Newcastle Gamers – 25th August 2012

Bit of a worrying start to this meeting… I arrived at the venue at the appointed hour of 4:30 to discover the car park gates were locked, and none of the building lights were on.

Oh oh.. this didn’t look good!

I parked in a nearby side-street (where, fortunately, the ticket machine was broken — otherwise I might’ve ended up buying a totally un-necessary parking ticket), and discovered a number of other Newcastle Gamers had been forced to do the same thing. We were stumped. Usually the NG meeting follows straight after the circus school, and the building is open (and still occupied by the aforementioned circus types) as we’re arriving… but it looks like they stick to regular term times, and it’s the long summer holiday for them — oops!

So, we all stood around outside the building for a while, wringing our hands, keeping an eye out for traffic wardens, mulling over emergency gaming plans, and wondering who might have access to a key or a keyholder… when Robert arrived to save the day. Robert is usually on post-meeting locking-up-duty, and therefore has a key to the premises (though, of course, he wasn’t expecting to be on opening-up-duty too, so hadn’t arrived at the same time as all of us 4:30-on-the-dot early-birds!). The building was unlocked, the car-park opened, and after some frantic car manoeuvring shenanigans the evening’s board gaming duly commenced… ‘phew.

First up: The Castles of Burgundy

I’ve been keen to play this one for quite a while… it’s been steadily climbing the Board Game Geek charts for the last six months or so, has had a lot of critical acclaim, and — basically — looks exactly like “my sort of thing”… but, oddly, it hadn’t surfaced at Newcastle Gamers until this meeting. (I almost bought a copy myself a couple of months ago when an unexpected amazon voucher landed in my lap… but it was out of stock and I ended up grabbing a copy a Village instead). Fortunately Olly has recently succumbed to temptation and added a copy to his collection … and this was its first outing.

In Castles of Burgundy, each player takes the role of a prince in the 15th Century Loire valley. You have a board which features a chunk of landscape, and — within a set number of turns — you need to fill said landscape with a thriving princedom. You add towns, farms, mines, and stuff like that … each of which gives little perks and victory point bonuses as the game progresses. There’s an interesting dice-based mechanism that determines what buildings you can pick up and where you can place them but – much like the game Troyes – you can spend resource points to modify your dice rolls, so the resulting gameplay is pleasingly euro-like, rather than the dice-led ameritrashy experience that you might expect.

You score points for placing certain types of tiles and/or completing clusters of coloured “cells” on your board (so, for example, if you fill all five of the connected “green” farm cells, you get a chunk of points), and there’s a couple of other ways to grab victory points from selling goods, or collecting special “knowledge” tiles which give you exclusive end-game scoring opportunities.

“Castles” is a simple game, that happens to have an awful lot of fiddly rules… and, in common with a lot of Stefan Feld games, it seems to have an awful lot of really cryptic iconography involved too! However, Olly gave a really good rules explanation, and we all soon got the hang of what we were doing and trying to achieve. I took an early lead, concentrating on filling out my cities and setting up a high-scoring pig farm … but unfortunately I suffered in the end-scoring for failing to pick up many lucrative yellow tiles, and Olly crept past in the final reckoning. Oh well… maybe next time!

I enjoyed this one; it was my favourite of the night, though it did seem a little over-long with 4 players … (the BGG page suggests it works best with 2 or 3, and I can easily imagine that to be true). It is, at heart, a pretty simple game … but it’s got some interesting subtleties to it, and I can imagine it being very re-playable. So, thumbs up from me 🙂

When we finished Castles Of Burgundy, everybody else at the meeting was still pretty much locked into other games, so the four of us (Myself, Olly, Michael and Ana) stayed where we were and the second game of the night was selected:


This is my game… I haven’t owned it for long, and had only played the 2-player version previously (which I enjoyed a lot), so was keen to give it a spin with more people at the table.

Hawaii is a medium-weight (or maybe even heavy-weight-ish) tile collection game. You control a tribal chief which you move around the central board, spending resources and collecting “stuff” for your tribe’s island. You collect various resource-generating buildings, perk-producing idols, and point-generating tiles that you then need to lay out in particularly efficient ways to maximise your end-of-game scoring. It’s got really pretty components, but it’s a bit of an (unforgiving!) brain-burner.

Remember I said that Castles of Burgundy was a simple game with a lot of fiddly rules? Hawaii is probably best described as a complex game with a lot of fiddly rules. There’s a fair bit to take on initially about how each tile works, how it interacts with other tiles, and what your short + long term objectives will be … and I think people were struggling to get into the game initially, though it all seemed to be falling into place by the end. My own first game was kind of like that too; it took me at least half of the game to realise (a) merely making big villages isn’t, necessarily, a good way to actually score points, and (b) the way resources gradually decline in the game is much harsher than you initially expect it to be.

However, at the end of the game Ana came out in front — winning through a combination of fruit collecting, and conscientiously meeting the “most popular chief” award on most rounds, and Olly came second (by a single point!) … adopting a strategy of not picking up many points during the game, but getting lots of cheap tikis/building a really high-scoring village layout and reaping a heap of points in the final reckoning.

I went for a spear-collecting and island-visitng strategy … scoring most of my points mid-game, and comparatively few in the island evaluation, and was only a couple of points behind Olly… which I guess shows that there’s a wide spread of valid strategies that you can use in this one.

I didn’t enjoy this game of Hawaii as much as I did the last time I played it… maybe it was a bit hard-going to teach + play this one with a large proportion of first-time players at the table (especially when it followed another game with lots of fiddly tile-specific rules). There’s a lot to absorb, and — with the benefit of hindsight — I’m a bit relieved that we only had 4 players, rather than 5. However, I’m not put off; I think Hawaii has a lot of potential (and it did make the KSDJ recommended list this year!) … there’s just the difficulty of hauling people over the threshold and getting them through the initial learning curve / tile familiarisation which might stop this one from getting regular outings. That sort of thing can be a big ask for a casual-ish gaming group.

Final game of the night:

Agricola: All Creatures Great and Small

I’ve started packing this one into my gaming bag on a regular basis now. Agricola:ACBAS seats 2 players, has some really satisfying euro-game crunchiness to it, but can be played in less than half an hour. There isn’t usually a great deal of need for a 2-player game at Newcastle Gamers, as there’s normally games starting and finishing all evening, and plenty of potential players floating around… but every now and then things work out in such a way as to make a good 2-player title a very useful thing to have in reserve (especially if it plays relatively quickly)… and in those respects, Agricola:All Creatures Big and Small delivers in spades 🙂

I’ll not post too much about the mechanics of this one, since a few weeks ago — in one of my more experimental moods — I made a video all about it. Fortunately, Olly (my opponent on this occasion) is familiar with the regular version of Agricola, and had a dim recollection of checking out the ACBAS rules in the past, so it was a really fast game to teach — a few minutes explanation of the quirks and differences from the parent game, and we were up and running.

I usually play this game with my wife, and I guess we’ve fallen into the trap of going for pretty standardised openings and tactics. The game I played with Olly turned out to be very different from my usual ACBAS experiences right from the get-go … I was shut out of fence-building opportunities until much later in the game than I usually am, which threw my early strategies a bit.

The final scores were 39 – 46 in Olly’s favour. I think that’s my lowest score ever (damn you, Mr Burnett-Hall!) … my main penalties being due to a lack of cows on my farm, and the fact that I didn’t get a second expansion into play. Very enjoyable game though — it’s nice to have your whole approach to a game turned on its head from time to time 🙂

* * * * * * *

It was about quarter past ten when we finished… and — since my last trip to Newcastle Gamers turned into a bit of a late one — I thought I’d try to score brownie points with Mrs Shep by going home early, and decided to call it a night. (This is, of course, money in the bank for the NEXT Newcastle Gamers sesh, which will be an all-day extravaganza on the 8th September!). With the late start and early finish, I probably played a bit less that I normally like to at these meetings… but, nevertheless, I managed to play 3 recently-released, well-regarded, and eminently playable modern euros in a single evening, which is not to be sniffed at 🙂

(The only thing better than playing 3 recently-released, well-regarded and eminently playable modern euros in a single evening is playing 4 recently-released, well-regarded, and eminently playable modern euros in a single evening. Well, there’s always next time…)

Games that I didn’t play this time: Village — After playing village at 4 meetings on the trot, I decided it was time to give it a break. However, John F and Emily were keen for a game, so I brought my copy in for them to play; you can read about their evening on the Newcastle Gamers Google+ feed. There was also a game of Dominant Species on the go, which is another title that’s riding high on my stuff-I-need-to-play-one-day list, but the potential for a Castles of Burgundy / Hawaii combo just tipped the scale on this occasion.

So many games, so little time!

The pictures were taken by Olly, and have been gratuitously stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ Group. 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. September the 8th will be an all-day session, with plenty of gamers popping in and out all day; a perfect opportunity to come along and find out what we’re all about!

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