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Autumn Games Weekend 2016

I must be getting older. Time is rattling past at an alarming rate and it seems like only a few weeks ago I was holed up in a Northumbrian bunkhouse playing 1862EA and Terra Mystica. A couple of weekends ago, we reconvened in a Yorkshire bunkhouse for more excellent gaming in excellent company.

We began with five-player Kingdom Builder with all the Big Box bits in the mix. I managed a couple of sneaky manoeuvres with the wagon I’d picked up, but – as so often with this game – I felt hampered by annoying card draws and came a resounding fifth. Olly managed to win without really seeing it coming.

kingdom-builder

Next was an old favourite I haven’t played in literally yearsPower Grid. We played on the Korea map, which meant some interesting choices in terms of buying from the North or South markets (you can only buy from one of them in each round, and North Korea – obviously – doesn’t have uranium). I spent much of the early game early in the turn order, which generally means worst position in most parts of the round; first to auction, last to buy fuel, last to build. I was, however, the only player out of the six of us to start my network in North Korea, which meant some unfettered building in the early game.

Regardless of my poor position in turn order, I actually managed to make a reasonable wedge of money, mainly through relying on wind power. We’d had a really odd shuffle of the power plant deck, so there were high-numbered plants available to auction in the early game; I’d snaffled an OK wind plant and thus could use it to get money for nothing, powering my beautiful, isolated North Korean cities while everyone else duked it out down south.

It wasn’t enough though. Glorious though Pyongyang may be, I needed to expand my network into and through Seoul, which became incredibly expensive and pulled me back in the endgame. First or second choice in so many auctions had left me with some less-than-desirable power plants too, so I was never really in contention.

The glorious

Even in the final round and falling behind, my network (black) is still second in turn order… *sigh*

John Sh and Toby tied on 14 cities powered in the final round, with John winning on the tiebreak of remaining cash. Camo brought up the rear on 10 cities, while Olly, Graham R and I all powered 12 cities. Great game, and a real shame I haven’t played it more recently.

While Olly prepared dinner, we regrouped for The King of Frontier, in which I usually do pretty well. I really didn’t this time, although there turned out to be several illegal tile placements once we had a good look round at the end of the game, so perhaps we can pass this one off as a blip in every regard. (Graham R took a very convincing win in his first ever game.)

After eating, Olly, Ben, Toby and I settled down to Cuba Libre, the second game in GMT’s rapidly expanding COIN series. It’s by far the simplest COIN title I own (the others being Fire in the Lake and Liberty or Death), largely by virtue of being set on a small, essentially linear island, but also in the way the factions are quite clearly delineated – no complex alliances here.

As with any game of this sort of complexity and asymmetricity (yes, Wiktionary thinks that’s a word and I’m going with it), it took a good while for everyone to figure out exactly how their faction could work towards its victory condition. Olly and Toby (as M26 and Directorio respectively) had possibly the easier job – Rally/March in, perform Terror, rack up the points – and my Government faction always has a hard time in Cuba Libre, but Ben as the Syndicate had probably the greatest apparent disconnect between his victory condition and the things he could do. You need open Casinos, fine… but to open Casinos you need money, which you then spend to open the Casinos and then you’re way off the Resource requirement for victory… and then you need to spend more to dig yourself out.

After a couple of Propaganda rounds, however, everyone was getting the hang of things and people kept pushing up towards their victory conditions. As is the nature of the COIN system (at least in Cuba Libre where everything’s tight and easy to get to), it was reasonably easy to keep bashing people off their winning spot on the score track. I was never much of a threat, especially once Havana had been set Neutral; it took me the rest of the game to get it back up to Active Support again.

askjf

This looks like the second Propaganda round, so everything was still very much in flux

Toby’s Directorio was a constant threat, with the relatively simple goal of just controlling spaces and getting his bases on the map. While Olly and I were controlling him, Ben started laying down a few extra Casinos; he never quite had enough resources to get the win at the first check of a Propaganda card, but I suspected he’d take it on the final check after the last Propaganda round. And so it turned out, but only by a very narrow margin.

Final victory margins – Ben: 1 / Toby: -1 / Me: -1 / Olly: -2

Great game and very engaging throughout, even if we didn’t get to see the Frank Sinatra card. I wonder if the gents would maybe be interested in Liberty or Death next time…

Cuba Libre had actually run overnight (with a long break for sleeping, naturally), so we’re now into day two, kicking off with Agricola. Drafting from 3E–2I–2K, I ended up with a lovely looking synergy, but it had been such a long time since my last play that I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. It turns out I could.

Delicious CLAY

Delicious CLAY – my farm at the end of the game

Clay Mixer to get 2 extra Clay every time I take Clay; Tinsmith (and later Pottery) to eat delicious, tasty Clay in each Harvest round; Clay Roof so I never had to take Reed; Clay Plasterer to lower the Renovate action cost to 1 Clay and 1 Reed (i.e. 2 Clay with Clay Roof) and build Clay rooms for 3 Clay and 2 Reed (i.e. 5 Clay). Clay Roof was particularly handy given that Pete had played Reed Buyer; that meant that the Reed + Stone + Food space often effectively became Stone + 3 Food (and a Reed for Pete) and it made it very difficult for others to build rooms or renovate their houses.

I was first to build a new room and first to take Family Growth, so I felt reasonably confident I wasn’t going to crash and burn. Olly was struggling to get much done, while James had more food than anyone could ever need but a less than impressive farm, but Pete wasn’t far behind me. Because people weren’t renovating or building Clay rooms, I always had plenty of Clay to grab from the board (and the 2 extra from the Clay Mixer went a long way once James had built the Well, pushing my Clay:Food conversion rate up from 1:1 to 2:3), which meant a bigger house and easy feeding for me.

I was late to build Fences and grab livestock, which left me without Cattle at the end of the game, but I had a reasonable showing in Sheep, Boar and both crops, with only one farm space left unused. Pete, meanwhile, had made a schoolboy error and boxed off a couple of farm spaces he couldn’t do anything with – no Wood left to fence them and they were separated from his other ploughed Fields. It turns out that mistake handed me the game – just. Excellent game, as ever.

Final score – Me: 41 / Pete: 40 / Olly: 34 / James: 26

I’m not entirely sure of the order of things that day, but I think Coloretto came next. I tend to play safe in Coloretto, and for once it paid off. I grabbed a bunch of “+2” cards (six in total, I think) and only had a couple of extra cards beyond my three positive-scoring colours. The others had been handily squabbling amongst themselves while I waltzed off with the win.

Final score – Me: 32 / James: 26 / Pete: 24 / Olly: 24

Another biggie hit the table: Roads & Boats. First-timer James joined the R&B veterans (Olly, John Sh and me) for a lesson in network planning and resource conversion. He certainly didn’t learn much about network planning from me – my road/building network was deeply inefficient and several times I took a round or two extra to get stuff from A to B in order to convert it into something useful. And he didn’t learn much about resource conversion from John, who managed to misread the resource requirements for both building and feeding into a secondary producer.

roads-boats-2

Olly provided the real masterclass, not only setting up an efficient network with the right things in the right places (and multiples of the very useful buildings too) but also utilising it to full effect, rounding off the game by producing… a share certificate [insert angelic choir here]. I would have rushed the game end with Wonder bricks if I’d had more stuff coming out of the land, but I’d failed to get a second Woodcutter or Quarry going and my resources were just too precious, even at that late stage. Still, at least I had some Trucks on which to hoard my freshly mined Gold. I was a round or two from creating my first set of Coins, but the Wonder was completed and… well… Olly scored more points than the rest of us put together. Just.

Final score – Olly: 206 / Me: 102 / John Sh: 60 / James: 43

I do enjoy Roads & Boats, but it’s very draining. Luckily, the next game was enjoyably brainless, both in gameplay and thematically: Hit Z Road. It’s hard to believe that this dice-chucking, luck-pushing, brutal-auctioning zombie-fest is a Martin Wallace game, but there it is. I suppose the brutal auction is the giveaway. It’s not really my cup of tea, but after a couple of beers (which is exactly the state I was in) it was most welcome and quite ridiculous.

We all got eaten by zombies.

After dinner, another game I haven’t touched for ages: Galaxy Trucker. We played with Olly’s Anniversary Edition copy, so there were a few expansion surprises tucked away in the card decks (such as “add two cards from the next level deck to the top of the mission deck”, which we had on every single mission – ouch). My game started in typically disastrous Galaxy Trucker style:

Just floatin' into port, devoid of engines, guns or cargo

Just floatin’ into port, devoid of engines, guns or cargo

The second mission went infinitely better, and I not only survived with most of my ship intact but also managed to sell loads of cargo for fat stacks of cash. I’d built that ship while attempting to answer rules questions on Roll for the Galaxy, which was going on at the other end of the table, so maybe distraction is the key to building a successful ship.

Mission three was a disaster for everyone. Slavers, pirates and worse strewn throughout the deck meant that none of our ships got through to the end of the mission. So, after paying for our losses, that meant I still had more cash than anyone else and was thus – astonishingly – the winner!

Final score – Me: 37 / James: 14 / John Sh: 11 / Graham B: 0

It was late and games were coming to an end, so I suggested Codenames to round things off. We ended up playing four rounds and staying up far later than anyone really intended – it’s just that good a game. John Sh and I were the first spymasters (having played before) and I was roundly heckled for (a) the slowness and (b) the quality of my clues. Once that round was complete (and we’d lost horribly), the tables were turned and people started to realise just how difficult the spymaster’s role is.

I can’t remember which teams won which games. It doesn’t matter. Everyone had a great time, and that’s what games are about.

Sunday morning consisted purely of Guilds of London, which I’d previously only experienced in its slightly odd two-player format. This was four-player, and it was gooooood. Way better than the cat-and-mouse and fixed layout of the two-player version. True, it rang longer than I would have liked (it was only slightly shorter than the four-player Caverna happening next to us – about three hours-ish), but that’s almost entirely down to the multitude of icons and much consultation of the reference sheet.

Rather than the back-and-forth oscillation of first player that I’d seen in the two-player game, the turn order was relatively constant through much of the game. Being in last position was still an obvious benefit, but it wasn’t possible to keep everyone in check with that last-player move. I was concentrating on a little Mayoral Reward card synergy I’d picked up (points for having no Liverymen in my personal supply and also points for having lots of Liverymen in the Guildhall), but as the game wound to a close, Graham B managed to pick up a few extra Mayoral Reward cards which I thought would probably cement the lead he’d already built up. And indeed I was correct.

Colourful and initially baffling – Guilds of London

Colourful and initially baffling – Guilds of London

James managed to sneak past Mark into a surprise third place; he’d spent the whole game quite a way back on the score track.

Final score – Graham B: 63 / Me: 52 / James: 48 / Mark: 46

And that was the end of a fantastic weekend of gaming. Roll on the next one!

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.

More January – Pfister Fun!

Continuing on from last time, more January gaming!

John Sh and I have managed a couple of Corbridge sessions in January (pretty impressive really, given how indisposed I’ve been by illness and child-rearing). The first featured My Village by Inka and Marcus Brand, an odd reworking of themes from their own Village, which I’ve played a few times and enjoyed a lot. My Village is, quite simply, better and more elegant. It’s like The Prodigals Club compared to Last Will – it’s clear that the theme works wonderfully, but it just needed a new set of mechanisms around it to really make it shine.

I tried to do a bit of everything with my villagers, which turns out to not be the way to play well. John specialised much more (he filled a massive church with monks), and it paid off in a 72–54 win for him. Great stuff – happy to play again.

Another Wednesday evening saw us playing Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, which is an unwieldy title for a fairly simple (yet quite thinky) tile-laying game from Austrian duo Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister. (More Pfister to come later.) I struggled massively, mainly by doing quite well for the first few rounds and ending up in a death-spiral of cash. Doing slightly better than John meant that he got a monetary boost in the last few rounds, which coupled with his whisky-heavy tile layout to mean that he could set prices on his tiles much higher than I could even afford. John overhauled me on points in the very last round to win 76–65.

I got him back in Roll for the Galaxy though, with a completely vanilla base-game-only match coming out in a 48–41 win to me. It was all about the Developments.

Too many family games to mention scattered throughout the month, but highlights included Ticket to Ride: Europe (with everyone old enough to play getting a solid drubbing from me) and a whole afternoon of games with 8-year-old J, featuring K2 and a bit of Small World.

Oddly, the last Saturday of the month brought more family gaming… except with someone else’s family at Newcastle Gamers. John Sh and I happened to end up at a table with Ruth and her sons L and J (feels natural to just use initials for the under-18s), which meant that probably the entire Hexham/Corbridge-area contingent was playing together. And what were we playing? Concordia!

I’d been umming and ahhing about Concordia for a while, given that it’s often recommended to people who like games that I like. When Shut Up & Sit Down gave it a positive review, I quickly jumped and ordered it before it sold out, as often happens. So this was my first play and my first time teaching the game. Thankfully, the rules are incredibly simple (play a card and do the thing written on the card), so we were quickly up and running, even with the slightly fiddly setup process.

And it turns out it’s a little gem of a game. Turns are quick and simple (although they can be very thinky beforehand), downtime is minimal even with five players and it always feels like there’s something useful you can do. The big stack of cards for purchase all give boosts to your end-game scoring as well as increasing the power of your deck of cards, so it’s not too hard to develop a coherent strategy. Mine involved building in all the cloth-producing cities and acquiring the Weaver card, which gave me a Minerva bonus of 5 VPs per cloth city (i.e. 20 VPs by the end of the game) and let me produce loads of cloth by playing the card. 4 cloth = 28 cash = lots of other buildings, so after a slow start I could rapidly increase my building portfolio.

It turned out to be a decent strategy and I won by a reasonable margin (I think I had 137 and John was in second place with 110-something). J came in a very respectable third place, just over 100 – he’d been planning well throughout the game – then Ruth and finally L bringing up the rear. A really fun game with a “classic euro” feel to it. Must play it again soon.

We followed that with the return of Mister Pfister and Isle of Skye. It was quite a different beast with five players, and I managed to avoid the cash-death-spiral this time round. L seemed to be following a similar path to the one he trod in Concordia – acquire cash and hoard it – which meant he didn’t price his tiles very highly and I snagged one or two at bargain prices to complete various handy scoring features on my layout.

And as it turned out, I demolished everyone with a final score of 77. To be honest, I’m not sure what I think of Isle of Skye, but that might be because I still haven’t quite figured out how to play it properly yet. Maybe a 3- or 4-player game (without rogue tweens using degenerate cash strategies) would help me decide.

After Ruth and the boys left, John and I teamed up with Camo and Lloyd for more Pfister, this time in the form of his execrably named compact engine/tableau-builder Oh My Goods! Ugh. While the original title of Royal Goods was dull, at least it connected back to Pfister’s game Port Royal and it didn’t make me want to eat my own face off. Oh My Goods!? No. It makes it sound like some sort of party game or Munchkin-style take-that-fest.

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers... cards for everything!

Cards for buildings, cards for goods, cards for workers… cards for everything! (Photo by John Sh)

Which is something that it very much isn’t. It takes elements from San Juan and marries them to bits of every engine-building and resource-conversion euro you’ve ever played, producing a fairly simple and elegant little maxi-filler. There’s a bit of push-your-luck involved with the morning and afternoon markets being revealed, which slightly grated with me, but it’s a light enough game that it didn’t matter. Camo ran away with it, with his seemingly magical cow-production line.

And last but never least, The King of Frontier. Although I managed to snag my beloved Altar by making sure I had a massive field completed very early on, and although I went full-on heavy on the Consume action (albeit with only one very small city), it wasn’t enough to outdo John’s little collection of VP-producing buildings. He beat me by just two points, with Camo and Lloyd a fair bit further back.

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier

The King of Jauntily-Angled Frontier (Photo by John Sh)

And that was January. February’s already underway, so I’m sure I’ll be back soon with more.

January Catch-Up

Aaaarrghh. Lagging behind, but the broadband is back on now. (N.B. If you ever want to make anything happen, just go and find some Openreach engineers working on a cabinet.) Must catch up…

January has so far been dominated by Pandemic Legacy, with games on the 4th, 9th, 15th and 16th (I know – consecutive marital gaming nights!) taking us up to the completion of August. We’ve only lost one game so far (early June), but for a fair few of the games the wins have been down to the luck of the draw. I can’t say much without filling this post with spoilers (and this is a game you really don’t want to have spoiled), so all I’ll say is this: it’s just brilliant. M has declared that she’ll “miss it when it’s over”.

Rolling back to the beginning of the month, there was the now-traditional New Year all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. And as is now traditional for these all-day sessions, I rolled in at about 2.00 and looked around for a game to play. Caylus! It wasn’t my first game (although the first was so long ago that it isn’t logged on BoardGameGeek), but I still needed nearly as much rules explanation as newcomers Phil and Alison. Fortunately, John B is an old hand with Caylus and explained everything beautifully, getting us off to a quick start. Given that it was Alison’s first time playing a worker placement game, she got her head round it remarkably quickly and started planning ways to block people. I trundled along, trying not to attract too much attention, but making sure I had consistently reasonable scoring throughout. Towards the end, John was clearly gearing up to build the 25-VP cathedral, which Alison immediately stymied by blocking the one prestige building space available. I’d been shunting my way gradually up the VP-awarding King’s Favour track, so the last few actions I took gave me about 15 VPs in total, creeping me into a narrow victory.

Final score – Me: 57 / Alison: 52 / Phil: 45 / John B: 38

Great game; certainly one I should play more often. I’ll dig out the iOS version again and have a few more plays of that.

Alison, John B and I had a quick gap to fill before the meat of the session (of which more in a moment), so John Sh kindly leaned over with his copy of The King of Frontier, which I discovered I could just about successfully teach. I also discovered I was capable of losing – yes, for the very first time, I lost The King of Frontier. John B grabbed the Altar (or maybe Shrine… I forget what it’s called), which cancels out the negative points for empty spaces at the end of the game. And that was enough to just get the edge on me. I had a slightly rubbish tile draw throughout, although I was lucky enough to end up with only a couple of spaces left empty.

Final score – John B: 33 / Me: 30 / Alison: 24

Now to the main course – Pax Pamir. It turns out that this is an absolute swine to teach. This should come as no surprise, given its Sierra Madre Games heritage, but there it is. So many things are connected to so many other things that it’s difficult to know where to start. Even explaining the victory conditions is a nightmare, because there are four different victory conditions, but for each one the winning empire must also have other types of pieces in play… it gets complicated. Even a familiarity with its ancestor Pax Porfiriana doesn’t help that much; it has two rows of cards to buy and play into tableaux, and there are Topple cards, and… that’s about it.

We were a four-player table, with John Sh and Olly joining John B and me as Alison drifted away to Thunder Alley. With only three empires to be loyal to in the Great Game (Britain, Russia and the native Afghans), that meant that at least two players would share an initial (secretly-chosen) loyalty, and so it was that the two Johns were loyal to Britain, while Olly was loyal to the Afghans and I favoured the Russians.

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn't matter... but then it ended up mattering a lot. :\

Notice how badly the Russian empire (blue) is doing on the board. It almost didn’t matter… but then it ended up mattering a lot. :-\

I can’t relate much of what happened over the next hour and 45 minutes, partly because it was nearly three weeks ago and partly because it was really quite complex. It felt like the last 45 minutes or so was spent with Olly and I trying to figure out ways to stop one of the Johns from winning (and the Johns naturally trying to figure out ways to stop each other winning). As it turned out, I managed to offload a useless card to Olly in order to free up a space in my hand for a game-winning twist… and then I was one action short of actually pulling it off. In the end, John Sh accidentally handed victory in the Intelligence War to John B, but it was probably only a matter of time before that happened anyway.

I sort of enjoyed it a lot, and sort of felt like my brain was being forced through a fine mesh. There was a lot going on, all the time, and I need to play it again soon in order to make things coalesce in my understanding. Very, very Eklund, although with more of a “game” feeling than usual – this is, of course, the result of Pax Pamir being primarily a Cole Wehrle design.

John B left, leaving the three of us who’d played Food Chain Magnate a few sessions back so… repeat run! Again, the details escape me, except the important milestones:

  • I took an Errand Boy in round 1, meaning I got the freezer (allowing me to store food and drink between rounds) and extra drinks when collecting them.
  • John Sh marketed first, meaning his marketing campaigns would all be eternal.
  • Olly took a Trainer in round 1 so he was first to train someone, giving him $15 discount on salaries.

I suspected Olly had the best opening gambit, and it certainly paid off, with his lead feeling ever more unassailable as time passed. Once he’d hit $100 and got the pseudo-CFO milestone, it just got worse for the rest of us. Just as in our first game, there was a broad smattering of timing errors which cost us, but I felt much more like I knew what I was doing this time. Again, I played a large structure with lots of slots for employees… but that isn’t necessarily a good thing unless they’re doing exactly what you need them to.

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message

Radio Pizza delivers its subliminal marketing message while the Pizza Plane seals the deal.

It turned out that we fluffed the timing of the end of the game – with a couple of bonus payments for John overlooked, the game should have ended a round earlier, so it shouldn’t have been quite as embarrassing a thrashing as it turned out…

Final score – Olly: $872 / Me: $259 / John Sh: $120

Very very good fun again. It’s becoming a bit of a favourite with me.

John headed off and Olly and I were joined by Camo and Jon (no “h”) for a light desert-dessert of Camel Up. We decided to throw in the Photographer module from the Supercup expansion, which added a little spice to the proceedings without too much extra complication and without extending the game unnecessarily.

Camel Up is always ridiculous, but this one was even more ridiculous than usual. It’s very unusual to see a full stack of five camels just two spaces from the finish line, but that’s what happened. It had been such a changeable race that quite a few of the cards for the winning camel were in the “betting on the loser” pile. Great fun, and it never really matters who wins with Camel Up – it’s the stupidity of it that counts. (For posterity though, Jon and I drew for the win with 24 Egyptian pounds each.)

That was the end of the session, and that’s quite enough January for now. More at a later date!

October Gaming Roundup

Picking back through my logged plays on BoardGameGeek has got a bit more difficult now that I’ve made the decision to log plays of digital/online games as long as they’re against real people. It was starting to feel ridiculous having only two or three logged plays of, say, Castles of Burgundy when I’ve played it online (on Boîte à Jeux) 18 times against real people. I’ve also been playing online quite a bit recently, not only on Boîte à Jeux but also Board Game Arena and Yucata. As I write, I’ve got two games of Trajan on the go, plus one each of HivePuerto Rico and Tash Kalar.

But I’ll concentrate here on face-to-face gaming, facing real people with their real faces. John Sh and I played Nations at the start of October, which was (as I so often seem to say) something I’d wanted to play for a while. I like Through the Ages a lot (although I’ve only played it online and not for a while, so… no logged plays on BGG – sigh), so I was interested to play this apparently streamlined distillation of the essence of TtA, especially in advance of the new edition of TtA. The influence is blatant, but the differences are abundant – and nothing is more different than the military system, which removes virtually all of the player-vs-player nastiness of TtA.

We opted to play the “advanced” sides of our player boards, even though it was my first time playing. I’m a big fan of asymmetry and it wasn’t a change of rules – simply a difference in starting resources and a small special power. My empire of Rome pushed me towards a military strategy straight away, while John’s Egyptians were clearly much more peaceful; indeed, John renounced the military game pretty much immediately, in favour of being able to build more stuff while I pummelled him as much as the game would allow… which wasn’t actually much. A few bonuses here, a few things taken away there – I probably lost just as much stuff from being behind on the stability track for much of the game.

Everything progressed in a fairly TtA-ish way, with bigger and better cards coming out as each era began, slowly replacing our buildings and/or military units. The last couple of rounds became a slightly mathsy parallel-solo optimisation puzzle, which wasn’t a problem in and of itself, but it did detract a little from the civ-building theme. In the end, we totted up our points to find that my Romans had beaten Egypt, 36 to 28.

Overall, Nations does a decent job of simmering the civ-building genre down into a palatable play-length. It just doesn’t quite match the grand feeling of Through the Ages, but that’s OK – it’s a very enjoyable game in its own right.

A week later (and after a Newcastle Gamers session in the middle), John and I met again for Suburbia. Astonishingly, this was only John’s second play of Suburbia, having played it when I picked it up just after Essen 2012. That first time round, he’d taken an early lead, which is generally a Very Bad Idea in Suburbia, and he spent the rest of the game being pummelled by the red lines on the Population board reducing his Income and Reputation. Not an enjoyable introduction to the game, and he’d understandably been a bit put off.

The pain had dimmed to a dull ache after three years, so we attacked the base game again. It was all fairly close (and John edged ahead for a while) until very late on in the game, when my experience showed through (with a bit of good luck) and I was ready for the uncertainty of the game-end timing in the C stack. John got slightly too hammered by the red lines again, but not quite enough to push his income down to -5 on the last turn like mine. That meant I took the Miser goal (lowest income) and the Aquaphobian goal (fewest lakes), because John had to build a second lake when he had no money left and had used all three of his Investment Markers. We each made our private goals, but that wasn’t enough to stop me soaring ahead in the final scoring: 169–130. I’m pretty sure that’s my highest score ever. I mean, 130 is pretty damn good, but 169 is ridiculous.

The key thing is that John enjoyed Suburbia much more this time round, which means there’s less chance of it languishing on the shelf – that’s great, given that I’ve just bought the Suburbia 5★ expansion.

We finished off with John introducing me to Arboretum, which is a fabulously thinky little card game. It’s like a two-dimensional Lost Cities, with elements of tableau building and hand management thrown together into a simple-yet-oh-so-AP-inducing super-filler. John was planting some lucrative-looking trees in his arboretum, so I made sure to hang on to high-value cards in those suits so he hopefully couldn’t score them. Meanwhile, I was struggling to plant anything useful in my own tableau, with a hand full of 6s, 7s and 8s. At the end, the vast majority of my success came from denying John the ability to score his trees, so it was a low-scoring victory for me, 16–11.

Continuing the “gaming weekend” theme from last month, I had a weekend alone with our 8-year-old. J (as I shall refer to him, given that it’s his initial) has enjoyed a few of the games from my collection over recent years, but he’s just turning a developmental corner which means he can really start planning ahead. Oh, and he can read fluently now, which is a great help for games covered in text. Being an 8-year-old boy (and a voracious reader), he’s much more interested in fantasy creatures and exciting gameplay than economic models and quiet contemplation of worker placement, so we took a trip to Travelling Man in Newcastle, to see if there was anything we both fancied the look of. We ended up leaving with Small World, which is pretty distant from my usual gaming territory, but I know it has a reputation for being ‘fun’, if nothing else, and J was drawn to the artwork, the presence of wizards and dragons (just like in his favourite books) and the fact it was for “age 8+”. (As an aside, I’m quite proud that he declared the newly released Star Wars Carcassonne to be “a ridiculous idea”; it certainly looks it.)

Over the weekend, we managed:

  • Castle Panic × 2 (too light for me, and too easy to win, but just right for J – again, including the theme)
  • Small World (what fun there is largely comes from the race/power combos – J got Heroic Halflings and thrashed me 95–75)
  • Carcassonne (probably the last time we’ll play this for a while – I’m just too nasty, which is what I enjoy about 2-player Carcassonne)
  • Labyrinth (the old Ravensburger maze one, not the GMT global terrorism one)
  • Forbidden Island (we died pretty early on, even on Novice level)
  • Jungle Speed Safari × 3 (my hands hurt for about four days afterwards)
  • Ingenious (against all odds, J loved this on his first play)

Yes, a weekend of games that aren’t entirely to my taste (except Carc and Ingenious), but that’s not the point. A weekend of games with one of my kids. That’s the point.

Another evening session with John featured the most painful game of Snowdonia I’ve had in a long while. We were trying out the Trans-Australian Railway expansion, but we can’t blame the expansion for our woes. Every so often, the card draw in Snowdonia just doesn’t work out nicely. We had rain after rain after rain, including the Australian “extreme weather” version – floods – meaning the excavation and track-laying were painfully slow. The whole thing took nearly twice as long as it should (we played for getting on towards two hours) and just felt like being battered about the head with a Mallet of Obduracy. I finished the game at the earliest opportunity and won 121–86, essentially by accident. (It possibly should have been 124–90, because we forgot to score double points for the Nullarbor Plains track cards.)

Just over a week later, we held another Corbridge Gamers session, this time swollen in both length and numbers. Olly and Graham came over in the afternoon as well as John, bringing us to four for a good ten hours or so of games. We started with my newly acquired copy of Poseidon, an 18xx-euro hybrid which condenses most of the key elements of 18xx into a fixed-length game full of wooden discs.

We all synchronised fairly well: everybody set up a nation in the first round (my Megalopolis got a bit screwed by John slightly unexpectedly cutting me off, but my plan from the outset had been to keep Megalopolis slow and steady until the final few rounds so it wasn’t too much of a bother) and then we all started a second nation in the same merchant round a while later.

We’d all played 1830 before (although for Graham it had been eight years and for John probably about 25), so there was much “ah, just like 1830” and “oh, this isn’t at all like 1830“. The huge difference is that Poseidon features recapitalisation as part of the game flow. At the start of Phases 2 and 3, nations can add more Potentials (wooden discs) to the Merchant Pool to raise more money for their coffers. That means that (a) there’s a careful balancing element between issuing Potentials as Merchants and using Potentials as Trading Posts on the map; and (b) it’s much more forgiving in terms of being forced to buy trains Ships from personal funds. That latter point, combined with the fact you can’t ever forcibly dump a nation onto someone else – even if they have more shares Merchants than you – makes it a much, much gentler financial game than 1830, and I certainly ended up concentrating very heavily on the map and getting the most out of my remaining Potentials once I’d figured out how many to issue as new Merchants.

Should the Merchant Pool be that full at the end of the game?

Should the Merchant Pool be that full at the end of the game? With a limit of 15 Merchants per player in a 4-player game, it seems likely… although we could maybe have managed nations better and got more Trading Posts on the board instead.

Megalopolis (purple) became very profitable indeed over the last two Operating Rounds Exploration Rounds, but it was too little too late. Olly had run Larissa (orange) very well for the whole game and, although it wasn’t generating a huge revenue in the last rounds, he had seven Merchants from Larissa (and a couple from Megalopolis) so he was bringing in a fair chunk of money each time it set sail. Graham was the only one of us to get seriously burned by the forced purchase of a Ship, which took several hundred drachmas from his personal funds and scuppered his game somewhat in the closing stages.

Final score (in drachmas) – Olly: 3626 / Me: 3296 / John: 3128 / Graham: 2649

I know a few things I did badly and a few things Olly did well, so I reckon I could play substantially better next time. I’m starting to get really excited by the idea of 18xx as a game series. I’ve got my eye on the imminent 1844/1854 double-package from Lookout Games and Olly’s already picked up 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties, so there’s plenty of possibility for more diverse 18xx in future.

After a quick pub trip for food, we spent the rest of the day engaged in substantially lighter (but excellent) fare. I maintained my 100% win streak in the superb The King of Frontier (Me: 52 / Graham: 44 / John: 42 / Olly: 28), failed miserably at Codenames (which could do with more than four players, to be fair) and came an honourable second in the mayhem that is Camel Up (Graham: 34 / Me: 29 / Olly: 28 / John: 20).

Tucked in among that lot was a successful run through Ghost Stories – yes, we defeated Wu-Feng! OK, it was only on Initiation level, but I tried to avoid quarterbacking too much (I’d had a solo refresher game on Nightmare level that morning and won fairly easily as the yellow Taoist). It was a really tough start to the game, with multiple Haunters coming out early on and several player boards being perilously full, but getting through a tough start means it should be easier later on. And it was for a short while… until Wu-Feng himherself turned up, as the Dark Mistress.

Victory! (A pyrrhic one for Graham, lying dead in the Graveyard.)

Victory! (A pyrrhic one for Graham, lying dead in the Graveyard. And clearly not an easy one for the rest of us.)

Obviously, none of the incarnations of Wu-Feng are exactly fun, but the Dark Mistress is my least favourite of the lot. Throughout the rest of the game, the dice are largely mitigable – in fact, my general rule of thumb is not to bother attempting an exorcism unless I have the Tao tokens available to do it without dice. The Dark Mistress takes that away, requiring three blue dice/tokens to exorcise… except it locks Tao tokens so you can’t use them. You can still use the Circle of Prayer so that’s only two blue (or wild white) dice needed once you’ve put a blue token on the Circle, but even so… it reduces the final encounter to simply rolling dice until either you succeed or you die.

So it wasn’t the greatest ending to Ghost Stories, but at least we won. Hooray!

These monthly roundups are getting out-of-hand lengthy, so I’m going to attempt to do little and often in future. Hopefully there’ll be enough gaming to justify it!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 10 October 2015

or FeldFest 2015

OK, not much of a “fest”, but two heavy Stefan Feld games in one evening is a Good Thing. Bora Bora was first, with John Sh (owning and explaining), Camo and John F. I’ve been keen to play Bora Bora for a while, but (a) timings haven’t quite worked out and (b) just… the iconography. Man, those player boards are something else. Every space filled with an icon, some no larger than a few mm. Of course, once everything’s been explained, it all makes some sort of sense (and actually becomes a useful player aid), but until then it’s a hurdle to overcome.

Still, hurdles overcome, we played, quickly coming to realise just how important – and horribly difficult – completing the end-of-round tasks would be. With 6 VPs per round at stake (plus a 6 VP bonus for completing all nine tasks), it became the focus of my game; simply figuring out which I wanted from the six new tasks available became a huge part of each round’s play. And actually getting the one I wanted was much easier said than done.

The dice-allocation mechanism is a fabulous bit of design: the higher the die you assign to an action, the “better” you can do that action (more points to spend or more choice, usually), but you have to assign a die of lower value than any previously placed on that action, leading to a wonderful dilemma of “high value = good action” versus “low value = blocks other people”. It also led to my one major frustration of the game when I rolled triple-1s. Although we were playing with some promo “orange god” tiles that allow a +1/-1 modifier, that wasn’t enough to make the dice useful in that situation, especially when I had no useful cards, no Offering tiles to spend anyway, and Camo had just played a 2 onto the “take a man” action and taken the 1-value man, meaning only 1s could be placed there and there was no 1-value man left to take. Aarrgh. I felt like I never quite caught up from that dreadful round.

More colours and icons than you can shake a stick it. Astonishingly, "shaking a stick" isn't represented by an in-game icon.

More colours and icons than you can shake a stick it. Astonishingly, “shaking a stick” is one of the few things in the world that isn’t represented by an in-game icon.

That little niggle aside, I really enjoyed Bora Bora at the time, although I can’t remember a huge amount about it afterwards. Perhaps there was just a little too much going on in the game. There was always a pressure to be doing lots of different things, rather than anyone being allowed to specialise in something, although John F seemed to do a remarkable job of specialising in both placing huts pretty much everywhere and building his ceremonial area. And that clearly served him well, because he came joint first, Camo taking the victory on the tiebreaker of turn order. (I’d managed a neat little trick involving cards, Offerings, god tiles and making sure I could complete my final tasks in just the right order… but it was nowhere near enough.)

Final score – Camo: 140 / John F: 140 / John Sh: 135 / Me: 121

A very, very good game, but seemingly not quite a great game. It got overshadowed in my eyes by the other Feld of the evening, but I’d rank Bora Bora alongside Bruges in my internal Feld-chart. Nothing alike at all, but I enjoyed them roughly equally.

Jack turned up at this point, touting Macao and claiming it went to five players – great! More Feld! And then it turned out that it only went to four, so he pulled out his actual five-player option, Alea Iacta Est. Those with a passing knowledge of Latin will be expecting a dice game set in ancient Rome, and they’d be right. I would describe Alea Iacta Est as being Alien Frontiers – IN SPAAAAACE!… but Alien Frontiers is already in space and it post-dates Alea Iacta Est by a year, so the situation’s clearly reversed.

It’s a whole chunk simpler than Alien Frontiers too, but still with enough meat on the bones to make it a worthwhile, fun little game. Being early in turn order was certainly not necessarily a good thing; in fact, it was sometimes downright bad, with the expected length of round being whipped out from under you by some lucky and aggressive dice play. And figuring out how to judge the overall arc of the game was not easy at the outset. Five rounds just didn’t seem long enough to pull everything together so you’d have provinces and patricians in them in order to score well.

I always relish the option of having poo-brown as my player colour

Who can resist that lovely shade of brown as a player colour?

Minor niggles: some province/patrician colours weren’t easily distinguished from others, especially under the notorious Newcastle Gamers lighting. Also, the iconography on the SPQR tiles was so opaque that it slowed the game to a standstill every round while people figured out which tile to take. Still, it was all fun enough, but no one could quite match up to Jack (who had the benefit of having played it before, even if it had been a while).

Final score – Jack: 42 / John Sh: 39 / Me: 38 / Camo: 38 / John F: 33

At this point, John F left, so we stuck to the earlier plan and broke out Macao. A relatively early (2009) Stefan Feld game, Macao includes some elements that can be found in his later designs (Bruges for the communal-dice-roll-per-round aspect, Amerigo for the actions denoted by tiny coloured cubes, just about every other Feld game for the turn-order track… the list goes on), but for me this was the perfect synthesis of those elements.

The wind rose planning mechanism is a devilish piece of design, clearly similar in intent to the die-assignment in Bora Bora: it’s all about balancing timing and power. If one of the communal dice shows a 1, you can take 1 action cube of that colour for the upcoming round; if a die shows a 6, you can take 6 cubes of that colour (which is 6 actions) but you won’t get to use them for another five rounds. Simple but devastatingly effective. It took me a fair while to get my head round it – and the early rounds were often dominated by the “obvious” groupthink, with everyone taking the same options – but once I spotted a chance to have a massive final turn, I took it. 6 green cubes and 6 violets, lined up well in advance. Shortly after that, I activated a card that gave me an extra action cube each time I used a die to take cubes, so that was a huge boost for my final round.

The majority of the game was spent in traditional Feld style, picking up points here and there (although nowhere near as many as his usual “point salad” games) and building towards a self-appointed end-goal. The constant pressure of having to activate cards (in order to avoid filling your tableau and taking a -3 VP “punish marker”) meant there was always something to concentrate on, a little like the tasks in Bora Bora. I actually started the game by completing a “Baronesa” card which gave a hefty bonus for a player who completed more than one Baronesa, so I spent the rest of the game keeping an eye out for more Baronesas and trying to stay reasonably up-front in the turn order so I could grab them. Unfortunately, we didn’t get through anywhere near as much of the card deck as I’d expected and no more Baronesas came out. So it all hinged on my big final round, which I’d spent literally half the game working towards. It was showing in the scores – I was a trailing a few points off the back at this point.

See that massive clump of cubes next to my wind rose at the very top of the picture? That's my preposterous final round, that is.

See that massive clump of cubes next to my wind rose at the very top of the picture? That’s my preposterous final round, that is. In fact, we haven’t even finished the round before, so there were four more cubes in the clump when we got round to it. Plus an extra violet cube from my Senora Violeta card.

I think I ended up with about 28 or 29 action cubes for the last round, which were spent on: activating three or four cards; using cards to convert cubes into gold coins to spend on “tribute” for VPs; taking over city quarters (which I later realised was actually a bit of inadvertent cheating – I bought two quarters in one round, which we’d earlier established was against the rules – but it only affected the final score by 2 VPs); and moving my ship between various ports to sell wares for VPs. Given that everyone else had maybe six or seven cubes for the last round, it pushed me in front on the VP track. I had another 7 or 8 VPs from end-game scoring cards in my tableau, which only compounded my lead.

Final score – Me: 72 / Camo: 55 / Jack: 54 / John Sh: 54

I hereby pronounce Macao my second-favourite Feld, after the seemingly unassailable Trajan. It’s got that special marriage of just the right elements, including forward planning, dice used in a non-traditional way, and several different areas on which to concentrate for VPs. If it wasn’t long out of print, I’d be picking up a copy for myself; as it is, I’ll be looking forward to Jack bringing it back to Newcastle Gamers.

After Jack left, Camo, John and I rounded off the evening with The King of Frontier, which John had introduced me to a couple of weeks earlier. Mixing the tile placement from Carcassonne with the role selection from Puerto RicoThe King of Frontier manages to be much quicker than either and possibly even slightly more fun. To cut a short story even shorter, I went for a produce-consume strategy early on with a size-4 field and size-4 city; John had a special building which gave him a bonus when spending wood during the consume phase, so we were pretty even. John and Camo both very helpfully pointed out when I forgot there was a handy building I could afford, so I built it… and it won me the game. The Altar cancelled out the -2 VP for every empty space on my board at the end of the game which, along with the 2 VPs on the Altar tile, effectively put me 14 VPs up (16 if you include the fact that the Altar fills a space).

This is what a winning board looks like... although it wouldn't without the Altar there.

This is what a winning board looks like… although it probably wouldn’t without the Altar there

Final score – Me: 43 / Camo: 35 / John Sh: 30

A great game to finish another great evening at Newcastle Gamers. The next session falls on my birthday, so it’s anyone’s guess if I’ll actually make it along or not.

Photos by John 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 late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

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.