The Tyranny of Small Decisions

It's a blog on a board-gaming site. Pretty safe bet it'll be about board games then...

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Getting into the spirit?

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
Northumberland
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A lot has happened since the last time I blogged about board games on a regular basis. Somewhere along the line I stumbled into becoming the Chairman of Newcastle Gamers, one of the biggest board gaming groups in the country. I'm not entirely sure how that happened, but at least it should give me some new things to write about

Speaking of which: it's been a tricky couple of months for Newcastle Gamers; the venue where we've been holding our meetings for the last few years (a church hall, on the edge of the city) has been closed for renovation. Much as we're looking forward to the stinky old toilets and rising-damp-in-the-kitchen becoming a thing of the past, this has meant we've been temporarily displaced from the church hall, and have had a to lead a bit of a nomadic existence for the last couple of months.

The club membership is a bit of an awkward size when looking for a venue. We're slightly too big to fit in the back room of a pub, but not big enough to afford conference-venue type rooms. Larger pub function rooms are a good bet, but we're in the middle of wedding season right now and -- frankly -- we don't give the pub anywhere near as much trade as a booze-hungry wedding party does, so we seem to only manage to get those when the landlord can't land better trade.

And so it came to pass that last week we found ourselves gaming in a dis-used city-centre shop space, once the home of Maplin Electronics, now occupied by the Tyneside Cinema film school, and for one night only, the latest pop-up venue of Newcastle Gamers:


So much spaaaaaaace...

Of course, the irony of going to the trouble of finding a venue big enough to fit your usual crowd into is: half of your usual crowd don't turn up, because you've messed around with the venue. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a pretty good location. OK: The end-of-evening curfew was a lot earlier than we're used to, and those of us travelling in from a distance / with games to carry had the inconvenience of town centre parking to contend with (our usual venue has its own private car park!), but it was a roof over our heads, didn't bankrupt the society, and it meant we could go ahead with our late-August meeting. So, all-in-all, I'd consider it a success

Main game of the night for me was:

Spirit Island



There's been a fair bit of hype around Spirit Island over recent weeks. It purports to be a "heavy" co-operative game, where players take the role of various "spirit guardians" of a tropical island, which is being invaded by settlers. Your objective is to (essentially) scare the settlers away. Or -- as I explained on the night -- "You've all seen 'Lost', right? Well, basically, we're all playing the part of the smoke monster". Mechanically, I can kind of see elements of Pandemic, Mage Knight, and maybe a hint of Terra Mystica in its DNA.

I'm still not sure how I feel about this one. I'd previously tried the two player game, and the solo game, but this was my first attempt playing with 4. I really enjoyed it with two, the solo played well, but 4 seemed a bit... messier. I guess the thing is, maybe the game isn't so much "deep", as it is "broad" -- i.e. each player has an awful lot of options to choose from, and the more players that are involved, the harder it is to mesh together the various options on offer and come up with an effective strategy. Plus, the way the settlers invaded the island on this particular outing seemed a lot less "organic" than the way a smaller island fills up (though this might've been down to the luck of the card draw I guess. I mean, every now and then you get a really freakish game of Pandemic too!).

It was an entertaining enough session, we had fun, and there were some very satisfying moments in the game... but I don't think the people I played with will be clamouring for me to take it back for a retry too soon. Which is a shame; it's one of those games that has obviously had a bunch of love put into it, and has a huge (and somewhat overwhelming) set of expansion modules / replayability options in the box -- but I suspect that you've probably got to be quite devoted to the game to get the best out of it, and with the number of very good board/excellent games that are around these days, demanding that kind of devotion from a gaming group is a pretty big ask.

Nevertheless, it's far more accessible at low player counts, has a nice blend of mechanisms, the theming is fun/unusual, and my first couple of plays were interesting enough to make me panic-buy the "looks-like-it's-selling-out-stupidly-fast" expansion... so it'll be a keeper for me.

* * * * * * *

Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of each month. Or, at least, we do when we can find a meeting place. For more info, see our meetup group: http://newcastlegamers.net/
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Sat Sep 2, 2017 6:30 pm
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Not quite Gencon...

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
Northumberland
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I spent Sunday at the "2017 Prostate Cancer UK Board Gaming Day". I've never been to this event before -- but it's a very good cause, is just about within sensible day-trip range (it's a 2 hour drive each way for me), and the charity holds special resonance amongst my gaming group right now, due to the recent, very sad passing of one of our most popular members due to this terrible disease.



So, a day of mixed emotions... but it was a really good event; Neil and his team did a great job of getting things together, rustling up a bunch of raffle prizes from some top game retailers, and making sure everybody felt very welcome. I played a few games that were completely new to me (including Kemet, Backpacks and Blisters, and Captain Sonar) with lots of people I've never met before, managed to move some of the less-played games from my collection to new homes via the Bring and Buy table, and generally had a good time

Of course, the main feature of the evening was the grand raffle -- with an incredible heap of gaming loot on offer, I made sure to stock up on plenty of tickets



6pm arrived, a hush fell upon the room, and the prizes started to be allocated...

A new-in-shrink copy of Blood Rage for one lucky winner...

Chris -- the guy sitting next to me, who I played Kemet against earlier that day -- landed a brand new copy of Eclipse *and* the Rise of the Ancients expansion; an incredible prize...

A first edition copy of Winsome Games' Wabash Cannonball (wow!) ... a brand new copy of Concordia... some really good prizes were coming out...

And then, incredibly (OK, maybe not-so-incredibly, considering how many tickets I'd invested in), my number was called!

Excitedly, I approached the prize giving area ... the box was being held out towards me. What would it be?

It was quite a small box, and the text was hard to read from a distance..

As I got closer, I could barely contain my excitement...

And then...

..

..

..

..

Oh.





..

Oh well. At least the charity did well; the raffle raised the best part of £1500 for prostate cancer research. And I never did manage to land a free copy of Scandaroon when Board Game Guru was using them as packing ballast a few months back. Now that I've actually got one, I'm sort of intrigued enough to want to try playing it. Assuming I can dupe another two people into humouring me

Anyway, big thanks to Neil and co. for organising a top day. I'll have to go back next year ... I mean, I can't *possibly* be this unlucky in the raffle two years running, right?
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Tue Aug 22, 2017 12:13 am
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Newcastle Gamers – 9th March

John Shepherd
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Mental experiment time: Imagine you took the tile laying of Carcassonne, the worker placement of Le Havre, The pick-up-and-deliver / routebuilding of Steam, an auctioning system so odd-yet-devilishly-clever that it seems like it should’ve come straight out of a Reiner Knizia classic, a tiny bit of set collecting… player-specific hidden information… and packaged the whole bundle with over 150 wooden meeples and half a dozen cute papercraft buildings…

By rights, you should probably end up with an unplayable frankenstein mess of a game.

What you actually get is a game called Keyflower.

And it’s pretty good stuff.


MEEPLE ALL THE THINGS!

Keyflower plays up to 6 people … though on this occasion, there was only four of us: myself, Olly, Owain and Camo. At it’s core, it’s a “city builder” type game, where you’re trying to build the best settlement and score the most victory points.

Despite the vast amount of things going on in the game, the core rules are actually surprisingly simple (I hesitate to call them “elegant”, because there’s a bunch of odd edge cases and exceptions that crop up from round to round, but they’re way more straightforward than they might seem to a casual observer) …

On each turn, you can either send out some workers to make a bid on a new (building tile) addition to your village… OR, you can send out some workers to a building to do some work, and get some resources. Simple!

The clever bit is, every player has a mixture of differently-coloured workers; red, blue, yellow and green… and once a worker has been sent to a particular tile (whether it was to bid on that tile, or to do some work), that tile is then “locked” to that specific colour for the rest of the round. Any further bidding has to be done in that colour. Any further working has to be done in that colour. …so each round is full of massively-tactical decisions to made in how you deploy your meeples; how to play to your strengths (colours that you own more of), and how to minimise your weaknesses. It’s a simple mechanism, but one that brings a *delicious* amount of depth (and some agonising descisons) to the game.

Oh, and did I mention that workers you send to another person’s village become their workers in the next round? Or that workers you send to a building that’s currently being bid upon become the property of the winning bidder? Very simple mechanisms, but — with the colour-specific bidding/working rules — they carry brain-churning implications. Brilliant stuff!

Anyway, you make bids, add tiles to your village, send your workers to work (in your own — or other players’ villages), shunt resources around the road network that you’re building to allow building upgrades / scoring opportunities, and grab new settlers, trade skills, and special bonuses off the various ships that arrive in port at the end of each season. Build a big village, improve your buildings, score points. Sorted.

For sake of variability, the game contains more tiles than you use in one single game. With a four player game, you only use around two thirds of the available tile set. In the game that we played on this occasion, we had an odd set of tiles which made transporting goods around our road networks far more difficult than it would normally be … leading to reduced scoring opportunities on buildings that depended on a certain fluidity in goods transit.

Despite this unpredicted increase in the game’s difficulty, and the fact that most people at the table were playing it for the first time (and it was only my second game), the game had a pretty good reception, and I think most people enjoyed it. Camo was even — quite seriously — mooting the idea of playing the game again immediately after we finished … despite the fact that the first game had run for 2½ hours and been a bit of a brain-burner throughout.

I did terribly badly… mostly due to my initial strategy being transport-dependent, and failing to switch to an alternative (population-boom oriented) strategy until far too late in the final round. Olly and Camo tied for victory. I really enjoyed the game; I’ll definitely take it back to the next club meeting. It’s a keeper

Ali joined our table at this point, and Camo suggested a game of…

RoboRally



RoboRally is a game in which a bored supercomputer decides to race robots around a factory floor… your objective is to be the first robot to complete the course, touching 4 checkpoints, and avoiding various hazards, deadly pits, and laser fire from your opponents.

Gameplay involves taking a hand of cards containing a list of simple orders (move forward, u-turn, turn left… etc etc…), and “programming in” a list of movements for the coming turn. Everybody then reveals their cards one-by-one, and chaos ensues. Yep, it’s basically a board-game version of robot-wars, where all the robots are powered by logo. And have big shooty lasers. (Explanatory note for anybody under the age of forty: logo is a thing we used to do with computers and turtles, back in the old days. And yes, we had to get our geeky kicks in some pretty strange ways before the internet was invented).

RoboRally is a bit of a classic game… most people with an interest in boardgaming know what it is, even if they haven’t actually played it before. Until last night, I was one such person; this was my first ever game…. but… unfortunately… I don’t think I’ll be in a huge rush to play it again.

It wasn’t a bad game, and I enjoyed it for what it was. BUT… it was just dreadfully long. I can appreciate that there’s probably a huge amount of variability, depending on how the course happens to work out, and depending on what unique brand of chaos-effect results from everybody’s starting commands conflicting with each others… and I expect I’d really enjoy this game if you could guarantee that it would be over in about an hour. But… this particular game was well past the two hour mark… actually, I suspect it might have been crawling toward the three hour point; I lost track. It certainly felt very over-long. There was also a bit of a runaway leader thing going on for the last hour or so, which was a bit demotivating — but, again, something that I imagine evolves randomly from the starting conditions.

I’m glad to have finally experienced it… but — for that degree of time investment — I would’ve sooner gone with Camo’s crazy idea to play Keyflower again

A few other games were on the verge of completion round about this point, so we opted for a quick filler to synch things up:

Tsuro



Tsuro is a very simple, very fast game. You have a coloured stone, which starts at the edge of the board. Each turn, you lay a tile next to your stone. The tile has a bunch of squiggly lines on it. You move your stone along the squiggly line until you reach it’s end. If you fall off the edge of the board, or crash into another stone: game over. The last man (or, rather, last stone) standing is the winner.

It’s basically Tron’s Light Cycles. But without the twitch skills involved. Actually, possibly without many other skills involved either, because it always strikes me as being a bit random — play the tile that allows you to strike out towards the biggest vacuum and cross your fingers. However, it’s over quickly, and fills ten minutes…

At this point, lots of other games ended, and a large group was forming to play Panic on Wall Street… I couldn’t decide whether to play or not; it seemed like it might be an interesting experience (it seats up to 11 people!), but — on the other hand — I tend not to like bartering type games, or party games, and even if it *did* end up running for the advertised “30 minutes or so” (which seemed unlikely), that probably wouldn’t leave me with long enough to play anything else of substance before it was time for me to go home. Fortunately, Owain and Ali had similar reservations, so the three of us sneaked away to play…

Myrmes



Myrmes is my other recent acquisition (along with Keyflower), and another game that got a lot of positive buzz at Essen 2012. In the game, each player controls a rival ant nest, and the object of the game is to dominate a small grassy knoll in the corner of a quiet garden.

To achieve this aim, you have an individual player board on which you run the internals of your ants nest… assigning “nurse ant” workers to hatch lavae, worker ants, and soldier ants … and you then send your ants out into the garden (depicted on the main board) to spread pheromones (claim territory), harvest resources to improve your nest, kill prey (for extra food), and achieve assorted special missions to win the favour of “The Council of Queen Ants”.

Myrmes is an unashamed eurogame. Resources are very tight, there’s an Agricola-style “feeding phase” at the end of each round which can be extremely punishing if you’re not adequately prepared, and you need to make every move count. It’s pretty unforgiving; an aspect that I had a pretty harsh schooling in on this particular outing. I made a risky move near the start of the game, sacrificing one of my nurse ants (and a heap of food) to take an early set of victory points on a (seemingly simple) mission… figuring I’d probably be able to make up for the lost food before anything too dreadful happened…. and if not, well, the short-term hit on VP couldn’t be too bad, could it?



Did my plan work? No. It didn’t. The strategy hit me *really* hard; my nest felt the consequences of this early sacrifice for many rounds afterwards, and I came in well behind in the final scoring. Moral: do not, under any circumstances, leave yourself with only two nurse ants unless you have the resources to summon up a new one very, very quickly!

But despite the fact that I was having a really, really hard time of the game, and finished way behind the other guys… I thoroughly enjoyed it. I dunno… I guess I sometimes just enjoy (semi-) succeeding in the face of overwhelming odds.

(Just as well, considering my general gaming record on this particular night!!!)

Ali and Owain really enjoyed the game too — another hit!

By this point, Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning… time to head off home! A pretty good evening’s gaming, all told. Keyflower and Myrmes were excellent (though I did appallingly badly in both of them… I’ll just chalk this up as a bad game night), and even RoboRally — while lasting twice as long as it really should have — had its high points. One of the strangest moments of the evening wasn’t actually anything to do with the game; it was the discovery/realization that one of the guys at the club (Ali) is somebody who I used to vaguely know, back in my student days… or, rather, know through mutual friends. Of course, in those days, he was Alastair. And he looked 25 years younger. And I haven’t seen him since… But it’s scary how I gradually went from not really remembering him at all, to suddenly having flashbacks of things like him teaching me how to swordfight. In a wood. In Chopwell. With a real sword.

Weird.

I was pleased that Keyflower and Myrmes got a good reception — especially since I was the guy who brought them in / had the task of teaching them. It’s always a bit of a relief when stuff that you recommend (and/or enjoy playing yourself) goes down well with others, and neither of those games are particularly simple ones to explain from a cold start, but I think I did a pretty good job. ‘Phew

Anyway, it’ll be an annoying 3-week gap until the next Newcastle Gamers… which happens to co-incide with international tabletop day. So maybe we’ll be doing something special. Who knows? I’m pretty sure I’ll have Keyflower and/or Myrmes in the bag again though

CREDITS: Session pics taken by Olly. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the month. Usual cost is £3 (or £1 for concessions), but your first visit is free … check our G+ group for more info.
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Wed Mar 13, 2013 6:54 pm
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Guilty Gaming Pleasures

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
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“So I do a bit of ameritrash. It’s OK. I can handle it”…

It’s Richard Ham’s fault. He makes a series of boardgame videos, which I enjoy watching. OK, to be honest, they’re a bit longer than I’d prefer, and the iPhone-shakycam makes me feel a bit nauseous sometimes … BUT … he seems to have a pretty close taste in games to my own taste in games, so they’re usually worth at least a quick skim. Especially when he covers something that has completely bypassed my own games radar.

And then, one day… he goes and pulls out Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game, a dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetically dice-driven ameritrash title, and says massively complimentary things about it.

Eh???!! That can’t be right…

…Then I notice that he’s scored it as 12th Highest on his Board Game Geek ratings. The guy has 373 games listed in his collection at the time of writing… and Death Angel is number TWELVE. It’s _right_ up there, alongside all my own favourite eurogames… Agricola, Troyes, Hawaii, Pandemic, Castles of Burgundy, Death Angel….

What????!!!

So.. yeah, It’s fair to say my interest was piqued

OK… it maybe wasn’t too hard a job to raise my interest. Like most male british gamers of a certain age, this isn’t my first brush with the Warhammer 40K universe. Back in my mid-teens — when White Dwarf magazine was the centre of my gaming universe — I remember some long months of anticipation waiting for the first release of the WH40K tabletop miniature game, “Rogue Trader”. It seemed to be a game in perpetual delay… of course, we didn’t have the internet back then; information on games releases wasn’t nearly as easy to obtain — so we’d trot down to the FLGS every Saturday, saved-up pocket money in hand, hoping to slap down a handful of notes on the new rulebook… only to be disappointed week after week.

By the time it finally arrived, it would be fair to say we were pretty ravenous for it … and a lot of 40k was played in our group over the next couple of years.

I collected Space Marines … my brother had an Ork army. My friend Keith, who lived down the road, collected Eldar figures. They both invariably kicked my butt at the game — though I like to think that that’s because the first edition rules were woefully unbalanced, rather than because I just sucked at it.

Of course, the time comes to set aside childish things, and we all grew up, disappeared to disparate universities (which might as well have been disparate universes, given the rarity with which we saw each other thereafter) and stopped playing stuff like that. I did, however, pick up a few 40k-related computer games over the years, including this one:



Gremlin Graphic’s Space Crusade …and no, your eyes are not deceiving you… this is one of the very few games that I enjoyed so much that I actually bought it twice (once on the Atari ST, and later in its PC incarnation) …and which I still have stored in my big-cupboard-of-things-from-my-past-which-I-cant-bear-to-throw-away. Space Crusade is a simple turn-based wargame — somewhat in the Laser Squad/X-Com vein — which involves shuffling a squadron of space marines around an abandoned spaceship, zapping aliens, and trying to achieve some arbitrary mission objective. I loved it to bits… and spent many happy hours commanding my troop of marines around, purging the Xeno menace.

Well, here’s the thing: Space Crusade (the computer game) was based on the mass-market Games Workshop/MB board game of the same name …which was, in turn, a simplified variant of the 1989 Games Workshop title “Space Hulk”… which is also… the very game game that “Space Hulk: Death Angel” is a direct descendant of!

So, yeah. This was worth finding out more about

But… there was that one big hurdle: Death Angel is an ameritrash game. My tastes have moved on in recent years… Did I *really* want to drop 18 quid on a game that was — fundamentally — all about lucky dice rolls and pulling the right card out of the deck at the right time? Maybe I was looking back on all this stuff with rose-tinted glasses?

Fortunately, while doing my usual pre-game-purchasing research, I discovered that there’s an unsanctioned Vassal implementation of the game in circulation … and I *cough* accidentally *cough* managed to get a copy of that version onto my computer. Vassal is a bit of a clunky way to play games at the best of times — but I still had a lot of fun with my “trial” solo game, and I was pretty much sold on it within a couple of rounds. The order for a real-world, cardboard version went off that same afternoon!

Well, I’ll cut to the chase… for an ameritrash game, I’m really impressed. Death Angel does a shockingly good job of re-creating the vibe I used to get from the Space Crusade computer game. The game is a co-op, which allows from 1 to 6 players … but most people seem to think the solo variant is the best of the bunch.

The game is described as a “card game” … but it’s really one of those games where 99% of the game components just happen to be printed on cards, rather than one that involves typical card-game mechanisms. In brief: there’s a formation of space marines lined up in the middle of the table — each player controls a certain number of marines, and each different colour of marine has its own special abilities and talents. The game’s storyline involves proceeding through a random sequence of rooms on an abandoned space hulk. As you enter each room, you draw a card that contains instructions to place various items (buttons to press, bad guy spawning points, stuff like that) at certain points alongside the formation, and which provides you with any special rules that are in action for that particular room … then away you go, blasting away at bad guys, changing the formation around to get the guys with the special abilities into the spots where they can be best-used, carrying out character-specific support actions, and generally hoping you make it alive to face the next room. If you make it to the last room (card number 4 in the solo game), there’ll be a specific mission objective that you need to carry out to win the game.

Yep, there’s a lot of randomness involved… so the game is really about mitigating your odds and making decisions along the lines of “Hmm, Brother Zael is the guy with the really cool flamer weapon… but there’s a lot of bad guys near him; if I shuffle him one space up the formation and use Brother Deino as cannon fodder, he might be alive to use it next round…” or “If I push the teleporter button, all the badguys get zapped into deep space… but there’s a 1-in-6 chance that some of my marines will get zapped too… do I risk it?”. The game is brutal, and you DO get stung by bad luck a lot (my track record is 1 win in 6 games played) … but there’s a really pleasing “puzzle” aspect to figuring out the best orders to issue in a given situation — and even when the dice screw you over, you at least get a nice narrative explanation for your team’s demise (I’ve got quite attached to some of the characters over a few games!).

So, yeah… it’s way out of my usual gaming territory, but I like this one; I think I’ll be playing the solo version a lot… your milage might vary, and it might depend on whether or not you’re already invested in the WH40K mythos… but I think it’s a fun game, and it plays fairly briskly. I might even get it to the table when there’s other people around one day
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Wed Feb 6, 2013 3:12 pm
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An Evening in New England...

John Shepherd
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I popped up to obenn's house last night, for a mid-week gaming sesh. (and no, that's not a photo of the route up to his house... although -- given the snow and ice that postponed our gaming session last week -- it might've been an advantage if we did have a cog railway running out of the village...)

We started with a playtest build of the Mount Washington expansion for Tony Boydell's Snowdonia. The main differences in this expansion are: Snowfall (which re-covers exposed track, just like it does in the Jungfrau variant), a mountain-blasting action space (which works a bit like the Jungfrau's dynamite rule, but without actually having dynamite as an in-game resource), some exotic station components to build en-route, and an odd mechanism which involves your surveyors starting the game at the top of the mountain, then sledging as far down it as they can at the end of the game.

Unfortunately, Snowdonia seems to be a game that I get very rusty at between plays (it's been 7 or 8 weeks since the last one), and I suffered some major brain failures this time around, seriously messing up my rubble-clearance planning once or twice -- leading to a couple of spectacularly bad moves. There were also a couple of quirks in this particular expansion which I didn't really appreciate until after we'd finished playing … the most notable being, there's a load of valuable station components to build at the start of the track, rather than the end. Still, I'm forewarned for next time!

It seems like a decent expansion, but I think it'll work considerably better with more than 2 players; there's an odd 2-card station half way around the track which isn't used in the 2p version… and I think the scramble for the final station (and the surveyors-sledging-down-the-mountain bit) will be a bit more interesting with more players. Actually, if there's a weakness in the expansion (or -- in more charitable terms: "if there's a strategy-changing twist to the end game in the expansion"), I suspect it'll concern the end-turn station rush… fail to plant a cube there, and, your surveyor scores nothing. This aspect could be a bit of a brain-scrambler with more players. Hopefully Owain will get this to a Newcastle Gamers sesh at some point in the not-too-distant future, and we'll find out

Oh… and in lieu of not having any actual shots of the game in progress, the picture at the top of this post is the Peppersass locomotive, which features in the expansion. Though, oddly, neither of us actually bought an engine in this particular game. It's the first time I've played a game of Snowdonia where that (didn't) happen.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)

* * * * * * *

And then we played… Age of Industry. It was the first time either of us had played the New England map, and it gave a very pleasingly-different game experience to the Germany map.

(and no, the emerging "New England" theme of the whole night was NOT intentional!)



The New England map introduces shipping lines to the game. Ships are the primary means of getting coal onto the board in this particular variant. Other maps use ships for different purposes (sometimes for exports, sometimes for imports) … but on this map, shipping routes are all about coal imports and access to foreign markets.

There are a few subtleties tied up in ships that I didn't really appreciate from just reading the rule book … firstly, there are only three "ship" industry cards in the deck, so in order to get ships on the board, you're more-than-likely going to need to pay colour cards… and the fact that the coastal regions use certain colour cards, and the inland regions different colour cards introduces some significant card value asymmetry (though I guess that's going to be true of all the AoI maps with location-sensitive rules). Plus… in order to build a ship, you potentially need to build a port first, so you're really looking for combos within a single colour region, rather than individual cards… so there's a lot more card management involved here than is immediately apparent.

Secondly, distant markets are now far more appealing trade destinations than local ports… because there's big money to be got from flipping ships, and they don't flip until all their coal has been imported and the distant market has been satisfied. Port tiles therefore seem to initially serve as a "bridging piece" to the shipping routes, and stay face-up for longer than they do in Germany (or when you play AoI's predecessor, Brass )... only really coming into their own when the lucrative shipping routes have been exhausted.

There's also some clever stuff going on in Pennsylvania (which is the only "blue" location on the map). It's the only valid coal-mining location in the game, but it's also particularly difficult/painful to run a railroad to. Also, the limitation on how many buildings you can have in a given location (vs the number of tiles in your supply) means it's likely that you have to play a build - develop - build - develop - build cycle for your Pennsylvanian coal mines… which is, again, a bit different from the Germany map gameplay (where coal mines generally equate to cheap victory points for little effort). Being a coal baron in New England seems to give you a lot more to think about.

I enjoyed this map; it seems to have a lot of character about it. If the other AoI maps turn out to be as distinctively different as this one (and, from what I've read, they are!), I can easily see AoI becoming one of my most-played games of the year.
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Thu Jan 31, 2013 8:45 pm
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My 2012 gaming in review...

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
Northumberland
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We’re almost into February already, so if I don’t scribble this down now it’ll never get done. Therefore… herewith and within: a few random thoughts on my boardgaming exploits of the last 12 months

My most-played board game of 2012:



…was Inka and Marcus Brand’s Village. Well, actually, my most-played game of the year was level-pegging between Village, Pandemic, and Power Grid — but Village was one of the big releases of the year and the others are oldies, so for arbitrary tie-breaking purposes and a more interesting article, I’ll call this one in Village’s favour.

Village is a pretty good game. It wasn’t my favourite new game of the year, and it doesn’t really tread any revolutionary new ground (though chewing over the idea of it being a “worker removal” game rather than a “worker placement” game is a fun mental exercise). BUT… it’s easy to teach to people, plays in sensible 90 minutes or so, and always seems to deliver a satisfying sort of gaming experience. Plus, the fact that it won the Kennerspiel prize meant there was a fair bit of interest/demand for it at the local gaming group… so it got its fair share of outings.

The forthcoming Village Inn expansion seems interesting — it adds bits for a 5th player (useful!), a brew house (facilitating a new beer-making craft), and another “major” building — the eponymous Village Inn, with new scoring opportunities and paths to victory. It’s something I’ll definitely want to get my hands on in 2013

Favourite new game of the year:



Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

I was so impressed with this one that I made a video. The video got 3,000 hits on YouTube, and lots of BGG thumbs-up and tips. Sadly, slipping in a free (and unsolicited) ad for my favourite boardgame store was my slight undoing, as YouTube’s moderators rejected the video for monetization, and lots of parties who would’ve otherwise been very happy to embed the clip & give it more exposure didn’t do so for sake of publicising a competitor …Oops! An important lesson to be learned about boardgame video-making there, I think.

Anyway, I’ve already gone on at length about what a great game this one is, so I’ll spare you the repeat. Suffice to say the expansion — Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small – More Buildings Big and Small — pushes the game even further up the scale of greatness. Which, I guess, saves me the trouble of having to write a separate “favourite expansion of the year” category. Because that would be it

Favourite new board game of the year that I didn’t actually buy:



Snowdonia.

I didn’t rush out and buy it initially, because I wasn’t sure how much lasting appeal it would have. And I didn’t rush out and buy it after becoming convinced that it did have lasting appeal because… well, all the cheap copies had sold out by then. Cracking game though; I’m sure I’ll get one eventually

Least-favourite board game experience of the year:



Quelf.

This appeared as after-dinner entertainment during a trip to see my parents. It turned out to be everything that I don’t like about after-dinner party games, in one conveniently-sized package. Ugh.

Most criminally-underplayed game of the year:



Hawaii

I won this in a competition in the summer, but since acquiring it I’ve played it a grand total of… *gulp* … two times. And that’s NOT because I don’t like the game … from 2 plays, it seems like a really sound eurogame, it looks great, and it’s got some interesting and unique things going on with it. The problem is, basically, this:



There isn’t a single occasion where I’ve pulled Hawaii out of my bag at the local games club where the conversation hasn’t immediately turned to “Hey, wasn’t that the game in THAT video?….” …usually followed by people quietly backing away from the table and finding other stuff to play.

Forget the fact that Hawaii got a KennerSpiele recommendation… or that the Dice Tower’s Ryan Metzler slipped out a revisionist (and complementary!) review a few weeks later, or that my favourite FOLGS owner (boardgameguru) cites this as his favourite middleweight euro of 2011… it seems that Hawaii is fated to be forever be known amongst gamers as THAT game in THAT Tom Vassel video.

Murdered at birth. Apparently it was the designer’s first published game too, which makes the video seem even more badly-judged. It’s a decent game though… play it if you get the chance!

Personal grail-game acquisition of the year:



Galaxy Trucker

Not really a true grail game, as it was sort-of available-ish at retail for a big chunk of the year, but it WAS out of print for most of 2012 and therefore shifting at sillier prices than it probably should. I think my frugal Yorshireman DNA stopped me from pulling the trigger when it was selling at £60+ a pop. However, when a few copies appeared on Amazon at £32 quid… the deal was sealed!

My Random Gaming Firsts of 2012:

Bought my first copy of Spielbox magazine… and discovered it was pretty much everything I could want from a gaming mag, but… written in the most awful-to-read English imaginable. How a mag could be SO pleasing, but SO outright disappointing at the same time??… hmmm, that’s probably a topic worth a blog of its own.

Did my first Math Trade. Rapidly followed by my second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth math trades. Math trades are great (and addictive!) — I wrote about them here.

Played “Brass” for the first time. That’s another entry in the boardgamegeek top 10 that I can cross off my list of games played. Brilliant game — well deserving of its high rating.

Beat Olly at Ingenious. Beating Olly at Ingenious is kind of a big deal at Newcastle gamers. No, really it is! Speaking of which…

2012 was my first full year as a Newcastle Gamer! I joined Newcastle Gamers — my almost-local game club — in October 2011, and have attended pretty much religiously ever since. It’s been a good time to be a member… at the start of 2012 the club moved to a new (bigger) venue, and — by convenient co-incidence — the attendance figures went up quite dramatically a short time afterwards, which has really benefitted the club.

How so? Well… game clubs with a small membership are a bit of an awkward thing. I mean, we all nominally like board games… but there are so many different TYPES of boardgame, and so many different tastes in boardgames.

Analogy time: suppose you joined a film club. A club for people who like films. Realistically, while all the people in that club like sitting and staring at a screen for 2 hours, they’re going to be interested in different TYPES of film. So if you go to that club to watch a film… well, the people who are really into sci fi movies might end up having to watch a rom-com, because there’s only one projector. Or because all the sci fi guys started watching something an hour ago and you’re too late to join in. Or something.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, the club has reached a nice tipping point where there’s so many people around, with such a breadth of gaming preferences, that you can usually rely on being able to get into a game of something you’ll enjoy in fairly short order. There’s no need to get trapped watching a 3-hour rom-com any more just because it’s the only thing on offer. Which is a good thing.

It’s also been nice to get to know the regulars — discover what their gaming tastes are, and how well (or badly!) they mesh with mine. When somebody comes up to you with a game you’ve never heard of before, and tells you “I think this one is right up your street…”, and they’re dead right; you do like it… well, that’s a good experience. That makes you feel like you belong.

TLDR; check out your local game group. It’s great. If you’re near Newcastle upon Tyne you have an extra bonus, as we’ve already got past that awful metaphorical rom-com watching phase, AND you get the chance to play games with ME! … how can you pass up on an offer like that!!?

Corbridge Gamers – This was the year that I discovered I’m NOT the only gamer in the village (Aside from Mrs Shep, that is… but she’s more of a part-timer than a dyed-in-the-wool gamer). Owain ( http://cardboardandwood.co.uk/ ) lives just down the road from me, and by unlikely-but-happy co-incidence has a surprisingly similar taste in games. Many evening trips up (and down) the road have ensued. Good times!

Gaming Things that I totally failed to do in 2012:

Play Eclipse. Not sure how. Everybody seemed to be playing Eclipse at the start of the year — but then it sort of fizzled away. Never mind, I’m sure it’ll happen in 2013. Probably.

Design my own board game. I guess I subscribe to the theme-first school of board game design. One day, the _perfect_ theme will pop up out of the ether, and I will KNOW it is the right thing to pursue, and I will pursue it!

But… I’m still waiting for that to happen…

Build a major international board game media empire. I don’t know where I went off course with that one. Everything seemed to be going so well when I did that Agricola vid…
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Wed Jan 30, 2013 4:01 pm
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Newcastle Gamers - 26th January

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
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A shorter-than-usual session report from me this time, as it was a shorter-than-usual gaming session (for me at least); due to prior commitments, I couldn’t get to Newcastle until 7:30 this week, which meant I could only squeeze in a couple of games…

Agricola



I’ve been promising to play a game of ‘gric with Michael for 6 months or more… but for one reason or another, it’s never quite happened (mostly due to Michael being at the club on weeks that I didn’t have ‘gric in the bag… ‘gric being in the bag on weeks where Michael wasn’t at the club… or game starts and ends just not synching up conveniently). This week we finally got our act together (despite my late arrival — sorry guys!), so the evening’s entertainment began with a four-player Agricola session between yours truly, Michael, Owain and Jerome, using a 4/3 split of E and I decks.

Every game of Agricola ends up being a little bit different. Notable features this time around were…

Higher-than-usual competition for wood: I mean, competition for wood is *always* high in Agricola… but Michael put the Wood Turner occupation into play at the start of the game, and then went on a wood-consuming frenzy. This occpation lets you convert wood into food on a 1-for-1 basis, and (perhaps, in part, due to lack of experience — this was his first ever game) Michael used it as his main food generator throughout; he was grabbing wood at any available opportunity (even small accumulations) and generally making things a bit sparse for the rest of us.



Belated family growth: Family growth didn’t come out until the latest space possible… which always makes the game feel a little bit more constrained, as this makes it significantly harder to build your workforce. Though this was eased a tiny, tiny bit by the presence of…



The Guest: Maybe I’ve just been unlucky with the card selection in past games (or simply don’t use the I-deck enough), but those little round guest counters are seldom used in my games of Agricola, so it always seems like a special occasion when the card comes into play and the guest tokens come out. It’s an interesting mechanism, and can give you quite a nice boost if played at just the right time.

I can’t remember much more of note… the I-deck wasn’t being overly interactive on this outing, though Michael had the harrow (which allows other players to plough 2 spaces instead of 1, but only if they pay you food to do so) thereby gaining a new nickname and theme tune…



…but otherwise it was a fairly standard game.

I didn’t have a particularly inspiring hand of cards — I played the Hedge Keeper (gives you 3 bonus fences on each fence build action), the occ-that-adds-an-extra-room-to-a-stone-house (can’t remember the name right now), the Simple Fireplace and the Guest; not a lot of cards, really. I ended the game with a 5-room stone house and only one un-used space on my board, but I didn’t really get a proper food engine running (relying on the simple fireplace, and whatever food I could grab from action spaces), so ended up having to eat most of my livestock in the last round; Owain beat me to first place by 3 points.

Enjoyable game though. Agricola is *always* an enjoyable game!

And then: Galaxy Trucker




Another outing for my christmas pressie… and the first play for Jerome, Owain and Michael. The first mission went surprisingly smoothly — we used the “training mission” card set, and everybody made it to the end of the test flight relatively (and unusually!) unscathed.

So, we went into round 2… everybody was pretty much up to speed with the way the game worked this time; there was a bit of good-natured cursing when the time limit kicked in, and the flight was considerably tougher with significantly larger losses all round… but we all made it to the end of the course and picked up our credits.

Round 3… flushed with confidence and bravado, Michael pushed the timer towards an early finish during the building phase. His space ship certainly looked impressive. It had a huge crew. Lots of components. “I’m really happy with that”, he declared, as he took pole position on the starting grid…

…only to fly straight into a meteorite, and watch the entire right-hand side off his ship sheer off due to a critical weakpoint in his design.

Well, the rest of the flight wasn’t kind to Michael either. Meteors, space pirates, and more meteors all took their toll. By the end of the flight, his spaceship (which DID, nevertheless, complete the mission) looked like this:



If you’re not familiar with galaxy trucker… well, ignore all the empty squares on that board… you see that single tile, with a single astronaut sitting in it? That’s what’s left of Michael’s ship… he didn’t even have a engine left attached to his vessel, and completed the course purely by virtue of forward momentum built up before the important bits fell off.

It wasn’t a complete failure though… the “compactness” of his final ship meant he picked up the prettiest ship bonus points for having the fewest exposed open connectors at the end of the round

I like Galaxy Trucker. It does seem a bit unfair and arbitrary at first, but it’s surprising how robust and mission-proof your ships become with a little bit of practice. You DO need the ability to laugh at your own misfortune when it all goes wrong though. If you’ve got a group with the right sense of humour it’s a lot of fun, and can leave you with some good gaming stories to tell.

(Pro tip: in the final round, always pack LOTS of firepower!)

And that was it… quarter to midnight and it was time to go home! Hopefully I’ll be there for the start next time; it’s another free-for-all week … an evening of quality gaming, completely gratis. Well, it would be rude not to

CREDITS: Session pics taken by Owain. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the month. Usual cost is £3 (or £1 for concessions), but your first visit is free … check our G+ group for more info.


+++ SPECIAL BONUS FEATURE +++

Nantwich Gamers, 25th January


So… the reason I was so late to Newcastle Gamers was because Mrs Shep & myself spent most of Saturday in the Cheshire town of Nantwich, watching the Holy Holly Day celebrations and Sealed Knot battle re-enactment. This trek necessitated spending the Friday night in a Travelodge, just off the M6. The weather forecast was bad — really bad — so we set off early in the day, and planned to hole up in the Travelodge until the next morning. What better way to while away some hours in a potentially-snowed-in hotel than… take some boardgames with us!

Here’s what we played:

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small with Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small – More Buildings Big and Small



I’ve always been fond of this game… and the small box makes it brilliant for shoving in an overnight bag for a hotel stop-over. We’ve actually managed to play 2-player full-size Agricola on a Travelodge table in the past (when we were going through the height of our Agricola addiction)… but it’s a bit of a struggle, and this version is much easier to deploy in confined conditions.

One of the new buildings that we pulled out for this play is the Dog House, which I built during the first round of the game. The dog house allows you to keep sheep on un-used squares, but ONLY if the squares aren’t adjacent to the forest (i.e. the top row of the board). This added a very different spin to my game; it meant I could start grabbing sheep really early (and made land expansions even more attractive than they normally are) … BUT, added a really interesting dynamic of having to judge when it was a good time to switch from having an undeveloped (sheep-friendly) space to a more profitable developed square. It was a very interesting/tricky thing to gauge… and I absolutely loved it — best game of ACBAS I’ve played in a while.

In the end, Mrs Shep beat me by a single point — making a grab for the half-timbered house in the last round, and _just_ nudging into the lead. Curses!

(Its probably time to review my current BGG rating of ACBAS, in light of the way that the expansion has improved it even further. I mean, the original was very impressive, but the tactical variety that the expansion (occasionally) throws out out you elevates the experience to a whole new level. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Great stuff!)

Fifes & Drums



Another game (or, rather, game system) that travels remarkably well is a Decktet set, as pictured above (yep, that’s actually my own photograph for a change!). I can easily fit my own deck and chips inside the Agricola:ACBAS box, along with all the ACBAS and MBBAS stuff. Perfect!

We fancied trying something we hadn’t played before. Fifes and Drums seemed like a good candidate… after all, we were in town to watch a battle re-enactment, and Fifes and Drums is all about a battle. Or, rather, about retreating from a battle. Here’s the official game blurb:

It is the last battle in the final campaign of a mad but brilliant general. Six companies of tired soldiers are all that stands between him and the advancing enemy. He doesn’t realize it yet, but there is no way for him to win.

Fortunately, you are not playing the general in this game. Unfortunately, you’re not the advancing army either.

Instead, you play a member of the general’s staff. You were offered money by captains of a few of the remaining companies. Maneuver them off the field before the inevitable defeat, and they will pay you handsomely. So cue the fifes and drums! Jigger the retreat orders to put your cronies as far from danger as possible.


The game works like this: There’s a score track, ranging from 1 to 100. Six decktet chips (each representing a different company in the mad general’s army) are placed at the start of the track. Each player is then secretly assigned 3 companies … your objective is to get THOSE three companies as far away from the battlefront (square 1) as possible before the game ends. Due to the way that companies are assigned (using the decktet’s 3-suited pawn and court cards) it’s possible for you and your opponent to have a shared interest in one or two of your units — though you’ll always have at least one (usually more) unit that’s not in common.

Three cards are dealt onto the table — these are the 3 available orders that can be given to the army units on a given turn. The double-suited cards allow you to move the two depicted companies in the direction(s) of your choice (towards or away from the battle). The ace cards allow the depicted unit to do a “forced” march, up or down the track (i.e. they keep moving until they meet another unit)… and the “crown” cards… well, they’re sort of interesting; when there’s a crown card in the display, it means the general wants that particular army to engage the enemy… so, all the time that a crown is showing, the relevant army can only move towards the battlefront, not away from it. When the crown card is finally used to issue an order (rather than just left sitting in the command display), it makes the relevant unit perform a “forced” march move, towards the battlefront.

What ensues is an odd game of bluffing, counter-bluffing, and mis-direction… with each player giving orders to try to improve their own situation and worsen the opponents (assumed) situation, while generally trying to obfuscate all their intents and motivations.

I successfully guessed Mrs Shep’s units quite early in the game, and identified the one that we had in common … deliberately nudging that one in the wrong direction from time to time, just to keep her guessing. (Ineffectually, as it turned out, as she’d already guessed we shared that one too). Nevertheless, in the final reckoning I managed to steal a small victory… Mrs Shep had only correctly guessed two of my units, while I’d sussed out all three of hers.

It was an interesting and clever game, and very different from the other decktet titles that I’ve played… but it wasn’t really my kind of thing; I’m not a huge fan of bluffing games, and I don’t think it’s one that I’ll revisit in a hurry — there are other decktet games (Emu Ranchers, Yay!) that we rate far higher. It’s always nice to try something new though!

And: Some of that high-tech digital game nonsense



Mrs Shep decided to curl up with a good book at this point, so I rounded off the evening’s gaming with some iPad boardgaming in the shape of Alien Frontiers (which I’m still quite fond of despite its weak/cheaty AI) and Le Havre — which is a lovely, lovely translation of the cardboard version, and an essential purchase for any Uwe-Rosenberg-loving iPad owner.

Not a bad way to hide from the bad weather, all said and done
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Mon Jan 28, 2013 6:55 pm
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Newcastle Gamers - 12th January

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
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The first Newcastle Gamers session of the year! But… for reasons far too convoluted to explain right now, I began the day in a hotel room nearly 300 miles away from the venue. I was facing a 5/6 hour drive… possibly through some very snowy Cairngorms (the weather forecast for Scotland was looking somewhat dubious)… Would I make it back to Newcastle in time? Would I make it back …AT ALL?

Well, yes. Of course I would — there was gaming to be done!! I only arrived a few minutes late (my excuse is that I had to stop off at home en-route feed the cat), and found Olly & Owain setting up a game of…

High Frontier



High Frontier is a game about building rockets, ferrying stuff around the solar system, and building extra-terrestrial factories. It’s *extremely* sciency. You know when people say that thing: “Hey, it’s complicated, but it’s not rocket science”? … well, High Frontier is the game where they don’t say that. It’s both complicated AND rocket science. You move around the board following scientifically-accurate gravity maps, Hohmann transfer orbits and Lagrange points, worrying about the wet vs dry mass of your fuel tanks, and doing all kinds of other space-geek things like that. It’s pretty hardcore stuff.

…So hardcore, in fact, that when Olly first got his hands on the game (a month ago), the three of us decided that we’d all need to swot up on the rules and do some serious studying in advance of a session. It’s not the sort of thing you can plonk on a table, explain in 15 minutes and than start playing. High Frontier is a game that demands homework!

How did that work out? Well, not too badly, really. The “official” rules for the game are hard-going, but there’s a nice (8-part) walkthrough on board game geek that helps get the basics down. Nevertheless, I think I must’ve spent a total of 2 or 3 hours going through the rules and studying the board in advance of actually playing the game… and still felt a little bit uncertain about what I was doing throughout.

But how does it play? Well… it’s an odd mixture. The core part of the game — flying your spaceship around the solar system — is a really neat mechanism. Plotting your course, assessing the risks, loading up with the right amount of fuel, and whizzing around the board in a real-life-physics-based sort of way… all great.

The bit that I’m less sure about is the pick-up-and-deliver game that the designer has bolted around this lovely, sciency core.

There’s an auction system at the front end of the game (used to buy patents, which grant you the right to construct various lumps of rocket technology) which just doesn’t feel like a good fit to me. The patent cards that come up for grabs each turn are fed from a random stack, and there are quirky rules concerning the way that the proceeds from the auction are paid, and the way that tied bids are broken. I didn’t like it; it seemed like a very contrived/”gamey” contrast to the rocket flight part of the game… maybe it’s my dyed-in-the-wool inner-eurogamer speaking, but I’d greatly prefer a system that let you research/invest resources in the specific flight + exploration systems that you’re interested in, and gain them that way.

Secondly, I’m not 100% sold on the “prospecting” part of the game. When you land at a destination, you (usually) roll a die to discover if your journey has been worthwhile or not. If you roll the right number (which is often just a 1 or 2 on a 6 sided dice) you *significantly* increase your chance of winning the game, right there. Roll the wrong number and… well, you’re out of luck; Better fly somewhere else and try again. I’m not keen on that. That aspect of the game is just a little bit too ameritrashy for my taste.

So yeah… overall, mixed feelings. There were bits I liked, and bits that just left me with no sense of agency and didn’t really work for me. It’s strange though; immediately after playing the game, I was left with a sense of “yeah, that was OK… no masterpiece, but I’d probably play it again.”…. BUT the next morning, I found myself logged into board game geek, obsessively studying the map again, figuring out what I _should_ have done in that first game, and thinking “yeah, actually, I really DO want to play this again”. So maybe High Frontier managed to get its claws into me after all. Interesting.

Anyway, next up:

Age of Industry



(this is a pic of the end-game, with all the resources used and all the tiles flipped. The game looks a bit prettier when you’re actually playing it. )

This is my latest acquisition, purchased on the basis that its close-cousin Brass made a spectacularly positive impression on me the last time I visited Newcastle Gamers (and further influenced by the fact that Board Game Guru were knocking them out for £17 a copy in their Christmas sale – w00t!). Paul joined our table for this game, claiming that it’s one of his all-time favourites, so that was a good start

Age of Industry is a game about building industries (surprise!). You construct coal mines, iron works, mills, factories, ports and shipping lanes, and connect them all up with railways. The interest comes from building your industrial network in such a way as to make YOUR industries supply the needs of the other players (so, for example, if somebody needs coal, they have to take it from the nearest colliery … which, via some cunning play, could be YOUR colliery). Once the resources (or services) that your building provides have been fully utilised — either by you, or another player — the counter is flipped, and you earn money. The money allows you to buy… well, predictably enough… MORE INDUSTRY!

This is the second time I’ve played AOI, and it’s made a good impression on both outings. I think on my first run through I was so busy comparing the game to Brass that I wasn’t really appreciating it in on its own terms; this time I was spotting its own little nuances. It’s certainly an awful lot lighter than Brass, but apparently the depth of gameplay ramps up quite pleasingly with the more complicated maps. I’m looking forward to trying them out.

The game was fairly long with 4 players; the Germany map is one of the more forgiving layouts, but still got pretty crowded — I’m not sure I’d be keen to go up to 5 players. I enjoyed it though… I think this could very easily become my medium-weight network-building game of choice (sorry Powergrid.. your days might be numbered!).

High Frontier and Age of Industry consumed quite a lengthy chunk of the evening, and it was starting to get late. Something a bit lighter (and shorter) was in order. That something was:

Würfel Bohnanza



Würfel Bohnanza is a dice game, thematically (though not mechanically) related to Uwe Rosenberg’s Bohnanza franchise. Paul had a brand new imported copy — he’d played it before (at Essen?), and said it was quite good. I’m always keen to play a Rosenberg title that I haven’t played before (yes, EVEN if it’s a dice game!), and the 45 minute play time seemed about right. So that’s what we played next.

At least… that’s what we _planned_ to play next. What actually happened was Paul realised he couldn’t remember how the game worked, and the rules were in German. We therefore played a new game, called: “who can download the english translation to their smartphone first…”.

Those thick church walls play havoc with 3G reception. Apparently.

Anyway, we finally got up and running. The game is a *bit* yahtzee-ish… though I suppose most dice games are, to some extent. In this particular yahtzee-ish game, each player is issued with a card showing various combinations of beans that you need to roll — in sequence — to earn bean dollars. You spend your turn rolling a diminishing set of dice, reserving at least one of your results from each throw, and re-rolling the remainder… trying to advance your way up the schedule on the card.

There are two key aspects that make the game a bit more interesting than it sounds: firstly, once you’ve completed the first 3 target lines of your card, you’re allowed to cash it in (for a reduced quantity of bean dollars) and skip to the next card in your queue instead — rather than go for the more expensive lines on your card… so there’s a “quit now” vs “push-your-luck” thing going on. The second twist is: when it’s not your turn, you’re still allowed to “use” the active dice that the other players roll to complete your own sets… so you’re still engaged in the game (and potentially nabbing points) even when it’s not your turn.

I don’t normally like dice games, but this one was oddly compelling… you can sense that there’s some sensible combinatorial mathematics behind the card sequences, and the way that they interact with the odds offered by the (two different designs of) dice just felt instinctively clever and elegant.

How can I explain this?… well, you know how you sometimes just _know_ that you’re playing a game built by a mathematician, and you have an innate sense that everything behind the scenes is very precise and clever?… and (conversely) sometimes you just _know_ that you’re playing a game designed by some dude who just slapped a bunch of numbers down onto a card and thought “yeah, those values seem like fun, that’ll do.”. Well, Würfel Bohnanza definitely belongs to the first category. There’s a very satisfying odds-crunching aspect to it all, and interesting considerations to make about when to skip cards, and which particular dice you should reserve to block your opponents from freeloading on your rolls.

So, despite it being a yahtzee-esque dice game… I liked it. It’s maybe just a shade too lengthy to be a regularly-usable filler, but If I’m ever looking for a tiny game to make up the figures on an import order, I’ll definitely consider this one.

* * *

And then… it was 11:30pm already. I’d had a long day. Time to drive home.

Best Bits: being able to tick High Frontier on the big list of games I’ve played. Seriously… just managing to finish a game of that one seems like a landmark achievement. Though I think Age of Industry edges it out in terms of being the thing that I actually enjoyed playing the most on the night. Good to see a fair few new people turning up this week too; many of them arriving individually (reminded me how nervous/awkward I felt the first time I turned up)… I was a bit too wrapped up in High Frontier to see what sort of fates befell them (and had an awkward not-facing-the-rest-of-the-room seat), but I hope they all enjoyed their evening.

Worst Bits: I didn’t seem to play very many games this week… mostly because I got locked into two moderately-long games, back-to-back (though I was very keen to play both of them!). The venue also seemed to be a bit cold again … maybe because the car-park door seems to be perpetually propped open to enable access. Oh… and the guilt-inducing feeling of turning people away from the (seemingly) vacant chair at the table while setting up High Frontier — since we *really* didn’t want to have to try to teach it to a 4th party on the fly(!)

Still, fairly minor quibbles really. it was a good evening’s gaming!

Next time… something shorter and less anti-social. I hope

CREDITS: Session pics taken by Olly. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the month. Usual cost is £3 (or £1 for concession — check our G+ group for more info.

Originally published at: http://johnshepherd.me.uk/
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Wed Jan 16, 2013 2:33 pm
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Newcastle Gamers - 8th December

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
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Another Newcastle Gamers session… and another occurrence of the (now-familiar) minor panic when everybody arrives at the venue and we discover we’re locked out for one reason or another. Fortunately, the circus school were using the building next door, and there’s some kind of interconnection between the two buildings, so Chairman John managed to wheedle his way through via that route and open the doors from the inside. ‘Phew. As it happened, Robert turned up moments later with his key, so we’d have got in the venue with a little more patience anyway. But… you know how it is… those games won’t play themselves – every second counts!

Stuff I played this week:

Snowdonia



First up was a slightly out-of-the-ordinary game of Snowdonia. What made it out-of-the-ordinary? Well… Owain has managed to get his hands on a playtest version of an un-released expansion for the game, and he was keen to give it a spin with 4 players. I’d already tried the expansion with 2 players (more about that later) and was keen to give it another go… and Olly and Michael had also informally arranged to play via the club’s google+ group. As it turned out, Michael couldn’t make it on the night, so Freddie took the vacant seat.

Since I’ve discussed the basic Snowdonia game in a previous blog entry, I’ll mostly concentrate on our experiences with the expansion here. The current version seats up to 4 players, is based on the Jungfrau mountain railway in Switzerland, and introduces two significant changes to the game: Dynamite and Snow.

In the original version of Snowdonia, building the railway is (essentially) a two-stage process. First, you use your workers to clear rubble from the course of the railway… and once the rubble is out of the way, you can put down railway track. The Jungfrau expansion adds a preliminary step to this routine. The (real-life) Jungfrau is basically a 9km tunnel, cut straight through the mountains and glaciers of the Bernese alps … so in this version of the game — prior to any rubble being shifted — you need to blast your way through the mountains with dynamite. You get victory points for performing these blasting operations and also — in another departure from the base game — the number of track spaces between each station is semi-randomized, and only revealed as each segment of the route is blasted open.

Dynamite is a scarce resource … you can collect a single stick (OK… “cube”) of dynamite whenever you visit the “works” action space, and there are some interesting strategic considerations to be made in where and when you use it. In addition to using dynamite to blast your way through the mountains, you can also deploy it as a super-speedy way to clear rubble during subsequent excavations… (though at a penalty of not being able to take any rubble cubes into your inventory — which can impact your contract completion). Dynamite is a really interesting addition to the game — I like it a lot

Somewhat less-thematically-convincing (but also great to have in the game) is the snow mechanism. In the Jungfrau variant, a weather type of “Snow” replaces the “Fog” of the base game… and whenever it snows, previously-cleared excavations get re-covered with snow. Or, more accurately: re-covered with rubble … since you basically just stack rubble cubes back in the the affected spots. This “replaced” rubble can then be cleared and collected just like any other rubble can. So it’s snow by name, but rubble by effect.

While the presence of “snow” on an underground railway might be a bit thematically strange, its effect improves the game massively. Admittedly, I don’t have a vast amount of experience with the base version of Snowdonia, but I did feel that the original game had a bit of a strange pace about it — mostly due to the way that the white cubes would auto-complete chunks of the railway for you in unpredictable fits and starts. The snowfall seems to temper that a bit; it rolls back the auto-completion from time to time, cancels out the white-cube station-building events, and generally makes the whole game seem to flow a bit more steadily. It just feels better, somehow. It’s hard to explain, but — for my money — snow is a very good addition. Even if it is bizarre physics-defying underground snow.

There are a couple of other tweaks in the current rule-set — surveyors score slightly differently, and contracts have been tweaked — but the dynamite and snow are the main features. And splendid main features they are too!

An enjoyable time was had by all… I scored the most, but sadly I can’t attribute my victory entirely to sharp gameplay. I’d already played a 2p Jungfrau game with Owain earlier in the week, in which we’d come to the conclusion that the special advantages conferred by a couple of the trains were maybe a bit overbalanced in the Jungfrau variant — and I was pretty much using this second game as an opportunity to sanity-check that theory. Sure enough, the owners of the “suspect” trains came in first and second place. Still, that’s kind of the point in playtesting, right? (and word from the game designer — Tony Boydell — is that one of the trains has now been neutered, and the other is possibly being removed from the variant completely. So all’s well that ends well).

I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen of the Jungfrau expansion so far… in fact, I think I already prefer it to base game(!). If you like Snowdonia, mark this one down as an essential purchase

Next: Hanabi



A few club members had arranged to go out for food together, and we needed a short-ish game to help make all the arrangements synch up … so out came Hanabi. Hanabi is the weird co-operative firework-themed card game that I’ve written about pretty extensively here… so I’ll spare you a repeat explanation. Suffice to say, the club record remained steadfastly un-broken; we scored a decidedly average 15, ranking the show as “Honorable, but nobody will remember it”. Boo!

Dixit Odyssey



I’m surprised I haven’t written about the Dixit family of games before… but, I guess I’ve never played it at Newcastle Gamers, so that’s probably why.

Dixit is an unusual game. Its main component is a deck of cards, each containing an unusual / whimsical / somewhat surreal illustration. A ladybird with a telescope… A man being chased by a venus flytrap… A chicken in a police uniform… That kind of thing. When it’s your turn to play, you pick a card from your hand and invent a clue to allow the other players to identify it (the rules say the clue can be verbal, or a mime, or singing… pretty much anything goes. Though I’ve never seen anybody do anything other than give a verbal clue). Next, each other player has to donate one of their cards to a central stack, and your original card is shuffled in amongst them. Your opponents then have to try to identify your card.

If another player guesses correctly, they score a point, and you (the clue giver) get 3 points. However, there’s a catch: if everybody guesses your card successfully, you score nothing. Therefore, you’re trying to give a clue that is sufficiently oblique to only be guessed by one or two of your opponents. Aside from another scoring rule or two that I’ll not bore you with here, that’s pretty much the whole game. It’s simple, but clever.

Here’s the downside: I find Dixit to be a game that’s a little bit difficult to play against a bunch of opponents that you don’t know very well. For me, the game shines when you have a certain degree of empathy or commonality in the group… and you know what sort of level you should pitch your clues at or what sort of nuances you can get away with. More of “friends & family” kind of game — it never seems to work so well for me when played with relative strangers. I suppose if I played it a lot at Newcastle Gamers — or against the people there that I know a bit better than most — I’d get a better feel for giving clues in that particular context… but there’s usually other stuff around that I’m more interested in playing. So I don’t.

As such, Dixit was probably my least-favourite game of the night. Still, other folks were keen to play it, enjoyed it, and it filled a gap. But by the end of the game, I was keen to get back to some cube-pushing eurogame action…

…so out came: Village



After having a bit of a hiatus from playing Village, this turned out to be my second game within the space of a single week! They were both very different experiences too… the previous game had gone at a fairly leisurely pace — I managed to bag every location on the travelling-the-world task, and scores were pretty high across the board. This game, by comparison, flew past very quickly. Deaths came thick and fast (the residents of this particular village clearly had far harder lives than the people living in the previous one!) … and I think we only managed to play three full rounds. I was making a blind play for the world-travelling task again (never a good idea in a short game) and barely managed to cover half the available destinations… in fact, I didn’t really get a decent points engine into play at all; even my family deaths were badly-timed and failed to get any significant presence in the book of remembrance. Hmmm. A good lesson in the perils of taking the pace of the game for granted!

Skull



Another filler… and a game I’d read about but hadn’t played before. Skull and Roses is a very simple bluffing game; basically, each player has a set of 4 beer mats… one of which depicts a skull on the flip-side, while the others feature roses. Each turn you either add a card (/mat) to the stack in front of you, or make a bet that you can flip x amount of cards over without encountering a skull. Then the other players can either raise or call your bet. The clever bit being… you must flip over every card in your own stack before you’re allowed to flip anybody else’s cards, so there’s a big double-bluff thing going on; you can deliberately bury a skull in your own pile, then open the betting (trying to entice somebody into raising the bet) — but if you’re actually called on to play that bet, you’ll lose.

As bluffing games go, it’s elegant, and very very clever — probably one of the best bluffing games I’ve played (though the genre, as a whole, doesn’t usually attract me). It’s a bit of an oddity though, and I’m kind of surprised it exists as a “published” game — the rules are simple, and you could easily play it with a regular deck of cards. The “biker gang” beer mats do add a certain atmosphere though. And it worked great as a 10-minute filler

Finally: Revolution!



Another new-to-me game. Revolution is a light-ish title concerning hidden bidding and area control. Each round, you get a number of tokens to use to gain influence on various characters within the town… there are cash tokens (for bribes), envelopes (blackmail) and fists (for violence!). You make your bids in secret, using a mini-board hidden behind a shield … then bids are simultaneously revealed, and whoever made the highest value bid on each individual character gets various benefits — these might be support points (i.e. victory points), bidding tokens to use in the next round, or the ability to place (or re-arrange) coloured cubes in the various areas of the town. At the end of the game, there are bonus points awarded depending on who has dominance in each section of the town.

The game can get a bit nasty towards the end, as people compete for the last few spots of dominance. I fell into the trap of making tit-for-tat attacks on Jerome’s areas, as I’d earmarked him as my most dangerous opponent. This ended up backfiring, as both we ended up in 3rd and 4th place… (in a field of 4 — oops!). Meanwhile, Lloyd (the only person who had played before) coasted into a significant lead. I wish I’d paid more attention to how he did it — he seemed to be accumulating huge reservoirs of influence tokens in the critical final rounds.

Not a bad game; it was easy to pick up, not overly complex, and somehow felt like exactly the right sort of game to be playing at that point in the evening… certainly not a triple-A title, but it was fun and something I’d quite happily play again.

Summary: An excellent evening’s gaming. Two top class games (Snowdonia and Village), and a smattering of perfectly good secondary titles filling the gaps. Even the Dixit session — which I realise I was maybe a bit down on in the tone of this article — wasn’t really that bad; I’ve certainly played far worse.

The next session is scheduled for Saturday the 29th December, and is planned to be an all-dayer (should be a good opportunity for everybody to give their new Christmas pressies an outing!). As an added bonus, we definitely have a key for the front door this time. Looking forward to it already!

CREDITS: Session pics stolen from Ana, Owain and John F. The Jungfrau playtest is mentioned here with the designer’s blessing — though we totally forgot to photograph it (doh!!). Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the month. Usual cost is £3 (or £1 for concessions), but your first visit is free … check our G+ group for more info.
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Wed Dec 19, 2012 7:16 pm
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Newcastle Gamers - 24th November

John Shepherd
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Prudhoe
Northumberland
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Oh dear... 3 posts in, and I've already got a bit rubbish at keeping the BGG version of my blog updated. Rest assured, however, that you'll find all the missing gaming reports over on my "proper" blog: http://johnshepherd.me.uk/

Meanwhile...

Newcastle Gamers, 24th November

Arrived this week to discover most of the members of the club gathered in a huddle outside the front door; it transpired that a circus school trapeze class was still in full swing (Ha! “full swing”! Did you see what I did there? Huh? Did you?). I don’t think they were aware that we had the hall booked, as they seemed to be planning to hold some kind of extra-curricular aerial training session throughout the evening… but they apologetically started stowing their equipment away when the board-gamers began to arrive en-mass.

Hmmm. I wonder who would win a fight between a troupe of trained circus performers, and a pack of disgruntled middle-aged geeks, desperate for their fortnightly boardgaming fix.

Anyway, it took them a while to hoist all their bits and pieces away, so we started a bit late. Eager to get things underway — and having already pre-planned a game with Olly & Owain — I promptly set up my new copy of:

Power Grid: Northern Europe/United Kingdom & Ireland



After a short period of map critique from various passers-by (mostly expressing surprise at the somewhat-creative positioning of many UK cities), we roped in a couple of extra players — Lloyd and Gordon — and the game got underway.

It was the first time that any of us had played this map; it was launched a couple of weeks ago at Essen, and only had its UK release earlier this week. As we played, it struck me as a fairly gentle map; no overly-cruel choke points, and a fairly even spread of cheap bits and expensive bits. The map’s main gimmick — being able to start two different grids (one on Britain, one on Ireland) didn’t seem to have a major impact on the game, but that might be because we chose Northern Ireland to be the excluded territory on this particular outing, possibly making that side of the map a slightly less attractive investment. The most interesting aspect was probably the resource flow for the UK — starting with zero uranium in the first round (though plenty later), and ending with fewer-than-normal fossil fuels in phase 3 (in fact, Gordon was denied a victory opportunity purely due to the fact that the coal market was entirely exhausted at a strategically-critical point).

It was a very close game — Gordon took an early lead of one or two cities and (amazingly) managed to maintain it pretty much throughout the game. He won the game with 17 cities… I was one behind on 16, and I think the other players ended on 14/15.

I don’t think this’ll rank as one of my favourite PG maps, though I expect it’ll get plenty of plays purely by virtue of it featuring the UK… and it does seem to be a fairly evenly-balanced/accessible one for new players. If I played it again with experienced PG players, I’d be tempted to toss in plenty of promo cards to spice it up a bit.

The flip-side of the map — Northern Europe — features some alternative powerplant cards, which seem like an interesting tweak. John Flynn’s copy of this map was being played at a different table; it’ll be interesting to read how the session went.

Update: read about it here: https://plus.google.com/108534178954684480040/posts/AYRS8Nkx...

(…and a third table was playing a copy of Friedemann Friese’s Copy Cat at the same time as both of the power-grid games were going on. 2F games have clearly made a big impact on Newcastle Gamers this week!)

Next: Agricola



Yay! 17th Century subsistence farming!

The last few times I’ve played Agricola, it’s generally been with first-timers, and we’ve mostly been playing with the E-deck. This time, most of the people playing had prior Agricola experience (Jerome had only played once, but played scarily well on that single occasion), so we played with a 3/4 mix of E-Deck and I-Deck cards. I think the result was a pretty interesting game.

The “I” in I-deck stands for “interactive” … with the occupations and major improvements tending towards (though not exclusively based on) effects which piggy-back on the actions or improvements of your opponents. So, for example, Olly’s wood trader allowed him to buy a chunk of wood off another player whenever that particular player took a wood-gathering action. My fence builder occupation got me resources whenever somebody added fences to their farm… one of my minor improvements was a special clay pit which other players could visit by paying me food… etc etc. Difficulty-wise, it’s not much of a step up from the E-deck … but it does introduce some pleasing player-to-player transactions.

By some fluke, I got a dealt a hand full of clay-based improvements and occupations at the start of the game… far more than I could practically bring into effect. I settled into a combo that gave me a cheap route to a sizeable clay house. Olly had the baker occupation and a mill-stone improvement, which set him up for a strong bread-baking tactic, and Jerome (whose cards I didn’t really see in detail as he was sitting diagonally opposite) seemed to have an extremely effective vegetable-growing tactic set up (including a special oven that converted 1 veg to 4 food). I suspect the cards had been less-kind to Russell; he played a fairly straight game of ‘gric with a rush for family growth and a 4-room stone house.

Final scores: Jerome and I tied on 29, Olly had 27 (amazingly playing the entire game with only 2 family members), and Russell ended with 21.

Enjoyable game. Agricola is always an enjoyable game.

Finally: Survive: Escape from Atlantis!



First time I’ve played this, and I *really* enjoyed it. It’s light, it’s aimed at a family audience, and it has a fair bit of randomness involved — so isn’t the kind of thing I’m usually very into — but it’s a cracking bit of game design, successfully balances the luck with planning and strategy, and was the perfect ending to the evening after a couple of weighty, thinky titles.

Survive:Escape from Atlantis is a fairly straightforward “chase” game … you start with a set of meeples on an island in the middle of the ocean. Each turn, a chunk of island sinks into the waves, and eventually one of the sunken bits of island will reveal a volcano which promptly explodes and ends the game. The object of the game is to evacuate your meeples… either by boat, or by swimming… to the safety of neighbouring islands before the volcano appears.

However, the waters around the island are infested with sea monsters, sharks, and boat-destroying whales. After you’ve moved your meeples, you get a chance to move one of these monsters at random, and mess with your opponent’s plans. It’s cut-throat, brilliant fun, and has moved pretty close to the top of my list of “things I’m likely to buy very soon”. Enjoyed it a lot — highly recommended

Best bit of the night: Survive: Escape from Atlantis… though Agricola ranks a close second.

Worst bit: that slightly awkward moment where a gang of middle age blokes come along and kick a bunch of happy young circus girls out of the playground, ‘cos they want to play boardgames

Anyway, it’s been a good week for games. Aside from the above gaming sesh, I also managed to sneak in games of Suburbia and Troyes at Owain’s place mid-week (Suburbia opinion: quite enjoyed it, and I’d happily play it again, but it’s not one I’d pro-actively put forward for playing during a session — it just didn’t push the right buttons for me for some reason), and clocked up games of Chronology, Pandemic and Zooloretto while visiting my parents on Friday night. We’ve even managed a few Decktet games on evenings in between (Emu Ranchers = brilliant!). I’ve been spoilt. And it’s not even Christmas yet!

CREDITS:
Pictures courtesy of Olly. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the month. Usual cost is £3 (or £1 for concessions), but your first visit is free … more info on our BGG guild page.
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Thu Dec 6, 2012 10:22 am
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