As year two of The Great Pandemic wends to its weary conclusion (are we halfway through yet?), I thought I'd round up the year from my point of view.
For me, though, Covid-19 takes second place to my own medical journey. That is, diagnosed with bowel cancer at the start of March, operated on to remove tumour (and install ileostomy) by the end of March, three months to recover from op, 12 weeks of chemotherapy, three months to recover from that and second op early in December to reverse ileostomy. With a following wind, it looks like I'll be pretty much recovered by the time I reach the anniversary of my initial diagnosis. I am stunned: diagnosis to recovery in 12 months. Against the backdrop of the pandemic. I feel very fortunate.
But what does that mean for my games playing in 2021? Well, rather like 2020, it's almost all been solitaire or online. I did get one period, in September, when nephew Tom and I were able to explore Commands & Colors: Samurai Battles - as reported in Samurai battles - even more of them and linked posts.
With several regular sparring partners, the Commands & Colors family dominates the games I've logged on BGG through the year. Memoir '44 is at the top of the pile with 55 plays - that's over one a week! Most of these have been on the Days of Wonder app (also available via Steam), which means you can blast through a scenario in 30-40 minutes and thus play both sides of it in a short evening.
However, the app only supports "standard" scenarios - I much prefer the larger Breakthrough board - and has not implemented the more recent expansions, such as New Flight Plan. Hence, several of my M44 plays have been on Vassal where these are supported, though games take longer.
Vassal is also the venue for the other C&C games I've played: 37 Napoleonics battles, a couple of The Great War and just one Ancients. I thought I'd played more Ancients games, but clearly not. Something to do a bit more of in 2022. A highlight of the Napoleonics was re-fighting Austerlitz in La Grande Battles format with a full team of four players a side (ably organised by Mark Benson). It may be slow, but I really enjoy the team play. Here's the end of the game: there's still fighting around the vineyards of Stare Vinohrady in the centre, but Bernadotte has broken right through the Allies' positions. Vive l'Empereur!
With C&C out of the way, the next game I've played most is Scythe: 9 times in the latter half of the year. This time the platform is Steam - three-player games (plus the odd bot) with a couple of regular opponents. I do enjoy Scythe, but if you want to win you really have to focus on optimising your plays rather than just enjoying the game.
I have played Viticulture five times since BoardGameArena implemented the Essential edition - I just wish they'd add Tuscany. This does leave out the turn-based games - I only log real-time plays (whether face-to-face or online) on BGG. A quick check on BGA and the total plays jumps up to eight in 2021. Viticulture is another game I really enjoy playing - and it's one I can win (three from the eight) while enjoying it.
The other game I've played five times, according to my BGG log, is the first new (to me) entry in the list: Lucky Numbers. This is a simple but strangely addictive little game (available on BGA again) that has made an excellent filler for Swiggers' Wednesday evening sessions and gets a solid 7/10 from me.
Sticking to the new games now, I've also played Carnegie five times (on BGA). Kudos to Quined Games for making this meaty new title available online - it's certainly whetted my appetite to try the physical game when I get the chance. In the meantime, I'm struggling to find a winning strategy but enjoying myself thoroughly - it's a provisional 8/10 on my highly subjective scale. There's a fuller account in Business and philanthropy.
Returning to physical games and thus solitaire play, I fitted in several games of Rocketmen - see I'm not the man they think I am at all - and Coffee Roaster (reported in Man versus Bean). Rocketmen is another game I'm waiting to play against real opponents, but somehow I have no urge to play the solitaire-only Coffee Roaster again.
Another physical game I've had on the table is Hallertau - above is the final position of my third solitaire game with plenty of sheep. I have to say I'm just finding it tedious now. As a solitaire game, anyway. As far as I can see, there's only one way to play this game: amass the goods you need to upgrade your five 'Craft Buildings' so that your 'Community Centre' can move across your board (as shown above) to give you more actions and, later, more points. (The 'Boulder' obstacles that make moving more than once more costly magically move further away at the end of every round.) Since you always need the same stuff, you're always doing the same things. Yawn. Perhaps playing against real people would show me something I'm missing, but I'm not holding my breath. Sorry, Herr Rosenberg, but that's a provisional 5/10 from me.
I'm struggling, too, with Ted Alspach's Maglev Metro. Again, it's a physical copy, so it's solitaire play only. The first time I set it up, I was immediately stymied as I couldn't see how I was going to progress at all. It was on my second try that I realised there are certain things you can do without paying - they're not on the "things you need to pay for" table (I may not have the correct terminology here). Having resolved this, I still found the game impenetrable, though I did at least make some progress. Further research required, I think.
Thanks to Yucata, I've been able to try Vladimír Suchý's Praga Caput Regni. Another hefty, complicated game - right up my street! After three plays, I think I've got my head around the mechanics of the game. Now I just need to double (!) my score to be competitive. That's a provisional 8/10 on my highly subjective scale.
I'll finish with a couple of older but new to me games, played online. I was introduced to Grand Austria Hotel back in January and have now been thrashed seven times on Yucata - twice during Swiggers sessions. I'm really sorry to have missed this one when it was published as I'm very taken with its tight gameplay (seven rounds, two actions in each and an awful lot of things to do!). This is another game I'd like to try face-to face, but it's a solid 7/10 from me in the meantime.
The second game is Villagers, which I'd been intrigued to try since I saw how popular it was at the UK Games Expo in 2019. Its implementation on Yucata gave me the chance to play it. However, half a dozen plays in quick succession was enough for me. It's a pleasant enough game, but I just don't find it challenging (yes, I was winning too often and without effort). It's a 6/10 on my highly subjective scale.
It's been a minimalist year in games for me and I'm disappointed not to have made more inroads on the unplayed (and largely unopened) games piled up in my home office. Something to look forward to in 2022, eh?
This was the title of my board games column in Flagship magazine, so I thought I'd resurrect it, 8 years after Flagship's demise. The idea is to get down my musings in a more contemporaneous way - expect things to appear later in To Win Just Once (www.pevans.co.uk/TWJO) in a more considered form. Now, can I manage a less formal style?
Archive for Solitaire
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Fancying another go at Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr (well, I am in Norn Iron* at the moment), I checked when I last played. It was two years ago! That was a Swiggers session, when we got through scenarios 1 and 2 (as reported here: Can we all play?). It had better be scenario 3 then (there's no continuity between scenarios - so far, anyway).
A quick intro for those unfamiliar with the game. You have a straightforward cooperative game of nursing staff looking after a dying patient. On its own this would be a bit of a challenge, but nothing special. However, on top of this, you are trying to prod your bolshie patient (well, he is an Ulsterman) into sharing memories of his life - a clever and frustrating mechanism - so that you can resolve the troubles (ahem) of his past.
There's no official solitaire option, but it's easy enough to play the three-player game solo. However, I was immediately missing the discussion between players - the game is more mechanical without this.
Scenario 3 proved to be a tough one, with a big luck element. You have to find 10 specific memories (cards) out of the 30 and then retrieve their 'clear memory' equivalents (from the second deck). Which involves much drawing of random cards. And I was blighted by drawing 'Event' cards far too often, reducing the number of cards I was picking up. I ended up with 23 memories, only 7 of which were in my target set and just three of them clear memories. And then Billy died, just as I was about to run out of time. A quick reset and I can kill Billy off again...
Now, if I was unlucky in my first game, Lady Luck was definitely on my side for the second. To start with, I drew a much higher proportion of the cards I needed to win - even before using the "Steer the conversation" option. This was particularly useful now I knew which timelines to concentrate on and when it came to finding the last couple of cards.
Billy was also obliging, his health remaining good - in the green section of the track, which meant the event cards had minimal effect. Checking at the end, I found half the 'Emergency' cards (three) were still in the deck (down to 9 cards) so my nursing staff definitely had an easier ride.
And the bottom line was a straightforward win. I had completed two whole timelines (12 memories/cards out of the 20 I'd drawn), explaining a large section of Billy's life. But there's a lot more to come - on to scenario 4...
I was in two minds about including a photo - I wouldn't want to give anything away to people who haven't played this scenario. I've compromised by blotting out bits of the clear memories. You'll see Billy's health track at the top is still (just) in the green. The blue nurse has pulled a double shift (hence the empty space on the afternoon shift), allowing me to keep one nurse in the break room to generate extra 'care' tokens (in case I needed them). In fact, none of my nurses got stressed enough to require time off, though they're all on the limit now and I've used both 'on call' nurses. The target markers show the 10 memories I needed to get.
* How the locals pronounce "Northern Ireland".
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I've been meaning to get back to Forgotten Waters for some time. Not least because I've yet to complete the initial scenario, "Beyond the Ocean's Edge", successfully. Without cheating, anyway.
So I set up the game on Bank Holiday Monday and gave it a go, using the solitaire rules provided by the app. Having failed the scenario several times, at least I have a good idea of what's waiting for me.
One of the key things is to avoid triggering 'Threats' too often. Reaching the last of these is one way to lose. And the Threat level rises almost every time you move, so you can't afford to hang about. Hence I took the direct route to Precipice Island, the scenario's first goal. Here I am en route (the ship should be pointing the other way).
The problem with this is that it involves visiting the ocean's edge on the way and that's a dangerous place. As I found out. Zero points left on the ship's hull means a one-way trip to Davy Jones's locker. Sigh.
Re-set and try again. This time I kept encountering Royal Navy frigates, but managed to escape them, survived my initial encounter with the Ocean's Edge and got to Precipice Island (963 on the board). Armed with the vital information found here, it was on to the next destination, successfully collect the MacGuffin (only needed a roll of 5+ on a d12) and head back to the Ocean's Edge.
Despite not having moved from his starting position, the dread Cap'n Razor and his man o' war were suddenly on hand for the final showdown. Thanks to the excellent gunnery skills of my team, the man o' war was sent to the bottom as I fended off Cap'n Razor.
Here's the final position - there's a lot of information here. The blank space to the right of the shop is actually where I've just moved from - the tile was removed after resolving the encounter. You can see the removed tiles to the right of the board: ship after ship after ship. The boards on the left would be with the player taking each role in a multi-player game. From top to bottom you can see I have 5 crew (requiring 3 food) with no discontent. The fight has left me with just one point of hull - that's close! I have plenty of supplies; a check would trigger the next threat event and my infamy is in the middle. The dials are used for various things, but here the 0 on A means I've sunk Razor's ship, while the 1 on C means my Captain is still alive (just!). And below that are the ship's cannons - two of them still loaded! That's a win - what's more, having completed five 'stars' on my 'constellation', that's a 'good' result for my character.
And then the world changed. Yes, I've unlocked the other scenarios.
I'm pleased that it is possible to complete the scenario without cheating. You do need to know the particular skill required to find the MacGuffin - and have a character who's strong in that skill. Hence, you'll need a few plays to work that out.
Which is no hardship as far as I'm concerned as the game is a whole heap of fun along the way. Despite having played half a dozen times, I was still encountering new things this time. The one thing that would make things better is playing with a team rather than solitaire. The times I've done this have been terrific - and the remote app (plus Discord) enabled a group across the UK (and abroad) to play together.
I'd love to get a group playing this, but will have to settle for the solitaire game for the time being. Forgotten Waters gets a solid 9/10 from me.
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Yes, I've had another go at Martin Wallace's Rocketmen - you can find my first attempt in It's gonna be a long, long time.... I got in two solitaire games this weekend, in fact, including my first win. I felt surprisingly triumphant after that, given my only opponent was a simple 'AI'.
First off, I upgraded the 'AI' to 'Normal' difficulty since I now know the basics. My goals (you have to achieve all of them to win, as well as beating the AI) were relatively easy: get a rocket to all three destinations (Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars). I played it too safe last time, so I took a riskier approach to my missions. This resulted in several failed launches. The main problem with this is losing the time (turns) taken to set up the mission.
Here's the final sad, sad situation. I (yellow) have just completed my sixth mission (and third goal) to end the game with only three turns remaining (signified by the 'Asset' cards still on the track bottom left). But the AI has beaten me by a point. Grr. And is only two steps/turns away from adding a hotel on the Moon.
Along the way, I've seen off two of the 'Threats' to humanity (three of them in the solitaire game), but the AI got the third - and two valuable points. Despite losing, I was proud of my achievements (I've got a Moonbase, and a hotel in Earth orbit!), suggesting the game isn't as dry as I first thought.
On Saturday, I made my third attempt, still against the Normal AI. I drew a goal card that included establishing a base on Mars - the most challenging (and highest points scoring) mission in the game. I was a bit miffed at getting this again until I checked and found that it's on four of the 11 (in a solitaire game) goal cards.
So I went for a different strategy: first, establish a base on Mars. NASA would have a fit. The advantages I saw were getting the hardest goal out of the way first and building up a deck that should then allow me to complete other missions quickly (and also removing from my deck the 'Base' mission card that has no other use). The disadvantages were that I might run out of time and I was missing out on the useful 'Achievements' (bonuses like increasing hand size, extra rocket engines) gained by completing missions. Here's the final board.
So off I went, first adding money cards to my deck, then buying powerful engines and other cards to boost my mission. Playing cards to my 'Launch Pad' also reduces my deck size, re-cycling those money cards more quickly. In the meantime, the Asset deck was running down and the AI was scoring points. I definitely felt I was running out of time.
Finally, it was time to launch. Given the importance of the mission, I threw everything at it, including the one-use 'High-Efficiency Booster' that gave me two steps on the mission track. The 'Radiation Shielding' converted a zero 'Mission Success' card to a 2, the 'Spacesuit' let me re-draw a card and I reached Mars. Just. Phew! And suddenly I'm competitive with the AI's score.
My deck was pretty hefty once all the cards from the mission were back in it. But this allowed me to launch new missions every 2-3 turns. And I successfully raced the AI to put hotels in Earth orbit and on the Moon to get the extra point for being first each time.
I completed my sixth mission (photo above shows my player board and cards at this point, including the long line of successes and removed cards) to end the game with a couple of turns left. All my goals were done and getting all three Mars missions gave me a satisfying 36 points against the AI's 19 - I saw off all three Threats this time. And a real feeling of triumph. Next time, it's the 'Hard' AI...
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I'm sure everybody who writes about Martin Wallace's Rocketmen will include an Elton John reference and I'm no exception. I felt it was time to break out my copy at the weekend and give it a go - solitaire, of course.
The central mechanism is deck building. Then you play cards from hand (temporarily reducing the size of your deck) to power a mission (a card that is permanently removed from your deck if successful). Missions go to Earth orbit, the Moon or Mars and are of different types. You score points for completing missions, with a bonus point for being the first. And the points (and difficulty) go up the further the mission takes you.
Missions are always chancy as you have to draw cards to move along the track to complete one. Of course you can buy and play cards before you launch to improve your chances. So, you use each turn's hand to buy more cards ('Assets' and 'Engines') and/or deploy them to your current mission. Eventually you'll end a turn by launching the mission and trying to succeed with it.
In the solitaire game you have an opponent (apparently it's an 'AI', but I'm not seeing much intelligence) that doesn't follow the game rules. Instead, a pair of cards identifies a mission and the AI's marker moves implacably forward each round until the mission is complete. They get the points for this and you need to beat the AI's score to win.
Here's the main board at the end of my game - yes, I got the "deluxe" models. They're just markers, but they do look better than cardboard discs. The red disc (on the Moon at the moment) is the AI's latest mission on its way to Mars, having already got a base and rocket on the Moon (I've put a satellite round the Moon - I'm yellow - and built a space station in Earth orbit, among others). The empty track at the bottom shows that the Asset cards have run out to end the game and the scores on the right put me a couple of points ahead.
However, to win you also have to complete the three missions on a 'Personal Goal' card drawn at the start. This could mean you're in an actual race if the AI draws one of the missions on your card before you've done it. Though it seems unlikely.
My handicap was that one of my missions was the most difficult one on the board: build a base on Mars (with no sign of childcare facilities, by the way). This requires 15 'Rocket' points to take off. There are a few Rocket points on Asset cards, but most of them come from Engines, requiring me to buy lots of them. Unfortunately, I mistakenly thought I could only play one of each engine on my mission (the restriction only applies to Assets), making it even harder.
Here's my personal board at the end with cards to the left stacking up in a desperate attempt to complete my last mission. Completed missions are right of that (and I zapped an asteroid).
I ended with more points than the AI (well, this was the 'Easy' setting), but still lost as I hadn't completed all three of my goals. I had even managed to acquire the 15 Rocket points I needed, but couldn't get them into play before the Asset deck ran out, ending the game. I suspect I was also being too cautious, loading my deck with 'Launch Pad' Assets that gave me bonuses when moving on the mission track and finding missions easy to do - once I'd got all the cards out.
As far as I can see, this is a game with little interaction between players (though it's nominally a race), so the solitaire experience probably isn't that different. The trick is going to be managing your deck to complete six missions, including your three goals (I completed four, including two from my goal card), before your one of your opponents does or the Assets run out. Time to re-read the rules before I give it another go.
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Saashi’s solitaire game, Coffee Roaster. Current circumstances seemed the ideal time to pick up a copy (as published by dlp games - Stronghold produce the US edition) and give it a go – especially as I’d heard some good things about it.
First, you pick the coffee you want to make from the deck. Each card describes a real coffee – in both real-world (where it’s grown and its characteristics) and game terms – and is ranked from beginner to expert. For the game, the card shows your starting ingredients – a selection of oval cardboard chips – and the goals you’re trying to achieve, in terms of the roast level and flavour components.
The chips go into a bag and – here is the game’s elegant simplicity – you pull some out each turn. That’s it. The game just consists of taking chips out of the bag and putting them back again. Though each time you’re taking out one more chip than the previous turn. The crucial bit is deciding when you’re drawing to make your coffee, rather than continuing the roasting process.
Of course, it’s not that simple. First off, roasting means that you replace the beans you’ve drawn with darker ones, moving up the roasting scale from 0 to 4. Second, there will be other things coming out of the bag, not just beans. Moisture chips are no problem – they just evaporate. Defective beans are more worrying, as are burnt beans (roasted past level 4). And smoke is added the longer you continue roasting.
I'm going for the Sierra Maestra coffee from Cuba, shown below. Optimum roast level is 14 and I need one of each Flavour chip. To the right are the chips I've been able to discard before brewing my cup.
That leaves the flavour tokens. You can re-cycle these back into the bag – you will need some when you brew your coffee. Alternatively, they can be used to take extra actions as part of your roasting turn. These actions let you do things like remove smoke and burnt and defective beans. This is very useful on a turn where you’ve drawn several of these. However, note the trade-off: use flavour tokens while roasting or retain them to score at the end.
There’s a useful summary of the various actions and their costs on the player board, with spaces to put the flavour tokens as they’re used. Fitting into this board is your cardboard ‘cup’ with spaces for 10 chips. When you decide it’s time to brew, you draw chips one at a time and fill these spaces in order. You are able to discard a few chips as part of this (there is an action to expand this ability).
Once the cup is full, it’s time to score. First you add up the roast values of the beans in the cup. A scale on the coffee card will show how many points that’s worth. There is an optimum value, of course, which is what you’re aiming at. There are then bonus points if you have the right combination of Flavours (note these take up spaces in the cup, just like beans) and a bonus for sets of beans at the same roast level. Finally, you get penalty points for any smoke or burnt/defective beans in your cup and if you don’t fill the cup or don’t have any Flavour tokens.
Your score gives you an idea of how well you’ve done – and the rules suggest you shouldn’t attempt any ‘Expert’ coffees until you’ve managed a minimum score. For the full challenge, you roast three coffees, one from each of the card groups, and tot up your total score to see how good you are.
Here's my successful Sierra Maestra coffee in the ‘cup’ on the right – despite having beans of all values and some smoke. The dial shows I went long on the roasting (slightly over-doing it) and used a couple of special actions, notably adding one of the square tiles to my cup to get an extra draw.
I’m impressed by the simplicity of the game’s mechanisms. Particularly as they give you so many decisions to make. These force you to make trade-offs between immediate actions and improving the contents of your bag for the end-game. Generally, the more roasting turns you take, the better your chances of a high score. However, there is a limit to the number of roasting turns you can take and there’s certainly an argument for stopping earlier – especially if you can avoid adding more smoke to the bag.
However, all of this depends on how things are going. That is, how lucky you have been with what you draw each turn. This is also the skill of the game: coping with what you’ve been able to do in past turns and what’s available this turn. Coffee Roaster is a game that requires skill, judgment and luck. I found it an interesting challenge, but not one that’s begging me to play it again. It gets 6/10 on my highly subjective scale. This review was first published in issue 216 of To Win Just Once, August 2021.
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A hefty parcel was waiting for me when I got out of hospital. Inside was a shiny new copy of Oath. My experiences with designer Cole Wehrle's games are mixed. I loved what he did with Pax Pamir: Second Edition, making the game so much more accessible (and blinging it up), but John Company was a bit disappointing (see TWJO 193) and somehow Root has passed me by. However, what I read about Oath had me hooked - and backing it on Kickstarter.
Hefty is definitely the right word for this game: Oath comes in a big box which is stuffed full of stuff - I particularly like the neoprene 'board' (apart from anything else, this makes it easier to pick cards up). I had expected to give the solitaire game a try, but the rules suggest you shouldn't use the automated player, "The Clockwork Prince", until you know the game.
Instead there's a detailed walkthrough of the first turn for a four player game (the photo below shows this set up for play - spot my mistake). The idea is to use this to start your first game, giving four players an introduction to the game's main mechanisms and setting them up with different strategies. So I gave this a go and it worked very nicely. After the first round, I dropped one player and played through with the other three. Probably not a very representative game, but it certainly whetted my appetite.
However, the walkthrough made it clear that I really need other players to bounce off and react to in order to understand this game. And The Clockwork Prince ain't it (I still don't understand the instructions). A big part of the game's appeal is in its asymmetric set-up and victory conditions. One player rules the land and just (!) has to hang on, the others are Exiles who try to Usurp or Succeed the ruler - or get a Vision and meet its goals.
Oath is also explicitly about telling a story. That is, the history of this land as it unfolds through successive games. What's more, the final positions of a game set the starting positions for the next one - though you don't have to have the same group playing every time. The next game also introduces new cards into play, providing different opportunities.
Much as I want to play this game with other people, I have no idea when I'll be able to do this. I could see it going down well at Swiggers, but goodness knows when (or if) we'll get to meet again - and I'm not likely to be there even then. A convention might be a better bet. I can even see the game being set up on the first evening and then played for the rest of the con with a changing cast of players. For the time being, though, Oath is languishing on my stack of unplayed games.
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