Newcastle Gamers, 9th February

The power of the written word is indeed mighty! So mighty, in fact, that when I recently wrote that I still hadn’t managed to play the hot-new-thing-of-this-time-last-year — Eclipse — Olly promptly offered to fix that for me at the next Newcastle Gamers session.

So…

Eclipse

Eclipse

Me vs Olly, Owain (who, like me, hadn’t played before) and Kyle.

Eclipse is a 4X (eXplore / eXpand / eXploit / eXterminate) space game. You start off with your own little home planet, in an unfashionable spiral arm of a nondescript galaxy… and promptly set about exploring new star systems, making revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, seeking out new life and ancient space-faring civilizations …and then attempting to massacre the lot of them.

I got off to a slow start… all my eXploration seemed to turn up empty sectors with nothing to eXploit …or ancient starships which looked far too formidable for me to eXterminate. Meanwhile my opponents seemed to be surging ahead gobbling up resource-rich planets by the dozen. Things really didn’t seem to be going well for my race of little wooden space cubes. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be an intergalactic overlord?

Fortunately — after a couple of rounds of ineffectual floundering and cursing of the galactic sector draw pile — I managed to put together a small fleet of spacecraft that was capable of taking on the NPC “ancients”. My reward? …some sweet alien loot drops: a +3 combat computer, and a hoard of money. This facilitated a fairly rapid catch-up, and a sudden injection of slightly more cash into the coffers of my would-be space empire than than I really knew what to do with.

Not for long though… I was just starting to mull over the idea of building a few monoliths (VP generators) with my new-found wealth when the evil blue Kylian empire broke through the galactic central core and made a move on my territory. This meant my previously-peace-loving, eXploration-focussed people had to make a sudden and tactically-necessary switch to the aforementioned eXtermination.

I sank all my new cash into a crisis-driven fleet overhaul (easy come… easy go…) and — to the surprise of everybody (not least myself) — I successfully fought off Kyle’s onslaught. “Hooray!”, thought I … “maybe I’m getting somewhere now!”

Well, I’m sorry to say that my previously peace-loving race of little white wooden cubes now had a taste for blood… and an advance into Kylian territory for the final round, armed to the teeth with plasma missiles, neutron bombs, and a genocidal hatred of little blue cubes was inevitable.

“Well… why not??” …I pondered… “after all, I’ve got nothing to lose now!”

As it turned out, I had an entire fleet to lose. And promptly lost it. Oh well… at least I got a few random victory points for the senseless acts of violence.

Olly won the game. While Kyle and I were knocking seven bells out of each other, he was sitting on the sideline spending all his money on monoliths, and harvesting a huge chunk of veepees for doing so. An important lesson to be learned there, I think …

dalek

Eclipse is a very popular game… over the course of the last 12 months it’s climbed its way to 5th place in the BoardGameGeek charts.

But is it *really* the 5th best boardgame in the world, right now?

No. I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a very good game, and if you _want_ to do some 4x spacey stuff, then you won’t go far wrong by selecting Eclipse as the medium through which to do it. BUT… I don’t think it’s quite at the “masterwork” level that its high BGG ranking suggests it should be, and I can’t help thinking that the initial supply problems, high cost / high demand, and grail-game-of-the-first-quarter hype have caused early-adopters to rate it a tiny bit higher than it maybe deserves.

A couple of days after we played, Owain blogged that the dependence on dice for combat resolution (and luck mechanisms in general) was a big problem for him. I partially agree… not so much that the dice themselves are the problem; more that the combined level of random factors in the game pushes it away from being my perfect kind of game.

I don’t actually mind the use of dice; the dice add a lot of tension to deciding whether to go to war — a feeling which wouldn’t be there if benefits and losses could be cold-calculated in advance. So yeah, I can swallow the need for dice. The thing is, on top of the dice, you also have the completely random draw of territory hexagons when you move — which, essentially, equates to a completely random draw on how your income/resources are going to change each time you do an explore action, and completely random chance of what alien tech (if any) you’ll get access to. And there’s a random draw of victory point chits when you take part in a battle… and yeah, you can do things to mitigate your luck in all these aspects (get modifiers for your dice rolls / place the hexagon that you draw back in the draw pile and hope you do better next time / do stuff to increase the amount of chits you pull from the bag in one go), and I can kind of see where they were going with the probability maths behind collecting those combat award chits… BUT… I dunno. One of these mechanisms in a game would be fine… 2 or 3 together makes me less keen.

Just my gaming preferences, I guess.

It’s still a really good game though; I’ll happily play it again and I wouldn’t begrudge it a BGG top 30 slot. But top 5 material?? Nah… not quite.

Nevertheless, a completed game of Eclipse means I can knock yet another game off my “top 10 BGG games that I’ve actually played” list. One down… three to go… 🙂

Next we played:

Survive: Escape from Atlantis!

survive

Kyle had to leave, Owain had pre-arranged to join a game of PowerGrid that was likely to kick off within the hour, and something a bit lighter just seemed like an overall good idea to follow Eclipse. Survive! was selected to be that something.

We had quite a high bodycount on this outing; Olly and Myself both ran out of people to rescue long before the final turn (most of our people being transformed into shark food, rather than being transformed into happy survivors) … and therefore had to spend the last few rounds just sinking chunks of island and doing nasty things to Owain. It wasn’t too long before his last guy disappeared down a timely whirlpool though.

By some fluke, I managed to get all 3 of my highest scoring meeples off the island and onto dry land, therefore winning by a pretty big margin. Huzzah!

I still think Survive is a fun game… not too taxing, pleasantly tactical, and a nice palette cleanser after playing something heavy. Good stuff 🙂

* * * * * * *

Quite a few other games were starting/ending around this time, Owain still needed something filler-ish to fill the gap before Power Grid… and while we were pondering our options, Camo and Brad drifted our way, with Camo asking if anybody had brought Hanabi. As luck would have it… I had! 🙂

Hanabi

Hanabi

Hanabi… the game that I’ve mentioned umpteen times already, and also the game that steadfastly refuses to be photographed. I’ve played my copy a few times at Newcastle Gamers now (and seen another one in circulation too)… but people have always been far too engrossed in the game to pause and take a snapshot. Hence a generic manufacturer promo shot again. Sorry!

It’s been a couple of months since I last played this one… and I’d forgotten just how mind-mangling it can be. As usual, much anguish, exasperation, and torment ensued. But in a good way (I think!).

I suspect we really didn’t stand much chance with the way the cards came out this time… we were starved for a “yellow 1” until very late in the deck, and seemed to stall on hands full of 3s and 4s for an awful long time. I don’t remember the final score… but it’s the one that translates as “Honorable, but nobody will remember it”. Oh well… maybe next time 🙂

* * * * * * *

After Hanabi, Owain’s game of Powergrid was finally ready to kick off… leaving Olly, Camo, Brad & Myself to play…

Airships

Airships

Airships sticks in my mind as one of the many games in the (now infamous) board game stock-dump that took place a couple of years ago at branches of “The Works”. Well… more specifically… it sticks in my mind as one of the (few!) games in the sale that I deliberately didn’t get a copy of. People discussing the sale tended to dismiss Airships as a non-strategic luck-fest, with weak theming — so it didn’t really appeal.

Well, it *is* a dice game, and the theme *could* have been pasted on at the last minute… But it’s nowhere near as bad a game as the write-ups suggested. In brief: you roll various combinations of dice to purchase different airship components (each requiring a particular target value to be rolled)… you start off with white dice, which show the numbers 1,1,2,2,3 and 3 … but by winning various components, you get access to other coloured dice (red dice, which show 2,3,3,4,4,5 and black dice, with the numbers 4,4,6,6,8,8) … or granted the use of “virtual” dice (e.g. a particular component might act as a red dice that’s permanently showing a “5”, or things like that). You gradually climb through a hierarchy of ship components, crew, and other upgrades, obtaining better and better dice, until ultimately you can start rolling to construct big airships (which are worth VP), and make plays for chunks of the Hindenburg (also worth VP). When the Hindenburg is constructed (or all the smaller airships have been claimed) the game ends.

It’s not a bad game… yes, it *is* a bit random, but — thanks to the custom dice — maybe not so much as you’d expect, and there’s an interesting “climbing” strategy involved; gaining the later red/black dice can involve component upgrades which lock you out of options on white/red dice, so there’s some interesting decisions to be made regarding when and where you upgrade (since certain tech can only be bought with certain colours, irrespective of what values you’re rolling), and various tactical possibilities for blocking an opponent from a critical upgrade.

So… yeah… a reasonable game. If they were still in circulation for £7, I could easily imagine buying one; I certainly bought *far* worse titles in The Works’ sale, and it’s the sort of game I could see working well when we’ve got family visiting. Not something I’d rush out to acquire at a higher price, but I’d give it a home at the sale price.

(Hmm… that’s three dice-based games that I’ve enjoyed recently. Maybe I’m going soft in my old age…)

* * * * * * *

Brad had to head home after Airships… leaving Myself, Olly and Camo shuffling around looking for something to play. After the trio of light-ish games, I was in the mood for something a bit more euro-cube-pusher-ish. Without a great deal of thought, I’d popped Amyitis in my bag before setting out for the evening — not with any great deliberation, but in more of a “it’s been ages since I played that, and it seemed pretty decent last time we had it out… why not chuck it in?” kind of way. I didn’t really expect to play it… which inevitably means that the next game up was:

Amyitis

amyitis

Amyitis is a game set in ancient Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar II is trying to impress his new wife — the aforementioned Amyitis — by building the hanging gardens of Babylon. Players take the part of Babylonian Nobles, attempting to impress the king / queen by wheeling and dealing and contributing to the garden’s construction. Yep, it’s the old nobles-chasing-prestige-for-victory-points trope that’s been churned out umpteen times … but at least the scenery is a little bit novel for this one; Ancient babylon instead of medieval Europe 😉

Mechanism-wise, the gameplay involves three different variations on majority control/area influence … you employ workers to toil in the fields to provide you with resources (with whoever puts the most workers into a particular string of fields getting extra perks), you employ priests to spread your influence within the temples (again, there’s perks for the majority shareholder), and you employ engineers to irrigate the hanging gardens … in a network-building-ish territory control game where whoever provides the majority of the irrigation for a particular chunk of garden gets victory points.

Additionally, there’s a separate rondel-based side-game going on, in which you employ caravaneers to hawk your resources around the lands of ancient Mesopotamia … bringing back exotic plants (to be planted in the gardens) … or providing you with various income / storage / caravanning upgrades.

Scoring in the game was quite close, with fairly level-pegging for much of the game. However, Olly made an 11th hour dash into the lead — thanks to some heavy investment in caravan upgrades — and earned a pretty convincing win.

What do I think of Amyitis? It’s hard to explain. Amyitis is a competent enough game; there’s plenty to do, the different elements interlock nicely / are thematically convincing, it’s got some pleasingly-elegant mechanisms (the way that workers are priced + bought is particularly neat, IMHO), and I do enjoy playing it…

but…

…it’s not a game that I feel desperately compelled to play over and over again. Actually, I think that’s true of a lot of Ystari’s releases (even the mighty Caylus is a borderline case for me) … they tend to be structurally sound games, and I’m very happy to play them and enjoy them when they get an occasional outing … but their titles somehow lack the sex-n-sizzle that compel me to go back for more; I never find myself walking away from one of them thinking “Ha!… NEXT time I’ll try such-and-such-a-tactic”. I know I’ll definitely want to play Amyitis again, and I wouldn’t dream of trading it away… but I’ve probably had my taste for it satiated for a bit now. It’s that sort of game… you wouldn’t want a lot of it at once, but it’s nice to play every once in a while.

* * * * * * *

Aaaaaand… as Amyitis wrapped up, the time was past midnight, so it was time for me to head home. I won’t be able to get to the next Newcastle Gamers session (booo!), but should be back for the first meeting of March.

Best Bit: Eclipse. Not *quite* my perfect kind of game, but still pretty impressive; very glad to have finally got around to playing it!

Worst Bit: Realising Airships wasn’t quite the Turkey that I’d been led to believe … meaning I retrospectively missed out on another “The Works” bargain. That said, my bank manager might have an opposing opinion on whether this was a bad thing or, in fact, a good thing 😉

CREDITS: Session pics taken by Olly and Owain. 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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Guilty Gaming Pleasures: Space Hulk Death Angel

death angel

“So I do a bit of ameritrash. It’s OK. I can handle it”…

It’s Richard Ham’s fault. He makes a series of boardgame videos, which I enjoy watching. To be honest, they’re a bit longer than I’d prefer, and the iPhone-shakycam makes me feel a bit nauseous sometimes … BUT … he seems to have a pretty close taste in games to my own taste in games, so they’re usually worth at least a quick skim. Especially when he covers something that has completely bypassed my own games radar.

And then, one day… he goes and pulls out Space Hulk: Death Angel, a dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetically dice-driven ameritrash title, and says massively complimentary things about it.

Eh???!! That can’t be right…

…Then I notice that he’s scored it as 12th Highest on his Board Game Geek ratings. The guy has 373 games listed at the time of writing… and Death Angel is number TWELVE. It’s _right_ up there, alongside all my own favourite eurogames… Agricola, Troyes, Hawaii, Pandemic, Castles of Burgundy, Death Angel….

What????!!!

So.. yeah, It’s fair to say my interest was piqued 🙂

OK… it maybe wasn’t too hard a job to raise my interest. Like most male british gamers of a certain age, this isn’t my first brush with the Warhammer 40K universe. Back in my mid-teens — when White Dwarf magazine was the centre of my gaming universe — I remember some long months of anticipation waiting for the first release of the WH40K tabletop miniature game, “Rogue Trader”. It seemed to be a game in perpetual delay… of course, we didn’t have the internet back then; information on games releases wasn’t nearly as easy to obtain — so we’d trot down to the FLGS every Saturday, saved-up pocket money in hand, hoping to slap down a handful of notes on the new rulebook… only to be disappointed week after week. By the time it finally arrived, it would be fair to say we were pretty ravenous for it … and a lot of 40k was played in our group over the next couple of years.

I collected Space Marines … my brother had an Ork army. My friend Keith, who lived down the road, collected Eldar figures. They both invariably kicked my butt at the game — though I like to think that that’s because the first edition rules were woefully unbalanced, rather than because I just sucked at it 😉

Of course, the time comes to set aside childish things, and we all grew up, disappeared to disparate universities (which might as well have been disparate universes, given the rarity with which we saw each other thereafter) and stopped playing stuff like that. I did, however, pick up a few 40k-related computer games over the years, including this one:

space crusade

Gremlin Graphic’s “Space Crusade” …and no, your eyes are not deceiving you… this is one of the very few games that I enjoyed so much that I actually bought it twice (once on the Atari ST, and later in its PC incarnation) …and which I still have stored in my big-cupboard-of-things-from-my-past-which-I-cant-bear-to-throw-away. Space Crusade is a simple turn-based wargame — somewhat in the Laser Squad/X-Com vein — which involves shuffling a squadron of space marines around an abandoned spaceship, zapping aliens, and trying to achieve some arbitrary mission objective. I loved it to bits… and spent many happy hours commanding my troop of marines around, purging the Xeno menace.

Well, here’s the thing: Space Crusade (the computer game) was based on the mass-market Games Workshop/MB board game of the same name …which was, in turn, a simplified variant of the 1989 Games Workshop title “Space Hulk”… which is also… the very game game that “Space Hulk: Death Angel” is a direct descendant of!

So, yeah. This was worth finding out more about 🙂

But… there was that one big hurdle: Death Angel is an ameritrash game. My tastes have moved on in recent years… Did I *really* want to drop 18 quid on a game that was — fundamentally — all about lucky dice rolls and pulling the right card out of the deck at the right time? Maybe I was looking back on all this stuff with rose-tinted glasses?

Fortunately, while doing my usual pre-game-purchasing research, I discovered that there’s an unsanctioned Vassal implementation of the game in circulation … and I *cough* accidentally *cough* managed to get a copy of that version onto my computer. Vassal is a bit of a clunky way to play games at the best of times — but I still had a lot of fun with my “trial” solo game, and I was pretty much sold on it within a couple of rounds. The order for a real-world, cardboard version went off that same afternoon!

Well, I’ll cut to the chase… for an ameritrash game, I’m really impressed. Death Angel does a shockingly good job of re-creating the vibe I used to get from the Space Crusade computer game. The game is a co-op, which allows from 1 to 6 players … but most people seem to think the solo variant is the best of the bunch.

The game is described as a “card game” … but it’s really one of those games where 99% of the game components just happen to be printed on cards, rather than one that involves typical card-game mechanisms. In brief: there’s a formation of space marines lined up in the middle of the table — each player controls a certain number of marines, and each different colour of marine has its own special abilities and talents. The game’s storyline involves proceeding through a random sequence of rooms on an abandoned space hulk. As you enter each room, you draw a card that contains instructions to place various items (buttons to press, bad guy spawning points, stuff like that) at certain points alongside the formation, and which provides you with any special rules that are in action for that particular room … then away you go, blasting away at bad guys, changing the formation around to get the guys with the special abilities into the spots where they can be best-used, carrying out character-specific support actions, and generally hoping you make it alive to face the next room. If you make it to the last room (card number 4 in the solo game), there’ll be a specific mission objective that you need to carry out to win the game.

Yep, there’s a lot of randomness involved… so the game is really about mitigating your odds and making decisions along the lines of “Hmm, Brother Zael is the guy with the really cool flamer weapon… but there’s a lot of bad guys near him; if I shuffle him one space up the formation and use Brother Deino as cannon fodder, he might be alive to use it next round…” or “If I push the teleporter button, all the badguys get zapped into deep space… but there’s a 1-in-6 chance that some of my marines will get zapped too… do I risk it?”. The game is brutal, and you DO get stung by bad luck a lot (my track record is 1 win in 6 games played) … but there’s a really pleasing “puzzle” aspect to figuring out the best orders to issue in a given situation — and even when the dice screw you over, you at least get a nice narrative explanation for your team’s demise (I’ve got quite attached to some of the characters over a few games!).

So, yeah… it’s way out of my usual gaming territory, but I like this one; I think I’ll be playing the solo version a lot… your milage might vary, and it might depend on whether or not you’re already invested in the WH40K mythos… but I think it’s a fun game, and it plays fairly briskly. I might even get it to the table when there’s other people around one day 🙂

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Video Frenzy

I’ve been on a video-editing binge over the last couple of days… mostly because I’ve had about 50 gig of footage sitting on my main drive — taunting me — for the last 6 months or so … and also because I’m running seriously short of SD card space. Of course, I *could* just go out and buy more SD cards — but that’s just delaying the inevitable.

So, recently uploaded to YouTube…

Burning the Clavie.

One of the oldest Scottish fire customs. A bit more sedate than I was expecting … though the fire got a bit lively when they started chucking buckets of oil onto it.

Randwick Wap

An odd May Queen custom that the village of Randwick has (apparently) been doing since medieval times. It involves some odd cheese-rolling activities (they roll the cheeses widdershins around the church a few times, IIRC, but that happens days before the main event, so isn’t shown here) … and carrying a may queen around the village before dipping her in the local well/pond. Disappointed to discover that the dipping has turned into more of a symbolic thing that an actual dipping these days. Shame! I think this all might have happened on the same day that we visited Helston Furry dance … but memories of that week are already a bit blurred. There’s an awful lot of strange fertility rite nonsense goes on down south… it’s difficult to keep track of it all!

Jedburgh Ba’ Game

This possibly makes the game look a lot more exciting than it actually is… since there are lots of dull 20-minute periods where players pile onto a big heap in the middle of the street and nothing happens… then somebody will crawl out, pretending to have the ball, and half the scrum will chase after him — only to discover the real ball was smuggled away in somebody’s pocket while nobody was looking.

Not the most photogenic of games. Quite a curiosity though.

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2012 Board Gaming review…

We’re almost into February already, so if I don’t scribble this down now it’ll never get done. Therefore… herewith and within: a few random thoughts on my boardgaming exploits of the last 12 months 🙂

My most-played board game of 2012:

Village

…was Inka and Marcus Brand’s Village. Well, actually, my most-played game of the year was level-pegging between Village, Pandemic, and Power Grid — but Village was one of the big releases of the year and the others are oldies, so for arbitrary tie-breaking purposes and a more interesting article, I’ll call this one in Village’s favour.

Village is a pretty good game. It wasn’t my favourite new game of the year, and it doesn’t really tread any revolutionary new ground (though chewing over the idea of it being a “worker removal” game rather than a “worker placement” game is a fun mental exercise). BUT… it’s easy to teach to people, plays in sensible 90 minutes or so, and always seems to deliver a satisfying sort of gaming experience. Plus, the fact that it won the Kennerspiel prize meant there was a fair bit of interest/demand for it at the local gaming group… so it got its fair share of outings.

The forthcoming Village Inn expansion seems interesting — it adds bits for a 5th player (useful!), a brew house (facilitating a new beer-making craft), and another “major” building — the eponymous Village Inn, with new scoring opportunities and paths to victory. It’s something I’ll definitely want to get my hands on in 2013 🙂

Favourite new game of the year:

Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

I was so impressed with this one that I made a video. The video got 3,000 hits on YouTube, and lots of BGG thumbs-up and tips. Sadly, slipping in a free (and unsolicited) ad for my favourite boardgame store was my slight undoing, as YouTube’s moderators rejected the video for monetization, and lots of parties who would’ve otherwise been very happy to embed the clip & give it more exposure didn’t do so for sake of publicising a competitor …Oops! An important lesson to be learned about boardgame video-making there, I think.

Anyway, I’ve already gone on at length about what a great game this one is, so I’ll spare you the repeat. Suffice to say the expansion — More Buildings Big and Small — pushes the game even further up the scale of greatness. Which, I guess, saves me the trouble of having to write a separate “favourite expansion of the year” category. Because that would be it 🙂

Favourite new board game of the year that I didn’t actually buy:

Snowdonia

Snowdonia.

I didn’t rush out and buy it initially, because I wasn’t sure how much lasting appeal it would have. And I didn’t rush out and buy it after becoming convinced that it did have lasting appeal because… well, all the cheap copies had sold out by then. Cracking game though; I’m sure I’ll get one eventually 🙂

Least-favourite board game experience of the year:

Quelf

Quelf.

This appeared as after-dinner entertainment during a trip to see my parents. It turned out to be everything that I don’t like about after-dinner party games, in one conveniently-sized package. Ugh.

Most criminally-underplayed game of the year:

Hawaii

Hawaii

I won this in a competition in the summer, but since acquiring it I’ve played it a grand total of… *gulp* … two times. And that’s NOT because I don’t like the game … from 2 plays, it seems like a really sound eurogame, it looks great, and it’s got some interesting and unique things going on with it. The problem is, basically, this:

There isn’t a single occasion where I’ve pulled Hawaii out of my bag at the local games club where the conversation hasn’t immediately turned to “Hey, wasn’t that the game in THAT video?….” …usually followed by people quietly backing away from the table and finding other stuff to play.

Forget the fact that Hawaii got a KennerSpiele recommendation… or that the Dice Tower’s Ryan Metzler slipped out a revisionist (and complementary!) review a few weeks later, or that my favourite FOLGS owner (boardgameguru) cites this as his favourite middleweight euro of 2011… it seems that Hawaii is fated to be forever be known amongst gamers as THAT game in THAT Tom Vassel video.

Murdered at birth. Apparently it was the designer’s first published game too, which makes the video seem even more badly-judged. It’s a decent game though… play it if you get the chance!

Personal grail-game acquisition of the year:

Galaxy Trucker

Galaxy Trucker

Not really a true grail game, as it was sort-of available-ish at retail for a big chunk of the year, but it WAS out of print for most of 2012 and therefore shifting at sillier prices than it probably should. I think my frugal Yorshireman DNA stopped me from pulling the trigger when it was selling at £60+ a pop. However, when a few copies appeared on Amazon at £32 quid… the deal was sealed!

My Random Gaming Firsts of 2012:

Bought my first copy of Spielbox magazine… and discovered it was pretty much everything I could want from a gaming mag, but… written in the most awful-to-read English imaginable. How a mag could be SO pleasing, but SO outright disappointing at the same time??… hmmm, that’s probably a topic worth a blog of its own.

Did my first Math Trade. Rapidly followed by my second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth math trades. Math trades are great (and addictive!) — I wrote about them here.

Played “Brass” for the first time. That’s another entry in the boardgamegeek top 10 that I can cross off my list of games played. Brilliant game — well deserving of its high rating.

Beat Olly at Ingenious. Beating Olly at Ingenious is kind of a big deal at Newcastle gamers. No, really it is! 😉 Speaking of which…

2012 was my first full year as a Newcastle Gamer! I joined Newcastle Gamers — my almost-local game club — in October 2011, and have attended pretty much religiously ever since. It’s been a good time to be a member… at the start of 2012 the club moved to a new (bigger) venue, and — by convenient co-incidence — the attendance figures went up quite dramatically a short time afterwards, which has really benefitted the club.

How so? Well… game clubs with a small membership are a bit of an awkward thing. I mean, we all nominally like board games… but there are so many different TYPES of boardgame, and so many different tastes in boardgames.

Analogy time: suppose you joined a film club. A club for people who like films. Realistically, while all the people in that club like sitting and staring at a screen for 2 hours, they’re going to be interested in different TYPES of film. So if you go to that club to watch a film… well, the people who are really into sci fi movies might end up having to watch a rom-com, because there’s only one projector. Or because all the sci fi guys started watching something an hour ago and you’re too late to join in. Or something.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, the club has reached a nice tipping point where there’s so many people around, with such a breadth of gaming preferences, that you can usually rely on being able to get into a game of something you’ll enjoy in fairly short order. There’s no need to get trapped watching a 3-hour rom-com any more just because it’s the only thing on offer. Which is a good thing.

It’s also been nice to get to know the regulars — discover what their gaming tastes are, and how well (or badly!) they mesh with mine. When somebody comes up to you with a game you’ve never heard of before, and tells you “I think this one is right up your street…”, and they’re dead right; you do like it… well, that’s a good experience. That makes you feel like you belong. 🙂

TLDR; check out your local game group. It’s great. If you’re near Newcastle upon Tyne you have an extra bonus, as we’ve already got past that awful metaphorical rom-com watching phase, AND you get the chance to play games with ME! … how can you pass up on an offer like that!!?

Corbridge Gamers – This was the year that I discovered I’m NOT the only gamer in the village (Aside from Mrs Shep, that is… but she’s more of a part-timer than a dyed-in-the-wool gamer). Owain ( http://cardboardandwood.co.uk/ ) lives just down the road from me, and by unlikely-but-happy co-incidence has a surprisingly similar taste in games. Many evening trips up (and down) the road have ensued. Good times!

Gaming Things that I totally failed to do in 2012:

Play Eclipse. Not sure how. Everybody seemed to be playing Eclipse at the start of the year — but then it sort of fizzled away. Never mind, I’m sure it’ll happen in 2013. Probably.

Design my own board game. I guess I subscribe to the theme-first school of board game design. One day, the _perfect_ theme will pop up out of the ether, and I will KNOW it is the right thing to pursue, and I will pursue it!

But… I’m still waiting for that to happen… 😉

Build a major international board game media empire. I don’t know where I went off course with that one. Everything seemed to be going so well when I did that Agricola vid…

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Newcastle Gamers – 26th January

A shorter-than-usual session report from me this time, as it was a shorter-than-usual gaming session (for me at least); due to prior commitments, I couldn’t get to Newcastle until 7:30 this week, which meant I could only squeeze in a couple of games…

Agricola

Agricola

I’ve been promising to play a game of ‘gric with Michael for 6 months or more… but for one reason or another, it’s never quite happened (mostly due to Michael being at the club on weeks that I didn’t have ‘gric in the bag… ‘gric being in the bag on weeks where Michael wasn’t at the club… or game starts and ends just not synching up conveniently). This week we finally got our act together (despite my late arrival — sorry guys!), so the evening’s entertainment began with a four-player Agricola session between yours truly, Michael, Owain and Jerome, using a 4/3 split of E and I decks.

Every game of Agricola ends up being a little bit different. Notable features this time around were…

Higher-than-usual competition for wood: I mean, competition for wood is *always* high in Agricola… but Michael put the Wood Turner occupation into play at the start of the game, and then went on a wood-consuming frenzy. This occpation lets you convert wood into food on a 1-for-1 basis, and (perhaps, in part, due to lack of experience — this was his first ever game) Michael used it as his main food generator throughout; he was grabbing wood at any available opportunity (even small accumulations) and generally making things a bit sparse for the rest of us.

Turner

Belated family growth: Family growth didn’t come out until the latest space possible… which always makes the game feel a little bit more constrained, as this makes it significantly harder to build your workforce. Though this was eased a tiny, tiny bit by the presence of…

Agricola Guest

The Guest: Maybe I’ve just been unlucky with the card selection in past games (or simply don’t use the I-deck enough), but those little round guest counters are seldom used in my games of Agricola, so it always seems like a special occasion when the card comes into play and the guest tokens come out. It’s an interesting mechanism, and can give you quite a nice boost if played at just the right time.

I can’t remember much more of note… the I-deck wasn’t being overly interactive on this outing, though Michael had the harrow (which allows other players to plough 2 spaces instead of 1, but only if they pay you food to do so) thereby gaining a new nickname and theme tune…

…but otherwise it was a fairly standard game.

I didn’t have a particularly inspiring hand of cards — I played the Hedge Keeper (gives you 3 bonus fences on each fence build action), the occ-that-adds-an-extra-room-to-a-stone-house (can’t remember the name right now), the Simple Fireplace and the Guest; not a lot of cards, really. I ended the game with a 5-room stone house and only one un-used space on my board, but I didn’t really get a proper food engine running (relying on the simple fireplace, and whatever food I could grab from action spaces), so ended up having to eat most of my livestock in the last round; Owain beat me to first place by 3 points.

Enjoyable game though. Agricola is *always* an enjoyable game!

And then: Galaxy Trucker

Galaxy Trucker

Another outing for my christmas pressie… and the first play for Jerome, Owain and Michael. The first mission went surprisingly smoothly — we used the “training mission” card set, and everybody made it to the end of the test flight relatively (and unusually!) unscathed.

So, we went into round 2… everybody was pretty much up to speed with the way the game worked this time; there was a bit of good-natured cursing when the time limit kicked in, and the flight was considerably tougher with significantly larger losses all round… but we all made it to the end of the course and picked up our credits.

Round 3… flushed with confidence and bravado, Michael pushed the timer towards an early finish during the building phase. His space ship certainly looked impressive. It had a huge crew. Lots of components. “I’m really happy with that”, he declared, as he took pole position on the starting grid…

…only to fly straight into a meteorite, and watch the entire right-hand side off his ship sheer off due to a critical weakpoint in his design.

Well, the rest of the flight wasn’t kind to Michael either. Meteors, space pirates, and more meteors all took their toll. By the end of the flight, his spaceship (which DID, nevertheless, complete the mission) looked like this:

Galaxy Trucker finish

If you’re not familiar with galaxy trucker… well, ignore all the empty squares on that board… you see that single tile, with a single astronaut sitting in it? That’s what’s left of Michael’s ship… he didn’t even have a engine left attached to his vessel, and completed the course purely by virtue of forward momentum built up before the important bits fell off.

It wasn’t a complete failure though… the “compactness” of his final ship meant he picked up the prettiest ship bonus points for having the fewest exposed open connectors at the end of the round 😉

I like Galaxy Trucker. It does seem a bit unfair and arbitrary at first, but it’s surprising how robust and mission-proof your ships become with a little bit of practice. You DO need the ability to laugh at your own misfortune when it all goes wrong though. If you’ve got a group with the right sense of humour it’s a lot of fun, and can leave you with some good gaming stories to tell.

(Pro tip: in the final round, always pack LOTS of firepower!)

And that was it… quarter to midnight and it was time to go home! Hopefully I’ll be there for the start next time; it’s another free-for-all week … an evening of quality gaming, completely gratis. Well, it would be rude not to 🙂

CREDITS: Session pics taken by Owain. 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.

+++ SPECIAL BONUS FEATURE +++

Nantwich Gamers, 25th January

So… the reason I was so late to Newcastle Gamers was because Mrs Shep & myself spent most of Saturday in the Cheshire town of Nantwich, watching the Holy Holly Day celebrations and Sealed Knot battle re-enactment (video to follow!). This trek necessitated spending the Friday night in a Travelodge, just off the M6. The weather forecast was bad — really bad — so we set off early in the day, and planned to hole up in the Travelodge until the next morning. What better way to while away some hours in a potentially-snowed-in hotel than… take some boardgames with us!

Here’s what we played:

Agricola – All Creatures Big and Small / More Buildings Big and Small

ACBAS:MBBAS

I’ve always been fond of this game… and the small box makes it brilliant for shoving in an overnight bag for a hotel stop-over. We’ve actually managed to play 2-player full-size Agricola on a Travelodge table in the past (when we were going through the height of our Agricola addiction)… but it’s a bit of a struggle, and this version is much easier to deploy in confined conditions.

One of the new buildings that we pulled out for this play is the Dog House, which I built during the first round of the game. The dog house allows you to keep sheep on un-used squares, but ONLY if the squares aren’t adjacent to the forrest. This added a very different spin to my game; it meant I could start grabbing sheep really early (and made land expansions even more attractive than they normally are) … BUT, added a really interesting dynamic of having to judge when it was a good time to switch from having an undeveloped (sheep-friendly) space to a more profitable developed square. It was a very interesting/tricky thing to gauge… and I absolutely loved it — best game of ACBAS I’ve played in a while.

In the end, Mrs Shep beat me by a single point — making a grab for the half-timbered house in the last round, and _just_ nudging into the lead. Curses!

(Its probably time to review my current BGG rating of ACBAS, in light of the way that the expansion has improved it even further. I mean, the original was very impressive, but the tactical variety that the expansion (occasionally) throws out out you elevates the experience to a whole new level. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Great stuff!)

Fifes and Drums

decktet

Another game (or, rather, game system) that travels remarkably well is a decktet set, as pictured above (yep, that’s actually my own photograph for a change!). I can easily fit my own deck and chips inside the Agricola:ACBAS box, along with all the ACBAS and MBBAS stuff. Perfect!

We fancied trying something we hadn’t played before. Fifes and Drums seemed like a good candidate… after all, we were in town to watch a battle re-enactment, and Fifes and Drums is all about a battle. Or, rather, about retreating from a battle. Here’s the official game blurb

It is the last battle in the final campaign of a mad but brilliant general. Six companies of tired soldiers are all that stands between him and the advancing enemy. He doesn’t realize it yet, but there is no way for him to win.

Fortunately, you are not playing the general in this game. Unfortunately, you’re not the advancing army either.

Instead, you play a member of the general’s staff. You were offered money by captains of a few of the remaining companies. Maneuver them off the field before the inevitable defeat, and they will pay you handsomely. So cue the fifes and drums! Jigger the retreat orders to put your cronies as far from danger as possible.

The game works like this: There’s a score track, ranging from 1 to 100. Six decktet chips (each representing a different company in the mad general’s army) are placed at the start of the track. Each player is then secretly assigned 3 companies … your objective is to get THOSE three companies as far away from the battlefront (square 1) as possible before the game ends. Due to the way that companies are assigned (using the decktet’s 3-suited pawn and court cards) it’s possible for you and your opponent to have a shared interest in one or two of your units — though you’ll always have at least one (usually more) unit that’s not in common.

Three cards are dealt onto the table — these are the 3 available orders that can be given to the army units on a given turn. The double-suited cards allow you to move the two depicted companies in the direction(s) of your choice (towards or away from the battle). The ace cards allow the depicted unit to do a “forced” march, up or down the track (i.e. they keep moving until they meet another unit)… and the “crown” cards… well, they’re sort of interesting; when there’s a crown card in the display, it means the general wants that particular army to engage the enemy… so, all the time that a crown is showing, the relevant army can only move towards the battlefront, not away from it. When the crown card is finally used to issue an order (rather than just left sitting in the command display), it makes the relevant unit perform a “forced” march move, towards the battlefront.

What ensues is an odd game of bluffing, counter-bluffing, and mis-direction… with each player giving orders to try to improve their own situation and worsen the opponents (assumed) situation, while generally trying to obfuscate all their intents and motivations.

I successfully guessed Mrs Shep’s units quite early in the game, and identified the one that we had in common … deliberately nudging that one in the wrong direction from time to time, just to keep her guessing. (Ineffectually, as it turned out, as she’d already guessed we shared that one too). Nevertheless, in the final reckoning I managed to steal a small victory… Mrs Shep had only correctly guessed two of my units, while I’d sussed out all three of hers.

It was an interesting and clever game, and very different from the other decktet titles that I’ve played… but it wasn’t really my kind of thing; I’m not a huge fan of bluffing games, and I don’t think it’s one that I’ll revisit in a hurry — there are other decktet games (Emu Ranchers, Yay!) that we rate far higher. It’s always nice to try something new though!

And: Some of that high-tech digital game nonsense

photo

Mrs Shep decided to curl up with a good book at this point, so I rounded off the evening’s gaming with some iPad boardgaming in the shape of Alien Frontiers (which I’m still quite fond of despite its weak/cheaty AI) and Le Havre — which is a lovely, lovely translation of the cardboard version, and an essential purchase for any Uwe-Rosenberg-loving iPad owner.

Not a bad way to hide from the bad weather, all said and done 🙂

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