Tag Archives: string railway

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 9 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very near the end.

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: superb game.

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

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

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

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 8 February 2014

or Back in Action!

Saturday afternoon saw my return to Newcastle Gamers after a long, illness/work-enforced hiatus. It wasn’t exactly a triumphal return given that I’m still ill (and given that I can’t drive far yet, my thanks go to John Sh for the lift into Newcastle), but it was great to get out of the house and get some gaming in. My plan for the session was to keep the cognitive load relatively light by sticking to games I already knew.

I’d made arrangements earlier in the day to play Agricola with Olly, John Si and Pete “10-Point-Agricola-Handicap” M at about 6.30. That gave me two hours to fill at the start of the session. Olly adopted his role of Fabulous Host to a few newcomers hanging around the door, so we decided to kick off with a few lighter games before the main agricultural meat of the evening. Out came String Railway.

“But Owain,” you cry, “what about your plan to stick to games you already knew?” Yeah, I know. But there’s this:

Venn diagram

It’s a small intersection at the moment, but luckily String Railway ∈ ( AB ). It starts off nice and simple (place a station, lay a string), but by the time you get to the last of your four turns it’s like a noodle-network nightmare. Olly had played it a few times before, John Sh just once and I and the two newbies (Louise and Richard) had never touched it.

Richard took an aggressive expansionist approach early on, moving into the mountain range directly in front of his home station and eventually making it all the way across to Olly’s station opposite. My lines intertwined quite a bit with John’s, seated to my right, while Olly and Louise both spidered out a bit and bothered everyone everywhere.

As discovered later, we fluffed a few rules, leaving players early in the turn order at a disadvantage and leaving me at a slight advantage due to the type of station I kept drawing, but that didn’t stop the game from being fun. Of course, I would say that because I won.

Scratching my head because I'm somehow winning

Scratching my head because I’m somehow winning

It is a fun game though, and I like the idea of potentially limitless variation provided by the “mountain” and “river” strings, along with the different island shapes for different player numbers. I’ll definitely play this one again.

The same crowd followed up with a couple of small card games from John’s collection – No Thanks! and Newcastle Gamers favourite Coloretto. (Seriously, Coloretto‘s like Power Grid or The Resistance – it always seems to make an appearance at these sessions.) No Thanks! is about as simple as games come. I got off to a good start, but ran out of precious chips in the mid-to-late game, meaning I racked up points (which is a bad thing) and Olly ended as the victor, continuing his unbeaten run in No Thanks!

In Coloretto, I played my usual fairly conservative game (aim for exactly three colours or maybe four at most, taking small piles if necessary). It has a reasonable success rate, but it didn’t work out this time. I’ve won previous games with 24 points, but not this time; Olly won again with substantially more points than that.

And then Agricola. Pete had turned up during our Coloretto game, so Olly and I assisted him in the ritual of setting up for a four-player game while we waited for John Si to arrive. We opted for a “deal 10 cards, discard down to 7” scheme for Occupations and Minor Improvements, with four from the E deck and three from each of I and K. The discard process is a game in itself, especially when you have a bit of experience with the other people at the table. I’ve played a few times with Olly in face-to-face games, and quite a few more with Pete and John Si on the iOS version, so I had some ideas about the ways they might play. I know, for example, that a game without Pete building the Well is a rare game indeed, so the Flagon Minor Improvement was a clear choice for me to keep (4 Food for me and 1 Food for everyone else when the Well is built).

The only decent card combo I had screaming out at me was the Writing Desk (when playing an Occupation, pay 2 Food to play a second Occupation) and Bookshelf (before paying for an Occupation, gain 3 Food… yes, even for the second one played with the Writing Desk, so that’s a net gain of 3 Food and 2 Occupations for one action), but given the prerequisites of 2 and 3 Occupations respectively, they wouldn’t be coming out in the early game and would be a late-game Food-boost at best.

It turned out to be a bit of an odd game. Pete had bemoaned the poor quality of his cards and ended up playing no Occupations at all, taking no Family Growth until the very last round (thus playing the game with the minimum 28 actions), with a two-room Stone house and his entire agricultural achievements consisting of one massive 12-space pasture with a few boar in it. He took no Wood until somewhere around round 9. And still he got 31 points, even while playing a very silly game.

I’d been the first to build a third room, so I had the early advantage in terms of Family Growth and extra actions, but I tend to get flabby and lose track of what I should be doing in the mid-to-late game, so I never really capitalised on that momentum. I ended up with six Occupations played (a couple mainly for the Writing Desk / Bookshelf combo Food boost) but not much in the way of a farm. 32 points.

Red: me.

Red: me. Blue: John. White: Olly. Green: Pete. Check out Pete’s pasture.

John Si and Olly were both playing their typically sensible, balanced games and I couldn’t instinctively pick out a winner. They’d both played Occupations involving the Travelling Players space, so there was the occasional bit of intrigue as to who might take that spot. John also had Harvest Helper, allowing him to nick Grain from other people’s fields. (Thankfully, my farm was so poor that I didn’t have any fields sown until the final round.)

Final scores – Olly: 42 / John: 33 / Me: 32 / Pete: 31

Like I said, an odd game. All four of us ended up with Stone houses. I seem to remember I was Starting Player for the last five rounds. For once, I didn’t lose (these guys are all a class above me when it comes to Agricola, even when I’m not enfeebled), but the only person I’d beaten had only had 28 actions for the whole game. I need to get even more practice in.

Pete slipped away into the night, so Camo and John Sh joined Olly, John Si and me for a five-player Puerto Rico. It’s a game I really, really rate, but don’t often get the chance to play. It’s always a bonus to have a table full of people who already know the game, so we were off to a flying start.

Starting fourth in player order, I got a Corn plantation, which is my preferred start. I quickly went down a Tobacco-as-cash-crop route which combined with my Small and Large Markets with Office to create a fairly powerful money machine. I got shut out of the Trading House a couple of times by being fifth in line for a tile with only four spaces, but I similarly got revenge by generating 7 doubloons when there was only space left for me to trade. There was huge competition around the table for Indigo (and hence space on the Indigo boat when Captain was taken), which I kept out of entirely. By the time Camo filled the last of his building spaces and brought on the end of the game, I was feeling pretty confident.

It's a classic, but it's, er... not very photogenic. That's my board down at the bottom-left. Note the relative lack of plantations.

It’s a classic, but it’s, er… not very photogenic. That’s my board down at the bottom-left. Note my relative lack of plantations.

My confidence was well-founded: 45 points and victory. Camo was second with 39, while Olly and John Si were in the 30s and John Sh in the high 20s.

I love Puerto Rico‘s interactivity: you’ve always got to be aware of everyone else’s agendas and how your actions will affect them (and on the flipside, how their actions will affect your plans). If you do something to benefit you, it might benefit someone else twice as much, so you’re sometimes better off waiting for someone else to do that something… and hoping that they actually do, rather than letting it go for another round and picking up another doubloon so the wrong person will be tempted into taking it, thus scuppering your devious scheme. Ah, it’s a great game.

It was getting late, so what better time to bring out a new, heavy-ish euro from the 2013 Essen crop? John Sh was keen to play Yunnan, so I thought I’d give it a crack. After all, I’d just given a table of good gamers a solid thrashing at Puerto Rico, so I must be reasonably capable, right?

No. No, no, no. I’ve never been so confused by a game in my life. And it’s not that it’s a particularly complicated game; I play more complicated games even now (I can quite happily manage Mage Knight or Cuba Libre solo at home). It’s just that at the moment I can’t take in the rules at that sort of pace. At any one point, I think I had about 50% of the rules in my head, but exactly which 50% kept changing from round to round. I never at any point managed to retain the simple fact of which workers come back to my hand and which go to Pu’er.

Anyway… it’s a tea-based euro by German first-time designer Aaron Haag. There are workers, trading posts, tea houses… tea horses for heaven’s sake. The worker placement system involves a bit of an auction feel, with the possibility of displacing other players’ lower-paying workers. At the end of each round, you have to divide up your income between cash and victory points, which is a horrible decision in itself.

Even the board is the colour of tea.

Even the board is the colour of tea.

I accidentally stumbled on a strategy of taking the bank action to gain plenty of cash and then taking all my income as VPs. In the next round I could bid to actually do things and take income as cash, then back to the bank in the round after that. It ended up working pretty well, somehow, and I took second place with 108 points to Camo’s winning 113. If I’d just taken a few steps up the border crossing and imperial influence tracks I could have edged him out (each track scores n2 points for n steps up the track), but then I would have had to have spent cash on those steps.

I honestly can’t form any sort of opinion on Yunnan without playing it again, and I don’t think I managed to learn much about the game from my initial play. There were a lot of moving parts and areas that seemed to influence each other, but I didn’t really figure out how. I’m sure it’ll come out again in future and I’ll be able to gather some thoughts about it. For now, in summary: brown.

And that was that. Creeping up on 1am, John and I zoomed back to Corbridge. It was great to be back at Newcastle Gamers. I probably won’t make the next one (birthday of offspring), but watch this space for more gaming.

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