. As it turned out, I got the win 67–59; those Hop Infusers were great.
My only particular criticism of Brew Crafters is that the artwork is a bit… rubbish. If only Klemens Franz had put his hands on it. *sigh* You can’t have everything, I suppose. Oh, and I suppose my other criticism is that it isn’t Agricola, and if you can play Agricola… why play Brew Crafters? I guess it’s just down to thematic preference.
Let nobody try to convince you that Brew Crafters is a cuddly version of Agricola though – it’s even harder to pay your workers in BC than to feed your family in ‘Gric. So horribly, horribly, awfully, terribly tight.
Continuing this non-chronological skip through the month, the first Newcastle Gamers session started with Brass and ended with Trajan… with nothing in between. They didn’t run long; there just weren’t people available to start something new after Trajan so I called it a night. Still, any night with two of my favourite games is a win.
Even if I lost both of them.
The second Newcastle Gamers session contained the five-player Scythe experience mentioned earlier, but it started with Splotter Spellen’s Duck Dealer. I think it’s fair to say that Duck Dealer somewhat lived up to my expectations, in that I couldn’t even slightly get my head round it. I found it so opaque (and so difficult to read the board state) that I think I’d have to play it about five times to start to understand it. The thing is, I don’t want to play it even a second time, let alone the other three.
It’s like they took the beautiful simplicity of Roads & Boats and decided to remove all logic from the resource-crafting tree (rather than “some boards and stone makes a building”, you have “plastic beads and blue paint makes diet pills” and “rubber ducks plus phones makes radios”) so it takes an extra cognitive leap to understand. Then they made the movement more complex (each Move action might get you 8 points of movement, but the costs of interplanetary movement might be 12… or maybe 9 if you put some cubes on that route) and introduced a spaceship-upgrading system that slows you down as you add more cargo space and/or crew to the ship.
Maybe I’m just a bit dim, but it was about five things too many to take in at once and I couldn’t figure out what I should be doing when. That was compounded by graphic design that was inconsistent (some pieces showed the VPs you’d score by building them; others didn’t, so I didn’t remember that I could score by building those things) and just, well… hideous. I can forgive hideous design if the underlying game is enjoyable (see every other Splotter game I’ve played), but when the hideous design actually gets in the way of understanding what the hell’s going on, I’m entirely unforgiving.
Anyway, after initially realising that he’d entirely screwed himself over with his starting choice (classic Splotter there), Olly went on to unrealise that and win the game in spectacular style, 90–48–40–36. That’s my 36 at the end there. It would have been 30 if I hadn’t seen the end of the game coming and ditched my plan (such as it was) to scramble up a measly 6 points by selling satellites made from solar panels and telephones.
After being underwhelmed by Duck Dealer and Scythe, it was a delight to try Pi mal Pflaumen for the first time. Adding all sorts of fruity twists to the trick-taking genre, PmP is a lot thinkier than it might at first seem. Every card has not only a number (dictating who wins the trick and gets first choice of the played cards), but also a fruit and usually a special action or scoring opportunity. That means there’s a bunch of agonising over whether to play this card because it’s a high number or this one because I want that fruit but hold on if I play that fruit the number means I’ll lose the trick and Camo will take it first because it’s got the watchdog action on it, so maybe I should play this card with the slightly rubbish scoring combo on it and hope it’s the highest card… and I’ll throw a bunch of pi cards in with it to boost the value.
Every trick’s like that. And that’s great. I hope to play it a lot more.
Final score – John: 43 / Me: 42 / Olly: 38 / Camo: 35
A quick August mention to my week’s holiday in the Lake District, where six games of the wonderful Codenames were played with my wife and her parents. Of course, it’s a hugely fun game, but it’s also an interesting window into the way people think. With people you’ve known very well for over twenty years, it turns out it’s both hilarious and faintly worrying when you find out what their thought processes were.
“Location, 2” (on a table with HOLLYWOOD and a whole bunch of place names)
“No, that’s the other team’s… and in god’s name, why POST?”
“Because the post has to go to a location, doesn’t it?”