Back in the balmy days of May…

I’ve been catching up on my video editing backlog for calendarcustoms.com (some of which go all the way back to May… gulp!). I’m particularly pleased with the editing on this one — Helston Furry Day — it was very crowded, and difficult to get good vantage points (especially during the Hal-an-Tow at the start), but I think the footage from the main dances later in the video flow together well 🙂

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Newcastle Gamers – 24th November

Arrived this week to discover most of the members of the club gathered in a huddle outside the front door; it transpired that a circus school trapeze class was still in full swing (Ha! “full swing”! Did you see what I did there? Huh? Did you?). I don’t think they were aware that we had the hall booked, as they seemed to be planning to hold some kind of extra-curricular aerial training session throughout the evening… but they apologetically started stowing their equipment away when the board-gamers began to arrive en-mass.

Hmmm. I wonder who would win a fight between a troupe of trained circus performers, and a pack of disgruntled middle-aged geeks, desperate for their fortnightly boardgaming fix.

Anyway, it took them a while to hoist all their bits and pieces away, so we started a bit late. Eager to get things underway — and having already pre-planned a game with Olly & Owain — I promptly set up my new copy of:

Power Grid: UK & Northern Europe

Power Grid UK

After a short period of map critique from various passers-by (mostly expressing surprise at the somewhat-creative positioning of many UK cities), we roped in a couple of extra players — Lloyd and Gordon — and the game got underway.

It was the first time that any of us had played this map; it was launched a couple of weeks ago at Essen, and only had its UK release earlier this week. As we played, it struck me as a fairly gentle map; no overly-cruel choke points, and a fairly even spread of cheap bits and expensive bits. The map’s main gimmick — being able to start two different grids (one on Britain, one on Ireland) didn’t seem to have a major impact on the game, but that might be because we chose Northern Ireland to be the excluded territory on this particular outing, possibly making that side of the map a slightly less attractive investment. The most interesting aspect was probably the resource flow for the UK — starting with zero uranium in the first round (though plenty later), and ending with fewer-than-normal fossil fuels in phase 3 (in fact, Gordon was denied a victory opportunity purely due to the fact that the coal market was entirely exhausted at a strategically-critical point).

It was a very close game — Gordon took an early lead of one or two cities and (amazingly) managed to maintain it pretty much throughout the game. He won the game with 17 cities… I was one behind on 16, and I think the other players ended on 14/15.

I don’t think this’ll rank as one of my favourite PG maps, though I expect it’ll get plenty of plays purely by virtue of it featuring the UK… and it does seem to be a fairly evenly-balanced/accessible one for new players. If I played it again with experienced PG players, I’d be tempted to toss in plenty of promo cards to spice it up a bit.

The flip-side of the map — Northern Europe — features some alternative powerplant cards, which seem like an interesting tweak. John Flynn’s copy of this map was being played at a different table; it’ll be interesting to read how the session went.

(…and a third table was playing a copy of Friedemann Friese’s Copy Cat at the same time as both of the power-grid games were going on. 2F games have clearly made a big impact on Newcastle Gamers this week!)

Next: Agricola

Yay! 17th Century subsistence farming!

The last few times I’ve played Agricola, it’s generally been with first-timers, and we’ve mostly been playing with the E-deck (aka the “beginners” deck). This time, most of the people playing had prior Agricola experience (Jerome had only played once, but played scarily well on that single occasion), so we played with a 3/4 mix of E-Deck and I-Deck cards. I think the result was a pretty interesting game.

The “I” in I-deck stands for “interactive” … with the occupations and major improvements tending towards (though not exclusively based on) effects which piggy-back on the actions or improvements of your opponents. So, for example, Olly’s wood trader allowed him to buy a chunk of wood off another player whenever that particular player took a wood-gathering action. My fence builder occupation got me resources whenever somebody added fences to their farm… one of my minor improvements was a special clay pit which other players could visit by paying me food… etc etc. Difficulty-wise, it’s not much of a step up from the E-deck … but it does introduce some pleasing player-to-player transactions.

By some fluke, I got a dealt a hand full of clay-based improvements and occupations at the start of the game… far more than I could practically bring into effect. I settled into a combo that gave me a cheap route to a sizeable clay house. Olly had the baker occupation and a mill-stone improvement, which set him up for a strong bread-baking tactic, and Jerome (whose cards I didn’t really see in detail as he was sitting diagonally opposite) seemed to have an extremely effective vegetable-growing tactic set up (including a special oven that converted 1 veg to 4 food). I suspect the cards had been less-kind to Russell; he played a fairly straight game of ‘gric with a rush for family growth and a 4-room stone house.

Final scores: Jerome and I tied on 29, Olly had 27 (amazingly playing most of the game with only 2 family members!), and Russell ended with 21.

Enjoyable game. Agricola is always an enjoyable game. 🙂

Finally: Survive: Escape from Atlantis

First time I’ve played this, and I *really* enjoyed it. It’s light, it’s aimed at a family audience, and it has a fair bit of randomness involved — so isn’t the kind of thing I’m usually very into — but it’s a cracking bit of game design, successfully balances the luck with planning and strategy, and was the perfect ending to the evening after a couple of weighty, thinky titles.

Survive:Escape from Atlantis is a fairly straightforward “chase” game … you start with a set of meeples on an island in the middle of the ocean. Each turn, a chunk of island sinks into the waves, and eventually one of the sunken bits of island will reveal a volcano which promptly explodes and ends the game. The object of the game is to evacuate your meeples… either by boat, or by swimming… to the safety of neighbouring islands before the volcano appears.

However, the waters around the island are infested with sea monsters, sharks, and boat-destroying whales. After you’ve moved your meeples, you get a chance to move one of these monsters at random, and mess with your opponent’s plans. It’s cut-throat, brilliant fun, and has moved pretty close to the top of my list of “things I’m likely to buy very soon”. Enjoyed it a lot — highly recommended 🙂

Best bit of the night: Survive: Escape from Atlantis… though Agricola ranks a close second.

Worst bit: that slightly awkward moment where a gang of middle age blokes come along and kick a bunch of happy young circus girls out of the playground, ‘cos they want to play boardgames 🙁

Lucky escape of the night: I almost got lured into playing a “Japanese deck-building game”, but I turned it down when I discovered it took about 2 hours to play. It was only later in the night that I spotted a Barbarossa box lurking at the back of the games-people-brought-in table. Most of the artwork in Barbarossa involves imagery of Nazi anime girls, in lingerie, caressing overtly-phalic weaponry, and having extreme difficulty keeping their thighs together. Even if I had a T-Shirt emblazoned with the slogan “THIS IS IRONIC”, I wouldn’t feel particularly comfortable playing that game at a public gaming group. Or, for that matter, “at all”. Kind of glad it didn’t get as far as the table before I had to make my excuses. Hmmm.

Anyway, it’s been a good week for games. Aside from the above gaming sesh, I also managed to sneak in games of Suburbia and Troyes at Owain’s place mid-week (Suburbia opinion: quite enjoyed it, and I’d happily play it again, but it’s not one I’d pro-actively put forward for playing during a session — it just didn’t push the right buttons for me for some reason), and clocked up games of Chronology, Pandemic and Zooloretto while visiting my parents on Friday night. We’ve even managed a few Dectet games on evenings in between (Emu Ranchers = brilliant!). I’ve been spoilt. And it’s not even Christmas yet! 🙂

CREDITS:
Pictures courtesy of 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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Corbridge Gamers – 14th November

No Newcastle Gamers for me this week, due to the aforementioned explosions. However — leveraging the evening’s fireworks theme — I did manage to get a few family members to join me for a couple of games of Hanabi on Saturday night, which went down amazingly well for an audience of predominantly non-gamers!

Furthermore, Owain popped round last night with his copy of Snowdonia … and I had the new expansion for Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small sitting on the shelf awaiting it’s first outing — so it the week hasn’t turned out to a dead loss for gaming after all 🙂

Snowdonia

Somebody else's game of Snowdonia. Pic credit: Daniel Danzer

Snowdonia is set in the year 1894, and concerns the construction of the famous mountain railway up to the peak of Snowdon. It’s pretty standard worker-placement fayre; you use your workers to clear rubble out of the railway’s path, collect resources, lay track, and build bits of station for victory points. Owain mentioned that when this had an airing at Newcastle Gamers a few days ago, a few people likened it to a “light” version of Caylus … and I can kind of see why — worker actions are resolved in a queue, and you’re trying to set yourself up with batches of goods to contribute to the construction of the railway. When the construction is finished, the game ends.

It struck me as a bit of a difficult game to play on your first attempt … the pacing is hard to gauge; particularly because there’s a semi-random event mechanism which occasionally makes the game complete bits of the track (and stations) itself, leaving the game in a far more advanced state than you anticipated … plus, it’s not immediately obvious — from the wealth of scoring options open to you — where you should really be focussing your point-generating efforts as a new player. I felt like I only got into the swing of things at around the 2/3rds mark … only to then be foiled by the game ending suddenly and abruptly (just when I was setting myself up for a massive points-earning swoop) thanks to one of those aforementioned game-accelerating events. On this basis, Snowdonia certainly seems to be one of those games where you’ve pretty much got to write off your first attempt as a learning experience.

At times, the game seemed a bit thematically…”odd”. This was mostly due to the fact that there was a couple of points in the game that threw up strategic deadlocks; situations in which it would be stupid to excavate any more track because doing so would immediately put the other player into a massively-advantageous position. From a gaming point of view, that was an interesting situation to be in … but from a thematic point of view, it felt like although we were playing a game about constructing a railway, the big decision points concerned the most efficient ways to avoid constructing the railway … though maybe this was just a quirk of the way the cards fell on this particular occasion, and/or a syndrome that the 2 player version is more prone to.

Anyway, it may seem from the above that I’m being entirely critical about the game, and I really don’t mean to be… because it is, at it’s core, exactly the kind of game I like, and it has a few interesting tricks up its sleeve. It certainly played well with 2, and was — on balance — a good game; I enjoyed it.

Finally — for no particularly good reason other than I found it lurking on my hard drive this morning — here’s a snapshot of yours truly looking a bit awkward at the summit (or just in front of the summit) of the real Mount Snowdon a few years ago. (And yes, of course I took the lard-arse option of using the mountain railway to get there…)

Next on the table:

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

This is the sort of expansion you might be driven to buy purely because it gives you an excuse to use the abbreviation “Agricola:ACBaS/MBBaS” in geeky boardgame blogs. Fortunately, it also happens to be a pretty nifty expansion.

The expansion has 3 parts: an additional farm extension (bringing the total of farm extension boards in the game to a nice, asymmetrical 5), an additional stall/stable tile (bringing the total number of stall/stable tiles in the game to a nice, asymmetrical 5), and — far more interestingly — a set of 27 new “special building” tiles.

At the start of the game, you pick 4 of these special building tiles at random, and add them to the 4 “basic” tiles that you play with in the standard game… giving you 8 different special buildings to choose from, 4 of which will (probably) be different every time you play. Unless my maths is a bit wonky, 4 from a set of 27 gives you 17,550 different permutations. That’s a fair bit of scope for variation.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about the new buildings; nothing that will dramatically push the game in a vastly new direction … but each one introduces subtle new strategic possibilities. I guess they work a little bit like the special buildings in Le Havre; consider them as a little bit of seasoning on an already-delicious euro-gaming sandwich 🙂

Here’s the foursome that we randomly drew last night:

They’re far from being the most exciting tiles in the set… but they give you a pretty good idea of how some of the new buildings are location sensitive, or can only hold certain types of animals, or open up new avenues for accumulating victory points.

I have to admit, this was probably my worst performance at ACBaS *ever*. Owain completely crushed me, despite this being his very first game. I was blocked out of building feeding troughs *precisely* when I really, desperately needed to build feeding troughs… and it’s entirely possible I was being just a tiny bit keen to build the new buildings (I ended up taking three of them – all but the large extension), and possibly not paying quite enough attention to minor things like making sure I had housing for all the animals I was accumulating. And… well… yeah… I guess it was basically a bit like… OH! LOOK! NEW BUILDINGS! SHINY!!

Anyway, Owain enjoyed his first taste of ACBaS, and despite my humiliating defeat, it was good to get an early opportunity to play with the new bits.

MBBaS seems like a really promising expansion — I can’t really imagine ever wanting to play ACBaS without it — though it’s perhaps a touch on the expensive side for what you get — four sheets of 5″x7″ chip-board and a rules leaflet in a small box. Still, boardgameguru has it for a tenner, and that’s hardly going to break the bank 🙂

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Thing of the week: explosives

This week, we held our annual bonfire-night gathering… in which most of my wife’s side of the family gather for eating, playing games, burning things and setting off fireworks. As usual, I was in charge of the fireworks.

I like being in charge of the fireworks — not just because I’m a big kid at heart, and setting off recreational explosive devices is a huge amount of fun — but also because I take great delight pouring over product listings for weeks in advance, figuring out what pieces to buy, layouts, the best firing order, etc etc. Of course, I justify the effort and expense by saying it’s all down to the delight it brings to the faces of my little nieces and nephews… but now that my little nieces and nephews are (mostly) in their mid 20s, that particular excuse is starting to wear a bit thin. They still attend religiously though (despite living 100+ miles away), so it can’t be too bad a night out 🙂

It’s getting harder and harder to pull off a decent show on our (very small) budget each year. With that in mind, this year’s big innovation was these:

Candle fans! Individual cat-3 roman candles are dirt cheap if you buy from the right places – about 60p a tube – so I knocked up a load of wooden frames in the garage, gaffer taped candles onto them, and (with the aid of a family member roped into co-lighting duty) set them off in various cunningly-designed symmetrical patterns, half a dozen of them at a time. It was a really good effect — better, in fact, than many set-piece cakes that cost ten times the price. I only wish I’d invested in more of them… I’ll definitely be doing that next year 🙂

Sadly, I entrusted my video camera to my 13-year-old nephew and his friend for the duration of the firework show. This means the only record of the event is a 20 minute, out-of-focus video of blurry coloured lights, with beavis and butt-head giggling all the way through. The camera managed to pull focus for a grand total of 55 seconds. These are those 55 seconds:

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Newcastle Gamers – 27th October

It’s a constant source of annoyance to Mrs Shep that I’m not, usually, the kind of person who really feels the cold. A drop of a single degree on our living room’s thermostat will send her huddling under a blanket and complaining about how cold the weather is turning … while I’ll normally still be flopping around the house in T-Shirt and jeans, and not really noticing any difference. Maybe it’s down to my ancestral genes; maybe it got cold at night, out on the bleak Yorkshire moors…

But…

Last night’s gaming session was a touch on the cool side.

Some might say: “nithering”.

Brass monkeys.

Or, more bluntly: Really ****ing cold.

The heating in the church hall where we meet has been out of action for the last few sessions. Up until last night — thanks, I guess, to the dog days of an indian-ish summer — it hasn’t been too much of a problem. Admittedly, at the previous meeting, a few people seemed reluctant to take their coats off, and there was a bit of a nip in the air… but it wasn’t too bad. This time, I thought I’d better take along a jumper, just in case things had got any worse. I’m glad I did; the temperature was awful… and I’m not exaggerating when I say that some people were playing dressed in winter coats, scarves, and wooly hats!!!

Nevertheless, we gritted our teeth and made good of the situation; after all, there was gaming to be done!

Le Havre

A 4-player game against Michael, Olly and Owain. Owain was familiar with the iPad version, Olly had read the instruction book on a previous occasion (but hadn’t actually played), and Michael was completely new to the game. Fortunately, Le Havre is a pretty easy game to explain. The tricky bit comes in figuring out the interplay/dependancies between the various buildings, but I think that — between the two of us — Owain and myself flagged up all the particularly important ones well in advance of them entering the game, so everything flowed well.

This is only the second time that I’ve played Le Havre with 4 people at the table, and I think that’s already enough times to convince me that the commonly-held view that its sweet-spot is 3 players is pretty much correct. It’s not a bad game for 4 by any measure… but you just don’t have the same amount of “wriggle room” each round as you do with fewer players. In the 3 player game, you always get at least 2 turns per round, and sometimes 3. In the 4 player game, you usually get 2 turns per round, but sometimes only one. This makes a huge difference; it seems like you spend most of the 4 player game concentrating on meeting the round’s food requirements, and comparatively little time investing in point-scoring production chains (which is where a lot of the fun in the game lies!). Still, a 4th player at the table makes the game that little bit more social, and it’s still a fun experience.

We just used the basic “special buildings” cards this time… the last time I played with first-timers, I used cards from Le Grand Hammeau, and we managed to draw 5 of the most oblique, complicated, and least-straight forward cards in the whole deck. The mix in this game was far better, and way more representative of how the game normally works; there was the Fish Pond (gives you fish and wood), Clothing Industry (converts hides and leather into money), Hunting Lodge (Gives you hides, meat, and a +2 fishing bonus), Coal Trader (trade food for coal and charcoal), and the Luxury Yacht (allows one person to upgrade an iron ship into a functionally-useless-but-high-victory-point-scoring Luxury Yacht).

The other quirk of this particular game was the relatively-late entry of the clay mound… which stifled early-game building, as the clay offer space was the only source of clay in the game for far longer than it usually is. Still, it’s glitches like this — which come about via the fiendishly-elegant card-stacking mechanism used during set-up — which help keep Le Havre fresh, and prevent you from falling into predictable opening tactics.

In the final reckoning, myself and Olly were only a couple of points apart — (I think Olly beat me by 2 francs?) — and I was convinced one of us had the game in the bag, until Michael … who was so saddled with so many loans throughout the game that we’d pretty much ruled him out as a dangerous contender … announced that he had an outrageously high score despite the debt penalties, and beat the pair of us. Grabbing a Luxury Liner late in the game had probably been his winning stroke. Must watch out for debt-riding luxury-liner owners next time! 😉

Good game — took us about 3 and a half hours to play — though I have to admit (at risk of sounding like a bit of a girl) that my enjoyment of this particular session was perhaps hampered a little by the physical discomfort of the room temperature 🙁

Archaeology (The Card Game)

Next up was a quick filler round of Archaeology, while we waited for some of the other games in the room to finish up. It was a really odd session — all of the thieves popped up in the first few rounds of the game (and, by a similarly-unlikely fluke, nearly always managed to grab a Pharaoh’s mask from their unsuspecting victim), and I had an appallingly bad draw of cards… I only managed to collect one complete set of low-value treasure (for 15 points) and cash in an extra 3 points of junk at the end of the game. My worst Archaeology score ever!

The Pillars of the Earth

I’ve been keen to give this one another try for quite a while now (actually, according to this blog, it’s nearly a year since I played it — eek!) … and — after last meeting’s attempt to get a game was aborted when the game of Colonial that I was involved with ran longer than expected — I was pleased to hear that John F had brought his copy in again and was happy to give it another airing.

My previous exposure to the game had been via the expanded version, with 6 players, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t sure how well the “base” version would play by comparison, since it gives you significantly fewer actions to choose from each turn… but I was really impressed; the core game feels “just right” — not too much, not too little… in fact, I could imagine preferring its elegance in some ways to the expanded game, were it not for the fact that it’ll only seat 4 players.

I’d forgotten how swiftly the worker placement part of the game goes — a situation exacerbated by the fact that there was only three of us playing — and it wasn’t a very chatty session; a lot of the moves were made in silence. More than once I’d find myself studying my cards, or fathoming out what to do when my turn came around, and then I’d glance up and realise John and Dave were looking at me expectantly, and it was already my turn to do something again (sorry guys!!)

The game was a tie between me and Dave… I won the tie-breaker by having the most gold, but it wasn’t a particularly satisfying victory — I hadn’t played a particularly strong game, and mostly just pulled the fat out of the fire in the very last round by grabbing the goldsmith card (which lets you convert money to victory points), liquidating pretty much every resource I owned via the marketplace, and using the resulting gold to catch up with Dave. (Also, I know Dave dropped the ball half way through the game and failed to use a special ability that would’ve netted him another couple of points). Still, a win is a win.

Being able to turn around a whole game entirely on the flip of a final-round card is the kind of thing that would normally put me off a game … though there were many opportunities for my opponents to block my access to that particular action (since I was almost out of money), and Pillars of The Earth does so much else *just* right that it’s hard not to love it on balance. So I’ll forgive it its sins. This time.

The game ended at 11:30, and I decided to call it a night and head off home (before advanced hypothermia had chance to set in…)

Best bit: Le Havre. It might have eaten up most of my evening, and might have seriously impacted what else I’d manage to fit in during the night… but I knew that was going to be a risk the moment I packed it into my game bag ;). Time seems to fly past when I play this one; I’m always slightly surprised to discover it’s taken 3 or 4 hours. I only wish we’d been playing it in a slightly comfier environment!

Worst bit: Heating failure. (Surprise!). I hope we had no first-timers at last night’s session; if that had been my first time, It wouldn’t have made a very good impression 🙁

Further woe: I won’t be back at the club for almost a month, due to a family gathering on the 10th (sadface!) … a situation made even worse by the fact that I heard a rumour that Olly will have the 5th Anniversary edition of Galaxy Trucker in his possession by then (double-sadface!). Hope you guys don’t have too much fun without me.

CREDITS:
Pictures courtesy of Owain, Olly and John F. 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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