The strangest pub-crawl I’ve ever been on…

(Following various teams of Mummers around Knutsford and surrounding districts, November 2012).

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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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Boxing Day

Happy new year!

I’ve just noticed this post sitting in my draft queue, but for some reason I never pressed the “publish” button. Oh well. Here’s a belated clip of what we did on Boxing day. At least, we “did” it in the sense that we went to watch it, not in the sense that we actually got wet. (Except for the occasional mis-judged wave and wet boots whilst filming in the danger zone).

Interestingly, this clip has generated the highest number of commercial enquiries for anything I’ve ever filmed; it was on the front page of newsflare.com for most of the day. Lesson learned: news editors like stories involving girls in bikinis. Ho hum.

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Newcastle Gamers – 29th December

What better prospect than a full day of gaming to end the year? The keys were _definitely_ sorted out, we know how the heating works now, and the circus school were on some kind of Christmas recess which would stop them hampering our plans. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Car trouble, that’s what could go wrong. I loaded the trusty shep-mobile with a heap of gaming goodies, got into the driving seat, turned the key and… nothing. Just the briefest grunt from the starter motor, followed by silence and no sign of life. Tried again, several times… it was as dead as the proverbial dead thing.

Woe! … I sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to figure out a contingency plan. I live quite a way out of town (18 miles, to be precise), which made things a bit awkward, and a Saturday morning in the midst of the Christmas/New Year holiday period probably isn’t the best time of year to call out a mechanic at short notice.

Feeling miserable in the face of a missed day of boardgaming, I sent one last, desperate prayer to the meeple gods, and tried the key again.

SUCCESS! – The engine turned over… the car was running! 🙂

Which… sort of put me in a dilemma. Once the engine was running, I was confident I could get to the meeting successfully. But starting the engine to get back? That could be a whole new challenge. Should I risk it??

Yeah, well. The lure of a day full of boardgaming is a strong one. And, lets face it, I’ve paid an RAC subscription for years without needing it; if the worst game to the worst, I’m sure one of those guys could get me home.

Decision made! I was off…

All things considered, I didn’t arrive as late as I might have. There wasn’t many people there yet (but that was perhaps to be expected, given the festive scheduling — we had no idea how popular it would be), a game of Ingenious was underway, but not much else… and I soon fell in with a bunch of fellow late-comers (Dave, John B. and Olly), and the first game of the day was selected…

Survive: Escape from Atlantis

Survive: Escape From Atlantis

This was a Christmas pressie from Mrs Shep, bought on the strength of my enjoyment of the game at a previous Newcastle Gamers sesh (which I enthusiastically blogged about here). This was actually the third time I’d played my new copy in the space of 4 days, so it’s already earning it’s keep. I’ve now tried it with 2, 3, and 4 players … the two player game is a bit flat, but it’s a really fun gateway/light game with 3 and 4. It seemed a tiny bit odd to be playing this particular game at the start of an all-dayer (I much prefer this kind of thing later on, when my brain is feeling a bit frazzled and bruised), but I think it was enjoyed by all. No idea who won — the early part of the day is already a distant blur — but there was a pleasing level of evilness and betrayal, and I think fun was had by all 🙂

Next: T’zolkin, The Mayan Calendar

Tzolkin

T’zolkin was one of this year’s big Essen releases, and I’ve been very keen to give it a go… fortunately, John B. had brought his copy along. Dave decided to go and play Power Grid instead, leaving myself, Olly and John B to play a 3p game.

The main feature (/gimmick) of T’zolkin is a series of interlinked cogs. During the game, you place your workers at certain points on the cogs, and each turn they’re “promoted” through a series of (increasingly powerful) action options by the movement of the mechanism. It’s a pretty cool feature… I mean, the game would function equally as well as a series of linear tracks on a conventional board that you just shoved your men one space forward on every round …but the cogs automate that process very neatly, so although the whole cog thing is very much a gimmick, it’s a justifiable sort of gimmick.

Spinny-cogwheel-gimmick-thing aside, what’s the game like? Well, it seems pretty good, but it’s hard to tell with just one play … there are 20 or so different actions you can perform in an attempt to progress your tribe of Mayans, and it’s very hard to figure out how everything interacts on your first run through … but it seems like there’s a very tight worker placement game buried in there; it’ll just take a few learning games to uncover it. Good stuff. Might need to get a copy of this one myself.

Next game on the table was another of my Xmas pressies:

Galaxy Trucker

Galaxy Trucker

Galaxy Trucker is a game that I’ve wanted to own since I first played it in late 2011, but which has been out of print for ages, and therefore spent much of 2012 changing hands at silly prices. Fortunately, a re-print came out at the end of 2012. I was sorely tempted to buy the super-deluxe anniversary edition — which contains all the expansions — but then spotted a post on Board Game Geek saying somebody had dumped a bunch of “basic” versions on amazon.co.uk for a far-too-good-to-miss price. I promptly dropped a hint to Santa (I have it on good authority that Santa loves a bargain!) and — sure enough — the game turned up in my stocking on Xmas day. Good ol’ Santa! 🙂

Olly has played before (in fact, he’s just bought the anniversary edition), but the game was new to John B. Camo also joined our table for this one, and it was his first game too.

Galaxy Trucker is another game that’s a bit lighter/less serious than the stuff I usually buy (a bit of a trend this Christmas!). You build a spaceship from a heap of random components in the middle of the table (all players grabbing bits simultaneously, against the clock), and then cross your fingers and hope that the resulting vessel will survive a trip across the galaxy and collect some valuable cargo for points. More likely, it’ll disintegrate in a meteor storm, be blasted into little tiny pieces by pirates, have its crew kidnapped by slavers, or have all manner of other nasty fates befall it.

It all seems a bit random and unfair at first… but it’s surprising how efficient/well-defended your ship designs become after a little bit of practice. I think John B. was a bit flummoxed — most of his ships didn’t survive very long … and I’m not sure that our optimistic assurances of “well, look on the bright side… at least you’re a MUCH smaller target now” every time that big chunks of hardware fell off his creations really helped to endear the game to him.

By some fickle twist of fate, I was the only player to survive an onslaught by slavers in the third (and most lucrative) round… the other 3 players were rendered crewless and drifting in space, leading to a pretty easy victory for me.

Good game; I’m glad I finally got hold of a copy. I’m sure it’s not a game that’ll be everybodies cup of tea — it can be a touch random and unfair at times — but as long as you don’t take things too seriously, it’s a fun ride 🙂

This seemed like a good point to nip to the shop over the road and grab some lunch. When I got back, this was in the offing:

Steel Driver

Steel Driver

I was a bit iffy about playing this one… I’m not a huge fan of 18XX-esque train games, and this one seemed to be struck from that kind of mould — but other folks were keen to play, so I went with the flow and decided to give it a go. Actually, it wasn’t too bad a game — quite a nice gateway-ish slant on train gaming, and a good 4 or 5 hours SHORTER than most games of that ilk, which can only be a good thing ;).

Each round you bid for control of one of six train companies. You then run that company for the round, lay tracks, and earn money. Then the company goes back into the pool, bidding starts again and somebody else will likely get control of it next turn… but you get a “share token” in each company that you operate, and at the end of the game there’s a peculiar set-collection mini-game played out on the final railway networks, which pays out points according to how many shares each person holds in the companies doing the block-picking-up.

Surprisingly, I won … (and yes, I really was surprised… I hadn’t even grasped out how the end-game worked until very late in the day!). I think my success was mostly down to doing focussing on short-gains during the main game, and not worrying how the end-game worked… but — by some fluke — ending up holding shares in companies controlled by players who *had* been worrying about how the end game worked, but not worrying so much about scoring points in the main game. Weird. I bet there’s NO WAY I’d pull that tactic off if I’d tried to do it deliberately(!).

Anyway, t’was far better than expected. I’d happily give it another go.

Next up: Brass

Brass

I almost didn’t play Brass. But I’m so glad that I did.

Brass is a game with a reputation… it’s currently number 9 on the board game geek chart (i.e. an extremely highly-rated game) — which is a big point in it’s favour. However, it’s also rated as “Medium Heavy” in terms of complexity, and has a reputation for being hard to learn. I flipped through the rule book once — to try to get a handle on what all the fuss was about — and it didn’t seem like a particularly sexy game; … cotton mills, hard economics, network building, and some kind of non-obvious card-playing system driving it all. It didn’t really appeal to me.

That said, it always occurred to me as a game that I *should* play, at least once, just for sake of my game-discussing credibility… and my interest was at least slightly piqued by the fact that Olly (who usually matches my own taste in games pretty closely) has played it before, and was particularly keen to play it again. So… despite not really being in the mood for anything complex at that particular point in the day, and despite the tide of people running away shouting things about it being way too brain-hurty, I sat down and gave it a go…

(The fact that the only other thing kicking off in the room at that time was a game of Wallenstein might also have been an influence).

Olly explained the rules while Gorden (whose game it was) punched out the tokens (yep, it was a brand new copy!), and everything seemed surprisingly straightforward — nothing like the behemoth of a game that I had in my imagination… OK, there’s quite a lot of rules (and some odd exceptions), but everything seemed to make good thematic sense, and — after some wobbly initial rounds — I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing.

Excellent game… I really enjoyed it. In this one you build a network of industries… cotton mills, coal mines, iron works, ports and ship yards, and railway networks (or canals, in the early part of the game) to connect them all and move goods around. The nice bit is, you don’t score for an industry until it’s actually used… so, for example, if you build a cotton mill, it doesn’t earn cash/VPs until you link it to a port to facilitate sales — the port can be yours, or an unused port belonging to a different player, and when the cotton mill earns points for being connected to a port, the port *also* earns its owner points for being utilised. It’s a very neat approach to supply-and-demand economics; you succeed not only by building stuff that would be useful to you, but also by building stuff that would be in demand by your opponents.

It’s was also a bit of a novelty to play a game set in Lancashire (and a very high-profile game at that!)… By odd co-incidence, I spent a fair chunk of December building a web site for a TV installation company based in the North West, so it was amusing to see all the familiar place names on the board (only a few days after sweating over a chunk of search engine optimisation / geographical ad campaigns for those very same real-life locations!)

I sort of won this one too. I say “sort of”, because in the final reckoning we noticed that one of Olly’s cotton mill tiles hadn’t been flipped (i.e. counted as utilised), but weren’t sure if it should really have been that way up or not (we were getting to that stage in a long day of gaming where silly mistakes start to creep in). The gap between our scores was so close that if it _had_ been flipped, Olly would have won instead. (Then again, in a similar moment of spectacular brain-fart stupidity, I accidentally tossed away a card that would’ve got me a shipyard in the closing rounds of the game and a very nice points boost to go with it. So perhaps the victory was morally justified either way).

We were into the evening hours now, and I was getting hungry again. Another quick dash over the road to sainsburys was in order … my luck was in; they’d just discounted the day’s sandwiches. And the very best kind of sandwich is a discounted sandwich!

As I re-entered the hall, a shout came from the other side of the room inviting me to a game about to start…

Ca$h ‘n Gun$

cash n guns

Ca$h ‘n Gun$ is — basically — a party game about criminals gang sharing the loot of a successful heist. How do criminals share the loot of a successful heist? By pointing guns at each other, of course! …so the game involves pointing foam-rubber guns at other players, lots of bluffing, and strategic stand offs. Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan, but it doesn’t take long to play, and it was something easy to do while I nibbled my sandwich and recovered from playing Brass.

I didn’t do particularly well, but went out in a blaze of glory by shooting the guy who was holding a grenade (sorry Dave!) — thereby ensuring that anybody who mistakenly thought I was bluffing (and therefore didn’t duck) would be taken out in the blast. I realise now that this might have been interpreted as some kind of deliberate suicidal king-making and/or spite move, but I was really just trying to shake up the final round a bit, since at this point there were some very obvious winners and very obvious losers, and it struck me that I could disrupt that a bit and inject some last-minute uncertainty (though probably die in the process). Still, it’s hard to be upset/offended by the outcome of a game this light, so hopefully nobody took the hump 🙂

Last game of the night:

Upon A Salty Ocean

Upon a Salty Ocean

The last game of the night, and also the last of my three new acquisitions (and also the only one of the three that I hadn’t played before!). The game is set in 16th Century Rouen, and involves ship-building, fishing and trading, in an attempt to become the richest merchant and impress the king. Along the way you mine salt (to preserve fish), buy various buildings in the town to secure perks, and worry about bad weather, pirates, and stuff like that.

Board Game Geek rates this as a medium-weight game… and yeah, the rules are pretty easy to grasp — but _playing_ the game is another matter; it’s an unashamed economic euro cube-pusher, unforgiving of bad decisions, and quite mathy (especially in the closing rounds). This is mostly down to the fact that your money also serves as your victory points, AND as your action points… so you can very easily spend all your victory points away on new actions, and fail to keep enough of them in reserve to score points at the end of the game(!). If you like economic games with the training wheels taken off, it’ll probably be right up your street. For my own tastes… I’m not so sure; I like my economic games to be a bit gentler, and think this one will be going on my trade list.

* * * * * *

The time was creeping towards 11pm, and I was starting to think that I should face up to the looming problem of seeing if my car would get me home… so decided to call it a day.

I got into the shepmobile… gingerly turned the key… and — Nothing. Then I noticed the heater was on — turned that off, and then switched off the radio too for good measure, a combination of which gave me *just* enough juice to crank the engine… ‘Phew!

So it was a good day’s gaming, all told. There was a decent turn-out in the end; about 30 people showed up (4 first-timers!), and I got through 7 games in total. All three of my new acquisitions got played, I crossed another title off my “things I’ve played in the BGG top 10” list, and I got to see whether T’zolkin lives up to the hype. (Answer: Yes, it probably does).

Best bit: Brass. Really impressed by this game, and very keen to play it again.

Worst bit: Car grief… though fortunately I didn’t need to resort to using the RAC taxi service, and the problem was rectified the next day by a quick dash to Kwikfit for a new battery 🙂

CREDITS: Session pics stolen from 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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Newcastle Gamers – 8th December

Another Newcastle Gamers session… and another occurrence of the (now-familiar) minor panic when everybody arrives at the venue and we discover we’re locked out for one reason or another. Fortunately, the circus school were using the building next door, and there’s some kind of interconnection between the two buildings, so Chairman John managed to wheedle his way through via that route and open the doors from the inside. ‘Phew. As it happened, Robert turned up moments later with his key, so we’d have got in the venue with a little more patience anyway. But… you know how it is… those games won’t play themselves – every second counts!

Stuff I played this week:

Snowdonia

Snowdonia

First up was a slightly out-of-the-ordinary game of Snowdonia. What made it out-of-the-ordinary? Well… Owain has managed to get his hands on a playtest version of an un-released expansion for the game, and he was keen to give it a spin with 4 players. I’d already tried the expansion with 2 players (more about that later) and was keen to give it another go… and Olly and Michael had also informally arranged to play via the club’s google+ group. As it turned out, Michael couldn’t make it on the night, so Freddie took the vacant seat.

Since I’ve discussed the basic Snowdonia game in a previous blog entry, I’ll mostly concentrate on our experiences with the expansion here. The current version seats up to 4 players, is based on the Jungfrau mountain railway in Switzerland, and introduces two significant changes to the game: Dynamite and Snow.

In the original version of Snowdonia, building the railway is (essentially) a two-stage process. First, you use your workers to clear rubble from the course of the railway… and once the rubble is out of the way, you can put down railway track. The Jungfrau expansion adds a preliminary step to this routine. The (real-life) Jungfrau is basically a 9km tunnel, cut straight through the mountains and glaciers of the Bernese alps … so in this version of the game — prior to any rubble being shifted — you need to blast your way through the mountains with dynamite. You get victory points for performing these blasting operations and also — in another departure from the base game — the number of track spaces between each station is semi-randomized, and only revealed as each segment of the route is blasted open.

Dynamite is a scarce resource … you can collect a single stick (OK… “cube”) of dynamite whenever you visit the “works” action space, and there are some interesting strategic considerations to be made in where and when you use it. In addition to using dynamite to blast your way through the mountains, you can also deploy it as a super-speedy way to clear rubble during subsequent excavations… (though at a penalty of not being able to take any rubble cubes into your inventory — which can impact your contract completion). Dynamite is a really interesting addition to the game — I like it a lot 🙂

Somewhat less-thematically-convincing (but also great to have in the game) is the snow mechanism. In the Jungfrau variant, a weather type of “Snow” replaces the “Fog” of the base game… and whenever it snows, previously-cleared excavations get re-covered with snow. Or, more accurately: re-covered with rubble … since you basically just stack rubble cubes back in the the affected spots. This “replaced” rubble can then be cleared and collected just like any other rubble can. So it’s snow by name, but rubble by effect.

While the presence of “snow” on an underground railway might be a bit thematically strange, its effect improves the game massively. Admittedly, I don’t have a vast amount of experience with the base version of Snowdonia, but I did feel that the original game had a bit of a strange pace about it — mostly due to the way that the white cubes would auto-complete chunks of the railway for you in unpredictable fits and starts. The snowfall seems to temper that a bit; it rolls back the auto-completion from time to time, cancels out the white-cube station-building events, and generally makes the whole game seem to flow a bit more steadily. It just feels better, somehow. It’s hard to explain, but — for my money — snow is a very good addition. Even if it is bizarre physics-defying underground snow.

There are a couple of other tweaks in the current rule-set — surveyors score slightly differently, and contracts have been tweaked — but the dynamite and snow are the main features. And splendid main features they are too!

An enjoyable time was had by all… I scored the most, but sadly I can’t attribute my victory entirely to sharp gameplay. I’d already played a 2p Jungfrau game with Owain earlier in the week, in which we’d come to the conclusion that the special advantages conferred by a couple of the trains were maybe a bit overbalanced in the Jungfrau variant — and I was pretty much using this second game as an opportunity to sanity-check that theory. Sure enough, the owners of the “suspect” trains came in first and second place. Still, that’s kind of the point in playtesting, right? (and word from the game designer — Tony Boydell — is that one of the trains has now been neutered, and the other is possibly being removed from the variant completely. So all’s well that ends well).

I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen of the Jungfrau expansion so far… in fact, I think I already prefer it to base game(!). If you like Snowdonia, mark this one down as an essential purchase 🙂

Next: Hanabi

Hanabi

A few club members had arranged to go out for food together, and we needed a short-ish game to help make all the arrangements synch up … so out came Hanabi. Hanabi is the weird co-operative firework-themed card game that I’ve written about pretty extensively here… so I’ll spare you a repeat explanation. Suffice to say, the club record remained steadfastly un-broken; we scored a decidedly average 15, ranking the show as “Honorable, but nobody will remember it”. Boo!

Dixit Oddysey

I’m surprised I haven’t written about the Dixit family of games before… but, I guess I’ve never played it at Newcastle Gamers, so that’s probably why.

Dixit is an unusual game. Its main component is a deck of cards, each containing an unusual / whimsical / somewhat surreal illustration. A ladybird with a telescope… A man being chased by a venus flytrap… A chicken in a police uniform… That kind of thing. When it’s your turn to play, you pick a card from your hand and invent a clue to allow the other players to identify it (the rules say the clue can be verbal, or a mime, or singing… pretty much anything goes. Though I’ve never seen anybody do anything other than give a verbal clue). Next, each other player has to donate one of their cards to a central stack, and your original card is shuffled in amongst them. Your opponents then have to try to identify your card.

If another player guesses correctly, they score a point, and you (the clue giver) get 3 points. However, there’s a catch: if everybody guesses your card successfully, you score nothing. Therefore, you’re trying to give a clue that is sufficiently oblique to only be guessed by one or two of your opponents. Aside from another scoring rule or two that I’ll not bore you with here, that’s pretty much the whole game. It’s simple, but clever.

Here’s the downside: I find Dixit to be a game that’s a little bit difficult to play against a bunch of opponents that you don’t know very well. For me, the game shines when you have a certain degree of empathy or commonality in the group… and you know what sort of level you should pitch your clues at or what sort of nuances you can get away with. More of “friends & family” kind of game — it never seems to work so well for me when played with relative strangers. I suppose if I played it a lot at Newcastle Gamers — or against the people there that I know a bit better than most — I’d get a better feel for giving clues in that particular context… but there’s usually other stuff around that I’m more interested in playing. So I don’t.

As such, Dixit was probably my least-favourite game of the night. Still, other folks were keen to play it, enjoyed it, and it filled a gap. But by the end of the game, I was keen to get back to some cube-pushing eurogame action…

…so out came: Village

After having a bit of a hiatus from playing Village, this turned out to be my second game within the space of a single week! They were both very different experiences too… the previous game had gone at a fairly leisurely pace — I managed to bag every location on the travelling-the-world task, and scores were pretty high across the board. This game, by comparison, flew past very quickly. Deaths came thick and fast (the residents of this particular village clearly had far harder lives than the people living in the previous one!) … and I think we only managed to play three full rounds. I was making a blind play for the world-travelling task again (never a good idea in a short game) and barely managed to cover half the available destinations… in fact, I didn’t really get a decent points engine into play at all; even my family deaths were badly-timed and failed to get any significant presence in the book of remembrance. Hmmm. A good lesson in the perils of taking the pace of the game for granted!

Skull and Roses

Skull and Roses

Another filler… and a game I’d read about but hadn’t played before. Skull and Roses is a very simple bluffing game; basically, each player has a set of 4 beer mats… one of which depicts a skull on the flip-side, while the others feature roses. Each turn you either add a card (/mat) to the stack in front of you, or make a bet that you can flip x amount of cards over without encountering a skull. Then the other players can either raise or call your bet. The clever bit being… you must flip over every card in your own stack before you’re allowed to flip anybody else’s cards, so there’s a big double-bluff thing going on; you can deliberately bury a skull in your own pile, then open the betting (trying to entice somebody into raising the bet) — but if you’re actually called on to play that bet, you’ll lose.

As bluffing games go, it’s elegant, and very very clever — probably one of the best bluffing games I’ve played (though the genre, as a whole, doesn’t usually attract me). It’s a bit of an oddity though, and I’m kind of surprised it exists as a “published” game — the rules are simple, and you could easily play it with a regular deck of cards. The “biker gang” beer mats do add a certain atmosphere though. And it worked great as a 10-minute filler 🙂

Finally: Revolution

Another new-to-me game. Revolution is a light-ish title concerning hidden bidding and area control. Each round, you get a number of tokens to use to gain influence on various characters within the town… there are cash tokens (for bribes), envelopes (blackmail) and fists (for violence!). You make your bids in secret, using a mini-board hidden behind a shield … then bids are simultaneously revealed, and whoever made the highest value bid on each individual character gets various benefits — these might be support points (i.e. victory points), bidding tokens to use in the next round, or the ability to place (or re-arrange) coloured cubes in the various areas of the town. At the end of the game, there are bonus points awarded depending on who has dominance in each section of the town.

The game can get a bit nasty towards the end, as people compete for the last few spots of dominance. I fell into the trap of making tit-for-tat attacks on Jerome’s areas, as I’d earmarked him as my most dangerous opponent. This ended up backfiring, as both we ended up in 3rd and 4th place… (in a field of 4 — oops!). Meanwhile, Lloyd (the only person who had played before) coasted into a significant lead. I wish I’d paid more attention to how he did it — he seemed to be accumulating huge reservoirs of influence tokens in the critical final rounds.

Not a bad game; it was easy to pick up, not overly complex, and somehow felt like exactly the right sort of game to be playing at that point in the evening… certainly not a triple-A title, but it was fun and something I’d quite happily play again.

Summary: An excellent evening’s gaming. Two top class games (Snowdonia and Village), and a smattering of perfectly good secondary titles filling the gaps. Even the Dixit session — which I realise I was maybe a bit down on in the tone of this article — wasn’t really that bad; I’ve certainly played far worse.

The next session is scheduled for Saturday the 29th December, and is planned to be an all-dayer (should be a good opportunity for everybody to give their new Christmas pressies an outing!). As an added bonus, we definitely have a key for the front door this time. Looking forward to it already!

CREDITS: Session pics stolen from Ana, Owain and John F. The Jungfrau playtest is mentioned here with the designer’s blessing — though we totally forgot to photograph it (doh!!). 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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