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Spring Games Weekend 2016

Last weekend was the spring 2016 instalment of the biannual “weekend away playing games in a bunkhouse”, featuring John Sh (of Corbridge Gamers) for the first time and lacking John Si, even though he’d organised the whole thing as usual. We also lost regular attendee Ben at the last minute, due to a situation involving train tickets, credit cards and flatmates.

We kicked off Friday afternoon in the usual “quick, light games while people are arriving” style with Camel Up, this time with the extended racetrack and supporting dice, just to spice things up a little. After spending most of the game thinking I had it in the bag, Graham R completely overhauled me in the final scoring, getting 8 Egyptian pounds in each of the “overall winner” and “overall loser” betting.

Final score – Graham R: 40 / Me: 33 / Graham B: 29 / Olly: 20 / Ali: 17 / Camo: 11

With all likely interested people present, four of us settled into 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties for the rest of the day. It actually wasn’t that long in the playing (somewhere around the seven-hour mark), but rules explanation was lengthy and intense and we broke off for Ali to cook for everyone, as well as to eat. 1862 is a really small, tight map with up to sixteen companies fighting it out in East Anglia; with great leniency in terms of forced train purchases and company refinancing, it’s much more a route-engineering game than a stock-market-manipulation game, so it was a nice change of pace from 1830.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies.

The beginning of the game. Not many hexes; far too many companies. And no, it’s not winning any graphic design awards, but it’s 18xx so no one cares.

Financial leniency doesn’t mean rules simplicity though, with each company potentially being either chartered (via an auction in the Parliament Round and fully capitalised) or non-chartered (started by buying shares in the typical 18xx way, but only partially capitalised), and each one having a random permit to run only one type of train (Freight, Local or Express, with Local being the most like the standard 1830 sort of train and Freight being… genuinely a bit weird). Coupling all that with rules for company mergers and acquisitions, it felt a bit daunting to begin with, but we quickly hit the usual sort of rhythm.

The game opens with two Parliament Rounds, which we all took as a sort of indication that we should probably start two chartered companies each. Well, maybe we shouldn’t have in reality – starting two chartered companies in the opening of a four-player game means setting a par price at the very low end of the spectrum (both of mine were at £54, on the £54–100 scale), which came back to bite me in the arse royally towards the end of the game.

With eight companies started in the opening minutes of the game, there was a massive train rush and we hit the green tiles very quickly. To be honest, the train rush never stopped; I’d be surprised if we played more than seven or eight whole rounds in the entire game, so quickly were the companies ploughing through the pile of trains. I spent much of the early game (or, really, much of the game) deliberately blocking people from my lucrative routes and keeping them away from the juiciest connections near me, which meant my companies (L&H running Freight trains, FDR running Express) were among the highest earners in the early game.

Talking of blocking, it was a key component of this game. Combinations of tile choice and station token placement meant that the board was essentially divided into a north half and south half, with only a couple of railroads able to run through the division. I don’t think any of us twigged early enough that “normal” cities (i.e. without special named tiles) didn’t get any bigger than two station spots, so congestion was guaranteed on this tiny map.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds.

Coming into the final set of operating rounds, just after the collapse of the FDR.

There were a few mergers and a fair few bouts of refinancing in order to be able to afford trains, but I got bitten heavily just before the end of the game when there was an even faster rush through the last few train types. My FDR found itself with neither a train nor much money. Because the opening par price had been set at £54, refinancing would only bring in £540 and that was nowhere near enough for an £800 train. That meant the FDR was bankrupt and folded immediately. Disaster – that was my big earner. If I’d withheld revenue just once, I think I could have managed, but the train rush really was that fast. I went from feeling safe to utterly destroyed.

That was the end of my game, really. I think the FDR collapsed in the last set of normal ORs, and the final set (once the first H train had been bought) were simply “work out your revenue and get it three times”. Graham had played the centre of the map really nicely (he could run trains through that central divide I mentioned), but Ali had worked well to overcome all my blocking manoeuvres and he was director of three pretty good earners by the end and had a large portfolio of other shares. It was pretty obvious he’d taken the win, but the margins weren’t clear until the final reckoning.

Final score – Ali: £7835 / Graham B: £6413 / Olly: £5949 / Me: £5705

A decisive victory, and a cracking game. Really enjoyed this one, even though we didn’t finish until after 1 am.

Late finish, bad night’s sleep and woken at the crack of dawn by road noise and daylight (both things I’m unused to at home) meant my brain was pretty frazzled on the Saturday morning. I wasn’t the only one, and much of the day was spent on lighter fare.

John, Olly, Camo and I started with Kingdom Builder, with loads of oddities from the Big Box edition. Wagons, boats, soldiers… it was no surprise that I came in last, with John’s win nearly doubling my 43 points. I nearly made it up in The King of Frontier, but a rough tile draw (and John’s good fortune with the tiles) meant I came in just two points behind his winning 39.

Graham R joined us for Keyflower, in which he schooled us all on his first play (just like Camel Up the day before) by getting a tile that scored for every good on it and just piling those goods on. Olly managed to get close, but the rest of us… well… see for yourself:

Final score – Graham R: 80 / Olly: 70 / John: 45 / Me: 44 / Camo: 26

My dismal little village.

My comparatively dismal little village.

Terra Mystica took up what felt like the bulk of the afternoon, but it was only 2.5 hours, so it might just have taken up the bulk of my brain power for the afternoon. Graham R was replaced by Graham B, and Camo by Ali. Playing the Dwarves for the first time was interesting – tunnelling is great, not only for building further afield but also for just getting 4 points every time. Olly’s Nomads had the “sandstorm” power, allowing for an extra build once per round (and he built his Stronghold in the first round, so he got plenty of use out of that power) so it was nigh-on impossible to keep up with him for the largest-settlement bonus at the end of the game. Didn’t stop me trying though, so I at least ended up in second place for that competition.

Ali didn’t get his Witches’ Stronghold built until much later on, so he couldn’t get much use out of his flying power, although he did build a few towns and get the bonus points for doing so as Witches. John’s Mermaids were terrifyingly agile when it came to spreading around the board, but I largely concentrated on consolidating one large settlement and racking up the tunnelling points.

The end of the game.

The end of the game. Dwarves (grey) clearly stuck to the bottom-right corner. Halflings (brown) don’t look too intimidating on the board, but…

As I can imagine often happens, I regretted a couple of late decisions regarding losing VPs to gain Power (I really should have taken the Power), but I don’t think it would have greatly affected the final result, even though it turned out very tight indeed. In a clear sign of a Well Balanced Game, there was an eight-point spread across five players.

Final score – Graham: 97 / Me: 94 / Ali: 93 / Olly: 91 / John: 89

Great stuff – I’d been wondering how it would play with more than two, and I’m glad it turned out to be just as excellent.

After Paperclip Railways (so tired that I have no idea what happened or how I drew for first place with Olly – losing on the tie break), Trans Europa (a runaway win, but at least this one’s really simple) and a meal, Graham B, Ali and I settled into Tigris & Euphrates for the rest of the evening. I’d played the old iOS version a fair bit and Graham knew the game, but Ali has played T&E hundreds of times since it first came out 19 years ago. For reasons of table space and novelty value, we played on my new Fantasy Flight edition rather than Ali’s German first edition. (I think the new leaders are easier to read on the table, but the plastic monuments are just horrible. Thankfully, in two games, we only had one monument on the board.)

It's Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

It’s Tigris & Euphrates, but not as we know it.

With his experience, Ali vigorously schooled us in the first (relatively quick) game (13/6/6), so we reset and played again. This time we were more cautious, although we all started out fairly close together in the middle of the board and there were a lot of conflicts. Graham came out on top in quite a few of them, which boosted his scores a fair bit and he took the win, 12/8/8.

Nobody makes games like Tigris & Euphrates any more, which is kind of a shame, but at the same time it’s hard to improve on that mixture of points-accumulation and insane aggression. Maybe nobody needs to make games like this any more. Knizia got it right the first time.

At the point where we should have gone to bed, we played Splendor. Graham’s played this a lot more than Ali or I have, so Graham’s 19/7/6 win wasn’t a surprise.

After sleeping like the dead, we didn’t have long before being turfed out on the Sunday morning so Graham, Ali and I were joined by Camo to continue our “classic aggressive-euro Knizia in FFG edition” theme with Samurai. Ali and I both felt the pain of the tile draw, although I managed to do OK for castles. It wasn’t quite OK enough; tying with Camo, no one took the scoring tile for castles. He and Graham took one scoring tile each so it went to the first tiebreaker, with Camo winning on most other pieces won.

We couldn’t go an entire day without a train game, so five of us had a last-minute bash at Paris Connection / SNCF. It turned out a bit odd, with one colour not getting off 0 on the stock value track, one on 5 and the other four all on 10. That meant high chances of ties, and indeed…

Final score – Me: 100 / Graham B: 100 / Graham R: 95 / Olly: 90 / James: 90

With no tiebreaker in the rules, a shared victory was an excellent way to end an excellent weekend of excellent games with excellent people. Roll on the next one!

Spring 2014 Games Weekend

I was delighted to be invited by John Si (occasional Newcastle Gamers attendee and regular iOS Agricola antagonist) to his biannual gaming weekend away. Fifteen guys, a huge pile of games and 48 hours in a large building – how could I say no? Well, health reasons, yes. But I’ve been on a largely upward recovery trajectory recently, so I committed myself and trundled down to the North Pennines for what turned out to be a great weekend of gaming. I won’t go into huge detail about each game I played, but I’ll certainly relate a few highlights.

Looking back, I realise that I only played one game that was new to me (Saboteur), which is probably a good thing. It was while playing that game that I realised I’d simply run out of energy to absorb or retain information. I couldn’t remember who’d done what; I couldn’t even remember if I was a saboteur or not. It was a handy reminder that I still really need to pace myself exertion-wise, so that was the point that I dragged myself off for a nap.

Space Empires: 4X

This was being mooted just after I’d arrived on Friday evening and I knew the game well enough (from solo plays) to just jump in and get on with it. It’s entirely and unashamedly a hex-and-counter wargame (with a bit of exploration and empire-building on the side), so it’s not the sort of thing that gets played often at sessions like Newcastle Gamers; it needs the right players at the right time in the right place. We had the players; we had the time; we had the place. Ben and I kept each other in check rules-wise while attempting to convey the key aspects to new players Renny and Graham as we went along.

There’s a surprisingly different feel from the solo scenarios (or maybe it’s not so surprising…) when playing against three opponents. With everyone pursuing their own personal routes up the tech tree, it’s a real guessing game in the early stages, with wonderful moments of revelation when someone trundles into your empire and reveals what you thought was a scout ship… and it turns out to be a battlecruiser. One key aspect you need to get your head around is the sheer scale of the game: with most early-built ships moving just one hex per movement, you can send one out towards an enemy empire, confident in its awesome firepower and defensive capabilities… and by the time it arrives two or three rounds later, the opponent has teched up and completely outgunned you so your previously amazing battlecruiser is dashed against the wall like a spacefaring water balloon.

Nearing the end: my Red empire is pushing the "Bringers of Fear" fleet towards Graham's flailing Blue empire, while Renny's Yellow empire pokes and prods Blue's other border and Ben's Greens just kind of... sit there.

Nearing the end: my Red empire is pushing the “Bringers of Fear” fleet towards Graham’s flailing Blue empire, while Renny’s Yellow empire pokes and prods Blue’s other border and Ben’s Greens just kind of… sit there. This is the sort of game that inspires looks of awe, terror and respect from passersby. It has secret spreadsheets, for heaven’s sake!

I got a solid economic foundation early in the game, affording me the ability to level up in ship size by one level per round, until I was cranking out battleships and dreadnoughts in every economic phase. Graham was very unlucky in exploring deep space, losing ship after ship to “Danger!” counters, while Ben and I were largely surrounded by Black Holes. (They formed a useful funnel through which we were generally reluctant to attack each other, after a few early skirmishes involving Ben brutally bombarding my innocent civilian colony. Won’t somebody think of the children?)

After a few rounds of general stand-off, I tooled up and headed into Blue territory. Even though Graham had teched up by that point and built dreadnoughts with attack and defence tech bonuses (yowch!), there was little he could do against my seven-ship fleet of battleships and dreadnoughts. Victory (achieved by destroying another player’s homeworld) was within my grasp but by this point we’d been playing for six hours and it was well after midnight, so we stopped and resolved to finish things off in the morning.

In the cold light of day, it was decided that there was little anyone could do to stop me winning within a couple of rounds, so everyone forfeited the game in my favour. A slightly underwhelming finish to an excellent (if slightly epic) game, but a win’s a win, right? The table banter made it all the more fun, with highlights including a cruiser with schoolchildren strapped to the front firing AK-47s at enemy colonies, and Warp Points connecting to a entirely different game of SE:4X being played out somewhere in France.

Saturday evening: Keyflower – Agricola – Snowdonia

Yep, the holy trinity. What an evening.

I hadn’t played Keyflower in nearly a year, so it was a very welcome suggestion. Of the six playing, only Camo and I had played it previously, but that didn’t stop newcomer Eddy from blasting to victory with a very high score (somewhere in the eighties, I think), around ten points ahead of me in second place. The score spread was huge, with the lowest in the low twenties. Keyflower now occupies the much-coveted title of “my favourite game that I don’t actually own”. Brilliant stuff.

Agricola was a four-player affair, playing with the 2011 World Championship decks against Pete, Olly and James. I’d never played these decks before, and the discarding phase before the game began was pretty full-on. I had the α deck (the others had β, γ and δ, with ε not in use this time), meaning I had the option of the Village Fool occupation. I didn’t play it, and I really should have; it’s the equivalent of the Chapel card from San Juan, giving 1 VP for each card (minus a few of them) discarded underneath it at the beginning of each round. As it was, I had a reasonable-looking farm in the mid-game, but I didn’t renovate beyond wood and was fairly limited in terms of the card and bonus points I played. After missing out on Family Growth a few times, I fell well behind.

I expected to get beaten by Pete and Olly (both substantially better Agricola players than me), but I feel like I did OK in the end given my massive fatigue (this was after I’d had to crash out in the afternoon) and freshness to the World Championship decks.

Final score – Pete: 47 / Olly: 42 / Me: 32 / James: 21

To round off Saturday (starting at about 11.30pm!), Olly and I ran a playtest game of Tony Boydell’s latest expansion idea for Snowdonia: the London Necropolis Line. (Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for the London Necropolis Railway is a fascinating read.) In this scenario, your Surveyor has died (RIP) and you have to ferry his body to Brookwood Cemetery and build a stone monument there before the game ends. Olly got a handy train/card combo going and ransacked the resource bag every round, which felt slightly gamey/broken and in line with some changes Tony had suggested might be in order. Alongside this, I let Olly get away with hoarding all the stone in the game; I blame tiredness, but really I just wasn’t paying enough attention and kind of expected him to actually use the stone at some point rather than just stockpiling it.

The net result of all this was that I couldn’t build the monument to my late Surveyor, meaning I lost 21 points in the final scoring and lost the game by… 20 points. Yes, had I had the stone, I could have won. Still, we got some decent questions and feedback for the designer out of the session and it was an enjoyable scenario with quite a different feeling from the base game and other expansions.

More Snowdonia?

Yes! Sunday morning found me teaching Snowdonia to James and Graham (not Space Empires Graham – the other Graham). This time it was just the base game, and it turned out to be the longest game of base Snowdonia I’ve ever had (around two hours of play), due to a long, sustained run of rain and fog in the first part of the game. Suddenly, the sun emerged and the game finished itself off within a few rounds! Graham was going for heavy track-laying bonuses (40 points for five track cards laid), but the game finished off the track before he had a chance to get those last couple of cards laid. I’d concentrated on getting my Surveyor to Yr Wyddfa, which teamed up with Surveyor-related contract cards for a bonus of 38 points on top of the 21 for the Surveyor himself.

I won with 127 points, with Graham in second on 107 and James on 102. Graham would have easily taken the win if he’d been able to get those last couple of track cards laid, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles in Snowdonia. It was hugely enjoyable, as always, and both Graham and James said they were very seriously considering picking up copies for themselves too. I don’t think I’ve yet found a euro-gamer who doesn’t like Snowdonia!

Honourable Mentions – other games I played

  • Hive vs Olly: playing with the Pillbug expansion, and an unexpected win for me! Had the Pillbugs been used more than a couple of times, things might have been different…
  • Alien Frontiers with expansions: it’s an enjoyable game, but I’m not sure I’d want to play it all the time. Having the faction with the planetary rover (allowing the benefit from a region to be used without needing control there) certainly made it a little more interesting, but the lack of die-modifying tech cards in this particular play meant some rounds were just frustrating.
  • Coloretto and Ingenious: a great filler and a wonderfully agonising abstract. (Ingenious was made particularly agonising by getting my blue score to 16 quite early on and then not drawing a single blue tile for the rest of the game.)
  • Saboteur: the game that made me realise my limitations this weekend! It did seem far too easy for the non-sabotaging dwarves to win in the nine-player game though. Needed more saboteurs!

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

  • I’d learned Hegemonic pretty thoroughly, hoping to play it this weekend… and then the right moment never really came. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have managed very well with it. It’s a complex game and I wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
  • Just as I dragged myself off to bed on Saturday afternoon, Brass came out. I would have loved a game of Brass. Bad timing!

All in all, a fantastic weekend. My thanks go to John for organising it all, to Olly and Camo for cooking in the evenings, and to all the attendees for being all-round good guys.