Tag Archives: sncf

The Hunt for the Rest of October

including Hot New Stuff and Ridiculous Rocketry

John and I managed a game of Stefan Feld’s excellent Bruges a couple of weeks ago, including the faintly ridiculous but perfectly functional Pets promo mini-expansion. We’ve fairly comprehensively bounced off the City on the Zwin expansion-proper (with the exception of the extra cards, which are now forever shuffled into John’s deck), but Pets wasn’t too much of a disruption to the base game, just adding some pet cards to the deck as well as the accompanying “Look, I Have the Most Pets” majority markers. The beauty of the pets is that they can share a house with a person, but they also count as people for most game purposes. Need to lose a person due to threats/opponents? Lose a pet instead!

In an early round, I didn’t quite have enough cash to advance on the town hall track (or whatever it’s called) and fell behind for the rest of the game. I was also permanently behind on canals, simply because I hadn’t been able to draw the appropriate colours in the first round, and I never managed to catch up on the randomly distributed pet cards either. Ho hum. Other than those little niggles (one my mistake, two beyond my control), I think I did pretty well out of the cards I had, with one person in particular (Biologist, if memory serves) providing a 3-coin discount when installing new people in houses. Brilliant for getting out those high-value, high-scoring people. In the end, though, my brilliant people couldn’t topple John’s dominance on the majority markers and the town hall track, with John winning 67–54.

Bruges is a really solid game that gets lost in the sea of really solid Stefan Feld games. I’m interested in having a closer look at his new Essen release, The Oracle of Delphi – it seems to take a few mechanisms he’s used previously and throw them together into a… race game?! Yep, a race game: first to complete the objectives wins. Should be interesting if nothing else.

The bulk of the late-October gaming came in the form of an all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. For once, I arrived before lunchtime and stayed until about 1am… and still only managed to play four games. But it’s quality that counts, not quantity – and what quality!

I kicked off with Uwe Rosenberg’s A Feast for Odin with John, Olly and Camo. This absolute beast of a game combines mechanisms from previous Rosenberg titles (a little like Feld’s Oracle of Delphi or Rosenberg’s own Fields of Arle) – worker placement, resource conversion, spatial tile-placement puzzling, feeding the family, negative points everywhere – in a true smörgåsbord of a game. In fact, the Feast phase of each round features rules for creating an actual smörgåsbord – there has to be a variety of foodstuffs on the feasting table to ensure the Vikings get a balanced diet. Seriously.

In a way, that illustrates what I found exceptionally tough about A Feast for Odin as a first-time player. I struggle with spatial elements in games at the best of times, so when a game has lots of different rules about where different resource types can be slotted into your board, I struggle even more. Every time I thought I had a plan figured out, I’d carry it out and then realise there was a reason why it couldn’t work (because green tiles can’t be adjacent to each other, or because you can’t cover an income space without also having covered all the spaces below and to the left of it), leaving me with a bunch of resources and treasures I couldn’t position sensibly.

The worker placement – in other words, the meat of the gameplay – had everyone puzzling for a while over the best moves to make. Rather than the Agricola-style approach of having a small number of possible spaces which increases slowly over the course of the game, Feast goes all-out with 61 spaces available from the start of the game to the end. (63, in fact, in our four-player game – two “imitate” spaces are added to the action board with four players.) The four columns require differing numbers of workers to activate and some spaces have preconditions like boats or certain goods, so they’re not all sensible from the beginning of the game, but even so… a huge number to choose from.

I allowed my starting Occupation card to shape my game, and I wish I hadn’t – the Catapulter directed me towards lots of pillaging and collecting blue/grey treasures. I didn’t realise how horribly inefficient that would be compared with other people’s more balanced approaches; each Pillage action required two or three workers and only yielded one tile to go onto my board, while others could collect multiple tiles per action.

The end of the game – notice how full everyone's board is, except mine (right)

The end of the game – notice how full everyone’s board is, except mine (right)

By the end, I was just feeling a bit frustrated that I hadn’t got it at all. The spatial element had eluded me and I hadn’t figure out how to make the action spaces work to my benefit. At least I’d pillaged the Crown of England. In the end, I did very well on positive points (having emigrated two boats’ worth of Vikings, taken Iceland and built two buildings) with 110 to my name, but then managed to score 65 negative points from uncovered “-1” spots. John’s experience with the game – although only one two-player game prior to this one – helped him along to a win and no one had quite the negative-point disaster that I did.

Final score – John: 76 / Camo: 68 / Olly: 57 / Me: 45

I ended up feeling a bit mixed about A Feast for Odin – it was interesting and engaging to play, with all the usual fun and frustration of worker placement, but I hadn’t grokked the spatial puzzle and the action spaces themselves were clearly going to take another few plays to figure out the useful paths through them. As it happens though, I’ve had another play since this one and it worked out much better – read more in a future post.

Next was Paris Connection, which I won in roughly the time it’s taken you to read this sentence.

And then the next meaty beast – Leaving Earth. Having already played once earlier in the month, John and I talked Olly and Alex through the intricacies of rocketry and component testing. There’s a lot to take in, although once grasped, the rules seem fairly intuitive; it reminds me in that way of a Splotter game, alongside the slightly homespun feel to the production and presentation.

We were playing on the next difficulty level up from our initial outing, which meant adding two scoring objectives from the Hard deck; they turned out to be (a) returning a sample from Ceres to Earth and (b) returning a sample of extraterrestrial life to Earth. The latter was worth a whopping 40 points, which just about eclipsed the sum of the rest of the points available… but there was, of course, no guarantee that there would be extraterrestrial life anywhere in the solar system! That in itself would be the factor that decided the game.

We started off slowly, with my opening turn bringing in a 1-point objective – getting a working probe into space (strap a probe to an Atlas rocket and get it suborbital), and the other low-value objectives got snapped up pretty quickly. Some of them came with a certain amount of morbid comedy – Olly got the prize for first man in space and first man in space at the start of a year, by blasting Jim Lovell into orbit, feeding him once and then… well… just letting him starve to death. Houston, he had a problem, but it was a net gain in VPs. It was either starve him or let him burn up on reentry; Olly decided that leaving a capsule in orbit might be beneficial for future missions, even if it did have a pioneering corpse in it. And, meanwhile, John had quickly strapped Yuri Gagarin into his capsule atop an untested Saturn rocket, which promptly exploded. Alex (who’s Russian) didn’t seem to mind us blowing up one of his national heroes.

Another monster table-hog, but this game is beautifully presented

Another monster table-hog, but this game is beautifully presented

After that, things slowed down a lot as we settled into long rounds (“It’s my turn, but I’ll pass for now so you can get on with things while I redo all my maths.”) and the thing that niggles me slightly about Leaving Earth – it can be so very obvious that someone is definitely going to complete the mission that you were aiming for, and that they’ll complete it before you do, which means you abandon all the plans you had and start all over again. However, there’s still the chance that you can figure out a quicker way of doing it, which is how I ended up winning the game when it looked like there was no chance at all.

Alex had already successfully used ion thrusters to get to Ceres and back when it became obvious (via his and John’s surreptitious scanning) that the Moon was hiding something valuable – presumably life. I’d figured out a way to get a probe to the Moon and back just in case of this exact situation, but it involved seven Saturn rockets and eight Atlas rockets, all strapped together in a ridiculously Heath-Robinson-cum-Kerbal-Space-Program contraption. Luckily, due to a bunch of objectives being completed by other players (which results in a $10m boost each time for every other player) and some wheeling and dealing of technologies (which, for me, elevated the four-player game far above the two-player version), I’d had a few rounds with substantial extra cash to spend on Saturn and Atlas rockets.

Alex had sent an ion-thruster-powered mission off to the Moon, and he looked like he’d have the sample back on Earth before anyone else could do anything about it… but ion thrusters take a long time to get anywhere and he wouldn’t touch back down to Earth until the following round. Thankfully, I only needed one more Saturn rocket to create my preposterous mega-rocket (seriously, this thing was about ten times bigger than anything NASA has ever even envisaged) and I was first in turn order, still having only 1 VP, so I bought it and fired my mission into space. Everything was fully tested, so it landed beautifully on the Moon (still consisting of about 4 Atlas rockets), blasted off with a sample of Moon microbes on board, and touched back down on Earth that same turn for 40 VPs and the win.

My glorious French space agency at the end of the game

My glorious French space agency at the end of the game

Honestly, it was a ridiculous win but that’s space flight, folks. It was a long but very enjoyable game, with plenty of silly table talk and loads of, “Well, I think I’ve done the maths right, so let’s try it.” It was just about to start outstaying its welcome; I think those two Hard-level objectives at least doubled the potential length of the game, so I wouldn’t want to up the level any further without a lot more practice. I can see how you’d get a lot quicker with more experience as the rocket science got more intuitive.

The last game of the day (with Andrew replacing Alex) was Alexander Pfister’s new Great Western Trail. It’s a game of deck/hand-management, worker management, careful bonus selection and movement across a board that essentially creates an expanding, branching action rondel – in other words, there are a lot of moving parts. I think I explained it about as concisely as possible though, and one of the great things about this game is that the turns rattle round at a fair old pace. Move your cattleman, do the action of the building where you land (usually) and draw back up if you discarded any cards. It doesn’t mean that turns are short of decisions though – it’s a careful balancing act between making money, hiring workers, buying cattle, constructing buildings and rushing for Kansas City in order to sell cattle and deliver them for (hopefully) points.

This game looks like a baffling mess at first glance, but it honestly makes a lot of sense once you're playing!

This game looks like a baffling mess at first glance, but it honestly makes a lot of sense once you’re playing!

I was aiming to get some high-VP buildings on the board and build up some valuable cattle in my deck (cattle have a sort of double-goodness, due to being VPs themselves and also allowing you to ship your cattle to higher-valued spots from Kansas City), but I kind of messed up a couple of building placements. I never felt quite like I had enough workers; maybe I should have concentrated on hiring workers instead of building or buying cattle on one of my trips to Kansas. I was well served by getting rid of my two hand-limit-limiting discs as quickly as possible though – six cards tend to score substantially better than four when you reach Kansas City!

Anyway, I’m already over 2000 words on this post, so suffice to say that I really enjoyed Great Western Trail and am keen to play it again soon. It’s exactly the sort of game that grabs me straight away, with lots of simple parts that slot together to make a challenging whole. I didn’t win though:

Final score – John: 103 / Me: 88 / Olly: 83 / Andrew: 66

November could turn out to be interesting – I’m hoping this year’s Splotter reprints will turn up soon, I’ve got a few new Sierra Madre titles on order (having yet to even play last year’s Neanderthal), and there are still a few more new Essen titles I’m keeping an eye out for!

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.