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July Gaming Round-up

I’m back! Major cycling event out of the way (106 miles completed, £590 raised for ME Research UK), last days of first school for the firstborn completed, first couple of weeks of summer holidays navigated. And plenty of gaming done in the interim. Here’s July.

Corbridge Gamers

One from the bottom of John’s pile – Hamburgum. And it really doesn’t deserve to be on the bottom of anyone’s pile. It’s a real cracker.

caption

End of the game. You can see the lovely resources at the left-hand side of the photo, including real bells!

Rondel manipulation, resource management, area control… there’s a bit of each of them, and it all comes together into a splendid whole. The theme comes through nicely (increasing influence in Hamburg by contributing to the building of churches) and there’s a wonderfully evil mechanism in the shipping area, where newly added ships push out the older ships. Somehow, I always managed to stay on the upper hand in that little race, which really helped me power through to a win, 175–153.

My little bit of Hamburg.

My little bit of Hamburg. With the right scoring multiplier tiles, this was quite a points haul.

As usual with a lot of the games John and I play, I’d like to try it with more players, but it was really enjoyable with two.

On the other session we managed in July, we played Mykerinos – which was so underwhelming as to not warrant further mention – and Trambahn, which I enjoyed just as much as the first time I sampled its clearly-18xx-influenced tableau-building delights. This time I was hit with a series of poor card draws (and a smattering of rash decisions), so John’s 155–118 win was unsurprising.

Newcastle Gamers

Three sessions in July, what with the summer holidays bringing about an extra, all-day session on the penultimate Saturday of the month!

Session 1

Arkwright! I’d picked this up about a week before the session and had some solo learning attempts at home, first at the introductory Spinning Jenny game, then the full Water Frame version. I felt that SJ was a bit too light and unrewarding for the amount of effort it takes, so I convinced Olly and John Sh that WF was worth the extra learning effort and that it wasn’t that tough. I mean, it isn’t complicated in terms of the general mechanics of each turn – pick an action, pay the cost, do the thing. Simple, right?

Well, it turns out that with four players (John B joined us) there’s an awful lot going on besides that, and a lot to think about across several areas of the (very full) table.

So many charts. So many cubes. So many pawns.

So many charts. So many cubes. So many pawns. So much bookkeeping.

To cut to the chase: I really enjoyed Arkwright, but it was bloody hard work. I think it would be greatly rewarded by lots of experience, but I doubt I’ll get the chance to find out, such was the effort required. The production/sales phase alone (which we experienced twenty times over the course of the game) was so unintuitive to first-time players that it was very difficult to predict and quite tedious to play out.

Final score – Me: £506 / Olly: £506 / John B: £364 / John Sh: £171

Olly and I were level on portfolio value (one of us had 22 shares at £23 each, the other 23 shares at £22) but I won on the cash-in-hand tie-break, £8 to £1.

John B left and we were joined by Lloyd for the much lighter new game from Martin Wallace, Via Nebula. Bizarre theme and lovely production values aside (that inlay!), this was a perfectly fine if slightly unexciting route-building, pick-up-and-deliver-while-building-stuff game.

Lovely wooden bits.

Lovely wooden bits.

A bit like Age of Steam (of which more later), there’s a slow opening, a long build and a sudden finish… but all packed into about 45 minutes. So I’d be perfectly happy to fill a gap with it again, even if it did feel a little… meh.

Final score – John Sh: 27 / Olly: 23 / Me: 21 / Lloyd: 20

Session 2

What better to do with an all-day session than some 18xx? This time, it was 1844, set in Switzerland, with Olly and Ali. As 18xx games go, it’s a reasonably vanilla one, playing a lot like 1830 with just a few thematic wrinkles like tunnels, mountain railways, H-trains and four different types of company… one of which is the nationalised SBB, coming into being at the beginning of Phase 5 when all five precursor companies are merged.

A bit like 1865: Sardinia (which I seem to have played twice since my last gaming blog post – yikes), many of the railway companies have historical destinations; in 1844, reaching the historical destination means the company receives the 50% of capitalisation it didn’t get when it floated. With some of these companies having only four shares, the half-capitalisation and a top par price of 100 Francs means it can be tough to get anywhere to start with (200 Fr doesn’t go far). And with up to 14 companies on the go at once (although I don’t think we got above 11), the trains get snapped up thick and fast, sometimes leaving many companies trainless.

Mid-game

Late-game board.

I think we played the route-building fairly non-aggressively for most of the game, but we made up for it towards the end. Awkward routing and tokening-out of stations was the order of the day by the later phases, and there were a lot of sudden drops in company revenues when previously beautiful routes were abruptly terminated. Of course, with such a high certificate limit with three players, blocking routes often hurt the blocker almost as much as the blocked company director – after all, we were all at least slightly invested in most of the companies.

Olly had ended up with directorship of the SBB, having had most shares in the five precursor companies. Naturally, having most shares there (and the four trains it could run when most others were restricted to two) meant Olly was getting the biggest chunk of the biggest payouts. I’d done my usual 18xx thing of “strong start, weak finish” and had to payout personal funds for forced train purchases… twice! They weren’t huge, but they were enough to put me out of pocket going into stock rounds and leave me lagging.

1844 end

End of the game. Running only a single train with each of my companies certainly didn’t help.

The auxiliary table holding unsold shares, share prices, track tiles and the illegible scrawlings that tracked revenues from round to round.

The auxiliary table holding unsold shares, the stock market chart, track tiles and my illegible scrawlings that tracked revenues from round to round.

Final score – Olly: 8938 / Me: 6935 / Ali: 6593

As usual with 18xx, a convincing win for Olly. And as usual, I felt like I was getting a grasp on things about one or two rounds too late. Another play of this and I’ll feel more secure with it.

Session 3

With a double booking at the church hall meaning there was a small crowd of gamers standing around in the car park for potentially two hours, Olly, John Sh and I decamped to Olly’s house for a quick game of Age of Steam: France before heading back to continue the session. I say “quick”… it’s not anywhere simple enough to be genuinely “quick”. It is simple enough to pick up very quickly though, and first-time-player John schooled us, 102–88–81 (me last). I hadn’t twigged just how lucrative Paris could be, and I hamstrung myself early on with a few too-low turn-order bids and last position on the turn track.

Back at Christ Church, the session was in full swing when we arrived, with a few people just reaching the end of a game. We added Jon C to our trio and played Roll for the Galaxy (no expansion – it hasn’t been a popular addition when I’ve tried it). Olly went for a quick-building win and just managed it; my development-heavy approach was much too slow to keep pace, points-wise. That said, it was a low-scoring game all round.

Final score – Olly: 31 / Jon C: 27 / John Sh: 25 / Me: 22

Jon had Quadropolis in his big box o’ games, and I’ve been interested in giving it a go ever since its release. It’s a sort of city-building game with a huge chunk of spatial puzzling involved. I’m not necessarily the best at spatial stuff – not that I don’t enjoy route-building and tile-laying games, but I tend to work better without physical grids to work on – and Quadropolis was no exception to that. While the rules themselves are simple (even for the “Expert” version we were playing) and this is a family game at heart, it took me a fair while to get my head round the positioning puzzle. Jon was clearly going for harbours and skyscrapers; Olly was concentrating on monuments and civic buildings; I was… doing a bit of everything and doing it all fairly badly.

Final score – Olly: 91 / Jon C: 81 / Me: 78 / John Sh: 71

My finished city borough.

My finished city borough.

I’m not sure what to make of Quadropolis. There doesn’t seem quite enough to it for a gamer crowd, but it seems a little too thinky for families. Maybe it’s just not my sort of game. It looked quite pretty though, I’ll give it that.

Last up was the unpredictable madness of Donald X’s Temporum. To be fair, I’ve played it at two players and it felt much tighter and more controlled; with four, it felt like a Carl Chudyk game. All plans from one turn were entirely void by the next, given how much everything could change in between. We opted to change our Age I card partway through the game, because the original one made it far too tempting to just sit in Age I and do nothing but draw, play and score cards. Experience clearly played its part and John took a convincing win, but I ended up only one “point” behind. I’d be happy to play again with two… maybe three… but for me, Temporum was pretty unsatisfying with four players.

And that’s July done. Back on the blogging horse now, so hopefully I’ll be a bit more frequent in future.

More January – Pfister Fun!

Continuing on from last time, more January gaming!

John Sh and I have managed a couple of Corbridge sessions in January (pretty impressive really, given how indisposed I’ve been by illness and child-rearing). The first featured My Village by Inka and Marcus Brand, an odd reworking of themes from their own Village, which I’ve played a few times and enjoyed a lot. My Village is, quite simply, better and more elegant. It’s like The Prodigals Club compared to Last Will – it’s clear that the theme works wonderfully, but it just needed a new set of mechanisms around it to really make it shine.

I tried to do a bit of everything with my villagers, which turns out to not be the way to play well. John specialised much more (he filled a massive church with monks), and it paid off in a 72–54 win for him. Great stuff – happy to play again.

Another Wednesday evening saw us playing Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, which is an unwieldy title for a fairly simple (yet quite thinky) tile-laying game from Austrian duo Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister. (More Pfister to come later.) I struggled massively, mainly by doing quite well for the first few rounds and ending up in a death-spiral of cash. Doing slightly better than John meant that he got a monetary boost in the last few rounds, which coupled with his whisky-heavy tile layout to mean that he could set prices on his tiles much higher than I could even afford. John overhauled me on points in the very last round to win 76–65.

I got him back in Roll for the Galaxy though, with a completely vanilla base-game-only match coming out in a 48–41 win to me. It was all about the Developments.

Too many family games to mention scattered throughout the month, but highlights included Ticket to Ride: Europe (with everyone old enough to play getting a solid drubbing from me) and a whole afternoon of games with 8-year-old J, featuring K2 and a bit of Small World.

Oddly, the last Saturday of the month brought more family gaming… except with someone else’s family at Newcastle Gamers. John Sh and I happened to end up at a table with Ruth and her sons L and J (feels natural to just use initials for the under-18s), which meant that probably the entire Hexham/Corbridge-area contingent was playing together. And what were we playing? Concordia!

I’d been umming and ahhing about Concordia for a while, given that it’s often recommended to people who like games that I like. When Shut Up & Sit Down gave it a positive review, I quickly jumped and ordered it before it sold out, as often happens. So this was my first play and my first time teaching the game. Thankfully, the rules are incredibly simple (play a card and do the thing written on the card), so we were quickly up and running, even with the slightly fiddly setup process.

And it turns out it’s a little gem of a game. Turns are quick and simple (although they can be very thinky beforehand), downtime is minimal even with five players and it always feels like there’s something useful you can do. The big stack of cards for purchase all give boosts to your end-game scoring as well as increasing the power of your deck of cards, so it’s not too hard to develop a coherent strategy. Mine involved building in all the cloth-producing cities and acquiring the Weaver card, which gave me a Minerva bonus of 5 VPs per cloth city (i.e. 20 VPs by the end of the game) and let me produce loads of cloth by playing the card. 4 cloth = 28 cash = lots of other buildings, so after a slow start I could rapidly increase my building portfolio.

It turned out to be a decent strategy and I won by a reasonable margin (I think I had 137 and John was in second place with 110-something). J came in a very respectable third place, just over 100 – he’d been planning well throughout the game – then Ruth and finally L bringing up the rear. A really fun game with a “classic euro” feel to it. Must play it again soon.

We followed that with the return of Mister Pfister and Isle of Skye. It was quite a different beast with five players, and I managed to avoid the cash-death-spiral this time round. L seemed to be following a similar path to the one he trod in Concordia – acquire cash and hoard it – which meant he didn’t price his tiles very highly and I snagged one or two at bargain prices to complete various handy scoring features on my layout.

And as it turned out, I demolished everyone with a final score of 77. To be honest, I’m not sure what I think of Isle of Skye, but that might be because I still haven’t quite figured out how to play it properly yet. Maybe a 3- or 4-player game (without rogue tweens using degenerate cash strategies) would help me decide.

After Ruth and the boys left, John and I teamed up with Camo and Lloyd for more Pfister, this time in the form of his execrably named compact engine/tableau-builder Oh My Goods! Ugh. While the original title of Royal Goods was dull, at least it connected back to Pfister’s game Port Royal and it didn’t make me want to eat my own face off. Oh My Goods!? No. It makes it sound like some sort of party game or Munchkin-style take-that-fest.

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers... cards for everything!

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers… cards for everything! (Photo by John Sh)

Which is something that it very much isn’t. It takes elements from San Juan and marries them to bits of every engine-building and resource-conversion euro you’ve ever played, producing a fairly simple and elegant little maxi-filler. There’s a bit of push-your-luck involved with the morning and afternoon markets being revealed, which slightly grated with me, but it’s a light enough game that it didn’t matter. Camo ran away with it, with his seemingly magical cow-production line.

And last but never least, The King of Frontier. Although I managed to snag my beloved Altar by making sure I had a massive field completed very early on, and although I went full-on heavy on the Consume action (albeit with only one very small city), it wasn’t enough to outdo John’s little collection of VP-producing buildings. He beat me by just two points, with Camo and Lloyd a fair bit further back.

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier (Photo by John Sh)

And that was January. February’s already underway, so I’m sure I’ll be back soon with more.

Under Sea to Outer Space via 1950s USA

There’s been quite a bit of family gaming over the couple of weeks since my last post, including the discovery that my two oldest sons, J and A, both love Ticket to Ride. Totally love it. And it turns out that my mum quite enjoys it too. I’m glad I held on to my copy now, and I might even get one or two of the other maps; after all, the original USA map gets a bit dull after a while.

Mrs Cardboard (M, to follow the tradition of anonymous-but-distinguishable initials) and I also played the first game in our Pandemic Legacy campaign. We went for silly rather than realistic when it came to naming our characters, so we now have a medic called Max Dinglewang (thank you, M); my name offering for the scientist was Susan O’Hanrahan, but always, always referred to as Susan O’Hanraha-hanrahan. We won the first game pretty easily after just three of five Epidemic cards and managed to eradicate the black disease, now known as Boneitis, but I can see how things might get substantially tougher in future. I’m being completely spoiler-free here, but I might start writing up future games under a big SPOILER heading if it continues to offer the narrative and gaming excitement it looks like it should.

John and I convened a Corbridge Gamers session and we both ticked another game off our Stefan Feld lists – AquaSphere. It’s very Feld: doing a thing lets you do another thing, but doing that thing means you can’t do this other thing this round and there just isn’t enough time (or indeed Time, the game currency) to do everything you want to do. And oddly, for a game themed around scientists and robots conducting research in an underwater laboratory while fighting off purple Octopods… it feels a bit bland. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly solid game, but it’s not different enough from every other euro to make me excited about it.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes... it's a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes… it’s a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

I started out badly while John mopped up serious points for the area-majority aspect in the early rounds (I’d failed to plan for how much impact that would make), but I pushed forward with my long-term plan to finish all six pieces of my personal lab and collect all six lab letters. I did pull that off in the end, but John’s consistent showings in the end-of-round scoring put him far enough ahead that my sudden boost at the very end of the game wasn’t enough to overhaul him.

Final score – John: 71 / Me: 68

We followed up with a game that really is like nothing else I’ve ever played: Donald X Vaccarino’s Temporum. Jumping around between different eras and changing timelines makes it surprisingly thematic compared to the dry-as-dust-but-still-mechanically-lovely Dominion, and while the mechanisms themselves aren’t groundbreaking, they do coalesce into an overall experience that feels unique. There’s a lot of fun to be had in changing the future and forcing your opponent to suddenly find themselves in a Steampunk Utopia instead of the Age of Cats or whatever it was they were clearly hoping to use on their next turn to shuffle a few of their Influence markers down to the present day. (And yes, there genuinely is a card representing a timeline in which cats have taken over the world.) This one came down to the wire, with John getting his last Influence marker into the bottom box for the win when I had just one left to go.

Fast forward to Saturday and it was Newcastle Gamers again, this time with a prearranged game of Splotter Spellen’s latest release, Food Chain Magnate. John and Olly had expressed an interest and no one else seemed keen to join in (even on one of the busiest nights we’ve seen in a while; the busy-ness seemed at least partially due to our shift over to meetup.com following the near-total withdrawal of Events from Google+), so it was a three-player game.

Quick summary of Food Chain Magnate: you’re running a restaurant chain (duh!) on a randomised road/house map grid. It’s a sort of deckbuilder where the deck you’re building consists of the employees in your company, except rather than drawing a random hand of cards each round, you have the entire deck to choose a fresh company structure from. Employees in the company structure can do things like hiring or training more employees, collecting drinks from spots on the board, changing your prices (down or up), starting marketing campaigns, building new houses and/or gardens for houses, being managers who can accommodate more employees in your company, and many, many more. The winner is the person with the most cash at the end of the game, which is after the bank has broken… twice. (There’s an odd thing where the length of the game after the first breaking of the bank is determined by cards secretly chosen by the players at the start of the game.)

This being a Splotter title, there are many, many ways to make mistakes… and we all managed to make a few. I think all the mistakes were based around mistiming things, mainly to do with the fact that the people in houses don’t come out to eat unless they’ve been marketed to by players, but marketing doesn’t happen until after eating in the round order. The practical upshot of this is that something along the lines of “hey look, I’ve produced this burger and set up a marketing campaign for burgers so this house will come and eat the burger and I’ll be able to pay the Burger Cook I just hired and ohgodnoofcoursenoti’vereallyf—kedthisuproyally” happened several times over the course of the game.

Glossing over the inevitable mistakes then, it was interesting to see how our different opening strategies immediately led to different Milestone cards being claimed, with the bonuses they conferred. Olly went for early food production and thus forever had a freezer to keep unsold food and $5 bonuses for selling food products. John kept his company structure small to maintain a good choice of turn-order position and marketed drinks first ($5 bonus to drinks sold). I, on the other hand, went for full-on corporate bloat by hiring two Recruiting Girls and getting the “First to Hire 3 People in One Turn” Milestone, which gave me two Management Trainees and thus allowed me to maintain a much larger structure than the others. That wasn’t necessarily that great a benefit, but I was able to hire all sorts of people and shuffle them from round to round in order to get the best or most timely use from them.

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox campaign. (Looking back, I can see it's illegally placed, but I could have easily placed it somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox soft drink campaign. (Looking back now, I can see it’s illegally placed between houses 1 and 16, but I could have easily placed it legally somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

I was last to place a marketing campaign, which meant mine were time-limited but I’d trained my marketer up so he could place a mailbox campaign and cover a whole block. Several houses had been added to the map, which meant there were gardens in play and diners with gardens pay double for their meals. After a slow start, I was suddenly raking in money from all the houses that wanted soft drinks (and usually one that wanted beer if John had run out), which meant I was first to hit $100 in hand. That gave me the seemingly preposterously powerful bonus of having the CFO power – 50% extra income per round. I only got a couple of rounds to benefit from that bonus though, because the $600 we’d added when the bank first broke was rapidly running out. Olly was selling burgers to a cluster of houses on the far side of the board and his Luxuries Manager was making sure they were going at an eye-watering price. Each burger was $20, but with houses with gardens paying double, there was an occasion where a house wanting two burgers paid $90 (including Olly’s $5/burger bonus).

The bank broke for the second time when I claimed my CFO bonus, and it was pretty clear that I’d won.

Final score – Me: $387 / John: $232 / Olly: $190

It looks fairly emphatic, but I suspect I could have been overhauled in another couple of rounds had it continued – Olly’s super-mega-deluxe rare-breed yak burgers were painfully lucrative.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That's my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That’s my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans. The whole thing looks like an absolute shambles, but we knew what we were doing. Just about. Food Chain Magnate may win my prize for Most Table-Greedy Game.

Overall, I thought Food Chain Magnate was superb on its first play. Only time will tell how well it stands up to repeated plays (and I hope to play it as much as possible – after all, it’s a Splotter game that we finished in under two hours on our first play!), but I suspect the variable map layout and wide variety of possible strategies will keep me interested for a long while yet. Oh, and I love the artwork. Even the “oh dear, they sent the prototype to the printer” map tiles have their charm, and they’re very clear on the table.

The Prodigals Club was next, which was the first time any of us had played the three-player game (and the first time at all for Olly); we used the Election and Society modules again. Oddly, it uses the same worker-placement boards as the two-player game so the worker spaces are a little more congested. Only a little, because we each had four workers rather than five, but it was enough to make it feel a bit different. Not only was turn order much more important than with two players (which I only really figured out afterwards), but with only four workers, it’s much harder to do everything you want to do. Not only do you have just four workers, but if you’re last in turn order, the stuff you want may well have disappeared before your first worker goes down!

askdjfh

As with Last Will, it’s a handsome game with a cleverly designed board.

I didn’t really feel like I was doing well for the first four rounds (although I felt comfortably ahead of Olly at least, and I kept taking the Hyde Park action to make sure I didn’t start gaining votes), but then everything came together in a final rush and I managed to get my two scores down to 0 (Society) and 2 (Election). John had gone substantially negative in the Election module, but his Society score let him down badly and I ended up winning!

Final score – Me: 2 / Olly: 8 / John: 10

And then Roll for the Galaxy with the Ambition expansion, including the Objective tiles this time. They still didn’t add that much to the game, but that’s fine – it’s already excellent. I had a starting faction that was more annoying that anything else, so I concentrated on my initial draw of a 6+ development (3 bonus VPs for each world of cost 4 or more, plus the ability to reassign any three dice as Settlers!) and set about settling those planets. The others were playing a more balanced game, although Olly had the rather wonderful Psi-Crystal Forecasters, which allowed him to shift his selected phase after seeing what everyone else had chosen. It all worked out nicely for me in the end anyway after Olly ended the game with a full tableau of 12 tiles.

Final score – Me: 51 / Olly: 42 / John: 39

Lloyd joined us for the last game of the night: Spiel des Jahres 2005 winner Niagara. Typical SdJ family-friendly fare, but in this instance it ran on far too long (lots of simultaneous high numbers played plus almost constant bad weather meant the river flowed fast) and was memorable more for the frustration than the enjoyability. Still, I continued my unbroken win-streak for the evening, this time sharing victory with Olly. It’s been a long time since I played a game without a tiebreak rule!

Epic post ends here.

Photos by Olly and me, some shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Meetup page.

Prodigal Ambition

After a quick rematch of Small World with 8-year-old J (he beat me again, 105–95 this time, even with my Ghouls), John Sh and I met for our now almost weekly Corbridge Gamers. Essen – and my birthday – having just passed, there was new stuff galore to choose from. We started with the newest arrival, which had turned up on my doorstep that very morning: the new Roll for the Galaxy expansion, Ambition.

Choosing to leave out the optional Objective tiles for now (as John pointed out, it’s not like it doesn’t get played a lot, so there’s plenty of opportunity to add them in future), there wasn’t a huge amount of new stuff to explain. It’s really just the addition of double-phase Leader and Entrepreneur dice, along with the many, many new starting faction and home world tiles. (Five new tiles to the draw bag doesn’t really seem worth mentioning.)

And so it played out feeling pretty much like vanilla RollftG, with the exception of very occasionally getting to put a black or orange die straight back into the cup. The black Leader die we each started with obviously added a tiny bit of flexibility to our dice assignments (after all, the double-phase faces give you a choice of two places to put the die), so it did feel a little bit easier to do what I wanted and to the extent that I wanted to do it. Also, the Leader die behaving like a purple die for shipping purposes is a pretty major thing; I racked up some early VPs that way.

You start with a black die (replacing one of the five white dice in the base game), so that's a wild face from the outset as well as the extra flexibility afforded by the dual-phase faces.

You start with a black die (replacing one of the five white dice in the base game), so that’s a wild face from the outset as well as the extra flexibility afforded by the dual-phase faces.

I kept myself in cash by completing planets with pairs of green and red dice (my faction gave me $2 when I did so), plus occasionally shipping from my yellow world for $6, and John stayed solvent with his faction power which gave him $2 for each good on a green world at the end of the Produce phase. Plenty of cash meant I could settle new worlds pretty quickly, giving me extra dice and new opportunities to Produce and Ship; a development giving me +1 VP for shipping from a brown world was a handy bonus. I just skipped ahead on the Shipping game which, along with my relatively expensive worlds, tipped me just ahead in the final scoring, triggered by the VP pool running out.

Final score – Me: 38 / John: 36

Like I said, fairly vanilla-feeling. Adding the Objectives next time should shake things up quite a bit.

We followed up with a follow-up: Vladimir Suchý’s The Prodigals Club, his 2015 sequel to 2011’s Last Will. I’ve enjoyed Last Will a couple of times, although reliance on a random card draw did irk me last timeThe Prodigals Club mitigates that randomness hugely. There’s no opportunity to draw blind from a deck of cards; rather, all available cards are drawn at the start of each round. That means it’s all meaningful, tough worker-placement decisions from the outset, and plenty of them.

The Prodigals Club comes with three modules (Election, Society and Possessions), of which you can choose two for each play, or you can play with all three, or even play with two modules and use Last Will in its entirety as the third. (That final option seems to me like a special kind of madness.) We went with the suggested first-play option of Election and Society modules which naturally means, in true Last Will style, that we were trying to lose an election and offend everybody in polite society. Of course, just doing one of those things isn’t good enough, so there’s scoring à la Knizia: your final score that actually counts is the worse (i.e. higher – start thinking backwards now) of your two module scores.

The fun comes from queueing up big combos of cards, so that this thing gives you that, which moves those down to there so you can do the other with these… Getting to that point is a bit of a battle, but all in a good way. Everything’s interconnected, so decisions you make to primarily influence the election competition can also have a knock-on effect in society and vice-versa. I took an early lead in losing the election and managed to start my four society markers on their journey down the scoring ladder. (This is where I wish I’d taken pictures. There’s a fun little geometric shuffling game there, wanting to keep the four markers out of each others’ way while also paying attention to Dame Beatrice – who can apply “penalties” every round because she thinks that you’re really a lovely person at heart – and positioning markers to take advantage of the icons they land on.)

John eventually managed to string together the mother of all combos, involving offending Conservatives and Liberals while getting into several arguments and annoying everyone in polite society too. My previously unhealthy-looking election score was suddenly far too healthy, and John managed to get both of his scores under zero in the fourth round. Just one score hitting zero is enough to trigger the end of the game, so I didn’t get the chance to stage a comeback (not that I’d have been able to).

Final score – John: -6 / Me: 9

Yes, the worse of John’s two scores was -6. I think the other one was -9. My society score was down to -2, I think, but my election scuppering slowed down in the third and fourth rounds. Overall, I liked The Prodigals Club substantially more than Last Will, and I already liked Last Will a fair bit. Looking forward to another shot at it!

The week ended with the arrival of my Sierra Madre Games (i.e. Phil Eklund) pre-order package, containing Pax Porfiriana Collector’s EditionPax Pamir (sequel of sorts to Porfiriana) and Neanderthal (sequel/prequel of sorts to Greenland). That should take up my entire rules-learning brain quota for the month. Getting them played is another matter – EklundFest 2.0 on the horizon, maybe…

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 12 September 2015

Madeira! Finally! I’d almost shot myself entirely in the foot by (several times) describing it as “the heaviest euro I own” and referencing my one previous play with John, after which we’d both felt like our brains were dripping out of our ears. Luckily, neither Álvaro nor Daniel had heard any of that and Olly was up for the challenge, so four-player Madeira it was.

An hour for rules (hardly surprising – there’s an astonishing amount to understand before you can even start to understand anything… if that makes any sense) and we were off. The initial layout of Crown Requests on the turn-order board was a bit odd – lots of rows with multiples of the same tiles, so some choices always seemed more tempting than others, regardless of the die rolls. My first round was spent (apart from re-explaining various bits of rules, partially because I’d muffed the original explanation a bit and partially because… well, it’s just a bit complex) aiming towards collecting some cash to score the Crown Request that awards up to 15 VPs for spending up to 15 reals. On the side, I was building up a sort of engine to make sure I could get enough resources to focus on some shipping later on and also pay for all the workers I’d shoved into fields. That was mainly a question of getting plenty of workers in fields in region 2, then always sending an action marker to Moinho in order to get 5 bread.

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

Round 2, in the daylight. See all my red workers in the fields? See my red square action marker in Moinho? That’s my engine, that is.

Álvaro, being the savvy gamer he is, quickly cottoned on to ways to aim towards his scoring goals, and successfully minimised his Pirate tokens throughout. He spent a lot of the game with a lot of workers in the cities, using them in every round to gain resources. I, on the other hand, was mainly gaining resources through harvesting fields, which tied in with using the Moinho building action for bread. Olly was worrying much less about bread, having gained very early in the game the Guild Favour that allowed him to move up the Windmill track (and thus feed an extra mouth per round) every time it was used.

Game end, daylight gone. Note how heavily everyone's gone for the cities... except me.

Game end, daylight gone. Note how heavily everyone’s gone for the cities… except me.

To cut a long story (or about two-and-a-half hours of game) short, Álvaro pipped me to the win. Slightly better management of the City Watch space and/or sending my ships to different colonies could have tipped it the other way, but there it was. Olly was a fair way back (after slightly fluffing the first round, which may have been my fault in the rules explanation – apologies) and Daniel got half of the winning score.

Final score – Álvaro: 95 / Me: 89 / Olly: 65 / Daniel: 47

Madeira is such a very me game. Lots of different things to manage in different areas of the board, opportunities for minor (and only minor) player screwage, opportunity/cost analysis throughout (huge in this game), slightly random but not too random… it’s all there. Yes, it’s heavy and no, you probably won’t play it well the first time round, but for me it’s absolutely worth the effort.

Next? Roll for the Galaxy! As if I hadn’t had enough of it recently (and I really hadn’t), out it came again – and this time, to a table of people who’d played it before. Except I really should have had a quick summary run-through of the rules because it turned out Daniel had either been mis-taught the game or had forgotten big chunks of it since the one time he’d played. Either way, it took a few rounds to iron out the bugs, but we just about got there in the end.

Yet another picture of Roll for the Galaxy on my blog.

Yet another picture of Roll for the Galaxy on my blog. This one prominently features my arm and my Wispa.

I started the game with the Galactic Renaissance development on my stack and a few worlds with middling values, so I decided to go heavy on Produce/Ship to stack up the VP chips. It almost didn’t work out, with a long mid-game lull as I slowly built Galactic Renaissance and tied up a whole bunch of dice therein. But once it was completed, I powered back into the Produce/Ship groove (and got a couple of nicely timed benefits from other people’s phase selections) and the game was over pretty quickly with a narrow win for me.

Final score – Me: 37 / Olly: 34 / Álvaro: 33 / Daniel: 30

Daniel left and was replaced by John for a game of Onward to Venus. The first time I played this, I was swept along by the theme and managed to overlook the game’s heavy reliance on random elements. This time, it rankled a bit more. I didn’t get as screwed by turn order as I had last time; rather, there often wasn’t much to aim for, with Mars and Venus being oddly devoid of factories and mines for most of the game.

I settled a little British colony in the outer reaches of the solar system and left the others to battle over most of the inner stuff between themselves. I timed badly an excursion to Mars in the third period (and didn’t leave enough protection for my new mine), meaning Álvaro could swoop in to take advantage of the Tension marker and take it from me, taking control of Mars. And… that was about it. It kind of felt like nothing much happened. Oh, I might have taken control of Earth. I honestly can’t recall.

Stuff going on across many worlds.

If there’s one thing that Onward to Venus is, it’s hungry for table space.

All in all, I feel like I don’t need to play Onward to Venus again. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fine. But there are so many games that are better than “fine”.

Final score – Álvaro: 40 / Me: 28 / Olly: 25 / John: 15

And that was that. One of those rarities at Newcastle Gamers: a whole evening of games I’d played before. It’s nice to have that once in a while!

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

August Gaming Mega-Roundup

Well, August got away from me. Way too much going on, what with school holidays, work responsibilities and my increasingly obsessive cycling habit (Strava year-to-date stats now in the sidebar to the right, because… why not?), so here’s a brief roundup of everything except the early-August Newcastle Gamers session I already covered.

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 12 August

Another notch on the Stefan Feld bedpost… no, that sounds wrong. You know what I mean. I played Notre Dame for (amazingly) the first time. It was a fun little game, not quite up to the standard of his more recent work, but the modular board is an ingenious piece of physical design. I think John played a better game, but I managed a crushing win (65 points to John’s 49) entirely by exploiting one particular card that came out at the end of a round. Still a few Felds to go until I’ve played them all.

We also played the “High Form” of Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends, which I think of as a nice little abstract to fill a few minutes, but is actually a crushingly brain-searing spatial thinkfest. We fluffed the end-game slightly, in that I forgot to have an extra turn each after I’d reached 9 points, but it wouldn’t have affected my victory. As it was, I was 9–4 up. Having only played this game a couple of times, I really like it, but it doesn’t seem to engender the same sort of enthusiasm in my opponents.

EklundFest 2015 – Friday 21 August

Olly and Graham took a half-day off work to come over to my otherwise empty house (hooray for grandparents) and get in some brutal simulation time with a couple of Phil Eklund designs. First up – Bios: Megafauna.

Graham and I were proto-mammals while Olly was the sole dinosaur player. After spending quite a bit of the rules explanation stressing the importance of preparing for Catastrophes, it took ages for the first one to hit. We’d spent quite some time populating the board with biomes and creatures eating stuff in the biomes (and a few creatures eating the creatures eating stuff in the biomes), and then… BOOM. Level 4 Catastrophe. Nearly everything died, leaving us with one creature each on the map, and me stranded in the corner of the board across the Atlantic Rift. With not enough marine biomes and a relatively cool world (leaving empty spaces as land rather than sea), I was totally stuck. I could have evolved an extra marine DNA letter and deliberately died out in order to start again elsewhere, but I actually managed to set up a few creatures on the map and use a genotype card (points for later) to start a new species, which could then predate my other species in that area.

Graham was struggling to find things to eat (although he had some absolutely massive species, so he could migrate reasonable distances), while Olly was expanding nicely and picking up genotype cards for his fossil record. Graham and I ended up accelerating the end of the game in order to stop Olly running away with it too badly, but even so…

Final score – Olly: 39 / Me: 19 / Graham: 17

The end of the game, with barely an animal on the map. Mass extinction FTW.

The end of the game, with barely an animal on the map. Mass extinction FTW.

Bios: Megafauna is at least a game (it’s a little less brutally random than High Frontier, which revels in drawing you into a false sense of security before destroying everything you ever loved on the roll of a d6), but it’s still fairly unpredictable, especially to inexperienced players. There’s a certain degree of fun in looking at the ridiculous creatures you create (a horn-beaked dolphin with armour and a club tail, or a tiny burrowing tiger with infra-red sensor pits) and you can certainly make some confrontational choices on the board, but it does still kick you when you’re down. Again and again.

After a rules-muffed blast at the very beautiful Kigi, we had our second run this year at Greenland. We all took a different tribe from last time (Norse for me, Thule for Graham and Tunit for Olly) and it all worked out very, very differently. There were plenty of successful hunts, including lots of required doubles, triples and quadruples to take cards as trophies. That meant things had essentially been hunted to extinction, so the available biomes got fewer and fewer quite quickly. We coped better with decimations this time, although the Event cards with Elder die-offs were always a bit of a rude shock and could destroy plans on the roll of a die (the true Eklund colours showing through there).

Graham did very well in auctions for imported goods, with his daughter Peepeelee allowing him to break ties in his favour. I struggled for energy for a while, but managed to get back on top of that by sending hunters to the New World later in the game. After Olly converted to monotheism, I began to get increasingly worried that he’d send someone to convert my Norsemen, thus rendering my huge haul of trophy VPs worthless. To prevent this, I made sure I always had energy and cubes spare to create the relevant Elders in order to banish the missionary… should it even appear. In the end, he sent his missionary to Graham, but the conversion attempt in the final round wasn’t successful.

Graham and I stayed polytheistic to the end, with my trophy haul and population VPs edging him out for the victory. Olly had suffered huge population losses and hadn’t managed to recover them; as a result, he hadn’t had the manpower to bring in the iron and ivory he needed for a monotheistic victory.

Final score – Me: 52 / Graham: 44 / Olly: 11

I considered it payback for Bios: Megafauna.

We rounded off the evening with Roll for the Galaxy, in which I had an absolute shocker, Graham did well for a first game and Olly continued his 100% win-streak in Roll.

Final score – Olly: 42 / Graham: 31 / Me: 29

And then just 11 hours later…

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 22 August

Well, I wasn’t there at the start of this all-day session, but Olly was, launching into Antiquity nearly first thing. Hats off!

I turned up around 2 pm and sat down with Nick, Gordon and David for… Roll for the Galaxy! Yes, why not play this little beauty twice in a row (albeit separated by 15 hours or so)? After teaching the game yet again, I was feeling optimistic a few rounds in. I’d built a couple of useful developments and the others were having a slower start. But then the tile-draw went against me and the “6+” developments (the ones with endgame bonus VPs) started coming out for everyone but me. Even some extended Explore-trawling through the bag wasn’t getting me anywhere – I drew ten tiles in one round and didn’t see a single 6+.

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

In the end, Nick’s combination of shipping for VPs and building medium-value developments and planets served him well. Gordon got some nice bonuses from a few 6+ developments in his tableau, while I just had to make do with what I had. David seemed to be having the sort of game I’d had the night before.

Final score – Nick: 45 / Gordon: 38 / Me: 38 / David: 20

I jumped table as Antiquity finished (Olly victorious – clearly not enough Eklund the day before to properly melt his brain) and joined John, Michael, Olly and Camo for a quick Coloretto (Olly wins again) before a five-player Last Will plus the Getting Sacked expansion.

I had memories of really enjoying Last Will the one time I’d played it (it turned out to have been two years previously); this time was no different. The concept alone is innately fun (be the first to lose all your money by doing things like taking your horse to the theatre or putting a dog in your house in order to depreciate more rapidly) and the gameplay is simple enough to not get in the way of that storytelling fun, although with enough tough choices to make it thinky where it counts.

My only real gripe this time was that had my card draw been luckier in the last couple of rounds, I could have lost substantially more money and possibly even won. The counter-argument would, of course, be that I should have gone for something that didn’t rely on the right cards coming up, and that’s fair enough. It just irks me slightly when something key hinges on something quite random. I think in those last couple of rounds I drew something like 6 or 7 companion cards just looking for a horse but didn’t get a single one. All dogs and chefs.

Olly's player board, halfway to getting sacked from his job as a journalist

Olly’s player board, halfway to getting sacked from his job as a journalist

In the end, Camo played his first game very nicely, after being the subject of some bafflement as he extended his player board further and further along the table. He pipped John to the win by a single pound of debt, while I came in third. Olly and Michael didn’t quite manage to bankrupt themselves, although Olly came very close.

Final score – Camo: -£11 / John: -£10 / Me: -£6 / Olly: £4 / Michael: £11

Michael was replaced by Vernon for Ticket to Ride: Legendary Asia, at which I performed in my usual “fine but not enough to win” way. The Legendary Asia board has a neat little “dangerous routes” mechanism whereby some routes involve trashing trains into the corner of the board as well as placing them on the route. Each trashed train is worth 2 VPs, so it’s definitely worth bearing in mind when planning a set of routes. Unfortunately, my initial ticket draw didn’t involve much in the way of dangerous routes, so I didn’t use that corner much. Vernon, on the other hand, seemed to be using it every other turn and he ended up with a huge pile of trains in the trash corner. It turned out to be a winning strategy…

Final score – Vernon: 110 / Olly: 100 / Me: 99 / Camo: 84 / John: 83

What was left of the evening was taken up with fillers (Scream MachineNo Thanks! and 6 Nimmt! – what is it with fillers and exclamation marks?) before several of us declared ourselves too worn out to continue.

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 26 August

The final flurry of gaming in August brought Die Burgen von Burgund (that’s The Castles of Burgundy for those of you with the English edition) back to the table for the first time in a long time. I’ve played it a lot online, but it was great to come back to the cardboard version.

As usual, I neglected animals (which was a bad idea), went heavy on the knowledge tiles (which was very handy) and kept blocking John from taking valuable mines by ensuring I was first player for the beginning of each of the first few rounds, with enough workers in hand to be able to grab the mines. And, as usual, we ended up with a close final score. A very, very close final score.

Final score – Me: 186 / John: 185

After that, Averil joined us for my first ever time playing Alhambra. All I can say is… well… it was a learning game. I didn’t get my head around the importance of the wall for scoring until near the end of the game, and I kept being just beaten to the tiles I wanted, forcing me to take second-best options just so I could attempt to keep up. We were playing with the Invaders mini-expansion, but that didn’t have too much impact on either the scoring or how any of us played. Anyway…

Final score – John: 152 / Averil: 116 / Me: 77

Not the most auspicious end to the gaming month, but there it is. At least I’ve played Alhambra now (initial thoughts: it’s… OK? Nothing special) and I might be able to pull off a better performance next time.

September’s already got off to a solid gaming start, with SnowdoniaRussian Railroads and more making an appearance, and a lot of games to come in the month. I’ll be back…

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 8 August 2015

A ridiculously long and awkward bout of “what shall we play” at the beginning of the session resulted in Roll for the Galaxy having its inaugural (for me) five-player outing. Result? It’s the same… but bigger! Although there’s more opportunity to have more phases happening in each round, we usually had three or even just two phases per round. Quite a few dice planned to sponge off someone else’s phase selection ended up unused and back in the cup for the next round, only for the same thing to happen again. Only once did I judge it correctly and get a couple of handy Produce dice activated by someone else before the Ship phase I’d selected did its job for cash and VPs. Of course, the inverse was also true that very same round, allowing others to sponge off my Ship phase and gain even more VPs than I did. Ho hum.

Olly had a ridiculous starting faction power (Genetics Lab) giving him $2 for each green goods die he had at the end of each Produce phase. That meant he went heavily into constructing green worlds, gaining more green dice, getting loads of cash by producing them as goods, shipping them from his green worlds for loads of VPs and then buying them all back into his cup to do it all again the next round. Once that engine had gone into full overdrive, I just ploughed onwards to build some decent-value developments and worlds in an effort to bring the game to a close before Olly ran away with it. John, meanwhile, had hit on a few “6+” developments, so I also wanted to prevent him from getting even more bonus VPs before the game ended. Propaganda Campaign let me throw loads of dice into building stuff and I ended the game pretty quickly once I’d made that decision. It wasn’t quickly enough though…

Final score – Olly: 54 / John: 47 / Me: 47 / Camo: 30 / Patrick: 26

It was pretty clear who’d played before from the scores, although both Camo and Patrick put in creditable performances and started predicting other people’s phase choices pretty well. This is one of my favourite games at the moment, with just the right balance of rule simplicity, decision complexity and (limited) player interaction, and it never outstays its welcome.

Staying with the same five players, Olly brought out 20th Century by Vladimír Suchý. (I love typing his name; I just enjoy ṗłãŷḯŋğ ẘḭţħ ŧḩȅ ṧƥɛçîǟḽ ċḣɐṝḁȼẗểɍȿ.) I have a copy of his game League of Six, which I’ve yet to play… but I think a lot of the concepts from League of Six have ended up in the later 20th Century, tweaked and refined into an immediately more engaging game.

20th Century is a game of auctions. There are auctions for tiles, which isn’t anything special, but that’s soon followed in each round by an auction for the least awful disaster. Yes, there’s an auction in which everyone’s bidding up and up in order to have the least horrendous thing happen to them. It’s glorious. However, it’s an auction game, and I’m pretty awful at auction games. I’m terrible at judging the value of things in auction games and even worse at judging how to manipulate others into taking tiles I don’t want at prices that force them out of the auctions I do want to win… Yeah, no matter how much I like some auction games, I generally don’t do well in them.

Caption

The slightly blurry situation in the final round. Camo (yellow) did extremely well with canny placement of bridges, allowing him to move people ridiculous distances.

In the end, I don’t think the auctions themselves were my downfall; I just didn’t concentrate on going for quite the right things at the right times. I wanted recycling centres to keep my land tiles fresh and clean for the final scoring (and I did indeed manage to clear every last rubbish cube in the last round), but I ended up with probably one too many and not quite enough VP-generating cities. Camo, on the other hand, went for VP cities all the way from the beginning. I wasn’t convinced he’d be able to keep up with the cash/science/recycling demands, but he ended up managing admirably and ploughing on to victory.

Final score – Camo: 132 / John: 124 / Me: 111 / Olly: 94 / Patrick: 50

There was a lot to think about in 20th Century, from the auctions to the odd brinkmanship game of ‘dropping out’ of the tile auction in order to get a decent extra tile at a reasonable price, to the changing scoring conditions from round to round, to the Carcassonne-esque tile-placement and network-building game within your own little settlement. Although it’s not a top-tier game that I’d want to play as much as possible, it’s a good enough game that I’d happily play it again, and soon.

Patrick left at this point and some new people turned up, so Camo played dutiful host and went off to Takenoko them into submission while Olly, John and I set up La Granja. After a successful first run in July, I was keen to see how it played with more than two; as it turned out, I wasn’t as enamoured with La Granja second time round, but that may have been more to do with how tired I was than with the game itself.

One of the beauties of La Granja is that it’s so simple to explain to experienced gamers. As a design, it references (and blatantly ‘borrows’ from) so many other designs and standard eurogame features that you can explain it almost in a kind of shorthand. The sequence-of-play cards really help as well, with relatively simple iconography moving the process on. The upshot of all this was that we got started pretty quickly and played the game in 90 minutes or so.

Another farming euro taking up nearly a whole massive table.

Another farming euro taking up nearly a whole massive table.

This time, I tried to just go for market barrows as much as possible, trying to rake in points in every single round at the expense of actually improving my farm – i.e. I had no engine to speak of. Big mistake. It turns out that doing well in La Granja pretty much requires some work on the farm, so I did pretty terribly. John and Olly both had the right idea though, with Olly picking up a couple of very useful craft-building tiles in the mid-game, giving him income of 3 silver and 1 trade commodity every round for the last three rounds or so; my single craft-building tile just gave me an extra donkey and an extra siesta hat each round. I also neglected the roof-building route to VPs because I was playing an almost cash-free game, meaning I missed out on 6–10 handy VPs. Basically, I messed up big style, typified by the final round in which I was one delivery short of about 8 VPs.

Final score – John: 69 / Olly: 65 / Me: 49

Lesson learned. Next time, build an engine first!

There was just time left for a quick bash at The Game, a frankly dull-sounding cooperative counting game which turned out to be much more fun than the sum of its parts. It was a little on the long side for the amount of game therein, but we did manage to pull off a three-player win, playing all of the cards in the appropriate order to the four piles.

Substantially lighter on table space; substantially lighter on theme and gameplay; still fun!

Substantially lighter on table space; substantially lighter on theme and gameplay; still fun!

Another Newcastle session over – hopefully another two for me in August, plus extra sessions and some super-heavy gaming as well!

All photos by John Sh and Olly, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month (except when it isn’t), 4:30 pm until late (or sometimes a 10:00am start) at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

My June in Games

June was a very busy month for me, especially around the weekends when I’d usually be at Newcastle Gamers. Two missed sessions (three including the late May one!) means I was grabbing any opportunity to get in a game here or there, but I ended up not doing too badly.

I kicked off the month by heading on down to Newcastle Playtest to see what new designs the group had kicked off since my last attendance. What actually happened was that I played Graham’s long-gestated flower-growing game with him and Olly (really enjoyed it, but Graham’s not sure about spending any more time on it), which devolved into a chat about pro cycling and the recently finished Giro d’Italia which had turned out to be a fantastic race (and a slightly ridiculously paced one – thanks, Astana).

The following week the stars aligned and I finally made it along to the Mile Castle for some Monday evening Android: Netrunner. What a lovely bunch of people! And what an experienced bunch of players. I played three games and lost all three. My decks kind of worked against me in a couple of the games (the first one ended in a flatline when my opponent played SEA Source and two Scorched Earths, so I didn’t really get a chance to get going), but I’m sure a more experienced player would have made better of the hands they’d drawn… or built a better deck in the first place. Everyone was really patient with me as I stumbled through some slow decisions and tried to make my frustrating hands work.

Dan played a beautifully horrible HB deck with the new Cybernetics Division: Humanity Upgraded identity (reduce each player’s hand size by one). After Dan scored a couple of Self-Destruct Chips early in the game, I was down to a hand size of two. Given that my Hayley deck is partially about heavy card draw, that was me scuppered. I need to work in a hand-size-enlarging card or two to counter things like that.

And then two days later I was down at John’s house for a bit of Corbridge gaming. John sprang on me a game I hadn’t even slightly imagined he might be interested in: Neuroshima Hex (in its 3.0 version, for those keeping score at home). I’d played this a few times on the iPad, but I couldn’t remember much about it so all strategic thought eluded me. I played the Borgo (good at melee combat) against John’s Moloch (lots of ranged combat options) and the tile-draw kind of screwed me a bit. I got in some good early hits on John’s HQ, which is the object of the game, but I didn’t draw either of my ranged units until near the very end, which meant I kept getting pushed back away from John’s HQ and had to concentrate on taking out some of his nastier ranged units. Yes, I’m staring at you, Gauss Cannon.

At the end of the game – looks like I've done really well (look at all that blue!), but all the damage had been done long ago.

At the end of the game – looks like I’ve done really well (look at all that blue!), but all the damage had been done long ago.

John took a comfortable victory after our tiles had run out, 9–5. Neuroshima Hex isn’t entirely my cup of tea, gameplay-wise, and the theme and artwork really aren’t for me. I mean, really – post-apocalyptic mutants? Again? I’d much prefer a Hive-style battle of the insects or something.

We finished up with another Roll for the Galaxy. Everything went my way this time, and I picked up a string of developments that only encouraged me to go for more developments. It really was a perfect-storm combo. I developed Investment Credits early on, which made all developments one die cheaper from that point. Galactic Bankers was a 6+ development, giving me 1 bonus VP per development, while Propaganda Campaign let me reassign one or two dice to the phase I chose. That meant (after a bit of exploring turned up some cheap developments) my final turn involved six dice on the Develop phase producing four developments for a total income of 14 VPs.

I had to check the rules to see if I was allowed to finish a thirteenth tile – indeed I was.

I had to check the rules to see if I was allowed to finish a thirteenth tile – indeed I was.

John had taken a much more balanced approach and did very well out of his shipping and a few 6+ development bonuses, but it wasn’t enough to overhaul my obscene development engine.

Final score – Me: 63 / John: 49

Yep, that entire winning margin of 14 was scored in the final turn. Love this game – it’s just so different every time.

That was it for June, and July’s shaping up to be similarly game-sparse. I’m making up for it with lots of cycling – both watching and riding. It’s great to get back on a bike after so many years off, and it’s helping no end with my CFS recovery.

My May in Games

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

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

Final score – Me: 81 / John: 73

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

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

Final score – John: 102 / Me: 98½

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

After final scoring

After final scoring

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

Final score – John: 100 / Me: 91

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 9 May 2015

Kicking off in fine style with Brass! This was the first time I’d sat down to Brass without feeling like I needed a full rules rundown (although I’d forgotten a few of the finer points… and I can never remember that weird Birkenhead rule) and the first time I went into it with a solid plan.

The plan was simply to get at least two or three level-2 industries on the board before the end of the canal age, with as much of a spread across Lancashire as possible, and preferably with one as near to Manchester as possible. Spend as little as possible (ideally nothing) on the last turn before the railway age in order to be first in turn order… then spend £30 on building four VP-lucrative railways around Manchester. Not much of a plan – and a lot of other stuff to fill in around it – but that’s what I was aiming for, and that’s what I managed to do. I had a coal mine in Bury and went first in the first turn of the railway age, so I built Bury–Manchester, Manchester–Bolton, Manchester–Warrington and Warrington–Liverpool. That would be 25 VPs for £30, assuming every town was filled with flipped tiles… which they eventually were.

Olly seemed to have spent most of the canal age building ironworks, which left very little opportunity for anyone else to build one, even into the railway age. That meant he got a VP boost from his emptied, flipped ironworks tiles and the iron market spent most of the railway age severely depleted. Graham did well for income early on, unlike me. I spent two turns in the red, spending £3 each time (which really wasn’t ideal) before finally getting a cotton mill shipped off via Ellesmere Port.

In fact, that sums up my experience of the whole game – I was always slightly behind where I wanted to be, occasionally making inefficient plays because I couldn’t quite do the thing I wanted to do. Twice I was just £1 short of my plans, and one of those was because of the £3 interest I’d just had to pay in the early game.

My lucky red cotton mill up in

My lucky red cotton mill up in Lancaster saved me from last place. (Note: this is the end of the game, but before final scoring. The winning score was definitely higher than 34.)

John Sh mastered the income track towards the end of the game, ending up with an income of £16, which allowed him to build two railways per turn (assuming there was coal on the board, anyway… which there occasionally wasn’t) even after there were no more loans allowed. That meant he crept into a couple of places where I wanted to build my railways (some very nice links around Liverpool, Ellesmere Port and down towards The Midlands), so I ended up taking a risk on shipping a cotton mill to the distant markets even when the market was perilously close to crashing. I came up lucky though, which gave me a nice chunk of VPs to end the game. It wasn’t enough to counter Olly’s greater experience and better planning, or Graham’s shipyard in Liverpool (the only one built in the whole game), but I felt like I’d finally got the hang of this excellent game.

Final score – Olly: 127 / Graham: 126 / Me: 110 / John: 103

Camo joined us for my first ever game of 7 Wonders (played with the Leaders expansion to add a bit more strategy). It turns out there’s not much to say about 7 Wonders – it just kind of… happens. I was attempting to go for science cards, and had drafted a couple of leaders that augmented that aim, but not many of them made it round to me. It turned out that Graham, sitting to my right, was also going for science cards and he grabbed lots of them when we were drafting clockwise. Olly, on my left, was clearly taking as many VP-rich blue cards as he could. In true 7 Wonders style, I didn’t really know or care what John and Camo were doing, because I wasn’t next to them. They seemed to have some sort of preposterous arms race going on, which the rest of us largely stayed out of (although I picked up a couple of military strength to get me a few points in ages II and III).

With my science strategy going largely pear-shaped, I concentrated on completing my wonder. As Gizah, that netted me a handy 15 VPs in total, and I finally managed to scrape together a set of four identical science cards for 16 VPs. It wasn’t a bad showing for my very first game, but it wasn’t quite enough to match up to Graham’s science-tastic civilisation.

Final score – Graham: 66 / Me: 65 / Olly: 58 / John: 57 / Camo: 52

It's colourful on the table, I'll give it that.

It’s colourful on the table, I’ll give it that. My beautiful stack of science cards is obliterated by the reflected light in the top-left. Graham’s winning bunch of green is bottom-left.

7 Wonders… hmmm. I guess it’s OK, and I’d certainly play it again, but I can see it’s a game that takes a fair amount of familiarity in order to get the best from it. And I’m not sure I like it enough to warrant giving it enough time to get familiar with it.

We were just about to launch into Kingdom Builder when a couple of new people arrived, so Graham and I graciously (delightedly) ceded our seats to nip off for some Android: Netrunner. I finally got to play a full game with the Hayley deck I’d rustled up before the last session (I’m calling it Prepayley, for reasons which will be obvious to Netrunner players) against Graham’s new HB NEXT Design corp deck. It’s a bit intimidating to go up against a corp who can install 3 bits of ice before the game even begins, but I had confidence in my ability to get a rig and breaker suite up and running reasonably quickly.

Oh, how misplaced that confidence was. I mean, I didn’t do too badly – I stole two 3-point agendas during the game – but my deck was just not playing my way. It lulled me into a false sense of security with a very nice opening hand including Sure Gamble, Lucky Find and Replicator, but I didn’t manage to get a single Prepaid Voice Pad out. At all. And that’s one of the things the deck hinges around. That and the Lockpick / Study Guide combo to build up a code gate breaker that can eat through anything.

With economy floundering and card draw not working for me (where are you, Professional Contacts?), Graham could build up an impenetrable-looking fortress of ice while I struggled to get my breakers into play. His final flourish was a double-Biotic-Labour to advance a 5/3 agenda for victory. I have a certain amount of confidence in my Hayley deck, but I need to look at options for tutoring certain cards out of the deck if the draw isn’t going my way. Of course, then I’d need to draw the tutor cards in the first place…

A quick reshuffle of seats after Kingdom Builder had finished left John, Olly and I playing Roll for the Galaxy. Olly quickly cottoned on to the similarities to San Juan and managed to root out a couple of the “6+” developments while exploring – i.e. the ones that get you bonus VPs in the final scoring, just like the 6-cost buildings in San Juan. The difference here is that the 6+ developments also score 6 VPs just for existing, so they’re a pretty good prospect even if you don’t get too many bonus VPs out of them.

Meanwhile, I didn’t do enough exploring and left my building stacks a little too small (or empty) for much of the game, and John was going heavy on the cyan dice and cyan planets, producing and shipping in quick succession for VP chips. I managed to forget that one of my developments had a very useful power (1 fewer developer die required to build a development), so I spent more dice than I needed to and scuppered my chances a little. In reality, I just spread myself a bit too thin between different routes to VPs and didn’t do well in any of them, which was all compounded by having far too few dice on several turns. (I mitigated this from time to time by shipping from my starting yellow planet for $6, which was very handy.) Olly had a faction power that got him $4 instead of $2 when using a yellow explorer to Stock, which gave him added dice and flexibility in quite a few rounds and led to him being the one to end the game by building his 12th tile.

Final score – Olly: 54 / John: 42 / Me: 38

It takes up a surprising amount of table space for what's ostensibly a "dice game".

It takes up a surprising amount of table space for what’s ostensibly a “dice game”.

Yes, very reminiscent of those games of San Juan where I fail to get a 6-cost building out. Those 6+ developments of Olly’s were fantastic. I know I’ll be digging through the Explore option several times in the early game next time I play. And I’m sure it won’t be long before the next time – this is a really engaging game that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

All photos by 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 late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!