The Tyranny of Small Decisions

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In the Year of the Dragon (and a year of something else...)

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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Monday night was — as is now the tradition — virtual board gaming night. And it’s reassuring to find that some elements of our online gaming exploits remain a true reflection of the experience of gaming in-the-flesh. Namely: spending at least 10 minutes at the start of each session uhming-and-ah-ing over what we’re going to play.

We eventually settled upon: In the Year of the Dragon (Board Game Arena)

From gallery of MrShep


Board Game Arena's version of ITYOTD has a pretty stripped-back presentation compared to the physical board game … in fact, it’s been stripped back so far that it doesn’t even have a board any more! To be fair the only critical functionality of the physical board is tracking advancement on a couple of points tracks, so it’s not a huge miss… but this presentation does kind of make you wonder why Alea never banged out a “In the Year of the Dragon - The Card Game” spin-off; it does seem like a prime candidate when played like this

Anyway… it’s a very enjoyable implementation, once you’ve got past the quirky presentation. That said, it’s about 3 years since I last played ITYOTD, and it took me 2 or 3 rounds to get back into the swing of things. Which is about 3 or 4 rounds more wriggle room than this game gives ANY player (it’s a very harsh game, even when you know what you’re doing!) … so, urm, yeah. I didn’t do great. But I also didn’t come last. So at least there’s that.

And then, to wrap up the session: Startups (Tabletop Simulator, unofficial mod)

From gallery of MrShep


…which (as I’ve mentioned previously) is a very, very impressive implementation, and quite a novelty for a TTS mod in so far as it’s been scripted with full game moderation and rules enforcement… and once you’ve fumbled your way through which hot-spot you need to click to trigger which action, it plays like a dream. Admittedly you don’t get to look your opponents in the whites of their eyes as you try to bluff and showboat your way out of a particularly nasty hand… but, yeah. It’s a good implementation, this is… and it was great to dig back into an old Newcastle Gamers favourite after a long gap

Speaking of Newcastle Gamers, long gaps, and games about bad years… (maudlin nostalgic musings are about to happen — you have been warned!) …it occurred to me that THIS gaming session coincided with the exact one year anniversary of the last time that I managed to attend a real-world Newcastle Gamers meeting.

Of course, there was a couple of other Newcastle Gamers meetings between the start of February 2020 and UK lockdown #1 beginning in mid-March… but sadly I was too busy wife carrying and aire-conning to attend those. So 8th February 2020 was my last one. And the last time that I managed to sit down for a face-to-face game against two of the fine people that I played against virtually on the 8th February 2021.

It doesn't seem like a year since I saw those guys.

It’s scary how quickly time goes by cry

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Wed Feb 10, 2021 7:10 am
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Newcastle Gamers - Early April

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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A virtual session this week (obviously!), to which I could only pay a brief visit. However, I did manage to squeeze in a game of Takenoko vs Ana and Andrew.

Takenoko turns out to be a bit of a deterity challenge when played in Tabletop Simulator... but we managed.

However... once you've started seeing the game components through a covid-19 lens, it's kind of hard to un-see it.

From gallery of MrShep


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Sun Apr 12, 2020 7:10 am
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(not) Newcastle Gamers, Late March

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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In some nearby-but-slightly-splintered-from-this-one reality, yesterday marked the late March meetup of Newcastle Gamers. People travelled to the city from all over the region, gathered in the church hall, played games, and had a lot of fun doing so. And those people took their ability to leave their home and to spend time in the same space as other human beings completely for granted. They didn't even think twice about it. Just like they'd been doing month after month... year after year... in a totally natural, absolutely-low-personal-risk kind of a way.

Alas, in our own reality, that's not a thing that we can do in the immediate future. The church hall remained dark and unoccupied this Saturday. And for the first time in many years, the last-Saturday-of-the-month went by without a gathering of the Newcastle Gamers.

At least... not a physical gathering.

Because -- denied our regular gaming opportunity -- a brave few of us got together virtually, to give Tabletop Simulator a proper test run. To find out how well it works in practice, and whether it could really work as a viable stand-in for pushing wooden cubes and cardboard around on a physical tabletop.

It took a little while to get everybody up and running. I don't have kids. But I could kind of imagine the eye-rolling and disdain that the sight of a bunch of middle aged men trying to get to grips with a discord server ("hello... hello... can anybody hear me?") and Steam friend-invite confusion would trigger in the average already-fluent-in-this-stuff teenager. But we did, eventually, all manage to get connected and playing together.

From gallery of MrShep


We'd decided to try Jorvik as a test title; it's a reasonably short game which we all enjoy and know well, it doesn't have too many moving parts to fiddle with, and it doesn't have any card hand management to confuse people with on a first attempt.

I think some participants were better at finding their way around the 3d environment than others ... I've got a fair bit of (video) gaming + 3d modelling experience, so I'm used to throwing 3d content around on-screen ... and once I'd got my head around the controls, I found Tabletop Simulator to be a VERY easy + fluid environment to play in. Our linux-based participant seemed to struggle a bit ... but that might be down to a slightly-less-good port / low-spec machine. Whatever the cause, he still managed to get by ... with the occasional helpful nudge of his playing pieces from other folks.

And all-in-all, this was a really good experience. Better than I thought it would be. After some initial teething troubles, discord performed perfectly; it was literally a case of set it running, and then forget it's there -- and the simulator software really did give as good a sense of playing a real, physical board game ... of picking up pieces, and moving coins backwards and forwards, and flipping cards etc. With just a little bit of suspension of disbelief, you can get pretty close to the at-the-table experience.

The game did run long... it probably took us twice as long to play it this way as it typically takes us to play the physical version (which, truth be told, is maybe just a little bit too long to be playing Jorvik for!) -- but I'm sure that would get a lot better as people's familiarity with the tools improves. And the technical performance of the software was fine ... I've heard reports of disconnects and glitches from other people playing with Tabletop Simulator over recent days -- but our game was rock solid.

All in all, this experience made me really happy; it confirmed that there's a way -- a pretty decent, and not-desperately-half-arsed-way -- to keep gaming with the Newcastle regulars through however long this social distancing thing lasts.

It might not be quite as good an experience as face-to-face gaming is... but it's close. Way closer than I'd hoped. And now that I've had chance to give Tabletop Simulator a proper test-flight, I don't feel at all hesitant to suggest to my other regular gaming chums that this piece of software is well worth investing in.

Happy days!

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Sun Mar 29, 2020 7:10 am
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Newcastle Gamers - Early February

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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I don't seem to be getting to Newcastle Gamers anywhere nearly as much as I'd like to these days ... other commitments -- and the final, difficult-to-schedule items on Mrs Shep's list of odd british customs that need to be seen -- have had a tendency to encroach on the first-and-third Saturdays of the month of late. However, last night the stars and fates were in alignment, and I managed to get across for a session

First game to (finally) hit the table: The so-far-undisclosed train game that I got sent a preview of a few weeks ago.

From gallery of MrShep


No, your internet connection isn't broken; I'm just not sure if pictures of the game are under embargo or not. To be honest, it won't take you much detective work to figure out what the game is ... and when I hear back from the publisher about whether it's OK to show pictures or not*, I'll post more about it. An enjoyable game though; it clocked in at about 45 minutes, and raised a general verdict from the table of "yeah, that had some interesting/tricky decisions. I'd happily play that one again." (which, from this bunch, is a very positive outcome!)

Next: Medici

From gallery of MrShep


25 years old this year? Gulp. Medici is a Knizia auction classic that's still well worth an occasional airing. Though I still don't really know how to approach it, and invariably end up just playing by gut feeling, rather than attempting to math it out. Though I placed second, in a field of people who very much did seem to be trying to math it out. So I'll happily take that

And from one Knizia Classic to...

Khan of Khans

From gallery of MrShep


...a game which, it turns out, is very much not a Knizia classic. It's basically a push your luck / test your memory / everything-changes-on-a-random-flip-of-a-card affair, with a runequest/glorantha cow-rustling(!) theme pasted on. The theming is fun, and Ian O'Tool's cartoon take on the world of Glorantha is joy to behold ... but the game itself is... really... just a heap of random old tosh. But at least it only takes 15 minutes to play. And maybe it would work as a family game. Or as a not-at-all-serious late-night pub game. But ... nah... very much not my kind of thing.

This was, however, followed by something which very much is my kind of thing...

Bus

From gallery of MrShep


I think we're out of the innocent honeymoon phase of naively playing this as a straightforward-ish pick-up-and-deliver game, and moving soundly into "screwing over your opponents by dicking around with the space/time continuum" territory now. 4 of the 5 time crystals were spent in this game ... and -- wow -- that approach really spikes the difficulty and gives you a whole load rationality/mitigation decisions to make. I'm really surprised that this game currently sits at a weight rating of 3 on BGG; I'd love to know what the people who rank it at that level think a properly heavy game is (or whether they've actually played this game more than once...). Excellent game though. Amazingly tight design.

Arraial

From gallery of MrShep


Something a bit gentler to wind down after the thorough brain-burning of Bus; a dose of cardboard tetris, in the shape of Arraial. To be honest, I'd mostly shoved this game in my bag to fill up the space (my big fancy game bag tends to collapse a bit if you don't fill it to capacity), adding this one in on the basis that it's pretty straightforward, I could muddle through the rules without any advance revision, and that we probably wouldn't even get around to playing it anyway. But we did play it. And after one (very quickly-corrected) false start on the rules front, we were soon underway.

From gallery of MrShep
My final, super-messy board. Things definitely didn't go my way here.

From gallery of MrShep
Olly's super-efficient, super-compact winning board across the table

My conclusions from the previous post about this one still stand... it does have a whiff of multi-player solitaire about it, save for the fact that the player sitting to your right gets the opportunity to set the challenge that you face on each turn to be as awkward as possible. And it's a shame that it's always the same player that's directly influencing you, as it almost seems like you're simultaneously playing two different asymmetrical 2-player games (and have minimal interaction with the person sitting opposite you) -- but I can't really see any elegant way of mixing that up a bit, so I can see how the designers went with it this way.

But... meh...it's Tetris. Tetris is always fun. And as cardboard Tetris goes, this is a perfectly enjoyable game. A pleasant cool-down after the madness of Bus!

Finally... Dice Fishing

From gallery of MrShep


Dice fishing is a pretty simple game. You work your way through a sequence of "fish" cards, and each one has an objective on it, e.g. "roll a 17 or higher, with at least 2 of your dice showing the same number". Then each player makes a (hidden) bid, proposing which of their dice they would like to roll to achieve that objective (from a personal pool of several 6-sided dice, a single 10 sided die, and a single 20 sided die).

Whoever bid the fewest number / least value of dice gets first crack at achieving the objective, and then the person who made the second-lowest bid has a go... etc etc until somebody achieves the goal and claims the card for points (there's a couple of other rules which give you yahtzee-style re-rolls for spending your D20/D10 in an alternative way, and a rule which causes you to lose your bigger dice for a cool-down round each time you use them -- but that's the basics). Rinse and repeat until 10 cards have been played for, and whoever collects the most points (depicted as hook icons on the fish cards) wins.

From gallery of MrShep
look at my haul!

I bought my copy direct from the publisher at the UK Games Expo last year ... recalling that it had got a bit of positive buzz on the likes of Heavy Cardboard and other podcasts ... but haven't really managed to get it played properly until now. (By which I mean, I tried a 2-player game with Mrs Shep quite some time ago ... but she really, really doesn't get probability/dice maths, and massively struggled with it).

I enjoyed it; I think it's one of the more interesting unashamed dice-chuckers that I've played, but I think opinions around the table were mixed. I forget Owain's exact quote, but it was something along the lines of "I can't decide if this is genius, or absolute bollocks". So... your milage may vary

And with a haul of dice-fish successfully caught, the evening was done. Quite an enjoyable night, with a varied selection of stuff played. Mystery railway game was probably my pick of the night. More about that soon!

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*In (literally!) the last two minutes of me typing this post, I got an email from Moaideas to confirm that it's fine for me show pictures and talk about Mini Express (the sequel to Mini Rails!). But if I keep writing now, then my Sunday lunch is going to be massively delayed... so I'll have to keep those details for a future post. Stay tuned!
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Sun Feb 9, 2020 12:42 pm
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Newcastle Gamers ... first of the year! (/decade)

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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Saturday 11th January. The first Newcastle Gamers session of the year and also — incredibly — my first board game play of the year! … I know!! … 10 days of the new decade passed me by without so much as a sniff of board-gaming action. How did THAT happen?

Anyway, the auspicious title for first game played in the 2020s went to none other than…

Key Market

From gallery of MrShep


A 3-player session between myself, Ali, and Owain. It was Owain’s first play, and Ali and myself were both keen for a re-play after our first game at the previous Newcastle gamers session (in fact, we were barely half-way through THIS game before Ali was declaring a desire to play it a third time…). The game had quite a different feel to the first time we played, with far less contention in the marketplace — I suspect, partly because of the way the country boards came out this time. Ironically, on our first play, when we really didn’t know what we were doing, I think we picked a way more interesting country board set-up than when we (theoretically) knew what we were doing this time and tried to deliberately build scarcities and blocking tactics into the land configuration. Oh well… I guess those skills will come with time

As you can see from the picture, final scoring was ridiculously close … with myself and Ali tied on 110, and Owain snatching victory a mere 3 points in front of us.

I definitely need to get a 4-player game of this going the next time it gets an airing.

* * * * * * *

Camo and Pete arrived while we were playing Key Market… both of whom were keen to play Wingspan — a game which has been a recent arrival in their mid-week gaming group, and been a bit of a hit with them — so that’s what happened next: a 5-player Wingspan sesh.

From gallery of MrShep


5 players? I don’t think I’ve played this with 5 players before … but… oh lord… does it DRAG with 5 players. I mean, I do LIKE Wingspan … but it takes far too long for your turn to come around with 5 players, and the ratio of other-player-actions-giving-you-benefits is just a little bit too high at that count. I mean, I wouldn’t say the game is broken for five … but it definitely doesn’t seem particularly well-tuned for five. You just get too much stuff, and by the end of round 4, we were having to substitute other components for eggs. And yeah, it might’ve been a combination of the particular objectives we had, and the cards that we played… but I’m used to bashing out a game of Wingspan in an hour or less (at which length, it is perfect). This one went on for over 2 hours. Ugh.

* * * * * * *

And to finish… Firenze — one of the games that I picked up in the Travelling Man sale a couple of weeks ago, which seemed like it might be a good fit for the maybe-a-little-bit-more-than-an-hour-but-not-much slot that we had before people wanted to go home.

From gallery of MrShep


Firenze is a game about 12th-14th century Florentine tower-mania. You’re a tower builder, attempting to build commissions for wealthy clients … by collecting appropriately-coloured blocks and accumulating an assortment of special-power-granting/rule-breaking/opponent-screwing cards from a conveyor belt of decreasingly-priced heaps of stuff. It feels like quite a classic, old-school euro…. Pretty much because it is a classic, old-school euro (one which is about to hit its 10th birthday this year!). And it was good fun to play once everybody had got into the swing of things — coming in nicely at the around-an-hour mark.

Decent game. I still hold Hansa Teutonica up as “Best Andreas Steding game”, by quite a big margin … but this one ‘aint at all bad. Especially for the required play time.

* * * * * * *

And that was that. Empirically, this was a pretty good week for me … after all, I played TWO games that I mentioned in my “favourite releases of 2019” post a couple of weeks ago, and TWO of the three games that I played were actually THINGS THAT I TOOK WITH ME (all too often I take a massive bag of games along to Newcastle Gamers, but wind up only playing some small-box card game that I tucked into a side pouch!). Game of the night was undoubtedly Key Market (A title it's now held for two sessions running!) … A far less mean-and-sharp game than our first outing with it, but still highly enjoyable
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Sun Jan 12, 2020 2:26 pm
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Newcastle Gamers - the all-day festive edition

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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The Saturday between Christmas and New Years Day is, by tradition, the day when we hold our big festive all-day session at Newcastle Gamers. So yesterday I donned my finest festive jumper...

From gallery of MrShep


...packed my bags with freshly-learned games (studiously swotting up on those new things I bagged in the Travelling Man sale the day before!), and headed into Newcastle to see what the day would bring!

And actually... well... I could've saved myself a fair bit of swotting up, because for most of the day I found myself in 5-player groups, with a bag full of 4 player games. Argh!!! At least I had my copy of Senators in the bag, which could serve 5...

From gallery of MrShep


So Senators it was, vs Olly, Alan, Chris and Izzy. I've got a few games of Senators under my belt now, and it still stands up pretty well (though wouldn't have been my first choice of game, were it not for the player count issue, since I played this the last time that I was at Newcastle Gamers too!). It did run a bit long this time ... partly because everybody except Alan & I was a newbie to the game, but mostly because pretty much all of the war cards sank to the final third of the event deck. Nevertheless, it seemed to be well received by the first timers. Particularly Izzy, who won!

Next up... Eight Epics

From gallery of MrShep


I'm writing Eight Epics off as my festive favour of the year ("can we try this new thing we got for Christmas...?") ...though it basically re-inforced my curmudgeonly-old-gamer principle of "don't play anything that you don't recognise unless it was brought by somebody who you can 100% trust to only put good and/or interesting games in front of you" (and there's maybe only half a dozen people in the world who currently occupy that category!). I mean, it wasn't an awful game. But I would've much rather spent that time doing something else. Two-word description: Co-operative Yahtzee. That's all you need to know.

Next... Age of Steam (Deluxe Edition), with the reprinted Southern US map.

From gallery of MrShep


Not, I hasten to stress, my copy of Age of Steam Deluxe Edition. Because my copy of Age of Steam Deluxe Edition is apparently spending the rest of 2019 in a warehouse somewhere. But Olly seems to have done far better in the fulfilment lottery than I did, and got his copy about a week ago.

We played the Southern US map ... a variant that incorporates cotton shipment and an odd round of double-penalization when the civil war breaks out. I haven't played this one before, and it seemed to be one of the gentler AoS maps, with most players making a steady profit well before the mid-game point (which, I guess, makes it a good inclusion for the newbie-friendly new edition!). Olly won, of course. Olly always wins train games ... though I managed to place second.

I'm impressed by the usability improvements in this version; the graphic design on the play sequence boards -- while not perfect -- certainly makes the game flow much easier to follow, and I like the stripped-back appearance of the game boards. The pastel-coloured player colours seem like a bit of an odd choice; they're maybe not as contrasty as I'd prefer, and the aesthetic might not date well ... though it's not like you couldn't sub in a set of differently-coloured disks for not-very-much-money if they irk you too much. All in all, a good revision, this one. I'm looking forward to getting mine

Then, a slight re-arranging of groups ... meaning I finally got to pull something out of my bag of 4-player games. A thing that I've been trying to get to the table for a few months now (and must've re-learned the rules for at least 4 or 5 times in anticipation...)

Key Market (Second Edition)

From gallery of MrShep


A three player outing, vs Ali and Camo. Which proved to be an absolute solid-gold corker of a game

In brief: there's a clever spacial positioning/puzzle thing going on on a little modular farm board, which gives you a certain amount of produce to play with each season. These goods then feed into a very old-school supply-and-demand marketplace mechanism, where you can generate income and/or trade your produce for alternative resources ... which then allow you to either retire your workers to a long and happy life living in a country mansion (for points!), or push your workers through the ranks of assorted guilds, which grant you rule-breaking powers.

Mechanically, it's relatively simple; the cleverness comes in anticipating/manipulating the market, camping the farming board in just the right way to optimise production from season to season, being clever about player order, and figuring out how the guild powers can fuel your strategy.

For the first round or two, I couldn't really see where the "game" was, and I was wondering if I was going to be a bit disappointed after waiting so long to get this one played. But by the time we were half-way through the game, things were really starting to click, the subtleties, nuances (and missed opportunities!) were coming together, and I was starting to think this might be a close rival to Keyflower for "best Key game". And by the time we were done, I was thinking: we barely scratched the surface there... I really want to play it again now... that's one of the best games I've played this year!

It reminded me a little bit of the splotter style of game; a clever spacial mechanism feeding a surprisingly cut-throat economic core. And it gave me pause to think that the two old-but-new-to-me games that have maybe made the biggest impression on me this year (this and Bus) are both maybe cut from a similar cloth. They really don't make them like that any more!

Anyway, good game this. Upon finishing it, all three players declared that we want to play it again, soon. And you can't get a better first-play reaction than that!

* * * * * *

Last game of the day... we were back to five players, and settled on nu-Agricola, with all the bling:

From gallery of MrShep
(Ali did suggest that I photoshopped this picture so that the minis all had coloured bases, just to see if the internet completely "lost it's shit". Tempting though the idea was, I'm pressed for time this morning...)

It's the first time that Agricola:Revised Edition has had an airing amongst the euro-curmudgeons at Newcastle Gamers, and their reaction was pretty much identical to my own first exposure back in the autumn of 2018 ... Why all these convoluted new names for things? What are all these strange cards that I don't recognize? Why aren't the things in the places I expect them to be? .... WHAT ARE THESE UNGODLY PLASTIC MINI-FIGURES???!! ....I DON'T LIKE CHANGE!

Alas, any tactical advantage that I'd hoped to glean from completely disorientating my opponents failed to materialise, as I placed last in the final reckoning. Though there was only a 5 point spread over all the results results. (At least, we think there was only a 5 point spread; Daniel -- who placed first -- had to run off to catch a train/bus home just before the game ended, and we're not entirely sure how much of the final harvest he'd processed before he went).

Anyway, good fun was had by all.

Is it possible to ever have a BAD game of Agricola?

The answer is No.

No it isn't.



* * * * * * *


...and that brought my day of gaming to a close. Only 5 games played in THIRTEEN hours? That doesn't seem like much, does it? Well, I guess there was also furniture moving, dashes to the shop, food+drink breaks, and general socialising with people to factor in there too. And I kind of wish that I'd managed to get some of my other waiting-to-be-played 4-player stuff out of the bag.

...but it was a most splendid day, regardless!
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Sun Dec 29, 2019 1:55 pm
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Newcastle Gamers: Early December

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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I was back at Newcastle Gamers on Saturday. Hooray!

Due to a mis-alignment of the planets, along with assorted "prior commitments" (translation: November being a 5 week month, and my agreeing to go and visit some insane nonsense with Mrs Shep instead of attending the late sesh at Newcastle), it had been 5 long weeks since my last visit. In fact, I hadn't visited Newcastle Gamers since before the Gathering of Chums a month ago... and that now seems like nothing but a distant memory

So this was my very first opportunity to try out my new copy of Senators with the Newcastle crowd. Would it play as well as it did on my first experience of the game, down in Newent last month? Or would it fall flat?

From gallery of MrShep


Fortunately, it was pretty well received ... particularly by Camo (who completely schooled the rest of us by building up a huge reserve of cash without us noticing and then scooping up a bunch of cut-price Senators in the closing stages of the game). The only real note of criticism levelled at the game concerned a usability issue, rather than a gameplay issue; the score-track spaces in this edition are smaller than the game pieces that you use to keep score ... which makes scoring really awkward when players are only 1 point apart. I mean... it's a minor thing... but still kind of annoying. And makes you scratch your head a bit over how glitches like that make it beyond the production sample stage.

But, yeah, Senators is a very enjoyable game, with quite a nifty mix of unusual (and highly interactive) auction mechanics. It's difficult to not like it.

Speaking of which...

Our second game of the night was a debut outing for Owain's latest acquisition, Bus. And that was a very good game indeed.

From gallery of MrShep


In brief: this is a 20th anniversary re-print of an old Splotter game in which you use worker placement to develop a bus route, pick up and deliver passengers to their desired destinations, and risk the collapse of the space-time continuum by meddling with the fundamental fabric of the universe.

I didn't even make that last bit up.

It's a very, VERY sharp game this one. I was really impressed. So much so that I might have to buy a copy. Buy a copy despite the fact that it's a minimum-3-players game, and it'll probably just sit on my shelf permanently because I rarely (/never) get the chance to play 3+ player games at home, and Owain has the nice pimped-up anniversary edition which I appear to have missed* the window of opportunity on buying.

But I still kind of feel like I need to own a copy.

Because it's that good.

* * * * * * *

And from one Capstone-Games-published reprint to another: Irish Gauge

From gallery of MrShep


A cube railway game: You buy shares. You lay tracks. You get dividends.

I dunno... the cube railway games that I've played have never massively gripped me. I mean... Irish Gauge was fine (I actually won this one!), and I wouldn't grumble about playing it again. But I guess there's just something fundamental about the genre that just doesn't really spark with me

* * * * * * *

Next up... a session of Escalation! which I completely failed to photograph. It provoked a bit of shouting and merriment, and was accepted in a "that was harmless / mostly brainless but would be a good pub game" sort of way, but maybe ran for a bit too long in this particular instance.

This was followed by a debut play for my copy of The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, a game which seems to have caused quite a stir amongst regular commenters in these parts...

From gallery of MrShep


In brief: this is a co-operative trick taking game. Players have to conspire to allow certain players win tricks containing specific "mission" cards during the course of the game -- but you have VERY limited channels of communication to aid the accomplishment of these goals. You can communicate a single piece of information about your hand during the course of a round, either:

1. A certain card is the highest value that you own within its suit.
2. A certain card is the lowest value that you own within its suit.
or
3. A certain card is the only card that you hold within its suit.

There's a 50-game campaign, with different win conditions attached to each instalment... different numbers of cards that need to be won by players, cards needing to be won in a certain order, special limitations being put onto a particular player... things like that.

It's all very clever, and a bit reminiscent of Hanabi in the way you need to communicate information in a highly-restricted, very low-bandwidth manner. But I suspect that, like Hanabi, this might also be a game where I really admire the ambition and cleverness of the design ... but don't personally enjoy the experience of playing it.

I'm not sure. But we did 4 or 5 missions, and I was certainly starting to get that vibe as the complexity ramped up.

It was definitely an interesting gaming experience though... I'll give it that!

* * * * * * *

And that was my Saturday night's gaming. Pick of the night would definitely be Bus -- but Senators accounted very well for itself too. And even though my account of those last 3 games maybe came across a bit flat, they were all enjoyable/interesting in their own ways. Not a bad night of gaming all in all. (And hopefully the end of a spell that's been a bit of a gaming drought for me!)


*I was strong. I resisted the obvious-and-awful pun here. Are you impressed?
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Mon Dec 16, 2019 7:10 am
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Newcastle Gamers - early November

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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Another relatively quiet session at Newcastle Gamers this week … our numbers have been pretty low recently. Ironically, this time last year we were getting complaints that the church hall was too small and that people were leaving because of a lack of table space. But for the last few sessions, attendance has been low … hovering around the 20 people mark… in fact, this week, we didn’t even break even on the room hire. Fortunately there’s a bit of a float in the kitty, but we might have to raise our (admittedly ridiculously low — £2 a session / £1 unwaged) fees if the trend persists.

To be fair, lot of regulars had good excuses … a couple of people at MidCon … a few people suffering some kind of mid-autumn lergy … and I suspect a few people had sneaked off to the first-birthday shindig that the local board game cafe was running. But yeah… it seemed like a VERY empty room this week.

Nevertheless, the gaming was very enjoyable…

Five Tribes was the first game we cracked open — me vs Amo, Alex and (one of the many) Richards*.

From gallery of MrShep


I have to confess, this was actually the very first time that I’ve played this game with NO EXPANSIONS WHATSOEVER. I guess I was a relative latecomer to the joys of 5 tribes — my first ever game of it was barely a year ago — by which time adoption of assorted bits and pieces from the various expansions had pretty much become the norm for existing aficionados of the game, including those who introduced me to it. And when I got my own copy of the game, I also got (and played with) the expansions too… because those elements seemed pretty fundamental to me — and it seemed like the core game might feel a little bit bare without them.

But you know what? (you’ve already guessed where I’m going with this, haven’t you?) … the core game is actually pretty bloody good. I really enjoyed this. I mean, it might help that I also won the game, by a pretty good margin. But yeah… I think that the back-to-basics version might now become my preferred way to play for a bit. I really need to get this back into my regular rotation. It’s a cracking game.

* * * * * * *

Richard had to make an early departure at this point (Five Tribes — sans expansions — had been chosen specifically to facilitate an early exit to keep his better half happy) … leaving the reminaing three of us to crack open my just-arrived-yesterday copy of Glen More II: Chronicles. First-time-attendee Greg turned up just as I was about to explain the rules, and conveniently filled in the 4th (vacant) seat

From gallery of MrShep


It’s the best part of a decade since I played the original Glen More, so take any comparisons I’m about to make with that in mind… but the new version is a lot heavier, and slower than I remember the first one being. And I don’t mean “slower” in a bad sense — I recall the original game being quite a quick affair; all done in 45 to 60 minutes. The new version is more in standard 90-minutes-to-two-hours euro territory… a deep, tile-laying engine builder that you can really stew over. I enjoyed it a lot!

I’ve seen some skepticism from existing fans over the changes that have been made to the rules. The original game had two rules that limited the way you could place your tiles… you had a river, running in a strict north/south column from your starting position, and a road, running in a strict east/west row from your starting position … so road tiles and river tiles always had to be placed in these specific locations. The new version of the game preserves the river rule (though it now runs east/west) … and has eliminated the road completely — opening up the options for where you place tiles. A lot of people criticised this decision, saying that tile placement would now be too easy. I’m not sure that I agree; in fact, it might even have introduced a tyranny of choice element … because instead of being railroaded into placing those particular tiles into one of two valid positions, a whole bunch of additional efficiency/engine-building possibilities are now opened up. Maybe that’s why it seems so much crunchier now.

The other big change comes with the addition of the “clan” board; a network of perks and abilities that you can claim by collecting tiles which depict assorted historic personalities. This element, I’m not so sure about. It kind of looks like it’s going to be a network-building sub-game, or some kind of tech-tree … but, in practice, it’s neither of these things … because the board has been set out in a way that doesn’t really enforce progression through the network; you can skip to any part of the board by paying a not-very-prohibitive cash price, and you can expand out of any previously-taken node of the tree, even if it doesn’t belong to you.

There’s something about the clan board that instantly feels less sharp … less well-developed and less satisfying to me than the rest of the game. (In fact, I suspect that the other players at the table felt this too, as they were all having sneaky dips into that part of the rule book to double-check that I’d explained the rules correctly!). I wonder if this is reflective of the 10 year gap in Cramer’s design of the main part of the game and this latter addition … or whether this element had more to do with post-designer development of the title. Actually, the tone of the developer diary on the funtails web site perhaps hints it was more to do with the latter. But this is pure speculation on my part. I have no idea.

Anyway … it’s not game-breaking by any means; it’s just an element that seems a bit less well-honed than the rest of the title… and I enjoyed playing this game a lot. Even Alex — who is rarely shy about letting you know what he thinks of a game — gave this one a thumbs up, and started questioning how soon it was coming into retail. Good acquisition, this one

* * * * * * *

Nine Tiles Panic turned out to be the last game of the night…

From gallery of MrShep


...the gloriously-silly game of trying to solve a tile-laying puzzle involving burger-eating aliens and FBI agents, against the clock. I was mostly prompted to give this one another outing after watching a very positive review from Joel Eddy…



…but I’m still not sure about it. It’s a surprisingly stressful game, and I’ve found that there’s often somebody at the table who simply can’t get to grips with it -- and you kind of feel a bit awkward when they get disqualified with zero points round after round. Still… it's kind of fun, and silly, at least it only takes 10 minutes to play!

* * * * * * *

From gallery of MrShep


And that… surprisingly … was the end of the night’s gaming. Remember that I said we weren’t very well-attended this week? Well … there tends to be a bunch of people who come to Newcastle Gamers who knock of at around the 9pm mark … and a bunch of people who stick around until midnight-ish. The lions-share of people who turned up this week were very much in the early-finishers group. By 9:30, much of the furniture had been packed away, and the only folks who seemed to be in it for the long run were a group who had been engrossed in a marathon session of Battlestar Galactica for most of the night, and a second group about to start another game of Glen More II on a different table (I think Ana + Mark must have pretty much the same kickstarter-buying tastes as I do … last session we were both playing freshly-delivered copies of Prêt-à-Porter at the same time!).

And so it seemed like an early exit might be in order. Which was maybe a good thing — it’s the Gathering of Chums next weekend and Mrs Shep is destined to be a board gaming widow for two Saturday nights in a row

The only regret of the night: I didn’t get a chance to give THIS last-minute amazon-delivered addition to my games bag a debut play…

From gallery of MrShep


And yes, you people are responsible for it being there

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*There was a time when, if you couldn’t remember a particular Newcastle Gamer’s name, you could just call them “John” and have a 50/50 chance of being correct. That rule seems to be tilting towards “Richard” now.
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Sun Nov 10, 2019 11:55 am
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Newcastle Gamers - Late October

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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A very quiet week at Newcastle Gamers this time... with only 4 tables worth of gamers present as we kicked off -- though a few late arrivals bolstered the numbers as the evening wore on.

As I arrived, Amo spotted Prêt-à-Porter in my bag, and was keen to play (apparently he owns the 2nd edition) ... Nathan was keen to join too, and an initially-reluctant Alan (who hadn't heard of the game before, and wasn't massively drawn in by the theme... but hadn't really seized on anything else to play either) made up the numbers to 4.

From gallery of MrShep


And my word... what an unrelentingly brain-burning, mathy beast of a game this turned out to be! Just in case Prêt-à-Porter has flown under your radar for the last decade or so: It's a game about the fashion industry. You use worker placement to acquire staff, clothing designs, buildings, contracts and raw materials ... and attempt to put together "collections" of clothing to display at fashion shows at the end of each of the game's 4 quarters. By accumulating an optimum mix of quality, "trend", PR and collection size in time for each show, you gain "prestige" -- which subsequently turns into retail sales, and VP.

But it's not just a game about fashion and set collecting ... there's quite a sharp "company simulator" underpinning everything; there are wages to pay, upkeep of buildings to worry about, and profit and loss decisions to be made ... and a particularly evil mechanism involving getting a credit line from the bank secured against the potential that your work-in-progress has for generating earnings after the next fashion show... but if the collection doesn't perform, and you fail to repay the credit, the bank converts your nice, cheap, tempting credit agreement into a cripplingly-expensive loan. And then things start to get punishingly nasty.

It's a game that doesn't really have any safety wheels on it. And so -- true to form when I play that type of game for the very first time -- I think I put myself into an inescapable death spiral from pretty much the very first round. While Alan and Nathan played an extremely conservative early game, and found themselves miles ahead of Amo & myself in the end-game, I found myself facing the prospect of bankruptcy and zero-points ...unless this one, last-ditch attempt to turn a single cheap leather jacket into an overnight fashion sensation somehow came to fruition, allowing me to pay off my mountain of debt...

From gallery of MrShep


Which was a ridiculous thing to hope for, and obviously didn't happen.

I couldn't really say that I "enjoyed" this particular play... because it was a brutal, remorseless, crushing simulation of owning a company that was going to hell in a handcart ... conning the bank to loan me money that I could never feasibly repay (by repeatedly waving around a portfolio of designs that I didn't really have the resources to turn into actual items of clothing), and just desperately trying to stay functional until the end of the year... while at least two of my opponents were having a whale of a time, bashing out successful collection after successful collection, being lauded at all the top fashion shows, and accumulating mountains of cash -- probably because my own fashion show entries were lame-duck submissions which only served to make their gains so much bigger. And yet... it's maybe a good example of a "Type 2 fun" game, because I ended up thinking through my whole approach late into the night, and I really want to go back and play it again now ... now that I know how the pacing works, and precisely where it's wise/unwise to stretch yourself thinly.

It's a clever game. But sharp. And brutal. And maybe a bit wonky... the only other game that I remember having a similar death-spiral experience with is Age of Steam -- and at least Age of Steam has a slight catch-up mechanism built into its scoring system. Prêt-à-Porter makes no such concessions; you can succeed or fail big in Prêt-à-Porter

Alan ... who you may recall took a bit of persuading to play it at the outset (and came second in the final reckoning) declared it one of the best games he's played in a long time.

* * * * * * *

A second table had started a game of Prêt-à-Porter while we were playing ours (we are nothing if not slaves to the cult of the new at Newcastle Gamers!) ... so after we'd packed up, it was interesting to have a peek at their game-in-progress to see what was going on. They were still at the early stages, but it already looked like one or two people at that table had also over-reached themselves a little bit in the early stages. It definitely seems to be a title where you need a "learning game" or two under your belt, this one.

From gallery of MrShep


* * * * * * *

I felt a bit exhausted after the game of Prêt. Everybody did. So, searching for a super-light follow-up, I suggested Tussie Mussie. And -- seeing Elizabeth Hargrave's name (Wingspan) on the wallet, people were happy to give it a try.

From gallery of MrShep


I've previously written about enjoying the two player game, but being wary that it sometimes plays on rails; that there's a comparatively low sense of agency. Unfortunately, with the 4 player version, this seems even more-so. With the 2-player game, you have a little bit more knowledge about the concealed elements of your opponent's hand, but the way that the splitting and choosing process rotates and then counter-rotates in the 4-player version massively diminishes that. Maybe it's compensated for a little bit in the way that pretty much the entire deck comes into play for a 4 player game, so you can make better decisions around collecting specific colours ... but it really didn't feel like a good, engaging game at this count. Certainly not a gamer's game. I think I'll stick with the 2-player version the future.

* * * * * * *

With Tussie Mussie wrapped up, I was feeling a bit tired -- in fact, I think I was still suffering a bit of a game-headache from Prêt. If I had really put my mind to it, I could probably have fitted in one more "proper" game before going home. But I don't think I would've played particularly well -- so I decided to make a slightly-earlier-than-usual exit, and headed back home.

At least I might score a few brownie points with Mrs Shep, by not waking her up whilst creeping in after midnight this week...
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Sun Oct 27, 2019 1:16 pm
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It's good to be back / Newcastle Gamers - Late September

John Shepherd
United Kingdom
Ovington
Northumberland
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I have returned from my time in That London.

Older, a bit worn out, and no more wiser.

The training course that I went to attend wasn't too great. The instructor had apparently been dropped into the course at very short notice (flown in from Amsterdam the night before), and clearly had no familiarity with the deck she was presenting. The week did NOT go well ... though fortunately the end-of-course certification exams have been deferred. My boss -- also on the course -- was not amused. I suspect we'll be asking for a refund, and probably not using that particular training company again.

The week was also a stark reminder of the fact that the people I work with are mostly a decade or two younger than I am, with far more robust constitutions. The evenings disappeared in a blur of beer and meat consumption that I still feel slightly ill from. It's a VERY good job that I didn't commit to any blogging over that period!

From gallery of MrShep
Late-night meat, beer and art.


* * * * * * *

My return home coincided with a Newcastle Gamers session -- hooray! ...because there's no better way of ending a week that you spent pouring over training manuals, trying to memorise obscure instructions, edge-cases and procedures than... spending a Saturday pouring over game manuals, trying to memorise obscure instructions, edge cases and procedures

None of which was necessary for the first game of the evening, Medici.

From gallery of MrShep


First-time-attendees Kristina & Harry (recent emigres from the deep south -- i.e. Sheffield) had spotted this in Owain's bag, and expressed an interest. An hour-or-so of Knizia auction action ensued, and a good time was had by all ... particularly the aforementioned Kristina & Harry who had, apparently, only played the similarly-named-and-themed-but-mechanically-different card game previously. Which was nice; it's always a bit of a relief when you sit down to a game with a new attendee (or two) and manage to play a game that hits the right spot.

Camo arrived as the game was coming to a close ... we now found ourselves with a group of 7; splitting into a 4 and a 3 seemed like a sensible tactic, but it was suggested that maybe we squeeze in a little filler which would support all 7 of us first. Keeping the Knizia theme going, that filler turned out to be: Karate Tomate

From gallery of MrShep


I normally trim the faces off the game photos that I post here, and this one is a bit blurry... but the expressions here (during the final reckoning) sum up the fun that people were having with this one, so I thought I'd leave it as-is. Although I've played Karate Tomate a couple of times before, this is the first time I've brought it out at Newcastle Gamers ... and I think it made a good debut impression. As I've mentioned before, it's essentially the auction mechanism from Taj Mahal, transplanted into a fairly lightweight card game -- Camo and Ali are both fans of Taj', so I figured this would maybe appeal to them. And yeah, it was good fun. A bit luck-of-the-draw dependent, but pleasingly fast-paced-and-interesting for a game that supports so many players (up to 10!). I think this might be a regular addition to the "fillers" section of my game bag now.

By this point, Olly, Owain, Ali and myself were clamouring for something a bit more weighty. For a brief moment, I thought my new copy of Key Market was about to get an airing... but sadly, it was not to be! (I'm sure this one is very much the kind of thing that plays well with this particular group, so hopefully it'll get an airing sooner rather than later). Instead we found ourselves playing Age of Steam, with the Mexico map.

From gallery of MrShep


According to my BGG stats, I've played this map at least once before ... though don't recall anything about that occasion, or remember playing a map with the (slightly evil) track nationalisation action -- which essentially removes ownership of a track, and turns it into a public resource. Maybe it's a different version of Mexico that I played previously. Or maybe just a symptom of old age...

Anyway -- quite an enjoyable map, this one. At least, "enjoyable" in a highly-stressful, perpetually teetering just on the brink of an inescapable multi-round death-spiral of misery kind of way. "Type II Fun" is how Owain described it at the end of the game. I'd never heard of "Type II Fun" before. But it was definitely Type II Fun. Type II Fun probably deserves a blog post of its own at some point.

I came second in this one. For a while, I thought I was actually going to win... but, obviously, Olly pipped me at the post. Because it's Age of Steam, and that's what Olly always does

And finally, in search of something slightly gentler to wind up the night, we played The Taverns of Tiefenthal

From gallery of MrShep


This one was mine; a Friday night impulse purchase that I'd picked up barely 24 hours before. I'd popped into the Newcastle branch of Travelling Man, seen it on the new releases shelf, recalled that the German Language version of the game had been making a bit of a stir back at UKGE, and -- surprised to see that an English Language version had slipped out without me noticing -- thought I'd give it a punt.

Mechanically, Tiefenthal is a bit of a deckbuilder and dice-drafting hybrid. Players are competing in a who-can-build-the-best-pub contest. Each round, you start dealing out cards (staff members, customers etc) from the top of your personal deck into various locations around your tavern board, until your tables have been filled with customers. Then you go into a dice drafting phase, where you try to collect the appropriate dice to activate the various cards that you've placed. Activating the cards gives you the "currency" to buy new cards into your deck (and there are two basic currencies -- coins allow you to buy upgrades to your pub, beer allows you to lure patrons into your pub), or to switch bits of your player board out for slightly-better-powered bits of your player board (more tables, bigger beer barrels etc). You rinse and repeat for 8 rounds, after which whoever has managed to build the best deck (/pub) wins.

The game comes with a bunch of tiered modules, intended to slowly raise the difficulty from a family-friendly introductory game, up to something a bit more complex for experienced players ... though having read several posts on BGG suggesting that "gamers" should probably just throw everything in from the get-go, that's exactly what we did. Which, retrospectively, did seem like the right decision (thanks, BGG Forums!) ... though did cause the game to run for about twice as long as I expected it to.

First impressions... it's a perfectly fine game. In a world full of perfectly fine games

There are some aspects that I really enjoyed. A trend that I'm kind of noticing with Wolfgang Warsch games is that they kind of have these nice little physical rituals built into them. The chit-drawing bit of Quedlinburg ... the silver platter dice manipulation in Ganz' / Doppelt so Clever. In Tiefenthal, there's something very pleasing about the phase where you deal out the cards onto your tableau, and the way in which the dice drafting is executed by placing your rolled dice onto little cardboard beer mats, and then pushing them around the table -- conveyor-belt-style -- to your neighbour. And it's hard to explain exactly why, but those little ceremonies of tactile interaction -- almost executed by rote -- kind of feel really comfortable and familiar each time they come around. There's something very appealing about that.

The underlying game? It's a little bit dominion-ish, with dice activation bringing something slightly new to the mix, and with a Feldian point salad bolted on at the rewards end. Low-ish, mostly inoffensive (though present!) interaction. A bit of a Rahdo game. I suspect it'll get a few plays (especially since Mrs Shep is a something of a Warsch fan, so will likely want to play it out of curiosity) and then be moved into my heap of bring-and-buy candidates, where it'll likely find a better home. I mean, it's a good game ... but in a world where there are now many, many excellent games, why waste time playing the merely "good"?

Last orders at The Taverns of Tiefenthal were called just after midnight; Olly scoring his second win of the evening, and myself scoring my second second-place-to-Olly of the evening (though I'd won the earlier game of Medici, so the night hadn't been entirely without triumph!) ... and it was time to leave. A quick drive home followed by some late night curry leftovers (vegetable biryani -- I'm still recovering from the meat overdose!)... and then to bed.

It's good to be home.

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Sun Sep 29, 2019 2:00 pm
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