Newcastle Gamers – 13th September

Bit of a landmark visit for me, this one. My first ever visit to Newcastle Gamers was the late-October meeting of 2011… and last night’s session was the early October meeting of 2012… which means I’ve now clocked up a full year of attendance. I could probably fill up a whole post with my reflections on my first year with the club… so, yeah, I’ll probably bore you all with that in the near future. But for the time being, here’s a round-up of the stuff I played last night…


Those are my elbows in that picture. Olly’s Camera is very slimming!

Following my previous Newcastle Gamers session, in which I played Dungeon Lords and Ora & Labora (a pair of lengthy and moderately heavyweight titles) back-to-back, I’d kind of gone to the club this week with the intention of only playing short-to-medium-length games. This master plan lasted a grand total of… well, about 10 minutes? In my defence, John B. (the game’s owner) claimed that the game was around 90 mins to 2 hours long. And it possibly is, if you’re up-to-speed with the rules… but, colonial is a fairly complex beastie, and I think it took us the best part of an hour just to set everything up and get through the rules explanation… and then there was the obvious overheads of playing a complex/unfamiliar game for the first time. So… yeah, it took quite a while. Oops.

John owns the first edition of the game. A second edition of the game is currently in the final stages of production, which (amidst much chuntering on the Board Game Geek forums from people who bought the first edition) contains significantly-altered rules, and slightly different components. John has modified his copy with paste-ups to match the new edition rules, and I think this was the first time he’s tried it out this way — so the game (as played) was pretty much new to everybody at the table.

The game’s theme — which you might have guessed from the title/photograph — involves the countries of renaissance Europe sending explorers and military forces around the world to colonise, subdue and exploit the natives of various foreign territories, in an attempt to become rich and prestigious(?) in the process. Mechanics-wise, the game is a very nice mix of simultaneous role selection, risk management, and area-control/empire-building. Colonise the world, secure the most beneficial trade routes, maintain a military deterrent, thwart internal uprisings, win victory points.

I’m not usually a huge fan of RiskTM-like games (are you ready for the obvious pun? “I’m a bit risk-averse”! *badum-CHING!*) … and yes, I realise I massively over-generalise by dumping everything involving spreading-an-empire-over-a-map-of-the-world into one amorphous category … but this one was pretty compelling, with the role-selection mechanism (12 possible roles to pick from each turn, from which you’ll play 5, and various of them being mutually exclusive by virtue of sharing the same physical card) seeming particularly well-constructed. Everything makes good thematic sense, and the artwork is a real treat.

I won the game, with a last-minute colony-building rush. I doubt I would’ve got away with that tactic against more experienced players — I’d left myself wide open to military intervention in the last round, with a very weak naval force — but we’d been playing a fairly gentle game, without much war/aggression, and (luckily for me) nobody had placed an attacking card high in their selection during that round.

So, yeah, pretty enjoyable title. I’m not sure it’s one that I’d rush to play again — mostly because there are other genres that I enjoy a lot more than this type of game, and which I’d probably pick in preference — but I’m quite pleased to have given it a go.

Next: Hanabi


I took a big bag full of games with me to this session and — ironically — the only one that got played is the one that would’ve fit into my jacket pocket(!).

Hanabi is an odd game. But odd in a good way 🙂

It’s a co-operative card game, for 2-5 players. Thematically, players are supposed to be putting on a fireworks show, and trying to please the audience with a perfectly-synchronised display … but, it’s a bit of a weak thematic association for an otherwise-abstract game, and I guess mostly just there to make the components look pretty.

The core of the game is simple: There’s a deck of cards, with 5 different coloured suits. Each suit contains cards with values from 1 to 5 in differing proportions (getting rarer as the numbers increase). Each player is dealt a hand of 4 cards.

On your turn, you have a choice. You can play a card into a pile in the middle of the table … cards need to be played in numeric order, and into 5 piles representing each of the coloured suits… so, a pile needs to start with a 1, then have a 2 placed on it, etc etc, until you place card number 5 and that part of the fireworks display is successfully completed.

Alternatively, you can discard a card from your hand, and pick up a new one from the deck.

All seems simple so far, right?

Well, Hanabi has a very clever twist to it… the type of twist which — when you reveal it to a table full of experienced gamers — makes their faces instantly light up in an “oh wow… this is clever” kind of way. And the twist is both simple, and elegant:

You can see everybody’s cards except your own.

You hold your cards in a fan, facing away from you, so that you can only see the backs, and when you pick up a new card, you take great care to not see what it is yourself (very counter-instinctive!) … everybody else knows what you’re holding, and you know what everybody else has, but… the decisions you make will be entirely dependent on the clues given to you by other players, and by keeping careful track of what’s already been played.

So… about those clues. There’s a system by which — instead of playing a card, or discarding a card — you can give a clue to another player. Giving a clue costs a clue token… and these come in a limited supply (you can replenish them by discarding cards). The type of clues you’re allowed to give are very specific: You can either tell a player about a particular colour he’s holding (e.g. “you have a blue card here, here, and here”), or about a particular number he’s holding (e.g. “you have a number 3 here, and here”). The information you give must always be “complete”… e.g. you can’t tell him one particular card is blue, without telling him all the other blue cards he’s holding are also blue.

Using a combination of the clues you’ve been given, knowledge of what’s already been played, knowledge of what’s in other people’s hands, and anything you can infer from the context in which particular information was given to you — “why did John just tell me those cards were twos? That doesn’t make deductive sense… Maybe he means it’s safe to play either of those twos right now…” — you try to complete the 5 firework sequences, making no fewer than 3 errors, otherwise the show is a disaster and you fail the game without scoring.

It’s a clever game, and a very unique bit of design; it’s a safe bet that you’ve never played anything quite like this before, and that’s quite a rare thing to say of new games. It’s also notable by being a co-operative game that can’t be played solo, and thereby can’t fall foul of “dominant player” syndrome, as *nobody* in the game is ever in full possession of all the facts. Impressive.

The only thing that — for me — brings Hanabi up a tiny bit short is that there’s a tipping point in the game, at which you realise you’re not going to get a “perfect” game any more, and that you’re now only playing for a good score. Prior to that point, the tension in the game is *brilliant* — people audibly groan with torment over the decisions they’re making. They pull faces. They are visibly anguished. You are genuinely nervous when you reach for a risky card… but once the group has made it’s first major error — and a perfect score is no longer viable — the game seems significantly flatter. I suppose you could stop playing at that point and start over… but you kind of want to play it out anyway and see if you make it through to the end with a reasonable score.

In this particular game, we had an outright fail… 3 misfires, meaning the show is (thematically) abandoned in the face of a booing audience, and you get nil points.

Good fun though… and an enjoyable enough experience to prompt me to try a second game later in the evening.

But first:

Alien Frontiers (with Factions Expansion):

From one type of colonialism to another…

I like Alien Frontiers … in terms of games-I-don’t-own-but-which-I-really-enjoy-playing, this is pretty high in the ranks. Actually, I _do_ own the iOS version now, which is OK for partially scratching the itch … but the AI is a bit rubbish, and nothing really beats sitting around a table for a proper face-to-face session.

Alien Frontiers is a dice-for-worker-placement game which I’ve covered previously, so I won’t go into the basics again… but this is the first time I’ve played with the “factions” expansion, so I’ll talk about that here.

“Factions” adds a bunch of modules to the base game — I’m not sure how mix-and-match-able the individual modules are, but we played with the full shooting match, which comprised:

Agendas – “hidden” objective cards. These give you secret ways to pick up one or two (or three!) victory points during the game, or at the game’s end. Some seem to be way harder to achieve than others… but you can swap cards from your hand by visiting the marketplace orbital station, so a duff draw isn’t too much of a long-term hinderance. I quite liked the idea of these, as I can see them mitigating the end-game AP that the game is often prone to.

New alien tech cards – Not sure about these. They certainly add variety and new tactical possibilities to the game (I’d attribute my victory in this game to the fact that I got the “experimental FTL drive” in my initial draw, and totally milked it for 6’s so that I could repeatedly use-and-block the terraforming station). The downside is that they seem to severely dilute the cards that allow you to move the influence fields around the planet. In my previous games of Alien Frontiers, these have been a huge feature of the end-game. This time, they didn’t even come onto the board!

Some Faction Boards

Factions – the titular feature of the expansion is the factions module. Each player is given a faction board. This grants that particular player a unique special power, and also adds a new space station to the game which any player can dock a ship at to exercise the station’s unique ability. As an example, the faction that I was randomly allocated was the “New Gaia Engineers”. This gave me the special perk of being able to take the entrance fee any time another player uses the terraforming station (not a lot of use, as it turned out, since I was the only player who used the terraforming station!), and — as a perk for landing a ship at my New Gaia station in a turn — a player who then used the terraforming facility would have a 50/50 chance of their ship surviving the experience (which was a lot more useful!). Obviously, none of this will make much sense to anybody who hasn’t played much Alien Frontiers, so for those folks, the short explanation of factions is : “Woo, Perks!”.

The factions module seems OK. It tweaks the core gameplay a fair bit; adds more options, and you’re going to get a different mix of factions every game, so I can see it massively improving the game’s longevity for seasoned players. But I guess I’m probably at the stage of play where I’m still appreciating the core game for the nice, elegant, well-designed gaming experience that it is … and at the moment, the idea of adding extra stations to the mix doesn’t really do much for me.

5th Player – Almost forgot! The expansion adds game material for a 5th — purple — player. I’m not convinced that this is a good idea (but, can’t really complain, since I was the 5th person to arrive at the table, so without this add-on I wouldn’t have actually got a game!!).

The 5th player “issue” isn’t so much a problem of downtime (true, there’s a little bit more of it, but not overwhelmingly so) — but more to do with the impact that a 5th player has on the ore market. Ore was painfully scarce in this game, with the market permanently locked up with level-6 dice, and I’m pretty sure that’ll be a common feature of 5-player games. It changes the game a lot. Doesn’t break it… but definitely gives you a very different experience to a game where ore is more abundant. Hmmm. Not keen.

Off-the-cuff Verdict: Agenda cards are an instantly-appealing addition, and the factions will likely grow on me once I’ve got a few more “standard” games under my belt and am looking for more gameplay variety. The alien tech cards and 5th player seem to have a far more radical effect on the game than they instinctively should (though maybe we just had a particularly odd draw of tech cards in this game). However, on balance, this seems like a decent expansion.

And… following an outright rush-build tactic, I won my second game of the night. Which was nice 😉

Once we’d finished playing Alien Frontiers, the conversation turned to Hanabi (which I’d originally played at a different table, with different people), so I suggested another game. Folks seemed keen and — well, it’s always nice to get your money’s worth from a new game — so out it game again…

Hanabi (again)


Similar sort of starting experience to the earlier session: explain the game, reveal the big twist, and watch big grins spread over the faces of people when the concept strikes home 🙂

This game went better than the earlier one (perhaps the cards were kinder?) … we avoided the 3 failure counters, but lost the opportunity to complete the blue firework when a second blue 4 was discarded mid-game. Nevertheless, we forged onward, and ended the game with a score of 18 (out of 25) … which, according to the chart in the rule book corresponds to: “Excellent, your display charms the crowd”. Could’ve been worse.

Fun game… at first blush, it seems maddeningly difficult, but I guess it’ll become easier if you play it with the same people over time, and get accustomed to the type of clues/group-think that emerges from repeat attempts. It’s certainly a very unique gaming experience, and on that basis alone I’d recommend it as a title that every seasoned gamer should try it at least once.

* * * * * * *

The second game of Hanabi wrapped up just before midnight… I’ve no idea where the evening went; Colonial seemed like a long game, but the others flew past(!)

Highlight: Giving Hanabi it’s debut play — it’s always nice to get a new game on the table for the first time — though it was good to finally experience Alien Frontiers Factions first-hand too.

Lowlight: Not playing John F’s new copy of Pillars of the Earth… (he kindly offered to delay the start for me, but the game of Colonial I was locked into wasn’t showing any sign of ending, so I thought it best to pass on the opportunity). Oh well… hopefully there’ll be future opportunities! 🙂

The in-game pics were snapped by Olly, and appear via the Newcastle Gamers Google+ Group. Other pics were gratuitously stolen from manufacturer promo shots. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the month. Usual cost is £3 (or £1 for concessions), but your first visit is free … check the G+ group for more info.

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One Response to Newcastle Gamers – 13th September

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