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Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 11 April 2015

The Easter holidays meant there were two consecutive all-day Saturdays at Newcastle Gamers. I’d missed the first one because I was in a different county, celebrating a bunny being nailed to a cross by eating his chocolate eggs (or something like that – I’m not a religious person, so I can’t claim to understand these things), but I managed to make it to the latter half of this session.

I turned up at the perfect time to get in on a game of Survive: Escape from Atlantis! (I’m not overexcited; the exclamation mark is part of the title.) With five players, we each had one fewer meeple – and the distribution of starting boats was altered – but the island still felt very crowded. John Sh, Michael and I, all old hands at the cutthroat brutality of Survive, were joined by newcomers Anna and… well, I’m terrible with names, so my apologies to Anna’s friend whose name I can’t remember. [EDIT: Ivan! He commented down below – thanks, Ivan!]

With such a crowded island, meeples were swimming from the outset and succumbing to the elements the sharks all over the board. I was somewhat hampered by the tile draw – every tile I sank for the first few rounds was a green tile, immediately replaced by a creature, boat or whirlpool. Meanwhile, others were getting friendly dolphins, shark-cancelling tiles and so on, making their escape that little bit easier. Anna did particularly well early on, getting a tile that allowed her to move a boat with three of her meeples to the dock and disembark all three of them on the same turn.

So early in the game. Such innocence. So few dead. All to change very, very soon.

So early in the game. Such innocence. So few dead. All to change very, very soon.

In the end, experience counted for nothing – Anna and Ivan drew for victory with 11 points each. Survive is always fun, even when you lose. Perhaps especially when you lose.

Dead of Winter was mooted, but other people were looking to start other games so I excused myself. In retrospect, I think Dead of Winter – which absolutely isn’t my sort of game – might have worked out a bit more enjoyable…

I ended up playing Princes of the Renaissance with Gareth, Graham, Lloyd and Álvaro (both Gareth and Álvaro had played before, with Álvaro being the more experienced). On paper, this should be exactly my sort of game: Martin Wallace, Renaissance Italy, a sort of stock-market manipulation, collecting tiles in sets, etc. In reality, I realised that I’d lost and Álvaro had won within the first half-hour or so. And then the game went on for another three-and-a-half hours.

Doesn't look too intimidating, does it?

Doesn’t look too intimidating, does it?

PotR is one of those games that’s impossible to understand just from a rules explanation. There are so many moving parts that it isn’t until you’ve played through at least one of the three ‘decades’ of the game that everything starts to fit together. Actually, that’s being optimistic. I’ve played a whole game and I still don’t feel like I’d do any better in a second game. Part of the problem for me is that the whole thing is based around auctions, and I’m terrible at auction games. I have no idea how to value things and figure out if I’m over-bidding, or identify when the best time might be to put something up for auction. Another part of the problem is that you’ll generally only do well by forming loose alliances within cities, and that just doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not a negotiator. (On top of that, there’s often going to be a dominant partner within these alliances, so the lesser partner is working to improve not only their own position but also that of their partner who’s already ahead of them. Being that lesser partner seems pretty pointless to me.) The final part of the problem is that all the mechanisms fit together in fairly non-obvious ways.

This all sounds very negative, but I actually quite enjoyed the gameplay as it went on. Jostling the value of Rome down so that Graham and Álvaro (who’d both gone heavy on Rome tiles) would score nothing for their investments was good fun, even if I didn’t feel like I had any control over whether it happened or not. It didn’t make a shred of difference though, as evidenced by the final scores:

Álvaro: 47 / Lloyd: 30 / Gareth: 20 / Graham: 17 / Me: 15

wow. such doge.

wow. such doge. very influence. much attack.

Out of interest, I had a flick through the rules online after I got home… and discovered that we’d played a few fairly crucial things quite, quite incorrectly. Here are a couple I noticed:

  • A player can only own one Troop tile of each type. (At least two players had multiples of a single type, which made their military super-powerful.)
  • The amount a city pays for their Condottiere is equal to the city’s status, not double the city’s status as we played it. (This would have made taking part in – and losing – wars far less attractive and kept incomes lower. My weak military meant there was little point in taking part in wars, so my gold income was relatively low.)

Also, I don’t remember any mention of the fact that a player may hold no more than six City tiles in total. Actually, this may have been mentioned and I just forgot about it… and I don’t think anyone went over that limit… but it could have changed things had I been aware of it.

One final moan: the Treachery tiles. I really didn’t like these because they introduced a ‘take that’ mechanism, which is pretty much my least favourite thing in gaming (in fact, second only to having to run around during a game). You’ve bid yourself into a war because you’re confident you can beat the opposition? BOOM – not any more. I’ve bribed one of your Troop tiles to not fight, so now you’re probably going to lose. Or maybe you’ve planned out in advance what you’re happy to bid for various tiles over the next few turns? BOOM – not any more. I’ve stolen gold and/or influence from you so now all your plans are ruined. And so on. It’s not like I didn’t use Treachery tiles myself – I did, several times – but I just thought it was a layer of guff thrown on top of an already complex game.

So. Princes of the Renaissance. I’m not saying it’s a bad game by any means, but it’s a relatively old Wallace design and he’s come a long way in terms of making things smoother and more intuitive. Chances are I wouldn’t play it again, mainly because there are so many other games in the world that are (a) better suited to the way I like to play, and (b) just more fun.

After having my brain pummelled for several hours, I fancied something light and breezy to round off the evening. Gareth and Lloyd had drifted away, so Graham, Álvaro and I played Scharfe Schoten. I’m not quite sure what caught my eye about this game. I mean, I’ve always liked trick-taking games, but the only stand-out thing about this particular game is the suited card-backs and slightly odd trump system. Oh, and the card art, which sits somewhere on the fine line between awesome and awful.

Not sure about that imagery on the yellow 10...

I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that yellow 10…

But what a fun little game it is! One that rewards a few plays, I imagine, but still very enjoyable on a first outing. The randomised-per-round trump system is simple enough; it just has a habit of taking you by surprise when the hand of cards you initially thought was utter drivel is suddenly revealed to be quite powerful on closer inspection. The bidding for most-won and least-won suit in each round is a little unintuitive at first, but then you realise how much influence the “spice cupboard” (a spare hand of cards, one of which must be taken by the winner of each trick) has over the collection of cards you’ll end up with. And then the realisation that you can screw over the other players in quite simple (yet very effective) ways brings a whole new level to the game.

Graham took the lead in the first round and held it to the end, although I mounted something of a comeback in the last of the three rounds by winning relatively few tricks and trying to throw ‘bad’ cards to opponents so they’d fail in their bids.

Final score – Graham: 39 / Me: 34 / Álvaro: 10

That was a natural end to a slightly odd evening of gaming. Lesson learned: Wallace doesn’t necessarily equal fun. I need to play Brass to even out the universe.

All photos by John Sh and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month (although there’s an extra one in April), 4:30 pm until late (unless it’s a special all-day session like the first two Saturdays in April…) at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 27 April 2013

After a long day of herding buskers around Hexham (don’t ask), there was nothing I wanted more than to get over to Newcastle and play some games. Luckily, it was the right Saturday for that to happen, and I actually made it in time for the start of the session! With punctuality comes choice, so John F seized the moment (and me) to request Power Grid: Factory Manager. We roped in John S and Olly to make it up to the sensible maximum of four players, and we started setting up.

PG:FM has a rather tedious set-up, involving arranging the factory tiles on the main board ready for purchase, as well as sorting out the appropriate starting tiles for player boards, tiles for turn order (which are different for different numbers of players), tiles for energy price rises, selecting three “X” tiles to seed the first market… it drags on a bit. I usually like to explain bits of the game as they get set up, but PG:FM doesn’t really lend itself to that approach, so this time I made sure we could see all the bits before explaining anything. It’s a relatively simple game, so I hope I didn’t make too much of a hash of the rules explanation. I’d decided beforehand to explain the end of the round before explaining how the earlier parts of the round work, because everything you do earlier in the round is geared towards optimising the result of the Bureaucracy phase at the end. I think it was a successful approach, and it probably took roughly the same length of time to explain as it had to set up the table.

PG:FM is Power Grid in name only. Yes, it’s a Friedemann Friese game; yes, it’s got artwork by Maura Kalusky; and yes, it’s got the same paper currency. The only gameplay element that feels similar is in balancing two factors as you increase your capacities through the game – here, it’s Production and Storage; in Power Grid, it’s cities built and cities you can power. PG:FM introduces a nice little twist in that the auction phase (where you bid for turn order, rather than factory tiles) is carried out with available worker meeples rather than money. In principle, this makes it a short, tight auctioning round; in practice, it means that most turn-order tiles go for a zero bid. Bit of an anti-climax.

We ploughed through the game’s five rounds in about 90 minutes, including rules explanation, so it didn’t outstay its welcome. However, I quite quickly felt that we were playing relatively isolated solitaire games on our own player boards. Interaction was minimal (opportunities for opponent-screwage are limited to the aforementioned auction and buying tiles before your opponents can) and… well… it was just very dry.

Now, I don’t normally mind dry. Sometimes I take a perverse pleasure in enjoying a game despite its apparent dryness. But this was seriously dry. Dry like a snorer’s uvula. Drier than a vulture’s armpit. Like a lake of fun had been soaked up with a giant enjoyment-sponge, leaving just a cracked bed of ultra-dry game-mud. It was engaging, yes, but engaging in the same way that once I’ve started filling in a tax return, I can’t stop until I’ve got to the end.

You could dry it out a bit more by setting fire to it, I suppose.

You could dry it out a bit more by setting fire to it, I suppose.

So yes, the end. The winner is simply the richest person at the end of the game. John F won, comfortably into the 300s, with Olly and me hovering in the middle (304 and 295 respectively) and John S down in the low 200s. There was a general feeling of “meh” around the table, and I agree. I’m glad I got to try out Power Grid: Factory Manager with more than two players, but it’ll probably be out of the door when the next UK maths trade comes up on BoardGameGeek.

We toyed with the idea of Bios: Megafauna at that point, but I could see lots of hesitant faces, so I ended that discussion with the words, “Let’s play something fun.” And thus Myrmes hit the table. It was my first four-player game of Myrmes (having played a three-player game at Newcastle earlier in the year, and a two-player game online at Boîte à Jeux), and it played out similarly to my previous experiences: players who lose a nurse early in the game (in this case, John S and John F) by completing a challenge for the Council of Queen Ants end up lagging behind because they’re severely limited in the number of actions they can take per round. Meanwhile, the other players (in this case, Olly and me) can afford to create extra nurses, dig their nests deeper, leave bigger pheromone trails and just generally crank out the victory points. Myrmes doesn’t shy away from punishing early mistakes like that, and so we ended up with isolated battles between first–second and third–fourth places. It probably didn’t help the imbalance that Olly and I were diagonally opposite on the main garden board, so we didn’t really restrict each other’s pheromonal ramblings until very late in the game.

Olly (black) and I (red) dominate the board with our pheromone trails

Final game state – Olly (black) and I (red) dominate the board with our pheromone trails

I did manage to frustrate Olly’s plans for expansion in the last of the three game “years” – my five-hex trail on the bottom-left in the picture was exactly where Olly had wanted to put his, leaving his worker-ant options severely restricted – but that wasn’t enough to hold him back from the win. Some final-round challenge completion left Olly with 48 points and me with 42, while John S and John F trailed on 27 and 24 respectively. It’s a really enjoyable game, but horribly, horribly tight on resources and workers. Very thinky and very frustrating, especially when you make what seems like a good scoring move early on and it brutally punishes you for the rest of the game. Not one for the faint of heart.

A few games finished around the same time, so there was a slight reshuffle at the table, with Amo replacing Olly for a game of Spectaculum. I didn’t really know anything about it except that it was a Reiner Knizia design, but if I hadn’t known that, I would have been able to guess within thirty seconds of rules explanation. It’s so Knizia. Route-laying, buying and selling, values going up and down – it’s like several Knizia games thrown into one box, and it’s good fun. The travelling-circus theme is, of course, utterly superficial. It’s really a stock-trading game, with the coloured tokens placed onto the map board altering the values of the stocks, as well as creating dividend payouts and taxes (or, in the language of the theme, payday and sickness).

Stock market games aren’t really my forte, and I struggled to marry the price-manipulating route-building to the buying and selling until about halfway through the game. Once I’d got that sorted, I started doing OK, but it was a bit late by that point to do much about it. A fun game, ending in a very close win for John S (84) over Amo (83), with John F and I a little further behind.

Caption?

I felt like a bit of a Dizzy Dancing Bear myself for about half the game

John F was keen to get in his traditional play of Power Grid at this point. Now, I know I said last time that “I’m not one to turn this game down”, but, well… I was wrong. I don’t know if it was having already played Factory Manager, or just that I’d played Power Grid at the last Newcastle Gamers session, but I just didn’t fancy it. I think that when my gaming opportunities are as slim as they are, I like to get as much variety as I can at the Newcastle evenings, but I’ll probably be ready for Power Grid next time.

John S was feeling much the same (although I can’t speculate on his reasons), so we left John F and Amo scouting for more Power Grid players and set up for a quick round of vanilla Hive. Obviously, I’d played this too at the last Newcastle session, as well as in between, so maybe my reasoning for not wanting to play Power Grid is flawed… but it’s a very quick game, so that makes a substantial difference.

I felt like I had the edge from the start (probably to do with being White and thus having the first turn), but I had to engineer the rescue of my Queen at a couple of points through the game. Once I got onto the attack, however, there was a point where I still had six tiles left to place, while John was down to three, so I had much more flexibility in the later game. After foolishly placing a spider instead of an ant (and giving John an easy chance to block my win), I had to go for victory with a grasshopper placement instead, and I took the win a couple of turns later. Great game. Swingy, thinky and pleasantly short.

One grasshopper jump from victory

One grasshopper jump from victory

Olly had just finished London at that point (verdict: “It’s… alright.”), so he joined us for Survive: Escape from Atlantis!, complete with John’s newly acquired expansions: the Giant Squid, Dolphins and Dive Dice. We went all-out and threw everything onto the table, hoping for a newly chaotic experience. It turned out pretty similar to normal Survive, but the new elements did add a certain fun novelty. I’d expected the Squid to play a much larger role than it ended up playing – its power to eat meeples off adjacent land hexes and pick individual meeples off boats sounds outrageously powerful on paper, but I think we only lost two or three meeples to squid attack throughout the whole game.

It may have been that the sheer number of creatures on the board diluted the effects somewhat (we’d added five squid and four or five dolphins), and the Dive Dice meant that we were quite often able to manoeuvre the creatures away from our swimmers / rowers / unsuspecting squid-victim walkers. It might be best to go for one expansion at a time to retain as much “take that!” screwery as possible… or we may have just had an unusual game.

"Mmmmm. Your friend was tasty."

“Mmmmm. Your friend was tasty.”

Olly managed to rescue eight of his ten meeples for a total of 23 points, which was bigger than the combined total of my rescues (12) and John’s (8). Double-win for Olly.

The final game of the night was also from John’s bag of goodies: Fearsome Floors. In fact, being a copy of the cheaper German edition, it was Finstere Flure, but John gave a us a very thorough rules run-down in English. It’s a race game designed by Friedemann Friese, in which the object is to get your four young, delicious humans across the board from one corner to the opposite without them being eaten by a monster. The monster moves according to a simple set of rules after everyone has moved their people, so each round sees the players trying to strike a balance between moving towards the exit and guiding the monster towards their opponents.

There are a couple of key things that you need to get your head round to function properly in Fearsome Floors:

  • After a player piece has been moved, it’s flipped over to its other side for the next round. The movement points on the two sides of each piece add up to 7, which is fairly even for the pieces with a 3 and 4… but the 6-and-1 piece really needs some thought to be used effectively.
  • The player who moves the last piece of the round can make dramatic changes to the movement of the monster, so it’s a fairly powerful position to be in (typical Friese!).

One of the immediate joys of this game is the ability to create your own monster from various slot-together card body-parts. Lloyd was hovering near the table, with not quite enough time to play a game but not quite wanting to leave yet either, so he helped construct our monster. As a result, we ended up with a pink slime monster with a very dapper right arm and leg (complementing Lloyd’s après-dance waistcoat and bow-tie), as well as a top hat balanced on his eyeball head. Oh, and a second head as well.

"And tonight, performing the merengue... err... how do you pronounce this? Rrrffththlllaagaagahhhghh? Is that right?"

“And tonight, performing the merengue… err… how do you pronounce this? Rrrffththlllaagaaghhhghh? Is that right?”

And with the Frankenbeast assembled, we set about getting our humans out of danger. It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to do very well at this game. I could attribute it to fatigue (I think it was well after 11 pm when we started), but it’s probably just a personal weakness when it comes to spatial puzzling. I often don’t “see” things that others do – I’d made a few unforced errors in Hive earlier on – which is easily turned to my disadvantage. I got more of a handle on it towards the end of the game, but by then I’d had at least four pieces sent back to the start (which is what happens to them if they’re attacked by the monster in the first seven rounds), so I was well behind.

John got his second piece out of the exit before either Olly or I had saved even one. Given that the game is won when a player gets their third piece out of the exit, even after we’d got some pieces out, Olly and I had to join forces to try to delay John’s victory. I had everything sorted – I would sacrifice one of my gang to lead the monster through a secret passage to near the exit; meanwhile, Olly and I had cleared our pieces near the exit out of the way so that the emerging monster would turn and eat John’s piece. The only way it could fail was if the monster movement card that round was the one with a value of 5.

And, of course, it was exactly that card. Bum. John took an easy victory. It was a fun game, even if it wasn’t one to which I’m particularly well suited. It plays up to seven players, which is (a) useful for larger groups, and (b) potentially hilariously chaotic, so I’ll look out for it being played at future sessions.

It was well after midnight by that point, and there was only The Resistance being played, so I called it a night. I’m not sure anything stands out as a highlight this time. It was just a good, solid evening of quality gaming!

[Speaking of The Resistance, it was interesting to note that it was played a lot over the course of the evening. (You can always tell when it’s happening, because there’s someone loudly declaiming things like,”Everybody close their eyes… Now all the spies open their eyes…”. If it’s the Avalon version, it’s even weirder because they’re doing stuff with their thumbs.) I wonder if its recent appearance on the web series TableTop has resulted in more people buying and playing it. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that it’s not really my sort of thing. It’s a “people” game rather than a “things” game, and I like “things” (boards, cards, wooden bits, bakelite invertebrates, whatever)… but I think if I could round up six or seven good friends – people I know really, really well – who were willing to play it, I’d probably love it.]

For once, I took all my own pictures, but I’ll point you in the direction of the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page anyway for promotional purposes. Second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 9 February 2013

I’d again made tentative plans prior to Saturday’s session at Newcastle Gamers, this time to play Eclipse with Olly and John S, so we managed to avoid the awkward standing around and got stuck straight in to a bit of 4X fun. Well, not straight in – the setup and brief rules run-down (John and I being Eclipse newbies but having read the rules) took just over 30 minutes, and that was mainly just setup. There are a lot of bits in this game. Tiles in bags, tiles in piles, tiles in boxes, cubes and discs on player boards and on hexes that make up the main playing area, plastic ships in three sizes, player aids and more. We had to enlist a second table to help us accommodate everything. Kyle joined us to round out to four players, all playing human factions – no aliens for the first time out – and we set off into the void.

It felt very much like a learning game for me. For the first few rounds, I found it hard to judge how many actions to take and how best to deal with the results of my actions. As a consequence, I kind of hobbled myself for the remainder of the game by almost entirely cutting myself off from everyone else (which I thought would help keep me safe), while at the same time drawing (and keeping!) lots of hexes that didn’t give me the types of income I needed. I struggled for money for nearly the entire game, although a few lucky discovery tiles (three +5 science resource tiles!) gave me a research boost in the early rounds. Yes, I had “turtled”. And no, it didn’t work out well for me.
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