Tag Archives: tash-kalar

T for Two – March Gaming Roundup

I’ve done it again. I’ve gone and left it a whole month between posts. Gah. I’ve had a Pandemic Legacy post gestating for a while (given that we finished our campaign way back in February) and there’s another post brewing about a recent… ahem… descent into Ameritrash territory, but here’s a quick spin through March.

John and I have played some corkers in Corbridge this month, almost all beginning with “T”: Tzolk’in: The Mayan CalendarTrajan (with Port Royal to round off that evening), Terra Mystica and the double-whammy of Tash-Kalar and Trambahn. Yes, by the end of the month we’d realised the accidental T-theme and played into it deliberately.

Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica were two games I’d played once a couple of years ago, really enjoyed and then inexplicably hadn’t played since. It astonished me quite now much I remembered of both, mechanics-wise, although the finer points of the rules and strategies had largely escaped me.

For Tzolk’in, I made a few mistakes in terms of timing… and timing is everything in this game. Knowing when to place workers onto wheels and when to take them off, especially when you can only place or remove workers in one turn – never both – was something that slightly eluded me, and I took a couple of very inefficient turns that threw me well behind in terms of tempo. I did manage to disrupt one or two of John’s plans, but nowhere near enough.

Final score – John: 74 / Me: 39

Ouch. I did get a vague feeling of “oh, yes, I remember why I haven’t played it since the first time”, but I couldn’t lay my finger on quite what the reason was. Very odd. I think there’s always just something else I’d rather play.

Trajan was familiar territory and I used all my experience from boiteajeux.com to lay down a hammering on John. I shipped loads of cards and got whacking great bonuses from the Senate bonus tiles I’d engineered my way towards (and the ones I’d ended up with by accident) to finish the game 161–128. It made up a little for the shocking Tzolk’in anyway.

Port Royal (another Alexander Pfister design, after recent plays of Isle of Skye and Oh My Goods) was nothing spectacular, although it did make me wonder if my 8-year-old would manage/enjoy it. I’m not a huge fan of push-your-luck mechanisms, and there’s a big one that drives the core of this game.

Unlike Tzolk’in, the lack of plays of Terra Mystica is a complete mystery to me. I really like this game. It’s heavy, it’s pretty and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

My largest halfling city, next door to John's grey dwarfville.

My largest halfling city, next door to John’s grey dwarfville with its under-river tunnels.

My halflings had cheap digging upgrades so I tried to go for that as early as possible. Naturally, there were a load of other things to do before that was even feasible, so John and I pretty much matched each other step for step, carefully trying to avoid giving each other Power from building adjacent to existing buildings. We tussled a little on the Cult board, but nothing momentous happened until right at the very end of the game, when the jostling finally gave way and I used my Power bowls to devastating effect, edging ahead for the win.

Final score – Me: 113 / John: 99

…which is, oddly, almost the score we finished with the first time we played, and exactly the same winning margin (110–96). Great stuff. Must play again soon, and with more than two!

Tash-Kalar… well, it’s a decent game and I like the constant back and forth, although it can feel a bit too swingy at times. Also, it transpired that John had played all our games (and half of this one) without realising that you can not only rotate the patterns of pieces required for summoning, but you can mirror them too. So that was possibly a factor in my melee victory this time round. I keep coming back to this game, even though (again) I can’t quite pin down exactly why.

Trambahn turned out to be a bit of an unexpected treat. Designed by Helmut Ohley (of Russian Railroads and a whole scad of 18xx games), it combines Lost Cities with San Juan alongside a couple of simple ideas from 18xx to create a nicely thinky, slightly luck-dependent tableau-building game that plays quickly. There’s definitely more than meets the eye with this one, and John’s extra experience with the game certainly paid off against a few very lucky hands that I’d had.

Final score – John: 177 / Me: 154

Beyond our regular Wednesday sessions in Corbridge, I was home alone for all of the Easter weekend. It was glorious. If there’s one thing I yearn for, it’s time on my own. And living where we do, away from main roads and general hubbub, it was completely silent for two whole days.

Of course, I made the trip over to Newcastle Gamers that Saturday for Roads & Boats, that now-ancient progenitor of… pretty much every resource-conversion euro that ever was. We used the special scenario designed for two experienced players to play against two newcomers; Olly and I had played a couple of times before, while John and Ali were first-timers to this “Le Havre with logistics”. As it turned out, I’m not convinced two plays is enough to count as “experienced”. What really happened is that Olly and I just had to spend ages organising ourselves into sea-based transport in order to reach the mountains in the centre of the board, while John and Ali got on with mining.

However, because we’d had extra time to build up, both Olly and I had researched specialised mines before building any. (In fact, I didn’t even get round to building a mine or stealing anyone’s gold before the end of the game, which explains my hideously low score.) So while John and Ali had easily collected all three gold from their one mine each by the end of the game, it had taken six rounds to guarantee those three gold; Olly had picked up one gold per round in the last few rounds before the game ended.


The whole world. A couple of timing/resource errors/hubris meant I (red) was a few turns behind Olly (yellow) in reaching the mainland. Rafts would have been better than rowboats.

I had a reasonable points showing from the Wonder – and I’d helped to accelerate the end of the game once I’d realised how much of a mess I’d made of things – but it just wasn’t enough in the face of gold. It had been a very solitaire-ish game, with not a single wall built and no stolen goods whatsoever.

Final score – Olly: 69 / John: 61 / Ali: 55 / Me: 36

We’d actually played quite quickly, so we pulled out My Village next. It turned out to be the game for the rest of the night, but that was fine by me – I really like it. I went heavy on the monks, getting a full church before turning my hand to properly concentrate on other things. The full church wasn’t quite enough to combat everyone else’s huge swathe of goods sold though (there really are a lot of points in getting a goods/merchants engine going) and it ended up being a very close-run game.

Final score – Olly: 50 / Me: 49 / John: 48 / Ali: 43

The day after that, with my house still empty, I did this:

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

Yes, it was the latest instalment in GMT’s COIN series, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, taking the now-well-established COIN system and using it to model the American War of Independence. I played a medium-length-scenario solo game as the British (naturally) and just lost to the AI flowchart bots. It’s thankfully a step down in complexity from the last COIN game, Fire in the Lake, of which I’ve never managed a full solo game. Still a huge amount to think about though, and it was a really engaging and enjoyable six-or-so hours. (Possibly more than six actually… working through the bot flowcharts can be tough the first few times.)

More soon! Hopefully!

September Gaming Roundup

huge month of gaming, even when you exclude the Newcastle Gamers session I’ve already covered. It started with a weekend where Mrs Cardboard took two of our three kids away and left me with the middle one (aged 6), so he picked some of his favourite “proper games” to play. Two games of Indigo, one of Carcassonne (no farmers and playing nicely – no stealing cities, much to my dismay) and an unusually long Rampage in which we both struggled to properly demolish buildings and kept missing things when throwing trucks. As ever, I absolutely destroyed him points-wise (and the city, physically) because he’s far more interested in having fun knocking stuff over than in collecting full sets of meeples for points. 65 to 12. He didn’t care; he’d thrown bits of wood around for nearly an hour.

That weekend also included a Corbridge Gamers session with John Sh, featuring Snowdonia with the Neuhauser Bockerlbahn expansion. I nearly sneaked a win by doing really nicely out of station building and having just the right set of contracts to fulfil, but John got some excellent bonuses from track-based contracts and took the win by 10 points (134–124). The Neuhauser Bockerlbahn adds some interesting ideas to the Snowdonia formula, including wood and the ability to power trains (of which you can own two!) with said wood once you’ve felled it. I really should play Snowdonia a lot more.

We also played Russian Railroads, which was new to me. I’d somehow missed every opportunity to play it over the nearly two years since its release. I now massively regret that, because I really enjoyed it! It’s got that magical combination of being relatively rules-light while always having some fairly deep choices to think through, with early engine-building (not literally… although also literally) guiding you to an overall strategy that can work out really well… or go horribly wrong. I managed to sneak a win, basically by collecting enough engineers to score an obscene bonus towards the end of the game (28 points or something like that). John had warned me that the scoring would accelerate rapidly. Even with that warning, after the first round of six ended with the scores at 11–7, there was no way I would have suspected I’d win 299–274. Ridiculous. But brilliant. Very keen to play this one again with more players.

The major gaming event of the month came on the final weekend, with another fantastic two days away organised by the other gaming John in my life (Simmo when he comments here). These weekends have become little highlights of my year, with the opportunity to get some longer, heavier games played without fear of running out of time or taking up too much space.

Our view for the weekend

Our view for the weekend

Friday was almost entirely taken up with 1830, which I’ve wanted to play for a long time. I’ve had a copy of the Mayfair edition since I saw it briefly going cheap (£25-ish?) a while back. Simmo has had a copy of the Avalon Hill edition for a lot longer; indeed, the last time his copy got played was almost eight years ago. John, Ali, Olly and I all had a basic understanding of the rules, but it still took at least an hour to set everything up and make sure we were all on the same page (some slight rules differences and clarifications between the AH and Mayfair editions threw up some early stumbling points).

The initial auction for private companies left Olly with the B&O – very expensive, but with the bonus of the President share in the B&O railroad – and me with the C&A, giving me one normal share in the PRR (and obviously I went for the presidency straight away). Both of those railroads floated early and paid out often. Ali ended up with four shares in PRR, which meant I could have dumped the railroad on him just before its trains rusted and left him short of cash. As it turned out, at the crucial point he was swimming in cash and I slightly mistimed it anyway, so I ended up paying up about $750 for a diesel from my personal fortune, which pretty much scuppered my game.

The board was pretty full with tiles towards the end of the game, with only minor adjustments between operating rounds; unfortunately, we hadn’t thought this bit through and ended up recalculating entire train revenues every time, which ate up loads of time that could have been saved with a revenue table (I’ve printed one out and stuck it in my copy for next time). After about seven-and-a-half hours of play, we finished a set of operating rounds with only about $50 left in the bank, so we called the game there and saved probably another 45–60 minutes of recalculations that wouldn’t have changed the final position much.

Final score – Olly: $6,547 / Ali: $5,494 / John: $5,296 / Me: $4,227

A sound win for Olly, and a solid thrashing for me. I had a wide spread of shares across various companies, but without deep holdings in anything except PRR (50%). Coupled with mistiming the diesel buy, I think that was the crucial factor in my woeful performance. Olly, meanwhile, was heavily invested in two companies (B&O and C&O) with only a few shares from others, which meant he could get hefty dividend payouts from his presidencies. We all played nicely with each other (apart from my early blocking of C&O with awkward track tiles), given that it was very much a learning game (and I mistimed dumping PRR on Ali). Next time, I think we’re all armed to be a bit more vicious. And I’ve found myself looking at other 18xx games since; it’s clearly struck a chord with me.

Saturday was a lot more varied, with Age of Industry (New England map, Graham winning a low-scoring 5-player game on a tiebreak) and Ticket to Ride: Märklin (enjoyed this more than any other TtR variant I’ve played, even played at breakneck speed to fit it in before Ali had to leave – he thrashed us all in absentia) taking up the morning. I got in a 3-player Trajan (my favourite of all the Felds) with Olly and James; I made a couple of silly errors, which is normal for me playing Trajan, but still won by a single point over James.

The end of Trajan

The end of Trajan; just peeking into shot, bottom-left, is Olly’s impressive collection of shipped goods

After that came Erosion, a Sierra Madre Games card game, not designed by Phil Eklund, but developed by him and bearing all the Eklund hallmarks – terrible graphic design, cards filled with educational text and preposterous game terminology. It proved to be one of the strange little highlights of the weekend, partly for the fact that it’s a game about being a mountain, but mainly for the constant giggling about having “handfuls of schist” and asking people if they would be “uplifting”. Ridiculous, with a narrow win for James.

After introducing Jude to Ingenious (Jude placed second behind Graham, with me in third and Olly bringing up the rear after a little scrap where I made sure I wasn’t going to be last), I played the first of two end-of-WWII-themed games that rounded off the weekend – 1944: Race to the Rhine. In some ways, RttR could suffer slightly from its theme, in that it’s clearly a war-themed game (evident from the box art) but at its heart it’s a resource-management and racing eurogame. That means that wargamers could be a bit disappointed by the euro-style play, while euro-lovers never try it because it’s a “wargame”. Me? I loved it.

Ben played the sole British role of Montgomery, while Toby (Patton) and I (Bradley) represented the US generals pushing eastward towards Germany. As Brad, my problems were apparent from the start – I had no opportunity to capture limited supply bases on the way, so all of my supplies had to be brought onto the board at the “bottom” (the west-hand side) and taken all the way to my corps by truck. Monty and Patton had the option of bringing in supplies much closer to their corps, which meant they could be a little more responsive and flexible.

It turned out to be less of a Race to the Rhine and more of a (in Ben’s words) Casual Stroll to the Rhine, with each of us being fairly cautious in our advances. Toby did shoot ahead to the east in the first few turns, but then was brought up short by a lack of supply… alongside Ben and I using the Axis markers to hamper his advance quite drastically. Ben, meanwhile, mopped up some German forces as he sauntered to the east, and I pushed on in a fairly measured and even fashion, bringing each of my three corps forward together. I nearly came completely unstuck when Toby carried out Axis counterattacks into my supply lines; I was one turn away from being completely cut off, but I just managed to sneak some fuel and ammo through to keep things moving. Bradley does have the potential to be completely cut off (and effectively out of the game) without sufficient care, so that’s something to watch out for in future!

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine – I do love the graphic design work on this one

It got a bit gamey towards the end, with Ben clearly having a lead in medals (the win condition if nobody actually crosses the Rhine before Axis markers run out) and thus wanting to end the game, while Toby and I wanted to catch up a bit… or even cross the Rhine, which Toby was perilously close to. We got there in the end though, with Ben winning on 7 medals, me on 6 and Toby on 5. A really fun game, which I’d like to play again soon… but I imagine I won’t get the chance because the theme probably puts a lot of people off. Shame.

One night’s sleep later, the three of us reconvened for Churchill on Sunday morning. An odd and very effective mix of negotiation, seemingly simple card play and abstracted warfare, Churchill covers the closing months of WWII, simulating the conferences between Churchill, Roosevelt (and later Truman) and Stalin. We played the tournament scenario, which covers the last five of ten possible conferences (the ten-conference game would take a fairly long session…), although we missed off the final conference through a lack of time.

The card-play in the Conference phases seems initially trivial, but it soon becomes apparent how important it is to (a) keep turn order in mind and (b) hold back powerful cards for late in the conference. Winning the Agenda segment at the start of each Conference phase not only lets you get a headstart on winning a conference Issue (represented by counters on the Conference Table tracks), but also ensures that you’re last in turn order, which is a huge advantage for winning that all-important Issue.

Ben (as Stalin) kept the “Nyet!” feeling alive by regularly debating Issues after they’d been advanced by either Toby (Roosevelt) or me (Churchill); conversely, neither of the Western allies felt the need to do much debating. I think I did it once, just to keep Ben from being able to debate (only one player can debate an issue after it’s advanced). It’s little touches like that which keep the theme alive through simple mechanisms – the USSR player debates so often, as Stalin did historically, because they get a +1 bonus to card strength when they do. Clever design.

Debates continued in another form after the Conference phase was over, with the assignment of support on various war fronts in the Military phase. There was a fair bit of jostling and (non-binding!) conversation going on as to which fronts would receive support and for what reason. I didn’t want to support the Normandy landings until my UK troops had entered Northern Italy; conversely, Ben was desperate to make Normandy happen so the Germans would divert some of their horde of troops to the Western front. That meant nobody could be happy until I’d got my precious advance in Italy and was ready to commit to the Normandy effort.

I pushed a couple of Global Issues early on, meaning I could place Political Alignment markers in Colonies when no one else could. That was going to be my key to VPs – Political Alignment and clearing out other people from the Colonies, keeping my head down so the others might not notice. Meanwhile, Ben and Toby kept the fronts moving forward as best they could, stealing the odd bit of Production from me (either directly or with Directed Offensives) and each other.

At the point that we cut the game short, neither Axis power had surrendered, so we knew we were in for a bit of a die-roll-fuelled resolution to the final score – it’s Mark Herman’s penalty for players who don’t bother finishing the war. The leader subtracts 1d6 from their score, the second-place player subtracts (1d6)/2 and the player in last adds 1d6. Before the d6-randomised score adjustments, I had a lead of several points over Ben, with Toby just behind him; after the adjustments, it was a different story.

Final score – Toby: 36 / Me: 32 / Ben: 31

A sneak win for the US. I’m not entirely satisfied with the “victory condition 3” ending with random score adjustments – had I not rolled a 6 and had Toby not rolled a 5, things would have been very different – but I guess that’s the idea. It’s not supposed to be a satisfying ending if the Allies don’t even bother to win the war.

And that was the end to a superb weekend of games.

John Sh and I managed to squeeze in another Corbridge Gamers on the last day of the month, featuring Tash-Kalar (deathmatch duel this time, which I think is a slightly better variant for beginners now I’ve played it – I still won 20–15), The King of Frontier, which manages to combine elements of Puerto RicoCarcassonne and a bunch of generic euro mechanisms into a genuinely successful and enjoyable little game (I won, 49–44) and Reiner Knizia’s venerable Battle Line, which is fine but not spectacular (John won with 5 flags overall).

An epic post for an epic month. October will be a little lighter on the gaming, I suspect, but there’s always hope.

August Gaming Mega-Roundup

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

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 12 August

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

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

EklundFest 2015 – Friday 21 August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I considered it payback for Bios: Megafauna.

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

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

And then just 11 hours later…

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 22 August

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

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

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

Nick and Gordon doing a fair bit better than me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corbridge Gamers – Wednesday 26 August

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

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

Final score – Me: 186 / John: 185

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

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

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

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 5 April 2014

This was an all-day session in honour of International TableTop Day and – as tradition dictates – there was no way I would be able to make the whole thing from 10am to wee-hours finish. I arrived around 2pm via the busiest train I’ve ever been on (rammed to bursting with game fans of a whole different stripe, off to witness what turned out to be a 4–0 pasting of the home team), perfectly pre-arranged with Gareth so I could walk in, sit down and dive into A Distant Plain. This, the most recent in GMT’s COIN series, recreates the recent and ongoing conflict in Afghanistan using a card-driven system.

Gareth and I had been playing Cuba Libre using VASSAL and email over the few weeks running up to this session, so the COIN system was well ingrained into our minds. We’d been hoping to be able to drum up the full four players for ADP, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, Norman joined us as a third and we left the fourth seat to be ably filled by the flowchart AI system. Factions were assigned thus:

  • Me: the Coalition forces, aiming to drum up popular support for the Government before getting the hell out of there.
  • Gareth: the Government, looking to gain control over as much of the country as possible, while also lining its own back pocket with ‘Patronage’.
  • Norman: the Taliban, seeking to foment opposition to the Government and build as many bases as possible. Crucially, the Taliban is the only faction able to have a presence in Pakistan next door.
  • AI bot: the Warlords, who want to get rich from growing and selling opium, while keeping provinces out of the control of either the Coalition/Government alliance or the Taliban.

Yes, the “Coalition/Government alliance” is a crucial part of the faction interplay in ADP. My Coalition forces were quite capable of dragging Government troops off on a Patrol or Sweep operation around the country even if Gareth didn’t want me to. And all on the Government’s money too.

Luckily, Norman’s Taliban guerrillas presented a common enemy to unite against for much of the game; with Islamabad remaining heavily favourable towards the Taliban throughout almost the whole game, Norman could simply build bases and rally hordes of guerrillas there for absolutely no cost and just walk over the border into Afghanistan in huge numbers. For a while, it was oddly like suffering in a dysfunctional marriage in a rat-infested house, trying to agree how best to deal with the rodent problem while it was just getting worse and worse around us, but we managed to get the Taliban largely under control by about halfway/two-thirds through the game. After that, it was just whack-a-rat with them – when a little pocket of trouble popped up, we knocked it down again.

[The very first card of the game had been a Propaganda card, the COIN system’s way of offering possible victory and then resetting various bits of the board state before launching into the next campaign. This had been excellent for teaching Norman how Propaganda worked, but it had also left the Taliban much richer than they would have otherwise been and it also meant that the next Propaganda card was likely to be a long way off. (They’re seeded into five separate 13-card decks which are shuffled and then stacked to form the deck for the “Main” scenario that we played.) The Coalition and Government then suffered terribly from a Sandstorm card which had a hefty movement-limiting effect until the next Propaganda, which – along with the abundant resources just mentioned – meant the Taliban were much freer to do their thing and establish presence within Afghanistan. I also got slightly hamstrung by NATO command strictures for quite a while, but that just meant Gareth had to do the lion’s share of Taliban-bashing; I didn’t mind too much.]

Gareth got into a handy little routine of using Eradicate to destroy the AI Warlord’s opium fields, gain Aid (for later resources) and Patronage (for victory points) and remove the popular support I was seeking, but I was starting to feel a little confident. With the Taliban held at bay and popular support at a decent level, I decided to start pulling some of my troops and bases out of Afghanistan. The Government’s eyebrow was raised, knowing full well that this could signify that I was going for my victory condition while also making things a little harder for them. But because the Coalition forces can only ‘Surge’ from three spaces in one turn, I had to still leave a reasonable presence in the country, so I was only halfway there at this point.

That remaining presence was enough to keep messing with Gareth a bit (transferring from his ‘Patronage’ backhanders into proper Government resources that I could spend and spending that money on shifting spaces towards support), and I ‘Surged’ nearly all of the rest of my forces out of Afghanistan when I knew the fourth Propaganda card had to be within the next two or three cards. This put me a few points above my victory condition (based on the total of population in support of the new regime and the number of available Coalition forces – i.e. the number not in Afghanistan), but the next card’s event scuppered my chances by removing support in two populous provinces in the north of the country.

I could only claw back a couple of points in support before Gareth carried out a Sweep operation, gaining control for the COIN factions in several provinces and pushing him well into a victory position… just in time for the fourth Propaganda card and a victory check. A well deserved win for the Government. Final scores:

  • Government: 39 (36 needed)
  • Coalition: 30 (31 needed)
  • Taliban: 15 (21 needed)
  • Warlords: 4 (16 needed)
The board at the end of the game.

The board at the end of the game. Note the lack of my tan-coloured cubes and discs on the map.

This was a truly excellent game. Absolutely superb. Every single decision was agonising and – crucially – important. The interplay between the factions – particularly the Coalition and Government, but also every faction’s interactions with the Warlords – was complex and fascinating, offering a different insight into the situation in Afghanistan from anything we get from the mainstream media. As we played, it attracted a huge amount of attention from gamers passing by and many seemed deeply interested in the way ADP models this most current of conflicts.

That said, this is not a game for everyone. If we had a pound for every comment of, “Is this still going?” or, “How long have you got left?” we’d be… well, not exactly rich, but probably able to buy another copy of the game. We played for about six-and-a-half hours, with around an hour of rules beforehand. There were still another ten cards left before the final Propaganda card, so had Gareth not hit victory on the fourth, we could easily have run for another hour or so. I don’t consider that too long for a game of this quality, but it seems many gamers at the club have a limit of 2–3 hours before a game is considered ridiculously long. As the young ‘uns say on the internet, YMMV.

Some players might also be queasy about playing factions like the Taliban; indeed, I detected a little unease on that point from one passerby who asked about the game. That’s fair enough and I appreciate that point of view. But it would be a great shame to dismiss ADP without realising what an elegant game it is. The rules are only ten pages long, yet the depth and complexity are truly exciting. It was the quickest and most fun six-and-a-half hours I’ve had in a long time.

With Afghanistan in safe hands, there was an awkward length of time left before John Sh (my lift for the return leg to Corbridge) needed to get away, so I suggested the shortish-but-hopefully-interesting Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, which had been the last of my gains to arrive from the February maths trade on BGG. It recently won the BGG Golden Geek award for Best Abstract Game1 and I think it showed us why.

We played the ‘High Form’ (attempting to complete tasks for the audience, rather than beating seven bells out of each other) as a team game, with Gareth and me playing as an alliance (properly allied this time, not like in A Distant Plain) of the Northern Empire and Sylvan factions, with Olly and Dave taking the Southern Empire and Highland factions. Gareth and I built up an early advantage and we were feeling confident, but once Olly had summoned the legendary Two-Headed Dragon we were pretty much sunk. Due to my misunderstanding of the end-game trigger (I hadn’t included the legendary pieces on the board when calculating the total of 9 required; I thought they were added on afterwards when totting up the final score) the game ran probably a round or two longer than it should have and ended up 14–4 to Olly and Dave. Getting the end-game right would only have reduced the thrashing by a couple of points, but it would have removed the last couple of futile rounds for Gareth and me.

The final board state. Look at all those lovely heroic and legendary pieces. They don't belong to my team.

The final board state. Look at all those lovely orange heroic and legendary pieces. They don’t belong to my team.

Initial thoughts on Tash-Kalar after one play: seems like a good game. I think it probably works better as a two-player game, so you have more control over your plans, or perhaps a four-player game works better as a deathmatch melée (although I can’t imagine the chaos that would involve). It’s possibly not one to pull out at the end of an all-day session, given how much trouble a couple of the very-tired players had in recognising the summoning patterns on the board in all combinations of rotation and mirroring. The components are also a bit lacklustre – given that this has an RRP of £54.99 (!), it’d be nice to have bakelite tiles rather than cardboard tokens. But I see the quality of the game within, it’s short enough to act as a sort of über-filler, and it’ll be a while before I’ve explored all player numbers and all game types, not to mention getting to know the decks so I can better interfere with opponents’ plans.

So, ten hours and two good games. That’s an excellent day of gaming in my book.

1. Its legendary designer Vlaada Chvátil also wins my personal award for Name That Sounds Most Like My Mother-in-Law Sneezing.

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!