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Spring Games Weekend 2016

Last weekend was the spring 2016 instalment of the biannual “weekend away playing games in a bunkhouse”, featuring John Sh (of Corbridge Gamers) for the first time and lacking John Si, even though he’d organised the whole thing as usual. We also lost regular attendee Ben at the last minute, due to a situation involving train tickets, credit cards and flatmates.

We kicked off Friday afternoon in the usual “quick, light games while people are arriving” style with Camel Up, this time with the extended racetrack and supporting dice, just to spice things up a little. After spending most of the game thinking I had it in the bag, Graham R completely overhauled me in the final scoring, getting 8 Egyptian pounds in each of the “overall winner” and “overall loser” betting.

Final score – Graham R: 40 / Me: 33 / Graham B: 29 / Olly: 20 / Ali: 17 / Camo: 11

With all likely interested people present, four of us settled into 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties for the rest of the day. It actually wasn’t that long in the playing (somewhere around the seven-hour mark), but rules explanation was lengthy and intense and we broke off for Ali to cook for everyone, as well as to eat. 1862 is a really small, tight map with up to sixteen companies fighting it out in East Anglia; with great leniency in terms of forced train purchases and company refinancing, it’s much more a route-engineering game than a stock-market-manipulation game, so it was a nice change of pace from 1830.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies. And no, it’s not winning any graphic design awards, but it’s 18xx so no one cares.

Financial leniency doesn’t mean rules simplicity though, with each company potentially being either chartered (via an auction in the Parliament Round and fully capitalised) or non-chartered (started by buying shares in the typical 18xx way, but only partially capitalised), and each one having a random permit to run only one type of train (Freight, Local or Express, with Local being the most like the standard 1830 sort of train and Freight being… genuinely a bit weird). Coupling all that with rules for company mergers and acquisitions, it felt a bit daunting to begin with, but we quickly hit the usual sort of rhythm.

The game opens with two Parliament Rounds, which we all took as a sort of indication that we should probably start two chartered companies each. Well, maybe we shouldn’t have in reality – starting two chartered companies in the opening of a four-player game means setting a par price at the very low end of the spectrum (both of mine were at £54, on the £54–100 scale), which came back to bite me in the arse royally towards the end of the game.

With eight companies started in the opening minutes of the game, there was a massive train rush and we hit the green tiles very quickly. To be honest, the train rush never stopped; I’d be surprised if we played more than seven or eight whole rounds in the entire game, so quickly were the companies ploughing through the pile of trains. I spent much of the early game (or, really, much of the game) deliberately blocking people from my lucrative routes and keeping them away from the juiciest connections near me, which meant my companies (L&H running Freight trains, FDR running Express) were among the highest earners in the early game.

Talking of blocking, it was a key component of this game. Combinations of tile choice and station token placement meant that the board was essentially divided into a north half and south half, with only a couple of railroads able to run through the division. I don’t think any of us twigged early enough that “normal” cities (i.e. without special named tiles) didn’t get any bigger than two station spots, so congestion was guaranteed on this tiny map.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds, just after the collapse of the FDR.

There were a few mergers and a fair few bouts of refinancing in order to be able to afford trains, but I got bitten heavily just before the end of the game when there was an even faster rush through the last few train types. My FDR found itself with neither a train nor much money. Because the opening par price had been set at £54, refinancing would only bring in £540 and that was nowhere near enough for an £800 train. That meant the FDR was bankrupt and folded immediately. Disaster – that was my big earner. If I’d withheld revenue just once, I think I could have managed, but the train rush really was that fast. I went from feeling safe to utterly destroyed.

That was the end of my game, really. I think the FDR collapsed in the last set of normal ORs, and the final set (once the first H train had been bought) were simply “work out your revenue and get it three times”. Graham had played the centre of the map really nicely (he could run trains through that central divide I mentioned), but Ali had worked well to overcome all my blocking manoeuvres and he was director of three pretty good earners by the end and had a large portfolio of other shares. It was pretty obvious he’d taken the win, but the margins weren’t clear until the final reckoning.

Final score – Ali: £7835 / Graham B: £6413 / Olly: £5949 / Me: £5705

A decisive victory, and a cracking game. Really enjoyed this one, even though we didn’t finish until after 1 am.

Late finish, bad night’s sleep and woken at the crack of dawn by road noise and daylight (both things I’m unused to at home) meant my brain was pretty frazzled on the Saturday morning. I wasn’t the only one, and much of the day was spent on lighter fare.

John, Olly, Camo and I started with Kingdom Builder, with loads of oddities from the Big Box edition. Wagons, boats, soldiers… it was no surprise that I came in last, with John’s win nearly doubling my 43 points. I nearly made it up in The King of Frontier, but a rough tile draw (and John’s good fortune with the tiles) meant I came in just two points behind his winning 39.

Graham R joined us for Keyflower, in which he schooled us all on his first play (just like Camel Up the day before) by getting a tile that scored for every good on it and just piling those goods on. Olly managed to get close, but the rest of us… well… see for yourself:

Final score – Graham R: 80 / Olly: 70 / John: 45 / Me: 44 / Camo: 26

My dismal little village.

My comparatively dismal little village.

Terra Mystica took up what felt like the bulk of the afternoon, but it was only 2.5 hours, so it might just have taken up the bulk of my brain power for the afternoon. Graham R was replaced by Graham B, and Camo by Ali. Playing the Dwarves for the first time was interesting – tunnelling is great, not only for building further afield but also for just getting 4 points every time. Olly’s Nomads had the “sandstorm” power, allowing for an extra build once per round (and he built his Stronghold in the first round, so he got plenty of use out of that power) so it was nigh-on impossible to keep up with him for the largest-settlement bonus at the end of the game. Didn’t stop me trying though, so I at least ended up in second place for that competition.

Ali didn’t get his Witches’ Stronghold built until much later on, so he couldn’t get much use out of his flying power, although he did build a few towns and get the bonus points for doing so as Witches. John’s Mermaids were terrifyingly agile when it came to spreading around the board, but I largely concentrated on consolidating one large settlement and racking up the tunnelling points.

The end of the game.

The end of the game. Dwarves (grey) clearly stuck to the bottom-right corner. Halflings (brown) don’t look too intimidating on the board, but…

As I can imagine often happens, I regretted a couple of late decisions regarding losing VPs to gain Power (I really should have taken the Power), but I don’t think it would have greatly affected the final result, even though it turned out very tight indeed. In a clear sign of a Well Balanced Game, there was an eight-point spread across five players.

Final score – Graham: 97 / Me: 94 / Ali: 93 / Olly: 91 / John: 89

Great stuff – I’d been wondering how it would play with more than two, and I’m glad it turned out to be just as excellent.

After Paperclip Railways (so tired that I have no idea what happened or how I drew for first place with Olly – losing on the tie break), Trans Europa (a runaway win, but at least this one’s really simple) and a meal, Graham B, Ali and I settled into Tigris & Euphrates for the rest of the evening. I’d played the old iOS version a fair bit and Graham knew the game, but Ali has played T&E hundreds of times since it first came out 19 years ago. For reasons of table space and novelty value, we played on my new Fantasy Flight edition rather than Ali’s German first edition. (I think the new leaders are easier to read on the table, but the plastic monuments are just horrible. Thankfully, in two games, we only had one monument on the board.)

It's Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

It’s Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

With his experience, Ali vigorously schooled us in the first (relatively quick) game (13/6/6), so we reset and played again. This time we were more cautious, although we all started out fairly close together in the middle of the board and there were a lot of conflicts. Graham came out on top in quite a few of them, which boosted his scores a fair bit and he took the win, 12/8/8.

Nobody makes games like Tigris & Euphrates any more, which is kind of a shame, but at the same time it’s hard to improve on that mixture of points-accumulation and insane aggression. Maybe nobody needs to make games like this any more. Knizia got it right the first time.

At the point where we should have gone to bed, we played Splendor. Graham’s played this a lot more than Ali or I have, so Graham’s 19/7/6 win wasn’t a surprise.

After sleeping like the dead, we didn’t have long before being turfed out on the Sunday morning so Graham, Ali and I were joined by Camo to continue our “classic aggressive-euro Knizia in FFG edition” theme with Samurai. Ali and I both felt the pain of the tile draw, although I managed to do OK for castles. It wasn’t quite OK enough; tying with Camo, no one took the scoring tile for castles. He and Graham took one scoring tile each so it went to the first tiebreaker, with Camo winning on most other pieces won.

We couldn’t go an entire day without a train game, so five of us had a last-minute bash at Paris Connection / SNCF. It turned out a bit odd, with one colour not getting off 0 on the stock value track, one on 5 and the other four all on 10. That meant high chances of ties, and indeed…

Final score – Me: 100 / Graham B: 100 / Graham R: 95 / Olly: 90 / James: 90

With no tiebreaker in the rules, a shared victory was an excellent way to end an excellent weekend of excellent games with excellent people. Roll on the next one!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 February 2016

John Sh and I managed a couple more Corbridge sessions in February, involving Hawaii (which I declared to be “not bollocks”, but it seems to feel pretty dated now) and a first-play-in-a-long-while for Shipyard (which is just as good as I remember from the previous occasions it’s been out).

This, my friends, is how to win a game of Shipyard. As many ships as you can, filled to the brim with businessmen, in their suits and ties.

This, my friends, is how to win a game of Shipyard. As many ships as you can, filled to the brim with businessmen in their suits and ties. With the corresponding government contracts, of course.

But enough of Corbridge. To Newcastle, where I knew a 14-year-old boy I’d played Concordia with last time would be waiting to play Twilight Struggle with me. J (not to be confused with my J, who’s only 8) had attempted – but not finished – a few plays at home before, but any TS aficionado will tell you that it’s best to learn from someone who knows the game. That left me in the awkward position of either (a) taking the USSR, driving the usual early-war tempo and utterly demolishing him in the first few turns, or (b) taking the USA and watching the rest of the night disappear into an epic back-and-forth that doesn’t feel like a normal game of TS… and probably still winning anyway.

I took option (a).

I don’t think it was an unfair choice. I think it’s really helpful to see how the early war should play out with a more experienced USSR player (I’m certainly not a great player myself, but I knew enough to point out to J the importance of the Turn 1 AR1 coup in Iran… which I carried out beautifully and locked him out of western Asia for the rest of the game), and a new player taking the USSR against an experienced USA player can result in the mid war bogging down horribly. And to his credit, J only tried a couple of things that I really wouldn’t have done, so I pointed them out and suggested a rethink.

We got just into Turn 4 and onto the fifth scoring card of the game before I hit 20 VPs. A coup in Panama set me up for a quick infiltration into South America and I scored it for the 2 VPs I needed. I don’t think J was too crushed by his defeat, and I hope he enjoyed it enough to convince his parents to play again. He was certainly starting to recognise the signs that I was holding a particular scoring card… and he also appreciated the ability to bluff in that regard, so he was never entirely convinced I was doing what it looked like I was doing. (I was.) Ahhh, Twilight Struggle. It truly is a great game.

We joined his mum and brother, plus John Sh, Olly and Graham for a game of Paris Connection (aka SNCF). I hadn’t played it before, but it’s about as simple as a decent game can be. I was just getting the hang of the mechanisms when it ended, a round short of me having that crucial tenth share, with Olly (who had ten shares) taking the win. Really good fun in a short package.

After a seemingly complex decision-making procedure involving seven people and a bunch of games that went to five maximum, I ended up at a table with my copy of Samurai, club stalwart Lloyd and relative newcomers Sarah and Iain. Samurai is at its best with players who relish destroying other people’s plans, and there’s always a faint concern that married couples can introduce a relationship-based metagame or just be too nice to each other. No such concerns with Sarah and Iain, who proceeded to be just as mean to each other as to everyone else.

Sarah and I concentrated much of our mutual aggression on this small island.

Sarah (red) and I (red) concentrated much of our mutual aggression on this small island. I later realised why she just left those two castles to me.

I’d like to try Samurai with just three at some point. My two plays with four players have felt like they’re just a little too long and the extra board space possibly introduces a bit too much chaos with the statue-swapping and tile-replacing tiles. But it was still wonderfully aggressive euro fun. (I really should get hold of Tigris and Euphrates.) Sarah took the win by concentrating only on buddhas and rice; she took the scoring tile for both categories, automatically winning. (I managed to take the tile for castles, but I was clearly too diluted in the other two categories.)

After a lovely and enlightening conversation (in which I learned that Sarah and Lloyd had both penned entries on Urban Dictionary, one of which is simply too obscene to link to, and Lloyd told us about one of his plays and the resultant domain name shenanigans), Lloyd and I were left to play Lost Cities. It had been a very long time since I’d last played it, but I’d remembered the dangers of starting too many expeditions. Lloyd, meanwhile, was playing fast and loose, so over the course of our three rounds, things just got better for me and worse for him. I eventually won, 79 to -11. Yes, minus eleven.

Olly and John joined us to round off the evening with The King of Frontier. This remains a fantastic little game after six plays. I thought I was doing pretty badly to start off with (I declared myself to be playing “the long game” after several rounds without completed production areas); after finally finishing off my quarry and forest, I could actually afford some Buildings and shifted into a new gear. First of all, Reclaimed Land let me discard part of a city I’d just foolishly finished; next, I replaced that discarded tile with The Statue of a Man, which gave me 5 more points; the final, glorious touch was the Ancient Monument, which let me sift through my discard pile and place anything that would fit. As it turned out, that filled every space on my board except one, and it was only a couple of turns of Development before I pulled a tile that slotted in perfectly.

Wow

It truly is a thing of stick-figure beauty.

Lloyd had actually done really well with a couple of Building tiles and Olly had a nice combo of Warehouse (storing cubes) and a tile that scored VPs per cubes left at the end of the game, but nothing was enough to beat that 12-point swing from fitting my last tile in. John, meanwhile, was… well… he hadn’t completed many areas.

Final score – Me: 48 / Lloyd: 43 / Olly: 37 / John: 12

Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne! Details can be found on Meetup.

First Light to Second Heavy

Wednesday’s Corbridge Gamers session was relatively light, with the short civ-tableau-engine-builder Imperial Settlers starting proceedings. While the concept of a civilisation game where you can destroy your opponents’ buildings might not initially appeal to the eurogamer, when you realise that the defender gets 1 Wood and gets to keep the card as a Foundation (which can be used as part-payment towards a high-VP faction building), it doesn’t seem so bad.

Which was good for Corbridge harmony really, because I spent a fair bit of the game razing John’s buildings to the ground. I played the Roman faction which can store Raze tokens between rounds; John, as the other side in the suggested 2-player newbie game, was the Barbarians, who are good at producing and storing people from round to round. John got a nice little engine going fairly early on, involving some sort of gold mine and an Acting Troupe card which let him clear off the gold mine and use it again to gain even more Gold tokens. Gold being wild, he could then pour his mountain of it into building new Locations.

The Acting Troupe was first on my list of Raze targets. While John was gaining ground on the VP track, I was going for a much more ‘civilised’ approach, building as many of the Roman faction Locations as I could. That meant also picking up as many cheap Locations from the Common deck as possible, so I could build them and then spend them as part of the building costs for the Roman Locations. It worked out pretty well, with some lovely Feature Location synergies and a lucky draw of two ‘multi-colour’ Roman cards which each triggered two Feature Locations for extra Gold and/or VPs.

My glorious Roman civilisation. Common Locations (1 VP each) to the right of the Faction board, Roman Locations (2 VPs each) to the left.

My glorious Roman civilisation. Common Locations (1 VP each) to the right of the Faction board, Roman Locations (2 VPs each) to the left. I was very Production-heavy.

I was a little behind on the VP track at the end of the fifth and final round, but my massive collection of Roman faction Locations outstripped the Barbarians.

Final score – Me: 44 / John: 39

Imperial Settlers was a very fun, light (but not too light) engine-builder with tons of replayability and different factions to explore. I’m sure it’ll get played a fair bit in future.

We moved on to my fresh copy of Reiner Knizia’s venerable Samurai, in a lovely new edition from Fantasy Flight Games. I’d had a little bit of experience with the iOS version, but I’d never been any good at it and it had been a while since the majority of my plays anyway. We were essentially both new to the game.

The crucial difference was that I’d already figured out the crux of good Samurai play: timing. It’s not about getting the highest-value tiles down next to the statues; it’s usually about being the player to get the last surrounding tile down. It took John a few rounds to realise that, and by that time I’d already got the upper hand.

The end of the game after four tied statues – I took two majorities for the win.

The end of the game after four tied statues – I took majorities in buddhas and castles for the win. Never mind all that though… it’s PRETTY.

I forced the end of the game by causing a fourth statue to be tied while I was ahead on two categories. It felt a little gamey – it would certainly be lot harder to do that with confidence in a three- or four-player game because captured statues are kept behind player screens in those games.

We finished with a “quick” game of Harbour, which was new to me and didn’t make a great impression, largely down to an unlucky card draw which made the first few rounds painfully slow. Four of the five cards available to build at the start were high-cost, which is one thing you just don’t get in Le Havre (from which Harbour takes clear influence) because although the building order is slightly randomised, it’s also structured so the engines get built first. Not so here, so we struggled on for a while before things eased up and we could finally get some building done.

I managed a win, 40–27, mainly because John twice used the Wizard’s Travelling Imaginarium to swap one of his existing buildings for a higher-value one. That meant he got a cheap build, but at the sacrifice of the points he had in the building he traded in. Thus, I ended up with five buildings and John with three.

As I said, not a great impression, although I could see how much more fun it could be if the cards came out in a better order.

Saturday brought another Newcastle Gamers session, which began with another game of Samurai, this time with four players. It’s a very different beast with four – there are substantially more spots that could be surrounded by the time your turn comes back round, plus there are more spaces for ships to affect multiple contests. Thankfully, everyone twigged the timing aspect of the game pretty quickly, but there were some very long turns as people analysed the board situation and tried to figure out the best move… or sometimes just the least bad move. After a long dance, the last castle disappeared from the board and the game ended. I won a leader token and Graham won another (the third went unclaimed by either Olly or Andrew), so the tiebreaker was statues in castes other than the one in which we had the leader token. I just tipped it in my favour with 6 against Graham’s 5, so a win for me.

The rest of the session was a rematch of 1830 after an initial play in September. In order to fit the game into a normal Newcastle meeting, we’d gathered a few resources to make things quicker and easier (poker chips, player aids and a fabulous iOS app called Survey Party that does things like automatically calculating maximum railroad revenues and player payouts based on shareholdings) and actually played out the initial sale of private companies by email over the preceding week. I’d nearly ended up without a private, but thankfully Ali passed on his opportunity to buy the B&O private at face value and I snapped it up (setting share par at $90 in the hopes of keeping the B&O railroad a steady medium-to-high earner through the game). That left Olly with the C&A (I bid him up to an eye-watering $246 before dropping out), Ali with C&StL and John Si, King of the Privates, with SVR, D&H and M&H.

My initial plan worked OK for a while – the B&O is in a perfect position to crank out decent payouts pretty quickly, especially with a handful of trains. My 2, 2 and 3 did me well, until the 2 trains rusted and things slowed down dramatically. As expected, Olly’s PRR was knocking heads with the B&O in several spots, and he ended up blocking me via both tile and token placements (the latter after I’d foolishly let the B&O’s cash reserves run down to $3 so I couldn’t afford a token of my own). Ali’s New York & New Haven and John’s New York Central were far enough out of B&O’s way to not worry me in the early stages of the game.

About an hour or two into the game. B&O has upgraded some tiles to gain better revenue, but blocked out of some tiles to the east by the dastardly PRR.

About an hour or two into the game. B&O has upgraded some tiles to gain better revenue, but been blocked out of some tiles to the east by the dastardly PRR.

I played the shares game very carefully – probably too carefully – and only held a maximum of one share in anyone else’s railroad until we were into the diesel era. That protected me from having bankrupt railroads dumped on me, but it also ‘protected’ me from gaining a decent income. And for the second time, I failed to start up a second railroad. In fact, the Erie didn’t float at all, while Olly took control of Boston & Maine, John took Chesapeake & Ohio and Ali ran the Canadian Pacific again. This failure to start a second company (in part caused by the fact I got the B&O private – it closes as soon as the B&O railroad buys a train and thus can’t be sold to a railroad for fat stacks of cash you can spend on a second company) was a big part in my mediocre performance overall. I couldn’t play the game of buying trains between two companies in order to have enough money in one to buy a better train; rather, I had to withhold revenue to save up enough cash to trade in my 4 for a D train. (That was actually my one triumphant moment of the whole game.) At least I wouldn’t have to fund a train from my personal money, but I wasn’t going to do well overall. 60% shareholding in a railroad running one diesel on a heavily blocked route doesn’t compare with what the others had.

Olly, meanwhile, was manipulating the PRR share value to stay within the yellow zone, meaning his 60% of PRR shares didn’t count towards his portfolio limit of 16 certificates. That left him free to invest widely in other companies, benefitting from their continued revenue payouts while he kept PRR relatively low in value (and occasionally paying out handsomely). I only went over the 16-certificate limit by one, because all the interesting shares had been snapped up.

This time round, Ali was the only player to get stung by a forced train purchase, but it was a nasty sting, costing him just over $800 of personal money for a diesel. That involved ditching a bunch of decent shares as well, so Ali’s game never really recovered, while John and I just trundled along, paying out with our railroads, trying to engineer some decent track routes (failing in my case) and picking up the odd share here and there when they became available.

The endgame map

The endgame map – notice how horribly boxed in my B&O is, and how unappealing the Erie railroad was.

The bank broke around midnight. The last few operating rounds felt a bit stale – very little was happening in terms of track changes, so at least the Survey Party app helped keep things ticking along smoothly. As an aside, that app probably saved us at least an hour just tracing train routes and working out revenues. Possibly two hours. Seriously worth the money, especially because it’s free.

Final scores – Olly: $9,039 / John: $7,924 / Me: $7,602 / Ali: $4,646

For reference/interest/completeness, some cash/share-value splits:

Olly: $5,405 cash / $3,634 shares
John: $5,134 cash / $2,790 shares
Me: $4,616 cash / $2,986 shares
Ali: $2,066 cash / $2,580 shares

Not a terrible showing from me, considering the lack of second railroad (my widespread portfolio actually served me pretty well alongside a high value for my six B&O shares), and an unsurprising victory for Olly, considering his excellent manipulation of the PRR stock value and massive shareholdings. As with the first game, it was really good fun and now I feel like I’m just getting a handle on the ebb and flow of 1830… and handily there’s already talk of a further rematch.

Final gaming news of the week was that our marital copy of Pandemic Legacy arrived, which should keep us on our toes for some time to come. Looking forward to getting started with it!