Tag Archives: trains

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 11 October 2014

or Three is the Magic Number

Five very different games, all with three players. Now that’s a good session.

I began with Vladimír Suchý’s Shipyard, which looked to be a two-player game with Olly until Chris turned up just as I was about to embark (no ship-related pun intended) on the rules. Many of my favourite euros (particularly Stefan Feld games) are simply a vaguely connected bunch of mechanisms that slot together into a semi-coherent whole, and Shipyard fits into that category beautifully. With the industrial-revolution-era-shipbuilding theme tacked on, it’s so far up my street that it shares my postcode. Where Shipyard differs from many Feld games is that there’s only one main way to obtain victory points: building and sailing your ships.

If you don’t like rondels, look away now. Shipyard is full of rondels. There’s a rondel on which players place their workers to choose an action (four of which direct the player to another rondel); there’s a rondel governing commodity prices; there’s a rondel for choosing which employee to take; there’s even a concentric pair of rondels. Yes, rondels within rondels. This is rondel madness. But it works, especially the very elegant worker-placement rondel which not only defines income and the choices of players as it progresses, but also acts as the game timer, with an n-player game lasting laps of the rondel.

The rondels on the board go round and round... [Note: this picture isn't from Saturday. I didn't get a decent picture on the night, so here's one from a different session.]

The rondels on the board go round and round… [Note: this picture isn’t from Saturday. I didn’t get a decent picture on the night, so this one’s from a different session.]

The initial draw of government contracts left me feeling a little deflated; I had no killer combos and barely anything to aim towards. I settled into the groove for “5 VPs for each ship with all three safety features” and “3 VPs per propeller”, nabbing early in the game the employee that allows the fitting of an extra propeller. Chris, meanwhile, got his first ship built and sailed within the first half-lap of the action rondel. Olly took several employees quite early on (I think he had five by the end of the game), giving him some very handy bonuses when taking actions. A free businessman here, a free advance around a rondel there… I felt like I had some catching up to do.

Chris seemed to be churning out ships at an alarming rate, sailing them with very little on board and often with quite low speed, but there was clearly some grand scheme at play. (He let slip that he was aiming towards the government contract offering points for ships of exactly five ship tiles.) My ships were all reasonably fast and loaded with propellers, but not much more. Olly, on the other hand, took a while to sail his first ship, but when he did it was a thing of beauty. A supertanker, seven tiles long, loaded to the gunwales with businessmen, cranes and as many other bits as he could fit on board. It was worth a pile of points, but it seemed unlikely he’d get more than two such beasts finished in the game; I, on the other hand, was going for medium length and strength in numbers.

The thing with Shipyard is that the end of the game rolls around really quickly. Each player gets 25 actions for the whole game, and the last lap of the action rondel can take you by surprise. So it was for Olly and Chris, who ended up in the situation of having a final action that was pointless (Chris) or unaffordable (Olly). I make it sound like I’d planned everything perfectly, but no – although I could make full use of my final actions, I could tell they weren’t going to be enough to win the game. Olly’s behemoths had pushed him well ahead, while Chris’s steady churning of ships from his yard had been a solid points-winner.

My final, slightly dismal sihpyard

My final, slightly dismal shipyard

We revealed our secret government contracts to little surprise. Scoring them was a different matter. Olly was aiming for businessman–crane pairs (and scored lots thereof) and long ships (memory fails me here, but I think he sailed two, which gave the maximum bonus anyway), giving a bonus of 30 points; I had three ships with all three safety features, and five propellers across my fleet, for an identical bonus of 30; Chris, however, stunned us with his 16 points from used canal tiles. On top of his 22 from four length-five ships, his 38-point bonus sneaked the win by a single point.

Final score – Chris: 94 / Olly: 93 / Me: 72

Yes, an uninspiring performance from me. I definitely felt hampered by my government contracts, but even if I’d chosen a different pair to go for I don’t think I would have kept up with the other two.

Chris left and was replaced at the table by Jack, game designerformer game publisher and co-host of Newcastle Playtest. I’d brought Trains, which Olly recommended we play as a research tool for Jack’s deckbuilding work-in-progress Codename: Vacuum. Having not played Trains for over a year, I had to have a quick dive through the rules, but most of the concepts are so generic to all deckbuilders that it wasn’t long before we were up and running.

I was attempting the Trains equivalent of Dominion‘s simple “big money” strategy: use money to buy bigger money, then eventually spend lots of money on victory points. As a result, once I’d built enough rails to make it unappealingly expensive to invade “my” territory, I started passing up chances to lay more rails and it felt like I was falling behind a bit on the board. Then – kapow – the big money kicked in and I was able to buy a few Control Room cards. With a simple power of “draw three cards”, these quickly turned into a bit of a killer combo. Several times, I played a Control Room to draw three cards, one of which was a Control Room which allowed me to draw three more. There was very often a Landfill and some Waste in amongst my now massive hand, so I could keep my deck relatively lean of Waste and buy the VP cards.

I still wasn’t sure if I’d done enough on the board though, and the endgame went on a little longer than any of us expected, allowing everyone to get in on the VP-card-buying action. When the last station was built, marking the end of the game, I was well behind on the board scoring. Thankfully, my early switch to buying VP cards worked out in the end, giving me something like 26 points from cards alone and boosting me to a solid win (49 points, with Olly and Jack on 41 and 40… and no, I can’t remember which way round they were).

All of us agreed that Trains is substantially more interesting than Dominion, and I’d like to play it a lot more often than annually. With thirty card types from which to select eight per game, there are (by my calculations) 5,852,925 different card combinations to explore. Not to mention two sides of the board. And that’s just the base game. So yeah – a few more plays until that one’s exhausted its possibilities.

Next was Jack’s copy of Carcassonne: The City; this isn’t one of the many expansions, but a standalone cousin to the ubiquitous tile-laying euro gateway game. I like Carcassonne quite a bit, and it sees a fair bit of time on the table at home – it’s one of the few games that my kids can play and, crucially, want to play. (Note: we play without farmers with the kids. Give them a few years…) So I was very happy to try the City variation, if only to play spot-the-difference.

It turned out to be a strange conceptual battle between the familiar, the novel and the needlessly confusing… but oh! How beautiful!

SPOILER ALERT: this is the end of the game.

SPOILER ALERT: this is at the end of the game.

Yes, it’s a very pretty game on the table. I mean, I think normal Carc is pretty, but this is something else when you enter the second phase and start building the city walls.

The first phase introduces the main bit of needless confusion: the brown and green colour scheme from Carcassonne is reversed. Green means markets, which hold a meeple until they’re completed; brown means residential areas, which retain their meeple in repose until the end-game scoring. This kept confusing me for at least two-thirds of the game. But with that comes the first novel mechanism: the only features that need to match at tile edges are roads. This has the benefit of making it much easier to complete markets (which can be achieved by simply butting them up squarely to a residential area), but that’s not necessarily something you want to do.

Why? Well, the second phase introduces the walls, which are built in sections every time a feature within the city is scored. Finish a market? Everyone builds a bit of wall. Complete a road? Everyone builds a bit of wall. And with walls come guards, who watch over the city in a straight line and score points for buildings of historical interest in their view. While this is a very interesting (and yes, visually attractive) addition, it does mean the game suddenly bogs down heavily. And while each player only has two possibilities for placing their wall piece, there’s all sorts of looking along lines and counting up possible points totals in order to avoid gifting a huge guard bonus to the next player. When you reach the third phase and each completed feature heralds two rounds of wall-building… it starts to feel a bit mechanically stodgy.

There are also little tweaks like roads scoring 1–2–3–8–10–12–…, meaning there’s a huge benefit to getting to four tiles on a road; also the fact that you can’t place a meeple to score a feature that will be completed by the tile you’re placing. Just a few extra things to bear in mind.

Olly fell behind slightly in points towards the end of the game, but he completely overhauled me in the final scoring of residential stewards (that’s farmers for those of you playing along at home), while Jack powered away to win by about ten points over Olly.

Looking back, I’ve used all sorts of negative words and phrases, but I did actually really enjoy the game. Yes, it’s fiddly and slow in places, and irritatingly familiar-yet-alien, but I’d absolutely play it again.

There was a quick round of Love Letter before Jack left (we played to four points, Jack winning 4–3–3 by virtue of Olly playing the Baron on my Countess with his Princess… meaning I was out and it was obvious to Jack’s Guard exactly which card Olly was holding) and then Graham joined Olly and me for Quantum. Olly had forewarned us about sticky, misshapen dice, but… wow. They really were manky things, like a fine layer of cheap strawberry jam had been permanently applied to each surface. Presumably this was part of the manufacturing process.

Petrochemical/confectionery mishaps aside, there was a lot to like about Quantum. It’s pretty straightforward, plays quickly and has a lot of interaction/conflict/in-yer-face-stuff going on throughout. It was almost over before we properly got started when Graham found the beauty of the 3–5 combo (use the special power of the 3-die to swap places with the 5-die, then easily move the 5-die into orbit with the 3-die for an instant required total of 8) and placed most of his quantum cubes in the early rounds, but then Olly and I kept him in check with a constant barrage of brutal attacks.

Graham probably felt a little ganged-up-on after he’d leapt ahead, but it just seems to be that sort of game. It’s a fairly tight little board for three players, giving it that “knife fight in a phone booth” feel. Because there was so much combat going on, my Dominance die (add one per combat victory) was slowly creeping up towards 6. With two cubes left to place, I managed to place both in one turn – one from battering a ship to death with my Battlestation thus pushing my Dominance up to 6, which grants an instant cube placement, and the last one from the 3–5 combo we’d seen Graham use in the early game. Instant win for me, even though I’d spent most of the game struggling to spot the right moves to make.

If Quantum had been a longer game, I don’t think I’d be that keen on it. But as an end-of-the-night, swingy, conflict-heavy, 45–60-minute space game, I think it hits the spot. Once Olly’s got some non-sticky replacement dice out of the publisher, it’ll be great.

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 14 September 2013

A relatively quick rundown of the last Newcastle Gamers session before the next one looms too near…

I started off with Bruges, one of Stefan Feld’s 2013 releases. It’s his twist on the card-tableau-building genre, with a little bit of board play (but only insofar as building small canals and moving a meeple up a single track). With eleventy-thousand different cards in the deck (well… somewhere around 150), it’s both highly replayable and highly baffling the first time round. I took to a strategy of populating as many houses as I could with as many high-scoring people as I could, while making sure a couple of them were “Underworld” types who would cause a little devastation and mayhem with my opponents, John S and Michael. This happened to work out rather nicely, and I pipped John to a very narrow victory.

Final score – Me: 46 / John: 45 / Michael: 38

I really enjoyed this one. It felt very Feld, but played much more quickly than most of his games. Second time round, I think I would have a better handle on what I was doing… which would probably result in me losing.

Next, the three of us played Trains. Its inaugural play at the previous session had been a hit with me and with my fellow players, so I was keen to get it on the table again. A slightly different mixture of cards was drawn from the Randomisers this time, but the Amusement Park was still in the mix, bringing huge boosts to buying power, and the Viaduct negated the extra costs of laying track in a city. We also had the Tourist Train, which (I think) is the only way to score VPs while the game is in progress.

I didn’t get off to a great start with my tracks and stations, so my strategy board-wise shifted to “wait for someone else to build a city up, then use the Viaduct to swoop in there as well, with a relatively low cost/Waste penalty”. Combined with snaffling shedloads of buildings (bringing me 24 VPs at game-end), this turned out to be a cracking strategy, and I ended up absolutely hammering the competition.

Final score – Me: 67 / Michael: 51 / John: 45

I’m not sure if my previous play gave me an advantage (we used the Osaka side of the board, so at least the map wasn’t the same), or if I just managed to strike lucky with my cards enough times to buy loads of buildings. Either way, it was enjoyed by all.

Indigo. What can I say about Indigo? It’s beautiful (see the image at the top of this post), it’s simple and it’s fun. It’s Reiner Knizia’s take on Tsuro-style path-laying games, and suffice to say that once the three of us had finished playing Michael’s copy, both John and I had vowed to get copies of our own… which I duly followed up on. I’ve already played it with my family, and it’s been a bit of a hit with them too. John pipped Michael and me by a single point: 9 / 8 / 8.

Love Letter was next, and we played with John’s fancy-pants new edition, featuring the original Japanese artwork and packaged in (shock, horror!)… a box, of all things. Michael stole John’s early lead for a tight victory, while I wallowed in third. I like this game a lot, but I’m not a good bluffer. John managed to target the Princess every time I held her, so I’ve clearly got some sort of horrendous tell. This is why I don’t play poker face-to-face.

John brought out his new copy of Coloretto, which is fast becoming a favourite filler at Newcastle Gamers. John’s is the 10th Anniversary Edition, which features the Russian edition’s artwork (slightly more garish than the original, and a bit clearer for colour recognition) and a gold wild-card with its own tweaked rule. We’d been joined by Amo and Peter, bringing us up to five players. I’ve always found Coloretto difficult to keep track of with more than three players, but I somehow managed to do much better than I thought I was doing… or perhaps everyone else did much worse… anyway, I took the win by a few points, with only one extra card counting for negative points.

I’d heard good things about No Thanks! before, so I was pleased to have it suggested as the next game. Only a couple of us were new to the game, but it’s so simple that we were up and running in no time. The combination of perfect information (everyone can see what cards everyone else has taken) and horrifyingly imperfect information (nobody knows exactly which cards are in the deck) makes for a tense little filler, full of decisions. I seemed to make the right sort of decisions, and I ended up with only a few cards (which is a good thing) and a large pile of plastic chips in my sweaty palm (also a good thing, apart from the sweat), easily ending up with the lowest score. Another win! I was on something of a roll.

Peter left, leaving four of us to play Last Will. Turned out to be a cracking game, this, combining the thematic twists of Brewster’s Millions and a classic MB game from my childhood, Go for Broke, with modern worker-placement and action-spending mechanics. I misjudged my early game a bit, slightly overwhelmed as I was with the cards and options in front of me, so I ended up with two properties (not a good thing, because although you can spend money on their upkeep, you have to sell them before the game ends, which means you get more money, which is the opposite of what you want in Last Will!) and I mistook horses for dogs. That’s right – I can’t tell the difference between outline-icons of horses and dogs. It’s a sort of ludotaxonomic blindness.

That early mistake aside, I did OK, settling into the rhythm of the game reasonably quickly. An early boost for me was the acquisition of an “Old Friend” (or something like that) card, which grants the owner an extra action on each turn. This left me able to choose to have fewer actions but more cards in each turn, knowing that I could use the extra action to make up the difference. A final spending flurry did leave me slightly in debt once I’d sold off my properties, but not as much as Michael, who finished up with a glorious minus £10. As I say, a corker of a game, and it seems well thought out with double-sided boards and extra side-boards to accommodate different numbers of players.

To finish the night off, the four of us played San Juan. It’s a bit of a classic for a very good reason, and I always enjoy it (I play it a lot on the iPad). Even though I had some terrible card draws this time, and I wasn’t able to get much of a production/trading engine going until very late in the game, it was still good fun. Michael absolutely destroyed everyone else (not literally, although I can see room for an expansion there), finishing with another glorious score – this time, 42 points.

And that was that. As ever, a great night of games.

[Apologies for the photo-austerity this time. There are a whole bunch on the G+ event page.]

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 31 August 2013

Nearly a year after my first session at Newcastle Gamers, I finally managed to bring along a newbie… but I made up for the slow build-up by being some sort of Pied Piper of Gaming and bringing three at once! My ex-colleague Ben (“ex” as of the previous day) brought along his dad Paul and sister Hannah, all well-versed in modern gaming, to sample the ludo-epicurean delights of Newcastle Gamers. As I arrived, they were standing and taking in the atmosphere of the pre-game setup routine (tables and chairs out, curt nodding, the metagame of “what shall we play first?”), so I ambled over and said hello. Paul had brought his copy of Shogun, which I’d fancied playing for quite a while, so we sat down as a foursome and got underway.

Paul and Ben had played Shogun quite a few times before, while Hannah and I were new to it, so it will come as no spoiler that I didn’t win. In fact, territory-wise I did very badly indeed, ending with only five provinces, but I had managed to build plenty of theatres and palaces for a reasonable number of VPs. Before the game had even begun, Paul and Ben agreed a sort of entente cordiale, allowing them to consolidate powerful empires across the eastern side of the board. Hannah proposed a similar pact to me, but I declined. Why? Well… I don’t know, really. It’s not something I’m used to in games – it’s usually very much everyone-for-themselves in the games I tend to play – so it felt a bit alien. I should probably try playing Diplomacy to get some practice in. It ended up being my downfall, and Hannah’s too. We were hammered from all sides, losing provinces not only to Paul and Ben, but to each other. Stuck in the middle, our empires dwindled away while the more experienced players expanded unchecked.

Just before the final peasant revolt. Several blue (Ben) and yellow (Paul) provinces fell back into the hands of the people, but not enough to change the outcome of the game. I was red, Hannah was purple.

Just before the final peasant revolt. Several blue (Ben) and yellow (Paul) provinces fell back into the hands of the people, but not enough to change the outcome of the game. I was red, Hannah was purple.

It’s a nicely constructed game, with a planning system reminiscent of Roborally (without the lasers) and a combat system involving chucking handfuls of coloured cubes through a tower full of layers and baffles, then picking out the victors from whatever manages to drop out of the bottom. It’s not my normal gaming territory, but it was good fun and didn’t outstay its welcome (a little over two hours after the rules explanation). Paul took victory, followed by Ben, then me (not too far behind) and Hannah bringing up the rear.

After a quick break for food, we stuck with the Japanese theme and I broke out my new copy of Trains. This is a deckbuilder, and not just any old deckbuilder – it’s essentially Dominion with a board. Many of the cards will be familiar to those who have played Dominion (and thankfully Paul and Hannah were very familiar with Dominion, so the rules explanation was pretty simple), given that their prices, values and actions are identical; they’ve just been renamed and given new artwork to fit in with the ‘train’ concept.

The board does give it a decent twist though, with the spatial interactions essentially removing the need for the Attack cards in Dominion. It becomes a game of area control… or possibly just area presence, given that no one can really ‘control’ an area per se. Paul and Ben set up their initial rail cubes on the eastern side of the Tokyo board (backed with the Osaka board for variety), while Hannah and I were clearly going to butt heads again on the western side. After quickly boxing Hannah in (while not strictly ‘boxing in’, once you’ve laid rails in a hex it becomes more expensive for another player to lay rails there too), I started trying to build stations and build into cities with other players in order to negate their VP advantage over me.

My deck went through a slow initial expansion, gently building up my buying power with Express Trains (Silver in Dominion) and a couple of Limited Express Trains (Gold) alongside a few Amusement Park cards, which allow you to double the buying power of a card you’ve played (there’s probably a Dominion equivalent, but I don’t know it). This meant that I could get quite a few Subway Excavation cards into my deck (very pricey to buy, but they remove all extra costs for building rails) so I could freely enter cities with other people’s rails in them and benefit from all their hard work. Meanwhile, Paul was creeping across the board to the west, Hannah was creeping east across my semi-barricade, and Ben was languishing on the opposite side of the board, trying to amass enough money in one hand to build rails into the VP-lucrative distant locations.

 

Cubes = rails. Sugar from Puerto Rico = stations. VPs gained before the final scoring = 0.

Cubes = rails. Sugar from Puerto Rico = stations. VPs gained before the final scoring = 0.

I felt like I’d gained a bit of an edge, so I built and built my rails until I laid the last one, at which point the game ended. No one had gained any points before the final scoring (there are only a few card types that allow VPs to be scored during the game, and they hadn’t been selected for this game), so it was all still to be seen. I ended up taking a comfortable-ish victory with around 45 points, while everyone else was in the mid-to-high-30s.

I really enjoyed Trains, and there’s a huge amount of replayability in the box. For each game, you select eight card types out of a total of thirty to be available in that game. By my calculations, there are nearly six million possible combinations of cards to play with. I’ll let you know when I’ve tried them all.

Another card game up next, and it was Fleet. I hadn’t played this for a while, and I’d actually only ever played it with two. I wasn’t particularly convinced with it for two players, but I’d been keen to try it with more for a long time, so the four of us remained at the table and started launching fishing boats. It’s very much in the vein of San Juan, with a tableau of cards (in this case fishing boats) being built, while the cards are also used as money, or can be played face down as ‘captains’ for launched vessels.

I was heavily affected by some bad draws early on in the game, and I struggled to get a fishing engine going, even with the Shrimp licence and its resultant cheap/free boat launches. Ben was in a similar boat (no pun intended), while Hannah and Paul raced ahead. The end came fairly quickly, and we counted up our totals.

Final score – Hannah: 63 / Paul: 62 / Me: 41 / Ben: 37

A single point in it at the top! It was a much more convincing game with four players, what with the auctions being a little more lively, but I still think I prefer the purity of San Juan, where every card is of equal monetary value.

Ben, Paul and Hannah had to drift off into the night at this point, so I sat down with Lloyd, Michael and Peter for Suburbia. (Peter may well actually be Piotr or another non-English variant – I think he’s Polish, but I didn’t get him to spell out his name. Apologies to you, Peter/Piotr/Pxxxx if you read this.) Again, I hadn’t played it for a while, and Lloyd and Michael were both new to the game, so I gave a brief rules run-down. Peter had played it once before, but Suburbia is one of those games where experience can really swing things your way, and given the number of times I’ve played this game, I had a big advantage. I know the pacing of the tile stacks, roughly when to switch from increasing income to increasing reputation and building residential areas, how to block opponents effectively… it wasn’t really a fair game.

Peter and I quickly built up our incomes, while Michael took an early lead in population (paying for it later in crippled income and reputation) and Lloyd repeatedly felt the cold hand of destitution on his borough. The end of the game came at just the right point for me, given that I’d just built the green residential tile that would qualify me for one of the end-game goals, and I’d totally tanked my income over the last few rounds, meaning I also qualified for my secret goal of having the lowest income at the end of the game.

One of the nice new Newcastle Gamers tables – ideal for things like Suburbia.

One of the nice new Newcastle Gamers tables – ideal for things like Suburbia.

I was already well ahead before the final scoring for goals and money, but a few goals later I was unreachable, even with Peter’s huge pile of cash.

Final score – Me: 133 / Peter: 71 / Lloyd: 67 / Michael: 48

I still like Suburbia, but I’m getting a bit of an expansion-itch. Will the upcoming Suburbia Inc add enough spice to keep me interested?

And then, to round things off late at night, why not play a game that relies heavily on memory, reasoning and deduction? Yes, it was Hanabi time. I played with Peter, Andrew and John F, with Peter and Andrew being totally new to the game. To cut a long story short, we scored 15 points. Not great, but at least we didn’t blow ourselves up.

That was the end of the night for me. The usual games of The Resistance had started up, the epic five-player game of Terra Mystica had ground to a close (I think they started while I was playing Trains) and I sallied forth into the night, not sure when I would next return.

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