Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Having a right El Grande time of it.



Contributor: David

Paul kindly offered to host a game of El Grande as I had shown an interest in playing and hadn't played before. Philip was also keen to jump in and just as we were setting up both James B and Alex jumped in to make it five.

An area control game set in medieval Spain with plenty of decision making. My starting position was right in the centre of the map in 'New Castile' which proved to be the breaking and then making of my game. By the first scoring round I had suffered quite badly from the action cards that the other players were all scoring nicely from, such as 'The Four/Five regions all score'. I was already about 30 points behind and it looked like I would struggle not to come last let alone win. However that proved to be a bit of a turning point for me and I managed to turn it around by controlling only one territory of 'New Castile'.

The King was resident as well as my Grande and I utilised some of the action cards such as 'score any region' to start the long catch up. Alex meanwhile sped into an early lead but had used most of his high and low power cards whilst Paul wasn't far behind and managed to get a couple of his power cards back. By the 2nd scoring round I was back in the pack. Everyone else was spreading their caballeros across multiple regions whilst I decided to continue to just control 'New Castile'. That one region along with the bonuses from the King and my Grande as well as the occasional tower scoring was enough to propel me back into contention.

By the time it came to the final scoring round I had pushed into and taken control of Philip's Grande region as well as push Paul close in one of his regions. It wasn't to be though as I just fell short on the last round. The game ended with Paul on 110, Alex on 99, myself on 97, James B on 95 and Philip on 93. Paul scored consistently well on every round as well as scoring well with the tower and action cards. I was quite pleased I managed to close the gap after a terrible first three turns. It's a truly great game and it's nice to see there are still classics I haven't played yet so thanks to Paul for hosting a game.

After that Philip, Paul, TomToo and I moved onto Greed. I didn't like this the first time I played but really enjoyed it this time around probably because I figured out how to play it and how to rack up the combos and bonuses. This time I went for a strategy of playing all thugs knowing I had a card I was saving for the last turn that made all other players discard 10k per thug I had. So whilst everyone else was working on building up holdings and money I went for playing as many thugs as possible as well as score from any combos.

I had also played a few action cards that gave me a big money boost before I hit the others with the minus 60k for my six thugs. This was just enough to hand me the win with Paul second, TomToo third and Philip just behind. Now I 'get it' this would be something I would happily play more of.


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Tonight at 8pm it's Gardens and Guillotines, only on IBG - The Gamers Channel



Contributors: Daniel, David

I've been struggling for some time now, maybe as much as a whole year, to find a genuinely popular new game, one that isn't tired and derivative and which can survive more than one or two outings at the club. I don't think it's just me either as we've reverted to playing some old classics for many months now, something which is great to see but which also highlights the opinion I've held for a while now - which is that the current state of game design is lacking in innovation and is stuck in a lazy rut of retreading stale old ground, with poor gatekeeping and kickstarter hype fuelling the lowering of standards and a celebration of mediocrity. Some people stand aghast at this point of view, but it bears out with the only games that have stuck around being filler material like Happy Salmon, Karuba, and Codenames.

Last night however was a pleasant change with two new games that were good enough to hit the table multiple times in the same night (although one of these is far from being a new design, despite certainly being new to the club).

The Networks bucks the trend of unpolished Kickstarter folly and delivers a truly original and, thankfully above all else, fun experience. We liked it so much that we wanted to play it again, with James stepping in for Dani after he had to leave early. I personally liked it so much that I turned up late having already played it with the family before leaving and played it again solo when I got home - I don't think I've ever played a game four times in one day before

Players are in charge of some fairly awful TV stations, putting out public access shows that literally no-one is watching, but have also lucked into a big chunk of cash that they can invest in climbing up the ratings. Viewers are encouraged to tune in by commissioning better shows, hiring actors/personalities, and signing up advertising deals to fund everything. The simple goal of a straight VP race for viewer numbers allows room for the game to breathe - there is no points salad or conditional scoring rules here, just a focus on making your primetime schedule as crammed full of awesomely exciting shows as possible.


There are some neat ideas that bring the setting to life. Shows age each season they run, mostly bringing in fewer and fewer viewers until they end up being cancelled and going into re-runs, although there are some that become more popular from a slow start. The cards in the game are filled with amusing media references, with all of the shows being parodies of existing or recent televisual fare (albeit with a strong American lean so quite a few of them remained mystifying to us), and this is also tied in to the mechanics. For example, the show that parodies South Park is one of those that gains bigger audiences over time through word of mouth, and you are also encouraged to shape your network into a genre station by commissioning shows of a similar type (e.g. becoming the equivalent of the Comedy Channel).

The addition of 'network cards', which are a mix of one-off bonuses and special abilities that allow you to attract extra viewers through cash investments, keeps the game hopping into unpredictable areas without fundamentally imbalancing anything. There are different varieties of these cards that are clearly marked so you can easily take out the more complicated or take-that style cards, which makes it easy to tune the game for e.g. family play.

Gameplay is packed full with those frustrating moments where you can't quite do everything you want to do, particularly when your opponents are beating you to signing up that hot new talent while you were busy locked in contract negotiations with a new sponsor, so you have to prioritise well and keep your options open. Casting a shadow over all of this is the need to 'drop and budget' at the close of the season, and the longer you wait to do this the less cash you are likely to receive; there is a timing pressure on whether you risk staying in for another round in the hope of getting just one more thing done, or you drop out now giving more immediate options to your opponents but giving them a harder start to the next season.

There are criticisms to be made. There is a bit of fiddlyness in tracking the age of shows and in both our games there were moments where the tokens weren't moved or were knocked around. Sometimes the wealth of options available at decision points can grind the game to a halt, and end of season scoring can be a slow process the first few times you do it; however there is a neat scoring track on each player board which means you can work out your score for the round as soon as you drop out, and which is a clever little fix for downtime being both a preventative measure as well as something to do during the slower moments. There is also a lack of direct interaction beyond weighing up the risk of what is likely to disappear from the marketplace between your turns, but talent being snapped up by whoever gets in first kind of works in line with the theme. It's also the kind of game where you have to constantly plan your alternative options as you will undoubtedly have many moments where you are completely stymied by your opponents, and this is certainly not to everybodies taste.

Overall though, genuinely a great game that I'm very happy with.




The other new but not new new game that we had on the table was a veritable antique, a pre-war copy of Plus and Minus. I used to play this with my flatmate donkeys years ago and was delighted to recently pick up a copy of my own that was complete and in good condition, so I knew what to expect but was keen to find out how it would go down at IBG.

This exceptionally clever card game starts from a simple premise: you have four pawns that you need to move from zero to twenty five by playing numbered cards, and each time you play a card you add it to the one that was previously played by your preceding opponent. If you go over twenty five then you bust back to zero, and you score the position of your pawns at the end of the rubber with ones on the base worth minus twenty and ones at home doubling up to fifty points each.

Where it becomes so engaging is that the cards are irregularly numbered, with a few negative ones included for good measure, so it becomes a highly strategic game where you try to land your pawns into positions where you can use the preceding players likely card plays to bounce straight into the home positions. This requires careful management of your hand of cards as you want to keep your options as open as possible whilst they dwindle away, and of course your opponents will insist on playing the most inconvenient cards possible. I'm trying to think of a modern comparison as a frame of reference, and I guess that it's a bit like Arboretum except simpler, much more enjoyable to play, and not bogged down by burying all the fun under a big mound of trying to be clever.

Plus and Minus is simply brilliant. Quite frankly, there is more interesting gameplay in this charming oddity than pretty much anything I have played in the last twelve months. As the box says, you will most certainly be playing PM until the AM


.....


First up was Felix: The Cat in the Sack with James, James B, myself, Gareth and Sarah. Second time I've played it at the club but in the intervening time I'd completely forgotten how to play. Everyone throws a card into the pot and then players bid on the pot, when a player passes then one more card is revealed. This slow drip of information will tell you whether you're bidding on a great set of cards or about to be screwed. It's all about knowing when to jump out or stay in. Nice enough filler, it's neither superb nor is it terrible, it does what you want most fillers to do. Gareth won this by a single point over Sarah.After James B, 


Phil and I played Alhambra from the big box using three modules from Alhambra: The City Gates expansion. We used Characters, Camps and City Gates. I would say Alhambra: The City Gates is probably the best expansion in the box whereas many of the other expansions and modules are take it or leave it. Characters add new abilities that players can bid on, City Gates allow you a bit more freedom in your Palace layout and the Camps reward certain Palace layout. Phil won with 120 something, I was second about 10 points behind and then James B was about 30 behind. I scored incredibly well on my last round but it was the first scoring round where I lost it. It came out a few turns too early for me and then I was playing catch up. Phil scored nicely on the bonus Camp points and came second on the Tower and Garden tiles which was enough to keep him ahead.

To end the evening was Guillotine sans "Callous Guards". I don't really mind the card although I can see why it is recommended to play without it. It does stop the game from being played the way it's meant to be played. Players play a card to affect the line and then take a noble. If you remove the play a card to affect the line aspect then all you have left is pick up a card which isn't much of a game. If someone plays it in the first day then it's quite feasible for it to remain out for the rest of the game. I personally think its power can be reduced by saying it is discarded at the end of a day. That way it can still be used but won't ruin the entire game. Anyway, Phil won this one with a massive haul of nobles, I came a little way behind with James B bringing up the rear.




Wednesday, 20 July 2016

IBG gamers prove they are just big kids at heart



Contributors: Jon, Daniel



Ticket to Ride:Pennsylvania

OK - this was supposed to be TTR:UK, but as we were setting it up, we realised that it only took 4 players and we had 5. No-one seemed overly-keen to bail out, so the board was flipped and Pennsylvania it was. This is the 'stock' map, where each time you claim a route, you have the opportunity to take a share in one of a number of companies. Majority of shares at the end of the game score points.


Highlights: 

- James cannot count. Up to 5. Period. 

- It was about 3 turns into the game before we realised that TomToo didn't really know how to play vanilla TTR. He came last.

- Tom1 and Jon annoyed the heck out of everyone with their Madonna impressions everytime someone said "Two Blue". Funny though, in a juvenile sort of way....

- The spread of scores at the end was huge. 200 down to 100. James won, after keeping and completing all 5 of his starting tickets, which also attracted the globetrotter bonus. Well played sir!



Adventureland

With Karuba playing on the other table, this other Haba release also got an airing, with Paul, Jon, TomToo and James II as the protagonists. We played the third scenario (get your adventurers into cities by game end, or suffer potentially massive minus points).



The end sneaks up on you in this game, and with Jon taking his final turn, he had 5 Adventurers in no-man's land, which multiplied by the number of Fog Monsters still at large, would have decimated his score by 30 points. He therefore spent his last 2 actions killing 2 Fog Monsters, netting him 14 points for the kills, a 7 point bonus for killing the most and reducing his minus points by 10.



After all this carnage, the scores were totted and were incredibly close, with only 5 points between the 4 players. It turned out that Jon's final battles had not been in vain, as he won - just. 



Paul and TomToo were fairly lukewarm about the game, but Jon is keen - especially as a family / gateway game. May have limited appeal at IBG though... :-(



7 Wonders

Could we fit in a 5-player game of 7 Wonders including a new expansion into the last 45 mins of the evening? With OAP's Jon & Paul being 2 of the players? You betcha (and with time to spare!)



The new expansion was the Great Projects (comes in the Babel box), which allows players to contribute to a joint building in each age, that will give bonuses if successfully built, and penalties to non-contributors if not. It seems to fulfill my rules for a good expansion - doesn't add too much complexity or extra time, but tweaks the base game enough to make it interesting. In fact, it turned out to be a game-winner for TomToo, who picked up 4 bonus tiles in the last round, each worth an extra 6 points for his Science. This resulted in Tom's 6 Science symbols being worth a mahoosive 50 points in total - catapulting him into a convincing winner's spot.



Everyone pointed fingers at each other (but mostly Jon) for letting him get away with it, but it shows that this expansion has introduced another nice subtle way of introducing interaction between all the players, not just your immediate neighbours. 



The regularity that this game is hitting the table is meaning that the game-time is dropping like a stone, and with 3 interesting expansions (Cities / Babel Tower / Great Projects) to choose from, this could run and run.....


.....


So, Karuba, and it seems like Haba's 'thing' at the moment is to move to bigger and far less yellow boxes in their latest range. Their trademark high production quality is still in full swing both here and in Adbentuereublandelandthat other title failed to convince me that there was enough going in to the actual gameplay to justify the step up in format and I was keen to see if Karuba would be any different. It must be good if it got a Spiele nomination, right?

In this one you are laying tiles to create four pathways from one side of your board to the other. One player draws the tiles and everyone else has to find the same matching tile, yet despite the regulated tile draw and same starting positions everyone inevitably builds out in unique ways. This also unfortunately leads to a problem where the game takes far longer to set up than to play, what with having to sift through dozens of numbered tiles either before or during play. There are a couple of gentle twists that attempt to elevate this beyond the most basic level of tile-laying; one involves having to discard some of the tiles you draw to move pawns along the pathways and the other is bonus point gems on some tiles that you can pick up by landing a pawn directly on them. There is also staggered scoring for the first pawns to make it home, so it's often not worth competing on a colour track where your opponents have already stolen a march on you.

Karuba is streets ahead of Adventureland but still seems to be lacking just a little something. Like that other title it is feathery light to the point of being barely more than the standard fare Haba produce for the toddler end of the family gaming market, and I'm left wondering what their direction is here. If, with the bigger boxes fixed at a higher price point, they are looking to take a bite out of a more mature part of the market then I have to make the same point I brought up a few weeks ago: simple rules and rinse and repeat play is fine for a kid's game, but the contents of these two games simply don't justify the scale or price point of the bigger boxes that they come in. Compare Karuba to another family friendly tile-laying game that we all know and (mostly) love, Carcassonne, and it just doesn't feel close in terms of challenging you through it's gameplay in the same way. Maybe it's the lack of direct interaction, or the heavy lean on stricter rules for placement and having to sift through components.

Karuba is so light that when you see Rudiger Dorn's name on the box you can't help wondering if he gave up halfway through designing something else and decided to shunt it in Haba's direction for a quick payday, assuming it would end up in a small yellow box at pocket money prices. That's not to say that it's a poor game, far from it in fact, it just has the aire of an unfinished project that is gasping to escape it's souless implementation.

A welcome and long awaited return for Paperback, or "Scrabble you can with a shit vocabulary" as I like to think of it. I made a bee-line for cards that would increase my draws and quickly nobbled the first bonus card as a result. 

Tom managed to grab a handful of double letter cards and began to spew out his typical sixteen syllable thesaurus mangling words. Despite the grandeur of his garrulous gabble my short and sweet high money cards were paying better by the letter and allowed me to hoover up the scoring cards by the handful, including one of the big ten cent ones. At the end I had scored a magnum opus against Tom's potboiler novel (five stars from three reviewers on Amazon though!), meanwhile James (who was also playing, or at least he claims so) was content just to scribble in the margins.

 








Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The one where David made a lot of noise in a short space of time.



Contributors: Daniel, David, Jon


A rowdy game of the old classic Pit was underway when I arrived and despite how tempting it was to join in I instead settled into a slightly more refined game of Deep Sea Adventure with Jon, James, Paul D, Paul M, and Milda, the latter two having their first go at this perennial favourite.

Jon and Dawsey raced ahead in the first round with their prudence paying off as the only treasure hunters who made it back with some loot, while James and Moosie started to catch up by just scraping through on the last dregs of Oxygen on the second dive. It looked like a lost cause for Milda and myself, with both of us stymied by chucking high numbers on the way down and snake eyes on the way back up (not to mention Milda's determination to pick up every shiny trinket she encountered - ahh, that first game of Deep Sea Assholes...)


However, tables were to be well and truly turned as the shortened treasure trail enabled us to grab some of the stacks at the bottom and provided an easier route back to the boat. While everybody else quickly ran for safety our deep-diving tactics paid off - at the final counting Milda had picked up a massive 35 points on that one dive and I just pipped her to the win with 37 that I likewise collected in that single haul, the other chaps knocking about in the teens and twenties.

We then broke off into two threes playing Glen More and Ra (plus something else?) and a six-top adventuring into a haunted mansion in Betrayal at the House on the Hill. 


After David got his chopper out and bashed Philippe over the head with it, we transitioned to a different kind of bloodshed in Blood Bound which is some kind of 'Vampire Masquerade' style hidden role game. We were split into two teams with everybody knowing which team one of their neighbours was on and the objective to slaughter the opposition leader, stabbing the wrong person resulting in a loss. Cue political satire here if you will. 

For some reason we all took a liking to attacking David on spec and had to pull up short before inadvertantly tanking the game unecessarily early. Each time you get attacked you have to reveal a piece of information about your character (no I don't know why either, I think 'because game' is the reason), so everyone is destined to get a shanking at some point. Eventually, we figured out who everybody was at which point it became apparent that the blue team had a slight advantage and were guaranteed to win... so we stopped playing... erm...


I'll be kind and say that this one probably needs a big table of ten or more (if you can find that many people who are into Vampire fan-fiction) where it takes longer to figure out who the leaders are and maybe some additional character powers can mess with people's heads... but I think this will still fall down to whichever team's leader has one more life point left than the other at the point of reveal and constantly end in a bust.

More Happy Salmon ridiculousness followed this, then I sat down with the two Toms to play Valeria, which is really just an activity wrapped up with some pretty pictures. It's a total rip on Machi Koro except this game is tilted so that everybody collects far more resources as the dice are rolled around the table. As a result there is very little tactical edge in which cards you decide to buy into your tableau, and with even fewer and less interesting decisions to be made you just roll dice and pick up stuff until you run out of stuff to pick up. Someone eventually throws their hands in the air and yells "woo" at all the victory points they have accumulated. Total shite. This really ought to have spent a lot more time in development before being dumped onto Kickstarter.

Realising that this was one of those occasions where we were taking part in an activity rather than playing a game, I abandoned ship and allowed Phil to take over my spot so that I could go and play Legendary: Aliens with James instead. We set up in what passes for 'easy mode', using objectives and characters canonical to the original movie with two 'drone' cards in each objective deck, and as a result it was a bit of a cakewalk if I'm honest. We encountered two face huggers along the way which were dispatched with ease and toward the end were able to wipe out pretty much anything that came our way while we kicked our heels waiting for the big bad to appear. Think we need to dial up the difficulty quite a bit for the next time we play and introduce some of the 'advanced' content with the Weyland Yutani 'traitor' and the Alien player involved.

San Juan and Coup:G54 were also on the go at the end of the night.



.....


The first of my noise creation came with Billionaire, which is a nicer looking variant of Pit. Along with a small bell came a lot of shouting, in the midst of which Philip made and then lost a fortune and Philippe continually added to his winnings. After much shouting and grabbing someone won and it must have been Philippe.

Then came Betrayal at House on the Hill, I was relatively quiet during most of this until Tom triggered the haunting and I became the traitor. Facing insurmountable odds...ok everything was perfectly laid out for me....I managed to chop Philippe with an Axe and haul his lifeless corpse into the Chasm to open the gates of hell, all the while being chased by a knowledge draining statue. Victory came with the last roll of the dice and at which point I decided it was appropriate to make more noise just to let the others know I had won. This wasn't a great haunting, the rest of the players were effectively ruled out of the game and everything was laid out for me to grab victory.

By this point I had used up most of my energy on a quick game of punching, slapping, tickling with Happy Salmon and I was more restrained for the following game of 7 Wonders. A great game where Paul pipped Jon and I to win by 60 points to our 57 by being the only player to build science and score nicely from it. I should also mention that Paul and I were the only players who did not build any military and were happy to co-exist (there's probably a life lesson in there)


.....


After Milda's first experience of IBG a few weeks ago, where she found herself involved in an evening-long game of BSG, it was nice to see that she actually returned! And as a reward, she was asked to choose which game she wanted to play, which turned out to be Glen More. Jon & Paul were her co-gamers, neither of whom had played before.

Glen More is a nice little mid-weight Euro - not particularly complicated, but with plenty to think about. It has echoes of Alhambra, with its tile-laying mechanism, and a nice little 'choose a tile from a pathway, and whoever is furthest back on the path keeps going until they overtake someone' mechanism.


Milda was a little taken-aback that the game played very differently to how it did when she played with her husband (no comments about the OAP nature of her opponents required, thank you Dan...) as players built more tiles than she was used to. Paul ended up taking his time to build the most efficient tableau of Scottish landmarks (and when I say 'take his time', I mean, enough time to allow Jon to visit the bar, return with a drink, converse with gamers at other tables, return to his game, to find Paul still taking his move. OAP indeed....) Jon came second, and a bemused but happy Milda came third. Glen More - certainly one of the best Scottish-themed euros out there....