Newcastle Gamers – 12th January

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

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

High Frontier

High Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, next up:

Age of Industry

Age of Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Würfel Bohnanza

Würfel Bohnanza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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