Tag Archives: trajan

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.



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.


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


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.



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



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.



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.


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.



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.


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


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.


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


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.



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.

In August, There Were Games

Considering the general mayhem that August usually brings (school holidays being the main disruptor of sanity and routine), I managed to fit in a surprising amount of gaming. Among the usual family favourites like Ticket to RideIndigoCatan Junior and Forbidden Desert, I also introduced my eldest, J (now 9), to GIPF and we both indoctrinated his brother A (7) in the ways of Small World (in which they ganged up on me and A won his first ever game).

August’s Corbridge Gamers sessions started with a delivery from the hype-train: Scythe, which – like Jamey Stegmaier’s previous game Viticulture – I thought was fine and perfectly playable, yet completely unspectacular. Now, to be fair, I hadn’t quite got my head around exactly where the balance of VPs was going to come from, so I blithely bashed on towards my sixth star without thinking about expanding my territory and lost to John quite horribly (110–57). I mean, losing never bothers me and I would know what to do differently next time… but maybe my failure to grasp the importance of controlling hexes had dampened my opinion of the game somewhat?

Unspectacular gameplay, but fairly spectacular on the table – and we haven't even tried the enlarged side yet

Unspectacular gameplay, but fairly spectacular on the table – and we haven’t even tried the enlarged side yet

Well, skipping on to the last Newcastle Gamers session of August, I got the opportunity to play Scythe again, this time with five players instead of the Corbridge-standard two. I enjoyed it much more this time out, with a lot more going on in terms of interactions – at one point I was perfectly poised to swoop in and take the central Factory hex from John when Camo jumped in first and essentially shut me out for what turned out to be the rest of the game. Fun! (No, really.)

Five colours this time – a lot more to keep an eye on

Five colours this time – a lot more to keep an eye on

I ended up doing no better in terms of territories this time, but at least it wasn’t for want of trying. We ended up with quite a tight spread of points and a surprise victory for Olly, almost entirely by virtue of the fact he’d been hoarding cash to fulfil his secret objective card… and cash is VPs.

Final score – Olly: 59 / Pete: 54 / Me: 48 / Camo: 47 / John: 41

So… thoughts after two games? Yeah, it’s still pretty unspectacular. It’s like watching one of those lazy holodeck-based episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation: all the familiar elements are there and you’ll have a good time, but there’s something deeper missing and it leaves you feeling slightly unfulfilled. It reminds me a lot of Eclipse:

  • hex-based exploration (and some hex-to-hex routes inaccessible without certain technologies)
  • rush to a central important hex
  • hex control necessary for scoring and for producing resources
  • first-half buildup followed by second-half petty skirmishing for hex control
  • moving bits of wood from one place to another uncovers a thing and covers something else (I realise that’s a fundamental description of moving any bits of wood from one place to another, but if you’ve played the games you’ll know what I mean)

It’s mercifully shorter than Eclipse, and the main reason I don’t really play Eclipse is that I don’t enjoy it enough for the amount of time it takes, so I guess Scythe wins in that respect. It just doesn’t feel as elegant as Eclipse… or a lot of other games, frankly. I think it’s trying to do one or two things too many and it feels like a muddled experience. Oh, and the board design is a nightmare in poor lighting. Still, I’d play it again, although the alternatives would have to be reasonably poor to make me go for it.

Back to Corbridge Gamers and the inaugural (and still only-so-far) run of Guilds of London, Tony Boydell’s long-gestated area-control-with-confusing-iconography game. I’m entirely reserving judgement and comment on this game until I’ve played it more than once and with more than two players, because (a) the iconography on the cards is a complete bastard and the first game is almost entirely spent trying to figure out what each card in your hand does; and (b) the two-player game is quite possibly not much like the “real” three/four-player version.

It's quite pretty in a way, especially that massive horde of my red liverymen

It’s quite pretty in a way, especially that massive horde of my red liverymen in the Guildhall

Don’t get me wrong: we both really enjoyed the actual mechanisms and the wealth of options and decisions available with each hand of (baffling) cards. It’s just that the two-player version turns into a swingy cat-and-mouse round the scoring track. The VP leader is first player for the round, which is a disadvantage, meaning the second player is more likely to score more points and jump into the lead, thus leaving themselves at a disadvantage and likely to be overtaken again in the next round… and so on. No great surprise that the scores were close (70–68), but the winner could have been either of us.

More precisely though, it was me.

We also played Brew Crafters at John’s table this month, which was possibly the best-received Corbridge game of August in my eyes. It’s so much like Agricola that if Uwe Rosenberg wasn’t reportedly a fan of the game, I’d be expecting litigation. That makes it really easy to teach an Agricola veteran though: it’s just “these are resource-accumulating action spaces, these are Occupations, these are pretty much Improvements, let’s go”. OK, there’s a slight wrinkle with the two types of worker and the “brewery phase”, but it’s very Rosenberg.

The randomised available beers pointed me towards brewing ales for big points (8 points per brew of Belgian Quad), whereas John’s first move had telegraphed his intention to at least start off with the porters. It took a while to get going (and money is so horribly, horribly tight in Brew Crafters) but I managed to crank out a few high-value ales and over-hop a few for extra points with the Hop Infusers. My research track actions left me gaining even more extra points just for brewing beer, but I wasn’t sure if John’s more-beers-but-lower-value approach was going to squeeze me out in the final reckoning. As it turned out, I got the win 67–59; those Hop Infusers were great.

My brewery by the end of the game

My brewery by the end of the game

My only particular criticism of Brew Crafters is that the artwork is a bit… rubbish. If only Klemens Franz had put his hands on it. *sigh* You can’t have everything, I suppose. Oh, and I suppose my other criticism is that it isn’t Agricola, and if you can play Agricola… why play Brew Crafters? I guess it’s just down to thematic preference.

Let nobody try to convince you that Brew Crafters is a cuddly version of Agricola though – it’s even harder to pay your workers in BC than to feed your family in ‘Gric. So horribly, horribly, awfully, terribly tight.

Continuing this non-chronological skip through the month, the first Newcastle Gamers session started with Brass and ended with Trajan… with nothing in between. They didn’t run long; there just weren’t people available to start something new after Trajan so I called it a night. Still, any night with two of my favourite games is a win.

Even if I lost both of them.

The second Newcastle Gamers session contained the five-player Scythe experience mentioned earlier, but it started with Splotter Spellen’s Duck Dealer. I think it’s fair to say that Duck Dealer somewhat lived up to my expectations, in that I couldn’t even slightly get my head round it. I found it so opaque (and so difficult to read the board state) that I think I’d have to play it about five times to start to understand it. The thing is, I don’t want to play it even a second time, let alone the other three.

It’s like they took the beautiful simplicity of Roads & Boats and decided to remove all logic from the resource-crafting tree (rather than “some boards and stone makes a building”, you have “plastic beads and blue paint makes diet pills” and “rubber ducks plus phones makes radios”) so it takes an extra cognitive leap to understand. Then they made the movement more complex (each Move action might get you 8 points of movement, but the costs of interplanetary movement might be 12… or maybe 9 if you put some cubes on that route) and introduced a spaceship-upgrading system that slows you down as you add more cargo space and/or crew to the ship.

Maybe I’m just a bit dim, but it was about five things too many to take in at once and I couldn’t figure out what I should be doing when. That was compounded by graphic design that was inconsistent (some pieces showed the VPs you’d score by building them; others didn’t, so I didn’t remember that I could score by building those things) and just, well… hideous. I can forgive hideous design if the underlying game is enjoyable (see every other Splotter game I’ve played), but when the hideous design actually gets in the way of understanding what the hell’s going on, I’m entirely unforgiving.

Anyway, after initially realising that he’d entirely screwed himself over with his starting choice (classic Splotter there), Olly went on to unrealise that and win the game in spectacular style, 90–48–40–36. That’s my 36 at the end there. It would have been 30 if I hadn’t seen the end of the game coming and ditched my plan (such as it was) to scramble up a measly 6 points by selling satellites made from solar panels and telephones.

After being underwhelmed by Duck Dealer and Scythe, it was a delight to try Pi mal Pflaumen for the first time. Adding all sorts of fruity twists to the trick-taking genre, PmP is a lot thinkier than it might at first seem. Every card has not only a number (dictating who wins the trick and gets first choice of the played cards), but also a fruit and usually a special action or scoring opportunity. That means there’s a bunch of agonising over whether to play this card because it’s a high number or this one because I want that fruit but hold on if I play that fruit the number means I’ll lose the trick and Camo will take it first because it’s got the watchdog action on it, so maybe I should play this card with the slightly rubbish scoring combo on it and hope it’s the highest card… and I’ll throw a bunch of pi cards in with it to boost the value.

Every trick’s like that. And that’s great. I hope to play it a lot more.

Final score – John: 43 / Me: 42 / Olly: 38 / Camo: 35

A quick August mention to my week’s holiday in the Lake District, where six games of the wonderful Codenames were played with my wife and her parents. Of course, it’s a hugely fun game, but it’s also an interesting window into the way people think. With people you’ve known very well for over twenty years, it turns out it’s both hilarious and faintly worrying when you find out what their thought processes were.

“Location, 2” (on a table with HOLLYWOOD and a whole bunch of place names)

“Ummmm… POST!”

“No, that’s the other team’s… and in god’s name, why POST?”

“Because the post has to go to a location, doesn’t it?”

My view from the top of Honister Pass, looking east, having just ridden up it from the west – literally the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done

My view from the top of Honister Pass, looking east, having just cycled up it from the west

T for Two – March Gaming Roundup

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

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

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

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

Final score – John: 74 / Me: 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final score – Me: 113 / John: 99

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

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

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

Final score – John: 177 / Me: 154

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

By far the loveliest of all the COIN boards.

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

More soon! Hopefully!

September Gaming Roundup

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

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

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

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

Our view for the weekend

Our view for the weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of Trajan

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

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

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

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

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

Meandering Saunter to the Rhine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 13 December 2014


It was about time Twilight Struggle hit the table again. Although I’ve played six or seven games over email (using the VASSAL engine), I hadn’t had a face-to-face game since the first time I played it back in May 2013. Much as I love the game by email – and I do love it – it’s really not the same as sitting down opposite an opponent and trying to judge their bluffs and misdirections.

Olly had expressed an interest in trying The Beautiful Game for quite a while, so we finally took the opportunity to commandeer a club table and give it a go. There are two schools of thought regarding taking sides in a teaching game: (a) the newbie should play the USA, so the old hand can show them how the USSR drives the game in the early turns – it will probably be a short game, but it will be a fairly ‘normal’ game; or (b) the newbie should play the USSR, so they have a greater chance of not being utterly crushed in the early turns – it should be a longer game, but the USSR might leave openings for the experienced USA player.

I opted for (c): “Which side do you want?” As it turned out, Olly picked USSR, so I guessed we were in for a longer, more unpredictable game, which suits me just fine. I’m by no means a brilliant player, so I expected us to be fairly even in the early game. As it turned out, I had some horrendous US hands early on (nearly all USSR events, without the Ops values to make up for it), so although I notched the score up to 14 VPs at one point with some solid Domination in Asia, Olly managed to pull back a lot of points mainly by attempting a Europe-Control win. He was a couple of cards away from pulling it off after an excellently orchestrated round of Realignment Rolls in West Germany, but a lucky Coup in Italy (yes, DEFCON had remained high enough to pull that off!) meant I took back a Battleground country. That denied him the win when he played Europe Scoring, but he did score a metric shedload of points. Unfortunately for Olly, that came in Turn 4, meaning Europe Scoring would be in the discard pile for several turns to come.

Trouble at t'mill... or, more accurately, crisis averted in Europe

Trouble at t’mill… or, more accurately, crisis averted in Europe

Meanwhile, Asia and Central America were swinging round to the USSR as well (after a lengthy Panamanian Coup / counter-Coup / Brush War debacle), but the Middle East was fairly solidly in support of the USA (no danger of OPEC points for USSR) and I had grand plans for South America. DEFCON was in my ‘happy-zone’ of 2–3 and I was starting to see some excellent USA events coming out in both hands.

It all came to a sudden end in the headline phase of Turn 6. DEFCON had just risen from 2 to 3, as per the start-of-turn routine, and I played Junta for my headline card, in order to Coup the last Battleground in South America (having South America Scoring in my hand), although I had the option of playing the Coup elsewhere if Olly played a DEFCON-dropping card in his headline. It turned out to be the other way round: Olly played Olympic Games, so my Junta triggered first. I played the Coup in Venezuela, taking Control of South America and dropping DEFCON to 2… then I boycotted the Olympics and DEFCON dropped to 1 when Olly was the phasing player. Instant win for me.

The tide may have turned eventually, but it's always nice to get the insta-win

The tide may have turned eventually (check out South America), but it’s always nice to get the insta-win rather than crawl all the way back up from 2 VPs

Twilight Struggle‘s always a pleasure, and Olly seemed to enjoy it quite a bit (while appreciating that the game depends enormously on experience and knowledge of the cards), so I may make a regular opponent of him yet. With the digital implementation supposedly just a few months away, I imagine there’ll be quite a surge of interest in the game, alongside a sudden increase in playing ability across the world as thousands of gamers can get more games under their belts in less time. Maybe it’ll become a regular feature at various Newcastle Gamers tables.

After a quick round of Olly’s long-forgotten copy of Roman-themed trick-taking game Triumvirate (verdict: meh) and a similarly quick game of Hive with Pillbug expansion (I won, but only after Olly pointed out my stupid move, so it’s a moral draw), it was time for another bit of mental workout as John Sh joined us for three-player Trajan.

Astonishingly, I pulled off the win with a Beetle on top of my Queen. That's usually the kiss of death for me.

Astonishingly, I pulled off the win with a Beetle on top of my Queen. That’s usually the kiss of death for me.

Trajan remains my favourite of the Stefan Feld games I’ve played, and it’s all because of the mancala. At first utterly brain-melting, after a few plays the mancala mechanism becomes a beautiful engine of selection and planning, allowing the slightly more experienced player the opportunity to line up several actions in a row. And I am that slightly more experienced player, with a few face-to-face games and substantially more web-based games under my belt. Unfortunately, for all my elegant planning and diabolical scheming, the game just didn’t work out for me.

I was trying something a little different to my usual strategies, this time mainly concentrating on instant gratification and VP bonuses wherever possible (and largely ignoring senate votes) rather than spending the early game building an engine for a later payoff. That meant I raced ahead in the first quarter, kept the lead in the second, lost it in the third and came last by the end of the game. It’s nice to try different strategies now and then, but the lesson was learned.

John looked in trouble early on, but saved up to play a blinding bit of shipping and remained strong in the senate to narrowly retain his margin over me in the final tally.

Olly, meanwhile, having never played before, exercised his long-standing Feld-affinity and did spend the early game collecting +2 markers and the corresponding extra-action markers to take several bouts of “three actions in one turn”. That set him up nicely with Trajan tiles and allowed him to collect plenty of forum/extra-action tiles, both in the forum itself and across the military areas. He powered into an unassailable lead through the third and fourth quarters, with a huge tableau of shipped commodity cards only adding to his bonus points.

Final score – Olly: 134 / John: 101 / Me: 96

A shameful showing for me! And I only did that well because I’d picked up a couple of wild-card construction tiles earlier on, giving me 20 bonus VPs in the final scoring. *shakes head*

Note the foamboard insert bits

Note the foamboard insert bits, including the card draw- and discard-pile holder to the left

Another excellent session. The next Newcastle Gamers (all-day!) session falls two days after Christmas Day, so I imagine turnout will be low and I certainly won’t make it. I’ve got some plans for gaming over the Christmas period though, so there’ll hopefully be more on here before the New Year.

All photos by Olly, 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, but this month’s second session is an all-dayer (10:00 am until late on 27 December) and there’s an extra one on 3 January (also 10:00 am until late), so even more opportunities for gaming!

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 25 May 2013

In the two weeks since the last Newcastle Gamers session, the four of us who played Agricola and own iPads (plus Graham) have been playing a game of iOS Eclipse online. We’ve got about halfway through in those two weeks, and it’s turning out to be an interesting little game. (That’s code for “I’m about to be royally shafted in galactic combat”.) Pete sent out a request for a real-life game at Newcastle Gamers, and I was happy to join the fray. This was partly down to the fact that I knew I’d be late to the session (and thus coincide nicely with the arrival of John Si for Eclipse at 5-ish) and partly because I’ve got a lot more comfortable with Eclipse since the iPad version came out a few weeks ago.

The only other time I’ve played Eclipse, I didn’t have a good game. Having blasted through a fair few games on the iPad, I’ve got a much better handle on the pace of the game, how to manage resources and when to play aggressively/defensively, so I entered this game feeling relatively confident. We distributed player boards randomly, then each chose whether to play as humans or aliens; clockwise around the table, we ended up with:

  • Me (black): human
  • Camo (red): human
  • Pete (green): human
  • John Si (yellow): aliens – Descendants of Draco
  • Graham (white): aliens – Mechanema

John had ummed and ahhed about using the Descendants over the humans, but he went with it in the end. The Descendants can’t engage in battle with Ancients, so their chances of good reputation tile draws are lower (fewer battles throughout the game), but they can coexist, influence and colonise in tiles with Ancients, and gain 1 VP per Ancient ship left on the table at the end of the game.

We got underway with the usual rounds of exploring and researching, and we all realised the other advantage of the Descendants – when exploring, they draw two tiles and choose which one they want to keep. This meant John could pick and choose systems with major benefits (he ended up maxing out his money income by round 6 or so), and he pushed towards Pete’s green territory quite quickly. Pete, on the other hand, had some dreadful tile draws, leaving him very short of money and desperately needing to expand out into others’ territory. I struck up a diplomatic agreement with Camo to my left (with absolutely no intention of sticking to it, but I hoped to lull him into a false sense of security), while Graham’s tile draws and orientations set up a wall between us on my right. Neither of us were heavily drawing science planets, so chances were that neither of us would be able to afford the Wormhole Generator technology – I felt safe on that side.

Pete geared up his ships and pushed out, engaging Camo, John and me (and maybe an Ancient ship). He was beaten back every single time – mainly through extreme bad luck on the dice rolls – leaving him battered, bruised and insolvent. By round 4, Pete realised his actions had left him completely unable to afford his empire’s upkeep, and he had to uninfluence all his sectors and resign from the game. So then we were four. Meanwhile, I’d moved round to block Camo’s exit from his corner of the galaxy and invaded his home sector, John was spreading like a disease across the far side of the table and Graham was in his own little world, surrounded by Ancients and building up a fairly fearsome armada of souped-up dreadnoughts.

I'm just about to reduce Camo to a red smear across the bottom corner of the table. Note John's expanding yellowness across the back.

I’m just about to reduce Camo to a red smear across the bottom corner of the table. Note John’s expanding yellowness across the back.

I was still very science-poor, so it was a lucky set of circumstances that allowed me to blast Camo into smithereens somewhere around round 6, leading to him also resigning from the game. John and Graham were doing much better in the technology race, but Graham made what turned out to be a grave error – Plasma Missiles came up for purchase and he could afford them, but he didn’t take them. Straight away, John leapt on them and ended up kitting out his dreadnought blueprint with four Plasma Missile tiles. That’s eight dice per ship, dealing two damage per hit, firing before anything else happens in combat. Combined with the +3 and +1 computers, those missiles were hitting on a roll of 2 or more on a D6 by the end of the game. John’s dreadnoughts had become unstoppable. They literally dreaded nought.

Having dealt with the red menace, I concentrated on bolstering my front line. John was clearly going to take the galactic core with his mega-über-dreadnoughts, and it looked like he and Graham might have a face-off. They were certainly both gearing up for heavy battle, so I quietly slipped a few souped-up cruisers round the side and towards Pete’s old home sector, now occupied by John. He responded in kind, making a run for my home sector to try to deny me those 3 VPs. John’s huge empire had left him overstretched for influence discs, even with Quantum Grid and Advanced Robotics (granting three extra discs), so he didn’t have much opportunity to defend himself from me. In the final round, I managed to successfully defend my home sector; I also got lucky and took a sector from John. At this point, I influenced the sector and placed colony ships. There was still one battle to go for me, in a sector with 3 VPs for ownership and a discovery tile worth 2 VP under an Ancient ship. To win, I’d have to defeat not only John’s cruiser but also the Ancient ship, retaining my damage from the battle with John. I didn’t fancy my chances, which was why I’d influenced the sector I’d just won. I lucked out again though, meaning I could have influenced that sector and taken more VPs.

The final round, with the last battle still to play out

Near the game end, with battles still to play out

I’d done really well with reputation tiles from battles (ending up with two 3s and two 4s), and I’d been lucky with drawing discovery sectors (giving me 6 VPs), and with my final push I ended up scoring really well. Camo returned to the table to do the final tally…

Final scores – Me: 37 / John: 36 / Graham: 25 / (Camo and Pete both on 6)

Wahey! A win! Handshakes all round!

But… wait! We forgot the Traitor card. The one I picked up in round 2 or 3 for stabbing Camo in the back. That’s -2 VPs for me. BOOOO. Let’s try that again…

Final scores – John: 36 / Me: 35 / Graham: 25 / (Camo and Pete both on 6)

A win for John, and a well played win at that. I actually lost in three different ways:

  • Traitor card for -2 VPs;
  • I drew Conformal Drive on a discovery tile early on and took the tech rather than the 2 VPs, but I couldn’t power it at the time so it was left on my board. I never got the chance to fit it, so it was a wasted tile;
  • Had I influenced the final sector I won instead of the previous one, I would have had several more points.

This game of Eclipse played out much better than my previous one, but although I’ve come to accept the dice-based combat, the luck of the sector tile draw still niggled at me. That’s what pushed Pete out of the game so early on, and I’m not keen on player elimination. I was so short of science income that I couldn’t compete with John in the arms race, so it was down to blind dice-rolling luck that I wasn’t reduced to dust. And when I can nearly win a game through blind luck… that just doesn’t sit right with me. Still, I had an excellent time playing. The four hours flew by.

Blind luck was exchanged for “you’ve only got yourself to blame” in my other game of the night, Trajan. A recent acquisition of mine, this feels like the stereotypical “points salad” Stefan Feld game, apart from one key factor: the mancala. On your turn, rather than rolling dice or playing cards, you select your action by moving coloured “action markers” around the six bowls of a mancala printed on your personal player board. The six bowls each relate to an action, which each relate to a region on the main board: military, construction, seaport, forum, senate and the eponymous emperor. (That’s what the rulebook says, anyway. In reality, this is the embodiment of the wafer-thin theme in a eurogame. Even the rulebook doesn’t attempt to disguise it much.)

How much choice you’ll actually get over which action you take is entirely up to how you manipulate the action markers around your six bowls. Given that this was the first game for three of us (Lloyd, Jon and John Sh) and the first real-life game for me (I’ve played a few on Boîte à Jeux), we generally didn’t do very well at getting what we wanted out of the bowls. It’s a skill in itself, and the rulebook makes a point of saying that your first game will be very much a learning experience. It’ll all get better with time.

Yes, there are genuinely four distinct player colours there: red, green, blue and brown. Seriously. Who in their right mind makes red, green and brown three of the four player colours?

Bits! Bits everywhere!

There’s not a huge amount to say about Trajan, except that I really, really liked it. There’s no emergent narrative. There’s little player interaction. There’s barely any notion of theme. I tried to tack on some extra theme during the rules explanation… at the end of the day, it’s just points, points, points. But it’s really engaging. The pace and length of the game is controlled by the number of action markers moved by each player on their turn, but even if you slow things right down, there’s still not enough time to do everything you want to do. Perfect euro frustration.

I failed to prioritise the senate, meaning I didn’t pick up many tiles to grant me scoring bonuses at the end of the game. That meant I had to rely on picking up those points, points, points all the way through. I’d made an early grab in the construction area, so I knew I had a 20-point bonus tied up for final scoring. Making sure I satisfied the people’s demands for bread, games and religion (re-themed as either rocket propulsion or flame-throwers in our game) became paramount to maintaining the points I had, and the biggest penalty I picked up was 4 VP. But in the last few rounds, Jon went nuts for shipping, bringing in point after point after point, and it just got him the game.

Final scores – Jon: 122 / Me: 120 / Lloyd: 102 / John Sh: 93-ish (thereabouts)

Great game. I was concerned it might outstay its welcome, but after 20 minutes or so of rules explanation, the game ran for only about two hours. And it was very logical to explain; just like Feld’s Castles of Burgundy, what initially seems like a terrifying plethora of components, rules and options quickly boils down to a few semi-intuitive concepts. The only (very minor) quibble I have with Trajan is the sheer number of components and the fiddliness of setup. There are 125 bits of wood, 60 cards and 214 card tiles (in nine different varieties which all need sorting into various piles). It’s not enough to put me off, but it might be enough to put someone off when they see all the different bits coming out of the box. Also, in a two-fingered gesture to colour-blind people the world over, the four player colours are red, green, brown and blue. In poor light (and the bulb had blown in our corner of the room), I struggle to tell the difference between the red and brown, or between the green and brown. I can (thankfully) tell red from green, but I know there are people with blue–green problems. Surely publishers are aware of the problems of colour recognition? Surely black, white, red and yellow will solve colour problems for all but the most heavily afflicted?

And that was that. Midnight had been and gone, so I headed for home. Only two games played, but both great in different ways. Eclipse was a sprawling epic with loads of good table-talk, while Trajan was a heads-down brain-melter. A very good night of games – to be very quickly followed by another excellent evening of gaming, more on which later…

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!