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Newcastle Gamers – 10th March

I’ve been a bit slow with the write-up of this one (it’s been a busy month!), but I thought I’d better jot something down while I can still remember what I played, as the next club meeting is tomorrow and it’ll probably all blur into one after that ๐Ÿ˜‰

It was another good turn-out this week – looked like pretty much every table was in use again; the club seems to be getting very popular.

Anyway.. down to the details… What did I play this time?

The Boss

This particular copy of The Boss was so new that the owner hadn’t even taken it out of its shrinkwrap. (Seriously… how did he manage that? One of the greatest joys in life is unboxing a new game… even if you’re not going to get to play it for a few days!). Fortunately the rules were pretty straightforward, and we managed to pick them up pretty quickly.

The Boss is a game about organised crime, in which players (supposedly) compete to control the crime scene of various American cities. To be honest, the theme seemed a little bit tacked-on to me, but — once you put that aside — there’s a surprisingly neat hidden information/area control/gambling game going on here.

Basically, you have a bunch of cities, each of which holds a different (hidden) prize card… The prize for a city might be good (i.e. a cash reward), or a penalty (e.g. getting one of your mobsters imprisoned, or killed, or whatever). Once a prize is assigned to each city, the rest of the deck is dealt out to each player… thereby giving everybody a limited insight into what the content of each city might be.

A sequence of rounds then take place in which you can move your mobsters to take control of a city (essentially, you’re placing a bet that you think *that* city is going to be beneficial), and then you reveal one of the cards that you’re holding to all the other players.

Therefore, as the game progresses, gradually more and more information about each city is made public… but if you wait too long to place your mobsters, somebody else will have dominated the best locations and you’ll be unable to move in. This leads to lots of bluffing, strategically-sequenced card revelations, and gratifying moments of victory when you put down a card that suddenly makes your opponent realise that he’s irrevocably committed all of his guys to a really bad spot…

I really enjoyed this one; it incorporates a good mix of logical deduction, risk management, and bluffing – I can imagine games getting really, really devious with an experienced set of players. Definitely worth a re-play.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue

A co-operative game, in which players attempt to rescue a bunch of people (and cats… and dogs… …WHAT??) from a burning building, before the building collapses and kills everybody.

I remember a lot of people claiming this was a Pandemic-beater when it was released last year. Personally – I don’t think it even comes close. I love the finesse of Pandemic’s disease spreading mechanism; it works in a brilliantly organic, semi-predictable way, almost reminiscent of simplified Conway’s life algorithm. That kind of threat progression (a) makes everything seem ever-so-slightly more convincing, and (b) allows you to make sensible risk-aversion decisions, based on the emerging disease pattern.

Flash Point, on the other hand, just uses dice to decide where fire is going to spontaneously break out each round. I didn’t find that anywhere near as clever, or engaging.

The game was OK… but nothing to get too excited about; I didn’t feel particularly drawn in by it. A bit too random for my tastes.

Dungeon Lords

This was my contribution to the night’s entertainment… Dungeon Lords is a game loosely (or perhaps not-so-loosely) based on the Dungeon Keeper PC game. Each player has to build (and manage!) a dungeon, load it with monsters, imps and traps, and then see how well it stands up when a bunch of pesky adventurers turn up at your door. It’s also (despite it’s cute, ameritrashy outward appearances) one of the most hard-core and unforgiving eurogames in my collection – an opinion that only seems to get re-inforced every time it gets an outing. I love it! ๐Ÿ™‚

I thought I played a remarkably good game – I only lost two tiles of dungeon to invading adventurers… but, alas, my high investment in monsters meant I lost out on valuable points for building rooms and tunnels. Must remember to build a bigger dungeon next time.

Of the 4 players at the table, two were first-timers. You could sense their brains had kind of melted by the end of the session. But hopefully in a good way. Bit of a marmite game, this one ๐Ÿ˜‰

Through the Desert

Everybody wanted something a touch lighter after the Dungeon Lords experience, and Through the Desert (with it’s pastel camel trains, and simplistic ruleset) seemed to fit the bill. It’s an area-control game, where you score points by carving up the desert with your little plastic camel trains.

I found this interesting to play, as I’ve put in a lot of time with the iOS version, but I’ve never played with a physical copy. Alas — at risk of being branded a heretic to the cause of boardgaming — I think I may prefer the virtual version. The scoring and rules enforcement seemed just a little bit too much work with the physical version. Actually, I think that might be a bit of a trend with Reiner Knizia’s designs – I tend to find them a bit over-fiddly to play in physical form, and often perhaps not-quite-worth the effort… the only notable prior exception being Ingenious, which I’ve blogged about previously, and is which is wonderfully tactile and beautiful to play in physical form.

Though, to be fair, the next game we played (Keltis) is another Knizia title, and that’s not too bad either…

Keltis

Keltis – despite the strikingly-celtic graphic design – is an extremely abstract game, and about as un-thematic as you can get… you collect sequences of cards (not pictured here) to progress along the various score tracks, pick up assorted bonus tokens, and – basically – maximise your points.

Despite the lack of theme, it’s a surprisingly involving game… and good fun, as abstracts go… a good title to wrap up the evening with. It’s not something that I’d necessarily rush to play again if there was other stuff on offer, but an enjoyable game nevertheless.

* * * * * * *

Sooo… in summary, not a bad week at all. One surprise discovery (The Boss), one marathon session of a game I really like (Dungeon Lords), Keltis was a pleasant diversion, and even the games that I didn’t find massively exciting (Through the Desert / Flash point) were titles that I’ve been keen to try out. A decent night’s gaming, all said and done.

And, due to the fact that I’m writing this so late, the next meeting is barely more than 24 hours away. Think I might chuck Agricola in my bag for this one… it’s been *ages* since I had a game of Agricola…

CREDITS: Session pics gratuitously stolen from the Newcastle Gamers web site. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the monthโ€ฆ usual cost is ยฃ3, but your first visit is free. More details here.

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Fixing my Sony DCR-HC27

Last summer, during a trip to the Orkneys, my beloved Sony Handycam had a bad encounter with a 5000-year-old Neolithic settlement (Translation: I dropped it on the floor at Scara Brae.. oops!), and has steadfastly refused to play back material ever since. To be honest, I was due a camera upgrade anyway — the HC27 is standard definition, and doesn’t have all the fancy-pants image stabilisation tricks that modern cameras have — so I used its unfortunate demise as an excuse to buy a shiny new camera (a Sony CX130 – which I *love*).

However, I’ve still got all these old mini-DV tapes sitting around the house, many of which I never got around to transferring to computer files… and some of which I’d really like to get access to. There’s clips of Mick and Tony noodling around in the studio… a couple of full-length Carbon/Silicon gigs… some British customs events that never made it onto Averil’s website (Cotswold Shin-kicking!), etc etc…

I’ve been watching eBay to see if I could pick up an old Mini-DV camera for next to nothing — purely as a way to get my tapes downloaded — but, alas, to no avail. I would’ve thought that as HD/AVCHD cameras picked up in popularity, people would be dumping standard def Mini-DV in droves, but that doesn’t seem to be the case yet. (Plus, there’s always a risk that since I recorded my material in extended play mode, a different camera wouldn’t play it back in quite the right way).

So, yesterday I bit the bullet and decided to see if I could pull the camera to bits and adjust the tape heads and get it working again… I mean, the camera was pretty useless anyway; it’s not like I had anything to lose. Things actually worked out pretty well, and was a simpler job that I was expecting. I thought I’d post an account of my tinkerings here, just in case any future googlenaughts are looking for hints on DIY Sony DCR-HC27 repair ๐Ÿ™‚ (…anybody else can probably stop reading now – dull tech stuff follows!)

This process assumes you have some kind of video head alignment issue… i.e. if you play back the video, it looks scrambled/blocky on screen, and if you try to download stuff over firewire the resulting stream is corrupted. If you have some other kind of problem… sorry, this isn’t going to help.

Also, please be aware that I’m not in the slightest bit qualified to pull apart video cameras, and I only have an enthusiastic geek-amateur’s knowledge on how these things work. Somebody who actually knows what they’re doing might read this, suck the air through their teeth, and say “This guy did WHAT???!” … hey ho. Whatever. It worked for me ๐Ÿ™‚

This is the panel that you need to get off. I’d love to be able to give you a step-by-step guide to getting into the thing, but I wasn’t intending to write a blog entry on the subject, and wasn’t documenting what I was doing as I went along… (plus, I ended up cheating on one of the screws. Hmmm. More about that in a moment). As a minimum, you need to get off the panel on the base of the camera (and the EMI shield behind it), and the black plate at the front of the camera before you have access to all the screws you need to undo to get at this one. I actually ended up stripping off pretty much all of the camera casing – it looks tidy in this shot because I put most of it back together before making any internal adjustments (since the bare chassis doesn’t leave you much to hold on to!)

Oh, I haven’t put in a disclaimer yet, have I? OK: YOU PULL APART YOUR VIDEO CAMERA AT YOUR OWN RISK. THERE’S A PRETTY GOOD CHANCE IT’LL NEVER WORK AGAIN, AND IT’S YOUR OWN SILLY FAULT FOR DOING WHAT SOME RANDOM GUY ON THE INTERNET TOLD YOU TO DO. MAYBE YOU’LL EVEN INJURE YOURSELF TOO (well, that’s certainly unlikely, but…) – I HEREBY ACCEPT NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE CONSEQUENCES OF FOLLOWING THESE INSTRUCTIONS. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

OK, back to business. Here’s the gotchas that you need to be aware of when taking this panel off. Firstly – there’s a ribbon cable clipped to the back of it – the cable, and clip, is shown with the red arrows above. If you unhook it by poking a small screwdriver (or similar) through the tape loading door prior to taking the camera to pieces, you will have an easier time of things.

Gotcha #2 is a bit trickier. There’s a concealed screw coming from the camera chassis into the BACK of this panel. The screw-hole, and chunk of chassis involved are highlighted with the yellow arrows above. I’ll be honest: This one beat me. I stripped a bunch of components off the camera, and STILL didn’t find a way to access that screw – I think you might need to do some *really* hardcore disassembly/stripping down to get access… and since this was really a data recovery exercise, rather than a repair job (I’m not really bothered if the thing never works as a camera again – I just want to access the tapes!)… I opted to just bend the tab out until I could get a screwdriver in. The metal is very thin, and it wasn’t hard to do – I think It’ll bend back fairly easily, if I want to reassemble the camera again later. There’s probably a Sony service manual hidden somewhere on the internet that tells you how to get this screw out the right way… but, if you can find it, your powers of web-fu are stronger than mine!

OK, the panel is off… reconnect the battery and power up the camera (you DID disconnect the battery before pulling this thing to bits, didn’t you?), load a tape, and set it playing. You’re going to want to tweak the two screws shown in the picture above… and you need the screen in a position where you can watch the video while you’re tweaking (or, I guess hooking up an external display would make the job even easier… but I didn’t do that). Start with the big screw on the right (RED arrow). Unless the video camera has had a pretty severe bouncing and your video heads have moved *way* off, it’s only going to take a small adjustment… we’re talking a quarter turn, or something like that. Tweak until you can (a) hear the video soundtrack playing properly, and (b) only see one or two corrupted macroblocks on the video stream. The soundtrack is probably the best clue; there are all kinds of settings where you’ll see (corrupted) stuff on the screen, but if the soundtrack is decoding correctly, you’re getting close to where you need to be.

Once your video is close-to-correct, use the screw on the left (YELLOW arrow) to make fine adjustments… here’s a trick I found for getting it right: look at the timecode on your video (top right corner) – it reads something like HH:MM:SS:ff … where “ff” is the frame number, looping up from 1 to 25 really fast (at least, it goes to 25 on my PAL camera… I guess if you’ve got an NTSC camera, it goes up to 30 or something like that). My frame count looked a bit jittery… which I assume meant the camera was still dropping frames. I found that a tiny adjustment of this left hand screw eliminated those jitters (and, at the same time, removed the few remaining rogue macroblocks from the display). Result!

My camera now plays back tapes *perfectly*. I can’t guarantee that this same procedure will work for you… but, I’m a happy bunny, and you never know… somebody might find this info useful, so I thought I’d share ๐Ÿ™‚

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Newcastle Gamers – 25th February

This was my first visit to Newcastle Gamers for almost a month (I couldn’t make the early-February sesh due to other commitments – boo!). Played a really good mix of games this time; enjoyed it a lot.

Ora & Labora

First up was a 4-player session of Ora & Labora, a fairly complex game of medieval monastery building. This was one of my Xmas pressies, and it was good to finally get a game of it at the club, since I’d had it in my bag on a couple of previous occasions, but for one reason or another (wrong number of people… time constraints… not enough table space…) it hasn’t had a previous outing there. It was a bit of a slow game, since I was the only person at the table who had played previously (and there’s a lot to take in on your first game)… nevertheless, Les (one of the first-time-players) won, with a thoroughly impressive settlement layout and a decent collection of goods… and I think the other players found the game interesting, despite the slow pace.

Next: 7 wonders. Still not sure how much I like 7W; maybe the problem is that I leave it *just* a touch too long between games to really get a feel for the strategies and remember what all the iconography means… but I’m going a bit cold on it now. It does, however, fit very nicely into 20 minute gaps when you’re waiting for other games/gamers to free up to play something else… so I expect I’ll get roped into a few more games on future trips.

Another card game came out next: Race for the Galaxy.

I was keen to play RFTG; it’s one of the top-ranked games in the boardgamegeek charts, and I see it mentioned a lot on forums etc, but I’d never had a “real” game of it. By “real”, I mean one involving actual humans and pieces of cardboard… as I’d previously taught myself the basics of the game via the (free of charge) “AI” version that you can download from http://keldon.net/rftg/. Quite an enjoyable game… though the mechanics feel an awful lot more clunky when you don’t have a computer looking after all the minutia / bookkeeping for you!

(Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any pics of the previous 2 games in progress… we must’ve played them too fast for Gareth to notice!)

Finally, the big surprise of the night: Bang!

This one was new to me. Well… I say “new”… I have vague recollections of downloading a freebie iOS version some time ago, finding it extremely dull/soul-less, and deleting it in pretty short order. However… with flesh-and-blood opponents the game is far, far more impressive…

Bang! is a light/humorous “hidden role” card-driven combat game. One player is the Sheriff, some players are the Sheriff’s deputies, and other players are outlaws/renegades. At the start of the game, only the Sheriff’s role is public information; you have to figure out what role everybody else is playing by – basically – playing various cards to take potshots at them and see how they react. No, it doesn’t make an awful lot of thematic sense… why wouldn’t a Sheriff know who his deputies are? …but nevertheless, it’s a really fun game. The game ran longer than I thought it would (about an hour) and ended in a pretty tense 3-way stand-off, in which I pulled out a gatling gun card that I’d been holding in my hand since the very start of the game, and slaughtered the other 2 players (gatling guns are somewhat indiscriminate in their target-selectivity). Admittedly, by this point I was pretty sure that one of the players was actually on my side (the outlaws), but the 3rd player was the sheriff, and I figured a little collateral damage was allowable in the interests of a swift victory. Sorry fellow outlaw… but… you did still (technically) share the ‘Team Outlaw’ victory. Albeit posthumously ๐Ÿ˜‰

Fun game… not a genre that I’m usually drawn to (party games), and quite expensive for what it is (20 quid for a single deck of cards?!!), but I’d be quite willing to play that one again in the future ๐Ÿ™‚

So, another enjoyable night, over far too soon. Next game night: 10th March.

CREDITS: Session pics gratuitously stolen from the Newcastle Gamers web site. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the monthโ€ฆ usual cost is ยฃ3, but your first visit is free. More details here.

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February Travels

Sorry… distinct lack of updates this month, largely due to the fact that I spent much of it in a paracetamol/flu-induced fug. However, somewhere along the line I managed to go to Wales and blag lots of free cider:

Observe a noble sporting tradition:

And mix with some of the country’s top athletes:

…so I suppose the month wasn’t entirely wasted ๐Ÿ™‚

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Newcastle Gamers – 28th January

I got to the venue nice and early this time — in expectation of a packed house and a shortage of parking spaces and tables — only to discover that attendance levels were back down to the club’s more usual pre-Christmas levels (20 or so). Not really sure what caused the blip last time (or why so many of those first-timers didn’t come back) … but things did seem a bit easier with fewer people in the hall.

First game of the night: Eketorp

This is a title that I grabbed as an impulse purchase during the recent stock dump by The Works. I’d read that it works particularly well with a full complement of 6 players, and the running time is normally less than an hour, so — given that at the last meeting we had a couple of slots where a quick game that could seat a lot of people would have come in useful — I thought I’d sleeve up the cards and shove it in my bag. As it happened, quite a few people were keen on playing something light and quick to start the evening, so it hit the table first.

The premise of Eketorp is that you control a tribe of vikings, and you’re competing to build the most impressive Hill fort. To do this, you send out your viking workers to collect turf, wood, clay, and stone from various resource points. If more vikings turn up at a particular resource collection point than there are available resources, a fight takes place, and the victor claims the loot… then everybody goes home and starts building their fortifications. In subsequent rounds, you can choose to send your vikings to collect more resources, OR send them to loot and pillage resources from an opponent’s fortress (or, stay at home and defend your own fortress).

It turned out to be quite a fun little game… and although it’s very gateway-ish in nature, it manages to incorporate some neat euro mechanics — worker placement, simultaneous action selection, hand management — alongside some not-too-serious backstabby-wargamey bits… and you get to stew over some pretty interesting decisions about where your defend / attack / resource collection priorities should lie. There was surprisingly little down-time for a 6-player game too (though it ran for slightly longer than the advertised 60 minutes!)

I enjoyed that one. It’s not an AAA-title, or one I’d want to play week after week, but made a good start to the night, and I’ll certainly take it back for another outing one day.

Next: Battlestar Galactica

This was only my second ever game of BSG (My first encounter was blogged here). I had mixed opinions the first time round, and figured I probably owed it a second try since (a) it seems to be one of the most-played titles at Newcastle Gamers, and (b) it’s perpetually sitting in the top end of the BGG chart. But… no. After two games I’m still not quite feeling the love for this one.

The first half of the game dragged quite a bit… the decisions I found myself facing were very one-sided, and could’ve been entirely scripted (seriously – if anybody ever decides to make an iOS port of BSG, the AI is going to be a breeze to write!). Things got markedly better at the half way point, when I discovered that I was actually a Cylon sleeper agent, and had to start surreptitiously sabotaging the human players’ actions… but, sadly, the entire second half of the game turned into a pretty easy ride for the humans – the crisis cards brought virtually no hostile spacecraft with them, and the opportunity for a masterpiece cylon betrayal at a critical point of chaos and mayhem never really arose.

Sooo… same criticisms as last time; when you’re not a cylon, the actions you should take always seem pretty narrow/obvious, and more-often-than-not hinge on a dice throw (ugh!). When you are a Cylon, things are a little more fun – BUT – your eventual success still seems to be largely determined by the whim of whatever the crisis decks/dice throw at you. The mind games are fun… but… the rest of it… Meh.

I don’t hate Battlestar Galactica, and I’d probably play it again if that’s all that was on offer (any port in a storm!) … but I think the time you invest in playing it (typically 3 hours?) far outweighs the payoff.

By now, the time was creeping towards 10pm. There was a game of 7 Wonders on offer, and I was tempted to stay for it… but was starting to suspect that the runny nose I seemed to be developing over the course of the evening wasn’t a good sign, and I might be coming down with something nasty… so thought I’d best leave early.

(As it turns out, this suspicion was entirely correct… I hope I didn’t pass on my evil Man-Flu bugs to anybody – sorry guys!!!).

CREDITS: Session pics gratuitously stolen from the Newcastle Gamers web site. Newcastle Gamers meets on the second and last Saturday of the monthโ€ฆ usual cost is ยฃ3, but your first visit is free. More details here.

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