Tag Archives: roads & boats

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!

T for Two – March Gaming Roundup

I’ve done it again. I’ve gone and left it a whole month between posts. Gah. I’ve had a Pandemic Legacy post gestating for a while (given that we finished our campaign way back in February) and there’s another post brewing about a recent… ahem… descent into Ameritrash territory, but here’s a quick spin through March.

John and I have played some corkers in Corbridge this month, almost all beginning with “T”: Tzolk’in: The Mayan CalendarTrajan (with Port Royal to round off that evening), Terra Mystica and the double-whammy of Tash-Kalar and Trambahn. Yes, by the end of the month we’d realised the accidental T-theme and played into it deliberately.

Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica were two games I’d played once a couple of years ago, really enjoyed and then inexplicably hadn’t played since. It astonished me quite now much I remembered of both, mechanics-wise, although the finer points of the rules and strategies had largely escaped me.

For Tzolk’in, I made a few mistakes in terms of timing… and timing is everything in this game. Knowing when to place workers onto wheels and when to take them off, especially when you can only place or remove workers in one turn – never both – was something that slightly eluded me, and I took a couple of very inefficient turns that threw me well behind in terms of tempo. I did manage to disrupt one or two of John’s plans, but nowhere near enough.

Final score – John: 74 / Me: 39

Ouch. I did get a vague feeling of “oh, yes, I remember why I haven’t played it since the first time”, but I couldn’t lay my finger on quite what the reason was. Very odd. I think there’s always just something else I’d rather play.

Trajan was familiar territory and I used all my experience from boiteajeux.com to lay down a hammering on John. I shipped loads of cards and got whacking great bonuses from the Senate bonus tiles I’d engineered my way towards (and the ones I’d ended up with by accident) to finish the game 161–128. It made up a little for the shocking Tzolk’in anyway.

Port Royal (another Alexander Pfister design, after recent plays of Isle of Skye and Oh My Goods) was nothing spectacular, although it did make me wonder if my 8-year-old would manage/enjoy it. I’m not a huge fan of push-your-luck mechanisms, and there’s a big one that drives the core of this game.

Unlike Tzolk’in, the lack of plays of Terra Mystica is a complete mystery to me. I really like this game. It’s heavy, it’s pretty and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

My largest halfling city, next door to John's grey dwarfville.

My largest halfling city, next door to John’s grey dwarfville with its under-river tunnels.

My halflings had cheap digging upgrades so I tried to go for that as early as possible. Naturally, there were a load of other things to do before that was even feasible, so John and I pretty much matched each other step for step, carefully trying to avoid giving each other Power from building adjacent to existing buildings. We tussled a little on the Cult board, but nothing momentous happened until right at the very end of the game, when the jostling finally gave way and I used my Power bowls to devastating effect, edging ahead for the win.

Final score – Me: 113 / John: 99

…which is, oddly, almost the score we finished with the first time we played, and exactly the same winning margin (110–96). Great stuff. Must play again soon, and with more than two!

Tash-Kalar… well, it’s a decent game and I like the constant back and forth, although it can feel a bit too swingy at times. Also, it transpired that John had played all our games (and half of this one) without realising that you can not only rotate the patterns of pieces required for summoning, but you can mirror them too. So that was possibly a factor in my melee victory this time round. I keep coming back to this game, even though (again) I can’t quite pin down exactly why.

Trambahn turned out to be a bit of an unexpected treat. Designed by Helmut Ohley (of Russian Railroads and a whole scad of 18xx games), it combines Lost Cities with San Juan alongside a couple of simple ideas from 18xx to create a nicely thinky, slightly luck-dependent tableau-building game that plays quickly. There’s definitely more than meets the eye with this one, and John’s extra experience with the game certainly paid off against a few very lucky hands that I’d had.

Final score – John: 177 / Me: 154

Beyond our regular Wednesday sessions in Corbridge, I was home alone for all of the Easter weekend. It was glorious. If there’s one thing I yearn for, it’s time on my own. And living where we do, away from main roads and general hubbub, it was completely silent for two whole days.

Of course, I made the trip over to Newcastle Gamers that Saturday for Roads & Boats, that now-ancient progenitor of… pretty much every resource-conversion euro that ever was. We used the special scenario designed for two experienced players to play against two newcomers; Olly and I had played a couple of times before, while John and Ali were first-timers to this “Le Havre with logistics”. As it turned out, I’m not convinced two plays is enough to count as “experienced”. What really happened is that Olly and I just had to spend ages organising ourselves into sea-based transport in order to reach the mountains in the centre of the board, while John and Ali got on with mining.

However, because we’d had extra time to build up, both Olly and I had researched specialised mines before building any. (In fact, I didn’t even get round to building a mine or stealing anyone’s gold before the end of the game, which explains my hideously low score.) So while John and Ali had easily collected all three gold from their one mine each by the end of the game, it had taken six rounds to guarantee those three gold; Olly had picked up one gold per round in the last few rounds before the game ended.

azdg

The whole world. A couple of timing/resource errors/hubris meant I (red) was a few turns behind Olly (yellow) in reaching the mainland. Rafts would have been better than rowboats.

I had a reasonable points showing from the Wonder – and I’d helped to accelerate the end of the game once I’d realised how much of a mess I’d made of things – but it just wasn’t enough in the face of gold. It had been a very solitaire-ish game, with not a single wall built and no stolen goods whatsoever.

Final score – Olly: 69 / John: 61 / Ali: 55 / Me: 36

We’d actually played quite quickly, so we pulled out My Village next. It turned out to be the game for the rest of the night, but that was fine by me – I really like it. I went heavy on the monks, getting a full church before turning my hand to properly concentrate on other things. The full church wasn’t quite enough to combat everyone else’s huge swathe of goods sold though (there really are a lot of points in getting a goods/merchants engine going) and it ended up being a very close-run game.

Final score – Olly: 50 / Me: 49 / John: 48 / Ali: 43

The day after that, with my house still empty, I did this:

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

Yes, it was the latest instalment in GMT’s COIN series, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, taking the now-well-established COIN system and using it to model the American War of Independence. I played a medium-length-scenario solo game as the British (naturally) and just lost to the AI flowchart bots. It’s thankfully a step down in complexity from the last COIN game, Fire in the Lake, of which I’ve never managed a full solo game. Still a huge amount to think about though, and it was a really engaging and enjoyable six-or-so hours. (Possibly more than six actually… working through the bot flowcharts can be tough the first few times.)

More soon! Hopefully!

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 9 August 2014

Well hello, my long-neglected blog. Nice to see you again. I didn’t even write a report on my last session at Newcastle Gamers, and that was a couple of months ago. Blimey. I’ve really let things slide.

I was feeling intrepid on Saturday, determined to get in some serious gaming in spite of my CFS, so I arrived just before 2pm to an all-day Newcastle Gamers session for a pre-planned game of legendary proto-euro Roads & Boats. I picked up this game (and the & Cetera expansion) around Christmas, just after its most recent print run, safe in the knowledge that if I hated it, it would be out of print for years and I could sell it for more than the £100-ish I paid for it all.

Well, that ain’t happening. It finally had its inaugural play, and it’s a beauty.

I chose the four-player scenario “The Valley”, which is described as “suitable for inexperienced players”. That was perfect for us – I had stumbled through a few of the solitaire “puzzle” scenarios, Camo had played half a game some seven or eight years ago, while Olly and Graham were completely new to the game – and we got underway after about an hour of setup and rules. [I’ll pause briefly here to praise the rulebook – it’s truly excellent. Over the fifteen years since the release of the first edition, Splotter Spellen have clearly been able to pick up on every FAQ and corner case and weave them into the rules. There is no rules question whose answer cannot be found quickly and easily in this fourth edition rulebook, and it flows from start to finish with every rule sounding like utter common sense. Superb.]

Early in the game, with just a few buildings built by each player. Olly (green) has just built the first mine, while I (red) grow concerned about the proximity of our borders.

Early in the game, with just a few buildings built by each player. Olly (green) has just built the first mine, while I (red) grow concerned about the proximity of our borders, especially my unguarded breeding geese.

The first few turns are fairly scripted: build a woodcutter and a sawmill, and a quarry if you have nearby rock and some common sense. After that, we started to diverge a bit. Everyone except Olly was spending some resources in each round to contribute bricks to the Wonder, especially through the early rounds when bricks are cheaper. That allowed Olly to build extra woodcutters and quarries and build the first mine of the game. I got in on the mining action fairly early on, which is when I made my first major mistake. In protecting my geese from Olly (geese being vital to research), I’d ended up unable to protect my three pieces of mined gold, which were just sitting on a mountainside. I’d thought this a reasonable sacrifice at the time – after all, I could mine more gold, but once my geese were gone, they’d be virtually impossible to replace – but it turned out to be disastrous. For me at least. Quite the opposite for Olly.

Olly and I had a bit of a war of walls, after which we settled down into our own little areas. (Well, mine was little; everyone else seemed to be sprawling across the map with wild abandon.) Of course, then I made my second major mistake, in building a road that allowed Olly’s wagon containing the stolen gold to bypass my walls and escape back to his territory, where he could utilise his mint to convert it into coins and thus more points.

Walls! My attempts to keep Olly off my land came too late.

Walls! My attempts to keep Olly off my land came too late. I had successfully walled his wagon (bottom-left) into my corner of the map… but not for long.

I started down the road towards my grand plan of specialised mines (lots of gold) and steamers on my local two-hex sea carrying gold and minted coins around so no one could steal it. Graham put on a sudden flurry of mine-building (after having a little tussle with Olly and walling in Olly’s goose-thieving rowboat), while Olly had minted a few sets of coins and built a stock exchange. Suddenly, the Wonder was filling up quickly (helped along by Camo contributing several bricks made of compacted waterfowl) and the end of the game was looming. I wouldn’t have time to get my third mine built, or plough extra gold into any of the existing mines, or mint any more than one set of coins. Gah.

I say “suddenly”. In reality, the game was six hours long, but it certainly felt sudden to us. We knew the final brick would go into the Wonder in the next round, and we were all pretty certain that Olly had it in the bag. It became like this year’s Tour de France, with Olly as Vincenzo Nibali and the rest of us just jostling for the lower podium positions. Much of the last round was pointless (no point moving stuff around to build things that wouldn’t change the score), so the final couple of bricks went in the Wonder and we totted up the points.

Very near the end.

A couple of rounds from the end. I’ve got steamers, I’ve built a mint, I’ve minted some coins… but it’s not enough. Graham (blue) and Camo (yellow) had a fight over a woodcutter for a while (hence the walls), but they’ve retreated to maximise their gains.

We scored the Wonder first and Camo was well ahead, having been present (and dominant) on most of the rows. And then we realised what a pointless endeavour that Wonder-work had been when we added on our score from gold, coins and stock certificates (nobody actually had stock certificates, thankfully – Olly hadn’t been able to get paper to his stock exchange in time for the last production phase). The Wonder score was completely dwarfed by the score from everything else. The only thing it had achieved was making the game slightly shorter than it could have been, thus limiting Olly’s winning margin to just 65.

Final score – Olly: 172 / Camo: 107 / Graham: 103 / Me: 101

A resounding win from Olly, certainly helped along by the three gold I’d essentially produced for him early in the game, for a swing of at least 30 points. We all enjoyed the game immensely, and discussion quickly turned to arranging a second game. Given that it was a six-hour game, that’s quite something. Part of the beauty of the game comes from its simultaneous action, so there’s almost always something to do.

Roads & Boats isn’t without its flaws though. It’s almost comically fiddly, with hundreds of counters strewn across the board, being shunted around and transformed from one form to another. It can be brutally unforgiving, and it’s entirely possible to be effectively knocked out of the game (or, even worse, to inadvertently knock yourself out of the game). While I had plenty of interaction (and a prolonged phase of cold war afterwards) with Olly, I didn’t interact much with Graham, and not at all with Camo, who was in the opposite corner of the map. And I have a personal niggle in that if I’d drawn a gold instead of an iron from one of my mine bags in the last production round, I would have scored 10 more points and come second rather than last. [But you should have built a specialised mine – you certainly had the research for it, you cry. And yes, you’re right. But I needed the iron for my grander plan which we suddenly ran out of time for, and I don’t really like my final score being decided by the (literal) luck of the draw.]

Overall: superb game.

We followed up with String Railway and Ingenious, with Olly and Camo sharing victory in the former and Olly winning the latter. After six hours of spatio-logistical horrors, String Railway was a bit much for my brain, and I wasn’t helped by drawing dull, dull, low-scoring stations in the first three rounds, but it’s a fun game and I was happy to have the chance to play it again. Ingenious is always a joy, and we all did pretty well (except Camo, who got repeatedly locked out of scoring more in red, finishing on 6 points).

A very silly-looking game indeed. Lots of thinking though, and a lot of fun.

A very silly-looking game indeed. Lots of thinking though, and a lot of fun.

An excellent day of games. Conversation afterwards turned to films (OK, so I apparently must see L.A. Confidential) and game design (I’ll be attempting to get back on that horse very soon – or perhaps just crafting an entirely new horse) before I yet again (!) managed to get caught by roadworks on the A69 heading westbound on the way home, resulting in a detour through scenic (?) Walbottle. There’s something about Saturday nights and the A69 that rarely turns out right. I’ll put up with it for quality gaming.

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!