Tag Archives: ticket to ride

Gametown Top Ranking

While listening to Heavy Cardboard episode 52 (Amanda and Edward revealing their top 50 games each), I naturally started thinking about the games that would make it into my “Top N” list. I don’t think I could sensibly manage N=50; even with the length of time I’ve been seriously gaming, I’d probably struggle to drum up 50 games I’ve played more than once and I don’t think I can legitimately pass judgement on a game I’ve only touched on a single occasion. N=10 would be manageable, but liable to change on a moment’s notice.

So I thought I’d do something a bit different: a couple of favourite games in each of ten different categories, giving me a “sort of top 20 games list” to come back to in a year or two and scoff at.

All-Time Classics

You know, the sort of games that are always hovering around people’s top-10 lists, usually in the top 10 or 20 on BGG and often more than a few years old.

Agricola

Agricola

Yeah, you know it’s still the best game ever. Building a food engine, improving the farm, grabbing stuff, keeping an eye on everyone else and making sure you know when they’re going to be grabbing stuff, making sure you have enough food for Harvest… The game wants to kill you, but it wants you to have fun anyway.

I haven’t played it for ages though, which is partly due to the constant influx of new games and partly due to the company I keep – quite a few people don’t want to play with certain other people because those certain other people are so good at Agricola that there’s no chance of winning. Doesn’t bother me though. Agricola‘s always a good time, win or lose.

Twilight Struggle

If I’ve got 3–6 hours and a single willing victim, this is the game of choice for me. Of course, those being fairly restrictive criteria and being married to someone who (by and large) doesn’t play board games… again, this one doesn’t get played enough for my liking. The new digital adaptation by Playdek does an OK job and I need to dig into it more to get my head round the interface, but nothing beats the raw tension of playing TS in person.

Heavy Euros

The real brain-burning brutes with plenty of bits of wood being pushed around.

Madeira

See all my red workers in the fields? See my red square action marker in Moinho? That's my engine, that is.

Sounding like a stuck record already, but… I need to play this more. It’s fun, it’s long, it’s oddly lovely to look at and sweet lord it hurts. It’s (usually) obvious what you need to do in order to score in the next scoring round, but how you actually get to do those things and pay for them… that’s a whole other challenge.

Through the Ages

Possibly cheating with this one, because I’ve never played it face-to-face and I haven’t played the new version; it’s all been on BGO with the original (or very slightly tweaked) rules. It’s a masterpiece of horribly tight resource management and tableau building, which are two of my favourite things in games.

Lighter Euros

Shipyard

Rondels, rondels, rondels. Ships so long they look like oil tankers. The weird canal-maze-tile-laying subgame. This one’s greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are pretty great.

Trajan

Trajan

So simple, yet tough to pull off well because of that mancala mechanism for action selection. And it works really well at all player counts from two to four.

Economic Games

Basically a way to get a few more heavy euro-type games in. Brass nearly got in here, so consider it an “honourable mention”.

Food Chain Magnate

FCM Olly

Like most Splotter games, FCM is non-stop tough from start to finish and things can go horribly wrong for you… but it’s quite often your fault when that happens and you can learn a lesson for the next time you play. And then you’ll mess up something else and get better again. So many strategies I’ve yet to try.

1865: Sardinia

This is really here as a representative of 18xx as a whole, but I think 1865 might well be my favourite. It’s small and tight, and it eliminates a lot of the fiddliness of more traditional 18xx games by virtue of players never having to calculate their most lucrative routes. So where the final rounds of many 18xx games can bog down into hours of “well, if I put a station there it blocks that, but if I upgrade this track then I get $10 extra…”, 1865 retains all the good stuff and skips along nicely to the end.

Cooperative Games

Pandemic

Pandemic

Quite enough has already been said and written across the web about Pandemic; I’ll say nothing other than that I think it’s the best cooperative game around.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

While Ghost Stories isn’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination, it’s hard. Really hard. And really fun, as long as you can cope with the fact you’ll very probably lose.

Two-Player Abstract Games

I do love a good two-player abstract, and I’m trying to indoctrinate my kids in the joys of the classic white-vs-black board game.

Hive

Hive

Yes, white should win in an evenly matched game, but it’s still an excellent game. Although it looks like you’ve got loads of choices on your turn, there are very often only one or two that make any tactical sense, so it’s usually quick to play and easy to convince your opponent to play another round.

YINSH

Definite cheating here because I’ve only played this once, but I think this might be a truly excellent game and I want to play it a lot to get better at it.

Family Games

Stuff that my kids – and even my wife – will happily play and/or request.

Indigo

Indigo

For some reason, my kids love this Knizia game. I think it’s pretty good too, and it has the added benefit of being really handsome on the table.

Ticket to Ride series

Ticket to Ride

OK, I’m not a huge fan of TtR (especially the original US board), but I think it helps consolidate a lot of basic game concepts for my kids and will hopefully prove to be a decent stepping stone to more complex games.

Wargames

D-Day at Omaha Beach

DDaOB featured image

Because I don’t have any face-to-face wargaming buddies I can play with on a regular basis, it’s obvious that the king of all solitaire wargames is sitting here. Never mind that it’s incredibly tough and your troops will be picked off by the Wiederstandsnests as they move up the beach; this is a beautifully designed challenge for the solo gamer.

Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajärvi, Finland 8–12 December 1939

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was my real introduction to hex-and-counter gaming, and it remains my absolute favourite two-player wargame. Why? Low counter density, relatively low rules complexity and a beautiful map that – while as free as any other – encourages certain types of movement and play while leaving the door open for the odd surprise manoeuvre. Fantastic design. I’ve been trying to get my head into the sequel, Operation Dauntless, but the added chrome and armour rules mean it’s been a bit opaque.

Solitaire Games

Mage Knight

If I’ve got a whole evening alone, I’ll quite often set this up and… well, usually lose. But the puzzle! Oh, the puzzle. Every hand of cards is a different puzzle with loads of solutions, but usually only one of those solutions will get you where you wanted and with the right cards left over to successfully defeat the next challenge.

Friday

I could write almost exactly the same about Friday as I did about Mage Knight, except it doesn’t take a whole evening. Simple, yet satisfying.

Fillers / Party Games

Codenames

I’ve only played this a handful of times, and never with more than four players (so I have yet to experience the chaos and fun of larger teams) but I know it’s a genuine masterpiece of game design. So, so simple, yet so, so tough on the brain whichever side of the table you’re sitting.

Coloretto

Coloretto

I don’t think I’ve played another filler that engenders such furious bouts of swearing as Coloretto. It’s one of those “gentle” games where you can be genuinely horrible to people without directly stealing from them or anything like that. Again, a brilliant bit of game design.

So there it is. My pseudo-top-20 list. What did I miss off? What entire categories of game did I neglect to include? Let me know.

Oh, and I couldn’t neglect to include this little pop gem.

Under Sea to Outer Space via 1950s USA

There’s been quite a bit of family gaming over the couple of weeks since my last post, including the discovery that my two oldest sons, J and A, both love Ticket to Ride. Totally love it. And it turns out that my mum quite enjoys it too. I’m glad I held on to my copy now, and I might even get one or two of the other maps; after all, the original USA map gets a bit dull after a while.

Mrs Cardboard (M, to follow the tradition of anonymous-but-distinguishable initials) and I also played the first game in our Pandemic Legacy campaign. We went for silly rather than realistic when it came to naming our characters, so we now have a medic called Max Dinglewang (thank you, M); my name offering for the scientist was Susan O’Hanrahan, but always, always referred to as Susan O’Hanraha-hanrahan. We won the first game pretty easily after just three of five Epidemic cards and managed to eradicate the black disease, now known as Boneitis, but I can see how things might get substantially tougher in future. I’m being completely spoiler-free here, but I might start writing up future games under a big SPOILER heading if it continues to offer the narrative and gaming excitement it looks like it should.

John and I convened a Corbridge Gamers session and we both ticked another game off our Stefan Feld lists – AquaSphere. It’s very Feld: doing a thing lets you do another thing, but doing that thing means you can’t do this other thing this round and there just isn’t enough time (or indeed Time, the game currency) to do everything you want to do. And oddly, for a game themed around scientists and robots conducting research in an underwater laboratory while fighting off purple Octopods… it feels a bit bland. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly solid game, but it’s not different enough from every other euro to make me excited about it.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes... it's a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

It does make sense once you know how the game works, but yes… it’s a bit heavy on the eyes at first glance.

I started out badly while John mopped up serious points for the area-majority aspect in the early rounds (I’d failed to plan for how much impact that would make), but I pushed forward with my long-term plan to finish all six pieces of my personal lab and collect all six lab letters. I did pull that off in the end, but John’s consistent showings in the end-of-round scoring put him far enough ahead that my sudden boost at the very end of the game wasn’t enough to overhaul him.

Final score – John: 71 / Me: 68

We followed up with a game that really is like nothing else I’ve ever played: Donald X Vaccarino’s Temporum. Jumping around between different eras and changing timelines makes it surprisingly thematic compared to the dry-as-dust-but-still-mechanically-lovely Dominion, and while the mechanisms themselves aren’t groundbreaking, they do coalesce into an overall experience that feels unique. There’s a lot of fun to be had in changing the future and forcing your opponent to suddenly find themselves in a Steampunk Utopia instead of the Age of Cats or whatever it was they were clearly hoping to use on their next turn to shuffle a few of their Influence markers down to the present day. (And yes, there genuinely is a card representing a timeline in which cats have taken over the world.) This one came down to the wire, with John getting his last Influence marker into the bottom box for the win when I had just one left to go.

Fast forward to Saturday and it was Newcastle Gamers again, this time with a prearranged game of Splotter Spellen’s latest release, Food Chain Magnate. John and Olly had expressed an interest and no one else seemed keen to join in (even on one of the busiest nights we’ve seen in a while; the busy-ness seemed at least partially due to our shift over to meetup.com following the near-total withdrawal of Events from Google+), so it was a three-player game.

Quick summary of Food Chain Magnate: you’re running a restaurant chain (duh!) on a randomised road/house map grid. It’s a sort of deckbuilder where the deck you’re building consists of the employees in your company, except rather than drawing a random hand of cards each round, you have the entire deck to choose a fresh company structure from. Employees in the company structure can do things like hiring or training more employees, collecting drinks from spots on the board, changing your prices (down or up), starting marketing campaigns, building new houses and/or gardens for houses, being managers who can accommodate more employees in your company, and many, many more. The winner is the person with the most cash at the end of the game, which is after the bank has broken… twice. (There’s an odd thing where the length of the game after the first breaking of the bank is determined by cards secretly chosen by the players at the start of the game.)

This being a Splotter title, there are many, many ways to make mistakes… and we all managed to make a few. I think all the mistakes were based around mistiming things, mainly to do with the fact that the people in houses don’t come out to eat unless they’ve been marketed to by players, but marketing doesn’t happen until after eating in the round order. The practical upshot of this is that something along the lines of “hey look, I’ve produced this burger and set up a marketing campaign for burgers so this house will come and eat the burger and I’ll be able to pay the Burger Cook I just hired and ohgodnoofcoursenoti’vereallyf—kedthisuproyally” happened several times over the course of the game.

Glossing over the inevitable mistakes then, it was interesting to see how our different opening strategies immediately led to different Milestone cards being claimed, with the bonuses they conferred. Olly went for early food production and thus forever had a freezer to keep unsold food and $5 bonuses for selling food products. John kept his company structure small to maintain a good choice of turn-order position and marketed drinks first ($5 bonus to drinks sold). I, on the other hand, went for full-on corporate bloat by hiring two Recruiting Girls and getting the “First to Hire 3 People in One Turn” Milestone, which gave me two Management Trainees and thus allowed me to maintain a much larger structure than the others. That wasn’t necessarily that great a benefit, but I was able to hire all sorts of people and shuffle them from round to round in order to get the best or most timely use from them.

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox campaign. (Looking back, I can see it's illegally placed, but I could have easily placed it somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

Mid-game. There are a few new houses on the board, along with my first mailbox soft drink campaign. (Looking back now, I can see it’s illegally placed between houses 1 and 16, but I could have easily placed it legally somewhere else and got the same effect, so no real harm done.)

I was last to place a marketing campaign, which meant mine were time-limited but I’d trained my marketer up so he could place a mailbox campaign and cover a whole block. Several houses had been added to the map, which meant there were gardens in play and diners with gardens pay double for their meals. After a slow start, I was suddenly raking in money from all the houses that wanted soft drinks (and usually one that wanted beer if John had run out), which meant I was first to hit $100 in hand. That gave me the seemingly preposterously powerful bonus of having the CFO power – 50% extra income per round. I only got a couple of rounds to benefit from that bonus though, because the $600 we’d added when the bank first broke was rapidly running out. Olly was selling burgers to a cluster of houses on the far side of the board and his Luxuries Manager was making sure they were going at an eye-watering price. Each burger was $20, but with houses with gardens paying double, there was an occasion where a house wanting two burgers paid $90 (including Olly’s $5/burger bonus).

The bank broke for the second time when I claimed my CFO bonus, and it was pretty clear that I’d won.

Final score – Me: $387 / John: $232 / Olly: $190

It looks fairly emphatic, but I suspect I could have been overhauled in another couple of rounds had it continued – Olly’s super-mega-deluxe rare-breed yak burgers were painfully lucrative.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That's my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans.

A blurry shot of the final game state. That’s my company structure in the bottom-right, near my jeans. The whole thing looks like an absolute shambles, but we knew what we were doing. Just about. Food Chain Magnate may win my prize for Most Table-Greedy Game.

Overall, I thought Food Chain Magnate was superb on its first play. Only time will tell how well it stands up to repeated plays (and I hope to play it as much as possible – after all, it’s a Splotter game that we finished in under two hours on our first play!), but I suspect the variable map layout and wide variety of possible strategies will keep me interested for a long while yet. Oh, and I love the artwork. Even the “oh dear, they sent the prototype to the printer” map tiles have their charm, and they’re very clear on the table.

The Prodigals Club was next, which was the first time any of us had played the three-player game (and the first time at all for Olly); we used the Election and Society modules again. Oddly, it uses the same worker-placement boards as the two-player game so the worker spaces are a little more congested. Only a little, because we each had four workers rather than five, but it was enough to make it feel a bit different. Not only was turn order much more important than with two players (which I only really figured out afterwards), but with only four workers, it’s much harder to do everything you want to do. Not only do you have just four workers, but if you’re last in turn order, the stuff you want may well have disappeared before your first worker goes down!

askdjfh

As with Last Will, it’s a handsome game with a cleverly designed board.

I didn’t really feel like I was doing well for the first four rounds (although I felt comfortably ahead of Olly at least, and I kept taking the Hyde Park action to make sure I didn’t start gaining votes), but then everything came together in a final rush and I managed to get my two scores down to 0 (Society) and 2 (Election). John had gone substantially negative in the Election module, but his Society score let him down badly and I ended up winning!

Final score – Me: 2 / Olly: 8 / John: 10

And then Roll for the Galaxy with the Ambition expansion, including the Objective tiles this time. They still didn’t add that much to the game, but that’s fine – it’s already excellent. I had a starting faction that was more annoying that anything else, so I concentrated on my initial draw of a 6+ development (3 bonus VPs for each world of cost 4 or more, plus the ability to reassign any three dice as Settlers!) and set about settling those planets. The others were playing a more balanced game, although Olly had the rather wonderful Psi-Crystal Forecasters, which allowed him to shift his selected phase after seeing what everyone else had chosen. It all worked out nicely for me in the end anyway after Olly ended the game with a full tableau of 12 tiles.

Final score – Me: 51 / Olly: 42 / John: 39

Lloyd joined us for the last game of the night: Spiel des Jahres 2005 winner Niagara. Typical SdJ family-friendly fare, but in this instance it ran on far too long (lots of simultaneous high numbers played plus almost constant bad weather meant the river flowed fast) and was memorable more for the frustration than the enjoyability. Still, I continued my unbroken win-streak for the evening, this time sharing victory with Olly. It’s been a long time since I played a game without a tiebreak rule!

Epic post ends here.

Photos by Olly and me, some shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Meetup page.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 7 March 2015

Having had a month off, it seemed to take ages for this session to roll around. I’d tentatively prearranged an Android: Netrunner game with Graham, and that’s how we kicked off the evening. (We both knew full well that if we started with anything else, we’d never get round to Netrunner, especially with Graham being limited to about three hours at the club.)

[WARNING: Netrunner-lingo-heavy bit coming up. Feel free to skip on to Suburbia.]

I’d built my decks in January and hadn’t got round to playing them yet, so I’d pretty much forgotten what was in them. I knew the general strategies I’d gone for though, and my Jinteki deck (Replicating Perfection, glacial-style) should have been pretty straightforward to just pick up and play. It didn’t quite turn out that simple. My initial draw was three agendas and two high-cost ICE (Ashigaru and Tollbooth, costing 9 and 8 respectively), so there was no way I was going ahead with that – I couldn’t protect HQ from a first-turn run. The mulligan ended up slightly better, giving me a Tsurugi which I could just about afford to rez if Graham decided to run against it.

Graham was running a Shaper deck (Kate, full of Stealth cards), so I was hoping he’d spend a while building a decent rig so I could get my glacier up and running. Instead, he played like a Criminal, running early and often, grabbing a Nisei MK II 2-point agenda early on. I did manage to hit him with some punitive damage (Komainu and Tsurugi here and there trashed some of Graham’s most useful cards), but the ICE was still too porous and he was accessing all too often. I was suffering from poor economy, unaffordable ICE and a handful of agendas. I’d just about managed to get my central servers protected when Graham hit his stride, Professional Contacts giving him enough cards and credits to install Stealth breakers and hardware while being horribly rich.

I kept throwing up fresh ICE to keep Graham’s funds down (although simultaneously doing the same to me), and somehow managed to score a Fetal AI and Future Perfect to take me up to 5 agenda points. Meanwhile, Graham had taken an NAPD Contract for another 2 points. 5–4… the next agenda scored/stolen was likely to win the game. I put another NAPD Contract into my well-ICEd (and all unrezzed ICE too) remote server and advanced it twice.

Graham ran the obligatory central server (Replicating Perfection requires a run on a central server before the runner can run on a remote server – lovely for the corp player, horrible for the runner), spending a few of his massive pile of credits before running on my agenda-filled remote. I had Komainu, then Tollbooth; I couldn’t afford to rez both, but I did the maths. Komainu remained face-down, but I rezzed Tollbooth, which took Graham down to 3 credits after he’d paid the toll and broken the subroutines. He accessed the server… and, of course, couldn’t steal NAPD Contract without another credit.

And that was the game. An easy advance for me on my turn took me up to 7 points and the win.

As ever, I loved playing Netrunner. I got a few ideas on how to tweak my Jinteki deck (could do with more cheap ICE and some ways to trash runner resources), and saw a Stealth runner deck working as it should. On top of all that, Graham very kindly gave me his extra “two-ofs” from his second core set, so I’ve now got some more solid options for deckbuilding (Astroscript! Psychographics! Magnum Opus!). One of these days I’ll make it along to the Monday-night Netrunner sessions at the Mile Castle.

[Netrunner lingo ends.]

Next up was Suburbia, with Graham and I joined by Camo (who had sat watching the latter half of our Netrunner game with a mixture of intrigue, enjoyment and bemusement). I hadn’t played for quite a while and, with Graham new to the game, we didn’t include the Suburbia Inc expansion.

It was a slightly unusual tile selection, with relatively few blue commercial tiles and loads of green residential tiles in the A stack. I stuck religiously to my tried-and-tested blue-blue-blue-blue-blue adjacency combo early in the game to get my income up, but it was slow going with the blue tiles so few and far between and I had to take a couple of lakes (thus counting myself out of the Aquaphobian public goal for fewest lakes). Meanwhile, Camo and Graham both took a Homeowner’s Association and its attendant instant cash boost.

As the game developed through the B stack, I was able to afford some reputation-boosting tiles. They gave me the population growth I needed, but not as quickly as the others, who were mainly increasing their populations directly through green residential tiles. There was plenty of counting of money stacks (“Can you afford that tile on your next turn?”) and tactical lake-building (“Fine then, I’ll trash it so you can’t have it.”), plus investment markers on both Homeowner’s Association tiles. Graham’s was the only investment marker he played in the whole game, which let me breathe a sigh of relief – my private goal was Employer (+15 population if I played the fewest investment markers; I hadn’t played any, and didn’t in the whole game).

My winning borough (most of it, anyway) is bottom-left, with Graham's second-place borough bottom-right and Camo playing yellow up at the top-left.

My winning borough (most of it, anyway) is bottom-left, with Graham’s second-place borough bottom-right and Camo playing yellow up at the top-left. You can see that my heavy-on-the-blue strategy and Graham’s heavy-on-the-green strategy paid off.

We eventually hit the “One More Round” tile quite a long way down the C stack, by which point both Camo and Graham had been battling over the Miscreant public goal (lowest reputation) for a few rounds. That meant their populations had been slipping backwards at the end of each turn for a while, although Graham had offset that by going for tiles with big population boosts in the first place. Camo’s game had fallen to bits, which was evidenced by the final score. After scoring goals (I think Graham got two public goals plus his private one, while I took the other public one and scored my private one too; Camo scored no goals, if I remember correctly) I had won convincingly, although scoring 1 population per 5 money crept Graham substantially closer to my score. He’d had quite the cash engine by the end of the game.

Final score – Me: 124 / Graham: 117 / Camo: 53

I think Camo felt a suitable level of shame at that performance, especially given that he’d won his last game of Suburbia. It was, as always, a very fun game and Graham enjoyed his first play a lot. I enjoyed it too after a long break, and the intervening time had refreshed the game a bit for me – the last few times I’d played had all been against new players and I’d been on top form, so I’d utterly destroyed everyone each time.

We had a newcomer sitting with us throughout the C stack – another John (John B, not to be confused with the other John B, our chairman) – and we lost Graham but gained Pete and John Si. After a bit of umming and ahhing over game choice (John B was a relative newcomer not just to the club but to board games as a whole), we settled on Puerto Rico. After all, I reasoned, I played it the first time I came to Newcastle Gamers.

There’s not much to say about this game of Puerto Rico (especially given that I’m writing this nine days later and can’t remember much), but suffice to say that as fifth in starting player order I got a corn plantation and thus went for some early shipping for VPs. I also went for coffee as my cash crop (no one else went for it so early), but got locked out of the trading house a couple of times and ended up twice being a single doubloon short of what I wanted during a Builder action. The second time, I plumped for a Wharf given that I couldn’t quite get a 10-cost large building, which led to a few extra VPs from the last round of shipping but it wasn’t enough.

A very blurry and uninformative picture of the table. I'm at the bottom-right, in case that helps.

A very blurry and uninformative picture of the table. I’m at the bottom-right, in case that helps.

After a few rounds, John B absolutely got the hang of it and realised how much his action choices affected everyone else at the table, and he ended up an admirable joint last with Camo. I had a perfectly decent 24 VPs from shipping alone, but only 19 from buildings. John Si and Pete, meanwhile, had played well and had nicely balanced player boards with large buildings and plenty of bonus VPs. Victory to Pete, with a very handsome 52 VPs.

Final score – Camo: 37 / John B: 37 / Me: 43 / John Si: 48 / Pete: 52

And then Ticket to Ride: Europe to end the night. Lots of the crucial length-1 routes went straight away (and I haven’t played the Europe map enough to necessarily know which those routes are) and I’d kept my long ticket at the start of the game. That’d often be a bad choice, but two of my other tickets were in the same sort of NW–SE line, so I managed to make the long ticket which set me up well for the longest-train bonus.

Of course, that bonus is only 10 points so it wasn’t quite up to scratch against the others who’d taken lots of tickets (and finished most of them), but I’d also managed to pick off a few choice length-6 routes towards the end of the game, which left me in second place rather than flailing around as I suspected I might have been. I don’t have a record of the exact final scores, but I do know that John Si won on 138, while I was around 120ish. Pete and John B were both around 110ish and Camo brought up the rear on about 100.

A slightly earlier finish than usual for me, but it was a natural end to an excellent evening’s gaming.

All photos by me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is usually on the second and last Saturday of every month (although this one was a week early and we’ve got three sessions in April…), 4:30 pm until late (unless it’s a special all-day session…) at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 31 January 2015

Having introduced my good friend Sarah to the joys of Twilight Struggle a few weeks ago, she’d expressed an interest in popping along to Newcastle Gamers for a few hours. What better way to introduce her to the club than with a lovely cooperative game, right?

So, yeah. Ghost Stories.

As far as notoriety goes, Ghost Stories is right up there with Vlad the Impaler. Nobody wins Ghost Stories the first time they play. Or the second. Or usually the third, fourth, fifth… It’s not an easy game to win, even on ‘Initiation Level’ as we played it. At least one bad thing happens on every turn, and no good deed goes unpunished, with many ghosts doing horrible things as you exorcise them.

We had a good thing going at the start, with Olly (green, with an extra tao die and never rolling the curse die) taking custody of any ghosts with an ongoing “roll a curse die every turn” characteristic. With those ghosts not triggering, we were more free to go about our business elsewhere, performing minor exorcisms and gearing up Graham (yellow, taking a free tao token on each turn) to deal with some tough customers.

Wow. Don't we look competent here? Full of fight and vigour. There's even a buddha in play on the far side of the board. (Although clearly Graham and Sarah have both just visited the Sorcerer's Hut.)

Wow. Don’t we look competent here? Full of fight and vigour. There’s even a buddha in play on the far side of the board. (Although clearly Graham and Sarah have both just visited the Sorcerer’s Hut, losing valuable Qi in the process.)

I was red, flying around the board to pick up buddhas and deal with some low-level bad guys, while Sarah’s blue taoist had the super-handy power of being able to use a village tile and attempt an exorcism on the same turn… except the most useful village tiles (Sorcerer’s Hut, I’m looking at you) ended up next to ghosts she had no hope of defeating.

There was a tipping point about ten or twelve cards before the Wu Feng incarnation arrived, after a couple of Black Widow ghosts had been and locked up our tao tokens for a few turns, not to mention the constant onslaught of haunter ghosts on Graham’s yellow board. (We got rid of a Hopping Vampire, only to have it immediately replaced with… a Hopping Vampire.) Suddenly, Sarah and I had full boards and only one Qi each, meaning death was inevitable. Two village tiles were flipped already, and Olly and Graham made a semi-valiant flailing attempt to salvage some hope, but all was lost. It was a matter of moments before we were all dead via overrun boards. Wu Feng would return and the land of the living would be forever lost.

Oh well.

All just having a nice lie down in the graveyard. Not a problem at all. The land of the living wasn't that great anyway.

All just having a nice lie down in the graveyard. Not a problem at all. The land of the living wasn’t that great anyway.

I’d messed up – or failed to mention – a couple of rules in my explanation, although Olly picked up on one halfway through the game (you can share the tao tokens of other players on the same tile when attempting an exorcism… although that wouldn’t have changed anything up to that point). The other one was a timing thing with Graham’s ability – it had been a little while since I’d played Ghost Stories in any form, and I thought the free tao token was taken at the beginning of his turn, before a new ghost is revealed. In fact, it should be taken just before his move, after the new ghost arrives. Again, probably not a huge difference made to our game, but I did make it a bit harder on us because I didn’t remember this one until the day after.

We still would have died, I’m sure.

Anyway, losing and rules aside, I really enjoyed my first play of Ghost Stories with other actual humans. I’ve played it to death (pun slightly intended) on the iPad, using various combinations of soloing multiplayer or the proper solo rules, and I’ve soloed the cardboard version several times. Using the solo rules in the rulebook (three neutral boards) and playing as the yellow taoist, I can quite happily beat the game most of the time on most difficulty levels – and I’m even pretty confident on the nastiest, ‘Hell’ level. Playing with others is substantially more difficult… but substantially more fun. It’s a game that feels – quite literally – laughably unfair the first time you play it. The shared despair was really enjoyable.

After dropping Sarah back home (she’d only planned a couple of hours of games) and losing Graham to a night on the town, I returned to that shining jewel in the world of games, Agricola. Four-player this time, with Pete, Ali and Olly. I far prefer four to five, just in terms of being able to keep track of everything that’s going on; in Agricola, there’s the added bonus of the four-player game having three Wood-accumulating spaces, and I’m always happy when there’s plenty of Wood. Oh, and the Reed+Stone+Food space too.

We drafted from 1E, 3I, 3K, which made for an interesting mixture of cards doing the rounds… and a lot of dross. Sometimes it’s nice to have plenty of those stalwart E-deck cards you get in a 3-2-2 draft, but I still managed to pull together a feasible combo, if only a small one. As Round 1 start player, I played Serf as my first occupation (when using ‘Sow and/or Bake Bread’, before sowing, take 1 Grain, or exchange 1 Grain for 1 Vegetable), then Pig Whisperer a few rounds later (free boars in the future… but too late to get a third free boar, sadly), giving me the required two Occupations to play Planter Box and get some ridiculously fertile Fields sown next to my house. With Wildlife Reserve also in play, I had room for those few animals that didn’t end up in my Fireplace, until I managed to get round to fencing off some Pastures. (My fencing was inefficiently done over two separate rounds, but it meant that I could actually hold on to some breeding pairs and build up my livestock.)

Meanwhile, Ali had drafted an incredible Clay-based food engine. Clay Worker gave him extra Clay from the outset, while Tinsmith meant he could eat the Clay at a 1 Clay = 1 Food rate; after Pete built the (inevitable) Well, that rose to 2 Clay = 3 Food. With a Clay Deposit as well, there was never any shortage of Clay for Ali to eat (and it seemed to accumulate a lot on the board too), so he could concentrate on getting some proper farming done.

Pete threw a spanner in the works by playing Taster, allowing him to pay 2 Food to the Starting Player in order to take the first action in a round. After a round or two with Ali getting that Taster payment, I took Starting Player… and kept it for seven or eight rounds. Pete paid me to take the first action on at least five of those rounds (mainly using the Food drip-fed from his Chicken Coop and Well improvements), which kept me pretty much fed through two Harvests, and took the strain off my animal population. It also meant, with Pete to my left, that the player order went Pete–Me–Pete–Ali–Olly. Having fifth choice in several consecutive rounds left Olly trailing wildly – he was first to build a third room, but last to take Family Growth. His Pieceworker Occupation started to pay off towards the end, especially in terms of extra Grain and Vegetables, but it was too little too late. He was also hoping to take advantage of his Master Baker, having assumed that my hefty Grain Fields meant I would be baking… but I didn’t bake even once.

Pete’s play of the Chamberlain in the late game left me thinking that he’d have it all wrapped up, but he’d left it so late to develop a food engine that he had to put that into effect in the dying stages. Meanwhile, I’d grown 8 Grain and several Vegetables, and I had breeding pairs in all three animals. My final-round flourish was to Renovate my three-room Clay hut to Stone, then play the Tavern as my Minor Improvement. It was 2 VPs on its own, and I hoped to use it for 2 bonus VPs with my final worker, but Pete immediately jumped on it for the 3 Food it offered, blocking me.

After the traditional final-Harvest VP-counting think-fest (“If I cook this, I gain 3 Food but lose 1 VP…”), Pete tallied the final scores. I could tell he and I were close, but I suspected he might have edged the win with his VPs from played cards. In fact, I took victory by a single point! (I may have then gloated slightly for a few minutes; to be fair, it’s not often I get to beat Pete. Not ever before, actually. He did point out a few mistakes before I made them though, so… maybe not entirely a flawless, unaided victory.) Ali realised in the final scoring that he’d forgotten to use his Hut Builder ability in Round 11, and he had all the relevant resources to have Renovated even with the extra room, so he should really have had several extra points. Olly’s six empty farmyard spaces counted heavily against him, as did not having a single Pasture fenced.

Final score – Me: 43 / Pete: 42 / Ali: 31 / Olly: 21

I think that’s my best ever score in a face-to-face game! Post-game analysis contained much regret at leaving Starting Player with me for so many rounds. It had crippled Ali and Olly in many ways, but Pete’s Taster ability had left them thinking it wasn’t as valuable as it really was. Second choice is way better than fourth or fifth, and the extra Food I got left me happily grabbing Wood, animals and new family members when I might otherwise have been attempting to mitigate an upcoming Harvest.

Pete left and Dave joined us for four-player Ticket to Ride on the India map. I hadn’t played on this map before, but its only unusual feature was the bonus points for ‘mandala’ routes – if you complete a ticket in more than one way, you get a bonus; the more tickets completed like this, the more bonuses you get.

As it turned out, there were only a handful of tickets completed like that. Once I saw that my initial two tickets were going to be far too congested to manage the mandala bonus, I decided to go for my usual TtR strategy of claiming the longest routes for mega-points and trying to do everything in one long train to take the 10 VPs for longest route. There aren’t many huge routes on the India map, but I took both 6-length ferries and the one 8-length ferry (that’s 51 points for those three alone) and just managed to end the game with all 45 of my trains in one continuous line. Everyone else had taken loads of tickets, while I took only one extra, finishing the game with three. It was enough though, and I narrowly squeaked a win over Ali.

Final score – Me: 117 / Ali: 111 / Olly: 100 / Dave: 98

The India map is very congested with short routes in the middle, and it’s often hard to identify which city is which (standing up helps enormously with this), but it was good fun as Ticket to Ride always is. A relatively gentle way to end the evening.

A superb evening it was too. Highlight of the night… I’d almost always say Agricola, but I think Ghost Stories might just edge it for the novelty of a first play and its sheer fun factor. It’s also beautiful on the table, which never hurts when you’re being absolutely pummelled. No more Newcastle Gamers for me until March, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about before then.

All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. 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!