Wednesday, 30 April 2014

How did that happen?

11.57pm, Tuesday the 5th of May, 2014.

Paul wondered quite how he'd been hoodwinked into editing the blog for the only month with 17 Wednesdays in 2014, when he was sure the rest of the months had four or maybe five. Had Jon and Tom moved some Wednesdays into April from March or May under the table when he wasn't looking?  

Well, it was nearly over, and he had actually really enjoyed it, but it was time to get on with other stuff, so he started day dreaming about playing games again, instead of just writing about them. Then he chuckled to himself as his thought process led him to the inescapable conclusion that he couldn't claim to be surprised about getting the month with all the Wednesdays, as every week he turned up and was utterly trounced at board games by the very same people and this week was actually even worse than normal. His record for the evening was:

 - Played: 5
 - Came a very low last: 4
 - Managed to draw for last place: 1

This week Noel posted on our forum saying that he'd been in Florida and had played at a local club there, and had even won some games, which he might send us a writeup on. 'Thanks for rubbing it in, Noel', thought Paul grumpily, his brow tight down over his eyes and thought that it'd be wise to get his blog up before Noel had a chance to make him look worse.

Normally he managed to take at least one 'second from last' result. But this week? ... this week he'd been stressed at work, and was distracted by his wife's up and coming birthday. Yes, that was it, how could he manage to do well, Yeovil had just been relegated causing him much heart ache and well, ... he started to devlve deeply into his pool of excuses ... it was almost Summer. And he wasn't sure if Jon, Dan or Neil had taken the drugs tests that they really should have done. And the noise from those planes on Heathrow's flight path on Wednesday evenings means it's IMPOSSIBLE to concentrate. Surely if he sprinkled a few of those around the blog entry then people wouldn't realise.

He swallowed hard, thought 'you've got to do this, get it over with', braced himself and hit 'post' so that the rest of the world could see his shame.

Roll Through the Ages (Neil)

Jon started building the Hanging Gardens. Neil the Great Wall. Paul went for more dice. More dice didn't seem to quite do it. 

Score: Neil the most, Jon nearly as much, Paul a long way back

Splendor (thanks Jon)

New to Paul and Jon, but Dan was singing its praises, and it promised to be short and light, so this was a good sign. It has a disconcertingly simple ruleset – pick up gems, reserve or buy cards and the game ends when someone hits 15 points.

There are some bonus tiles for each game (awarded for collecting certain numbers of gems cards), and these give players something to aim at, and help to dictate strategy.

In the first game, Jon was the only player to snag a noble, allowing him to cross the finish line before Dan could quite get there (Paul had only just stumbled out of the starting blocks).

Jon 17; Dan 12 ; Paul 6

In the second game, both Dan and Jon were clearly basing their strategies on claiming a couple of specific nobles, with Jon wondering if he could even sneak a second noble. There was a choice to make when Jon could finish the game on 16 points, but was unsure if Dan would be able to beat this. Hanging on another round might mean that he could claim the second noble and score even higher. However, he opted to end it there and then, and it proved to be the correct decision, as it transpired that Dan could also end the game and score 16 points. And so, Dan and Jon crossed the finish line hand in hand for an honourable draw (whilst Paul had stopped to tie his laces just before entering the finishing straight…) 

Jon 16; Dan 16; Paul 9

Ticket to Ride: Switzerland (thanks Jon)

ime for a mid-weight game to fill 45 mins or so. Step forward the 2-3 player map for Ticket to Ride. The differences with this map are that locomotives can only be used for tunnels, and a number of the tickets are ‘country / city to country.’

There was an initial flurry of mini-routes being claimed in the North / Central area of the map, to establish North-South and East-West links. Paul then started to hoover up all the locomotive cards, and began his attempt to single-handedly dig his way through the solid rock of Southern Switzerland. Unfortunately, he must have had a defective drill bit, as he was constantly needing to produce extra cards to complete the tunnels.

Dan was the first to search for extra tickets, and kept all 3. He had built a line right down into France in the South-West corner, and seemed happy with the new tickets that he had picked up.
Jon was the next to select more tickets, and did so twice before the end of the game. Paul followed suit, giving him a brief respite from his mole-like activities.

All of a sudden, Jon had laid a 6-link tunnel (Paul wasn’t the only one to hoard locomotives) and the game was one turn short of ending (cue the usual groans…)

Paul was the first to tot up his scores, but had failed with a couple of tickets and so did not maximise his score. Dan was in confident mood, until he suddenly realised that he had failed to connect his routes to Germany, meaning that he failed to score for 2 of his large tickets. The fact that he only needed a single train to complete the routes, and had placed his last 3 trains in a fairly non-consequential place only added to his general chagrin. Don’t worry Dan – we’ve all been there!

Jon’s ticket-diving had proved to be profitable, as he had completed all of his 9 tickets, and combined with having the longest route, this led to a convincing victory.

This is a nice 2-3 player map, which emphasises completing tickets over gaining points for claiming routes.

Jon 159; Dan 76; Paul 72

San Juan 

Jon zoomed to the end and was the first to 12 buildings to bring the game to a close. Paul tried a production strategy but ran out of time against Jon's spint, preferring to look at the view as he sauntered to the end. Dan managed to get the best end game cards.

Scores: Dan 36, Jon 21, Paul 21

Le Havre (thanks Neil)

Neil was challnged by J
on to make Le Harve sound interesting. I love someone that takes thing literally.

Le Havre, the underrated port at the end of the Seine, has the widest beaches, typical of Normandie. It has a wonderful stretch of beach restaurants where the Horas have succumbed to seafood delights, and Josie's chicken nuggets of course. There's an impressive skate board/roller blade/bmx track by the beach with the locals keen to show off their daredevil skills and tricks: frightening.

It also has a brilliant art gallery, the Andre Malraux, which boasts France's second largest collection of impressionist paintings and is well worth a visit I can tell you. The rebuilding of the city centre after the war is amongst some of the most interesting in France. The centre is one of Europe's few 'grid' cities, but is well lined with lime trees and huge squares. It was made a World Heritage Sight in 2005, just after our first visit coincidentally enough. How's that for interesting and exciting!

And the board game reflects all of this bustle, the intensity of a cultural giant with the need for much feeding and more than a little planning... or something like that.

Scores: Less relevent now we've got a bit of travel writing.

And now it's May...

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

You play board games…? Like Monopoly?

The conversation can often go like this: “What am I doing tonight? Meeting some friends and playing board games” with the sound of excitement in my voice.  But often what follows is a look of disbelief, sometimes it is possible to see the various thoughts going round people’s minds when I tell them what I'm up to.

“You mean, like Monopoly?” is a very typical reaction, often accompanied by a smirk, a sneer or a look of disbelief. If the person that I’m speaking to has played Risk, there might be a modicum more knowledge about the subject, but invariably I then need to make a decision on whether explaining what I’m really up to and just how much fun playing board games is for me, or whether I just smile and walk away. 

This post is for those that might ask me the question in the first place. Let's hope it doesn't go into a rant, but hey, as I'm editor as well as author, who's to police that;)

Firstly, yes the games involve a board, like Monopoly, and pieces, like Monopoly, and even some form of scoring, also like Monopoly. But board games have evolved so much since 1906 (the first incarnations of what became the world’s best known board game - or at least so wikipedia claims) and think how far other media and forms of entertainment have changed in over a hundred years. So no, in many ways, not at all like Monopoly.

Secondly, as seasoned board gamers will know, Monopoly gets a bad press from regular gamers, although I have happy memories of playing it as a kid and I don’t want to use it as an easy target for bashing. Actually most people play a watered down version of Monopoly and it is supposed to be quite a good auction based game if played ‘properly’, but I've only ever played that diluted version so I’m not qualified to make a proper comparison between the ‘real’ Monopoly and the board games that this site is all about.

Thirdly, there is a whole sub culture of board games which, are very unknown to the majority of people; a new world waiting to be explored. Hundreds of new games are published every year, many of which are very, very good. They have evolved massively over the millennium since Monopoly to be challenging, fun, subtle. Maybe simple, maybe complex. Some tax your brain, some ask for your skills in diplomacy or negotiation or even hand / eye coordination. You will be challenged to make decisions, to compete against your fellow players or to co-operate with them whilst aiming for a joint victory. Some are simple, others are complex. Games might use pawns, cards, dice, tokens, money or any other item a creative designer have woven in. You may be transported to an Indiana Jones style adventure, you might be tasked with acquiring stocks and shares, you might find yourself part of the a Mafia family where the only way to survive is to be the last man standing or you might be building a city, a kingdom or an empire - the variety is endless, with something for all tastes. But, generally, the quality is excellent nowadays providing a great gaming experience.

Fourthly, playing board games is a very social activity. This is my favourite bit. In what other pastime can you sit around a table with friends - real people, in the flesh - enjoying a drink, a conversation whilst doing something you all enjoy? This is often the opposite of peoples perception of the board gaming community. It certainly isn't unique in this respect, but given the massive popularity of sitting in front of a computer screen, this one seems far more ‘normal’ to me and certainly more ‘human’.

Lastly, although playing board games amongst adults is less common in the UK, it is much more popular in other cultures, such as Germany, where it is widely accepted as a very enjoyable way to spend time. The good news is that it is growing in the UK so maybe, if and when a critical mass is reached, the answer to my statement ‘I'm playing board games this evening’ will be greeted by 'Sounds great, can I come'.

So to summarise my shortened version, the games we play are not that much like Monopoly (which is in itself not too shabby), but games have evolved over many years to become a wonderful way to spend an hour (or four), they are a very social activity and is on the up. So read on, and if you aren't a regular attendee or player, then invite yourself along… you’ll be more than welcome and it might open up a whole new world for you.

Players: Paul, Simon, Soren II, Neil, Tom, Dan, Andy, Jon, Philip

AbluXXen (thanks Neil)

Is something in German that means something. It doesn't translate very well apparently although it could be like 'nicking' the ball off someone in football. Anyway, it'll be called Linko in English although that's supposedly Esperantu for links. Sprechen Sie Deutsche?

Right, glad that's sorted out. This is another Kiesling and Kramer game, man are those two a right pair, geniuses! This is a simple set collection where you're just trying to lay your hand down in front of you and score a point per card. The problem is the next person can nick your pile, or make you discard it, or take it back again, damn!

We didn't quite follow the rules, nothing against Tom's explanation, it's simply one of those that's straight forward after a turn or two. Towards the end of the game Jon took over from Tom who was trying to negotiate peace in the Middle East or at least something more serious... Jon played badly on his behalf, costing Tom the game. Never mind. Being as polite as Tom, Paul, Simon and I were we let guest Soren II win by one point. 

Scores: Soren II 16, Neil 15, Tom 14, Paul 12, Simon 1 (yes, one!)

Heroes of Normadie

Dan and Soren had prearranged to play this recently kickstarted game.

There is no write up, but they did come back for another game after the first one.

It is understood that Dan, playing the third reich, took victory in the first game. Even less is known about the outcome of the second game.

Glass Road (thanks Neil)

This week's committee to try and prevent Mr Thomas from another victory included Andy, Tom and myself. With no Office coming out early it looked slightly easier to stay within touching distance of the man.

He still went for his Feudal Lord with some regularity though. Plus plenty of resources and processing buildings. It looked ominous the more of these he took, that last round was going to be something else.

In the meantime I couldn't decide what to concentrate on. I was able to help myself to the Mason's Guild, and tried to collect some valuable buildings but only ended up with one, the Sandstone Factory. Tom was looking out for expensive properties and did that better than me getting the Hot Springs and Sand Screening Plant to go with his Forester's Office. Andy went off processing with the Clay Basin, Shingles Manufacturer and the Inn, and although he collected some hefty resources he wasn't able to score them very well.

Which is where Philip excels of course. He'd picked up the Joinery and Kiln to gain food and clay and then the Slipway and Storehouse which scored him for wood and food. To finish with such a huge score, so far ahead of the rest of us was very impressive. Frighteningly so!

Scores: Philip 28, Tom 19 1/2, Neil 17 1/2, Andy 15.

Kingdom Builder (with the Nomads expansion).

The special abilities were the ones to let a player add one to the desert, add one to a line of three, add one to the edge of the board and the place walls. Scoring was based on settlements in each horizontal row, settlements next to water and also for placing the initial three settlements in a row of three, scoring two instant points.

Simon picked it up pretty well, but he and Paul both found themselves a little stuck, partly due to Jon wisely surrounding the ‘wall building’ spot and then using it to help himself spread nicely. By the end of the game Jon had most of a board-high horizontal river surrounded on both sides, scoring him points in many ways.

As always Kingdom Builder continues to provide very different gaming experiences and tonight Jon made the most of what came out, whilst the others did not.

Scores: Jon 64, Simon 55, Paul 49

San Juan (thanks Jon)

With Simon having to leave early, Jon and Paul were left with some time to kill, but fortunately there were several good 2 player options available. Paul plumped for San Juan, which plays excellently with 2, the only difference being that the Governor gets to choose 2 roles each round rather than 1.

Jon started with an early Tobacco plant, whereas Paul chose a Prefecture to begin his town. Jon therefore focussed on producing goods to start with, whilst Paul opted for the Councillor and Prospector roles to pick up more cards. After a few rounds, this switched around, as Paul had placed a coffee roaster and Jon had saved up his hard-earned pennies to indulge his passion for literature at the Library. This doubled his bonus for one role every round, making the Builder and Prospector particularly attractive. Paul continued to add to his wealth of production plants, and would obviously be looking for a Guild Hall to maximise his points. Both players were building at a similar rate, but Jon’s acquisition of a Quarry and Carpenter, when combined with his Library, were now making his buildings ridiculously cheap. This enabled him to pick up both a City Hall and a Palace and build them in successive turns, whereas Paul could not locate the elusive Guild Hall, despite numerous Councillor attempts.

Jon ended the game with Paul only on his 11th building, and despite Paul having scored a highly respectable score that he was pleased with, Jon had totted up a massive 40 points. He admitted that he had managed to build almost a ‘perfect storm’ of buildings in just the right order – Library, Quarry, Carpenter, Prefecture, Chapel, City Hall, Palace – which rarely happens, but is a veritable points-feast when it occurs. A great game for 2 players, which plays easily in 30 mins.

Scores: Jon 40, Paul 21


This game of Trains ended up being the shortest game that I’ve been involved in.

The quickest deck to disappear was the Limited Express Train (the one with the most points) which Philip cunningly manoeuvred himself into a position of acquiring one for most of the first few rounds, with the others noticing what he was doing a little too late, and powerless to peg back his awesome engine collection. Andy attempted to lay some track, only to realise that it wasn’t getting him enough points. Paul tried hard to keep up with Philip but his engine was a few ticks behind the mighty Philip. Tom did well in his first game but didn’t quite keep on top of Philip. 

With decks disappearing in no time, Philip looked at the board and could have easily brought the game to a close more quickly, but he waiting until he was a little more certain of his lead by gaining one or two points on the board.

As it happened the scores were closer than anyone imagined as Philip was indeed the convincing victor.

Scores: Philip 29, Paul 28, Tom 24, Andy 17

Agricola: ACBAS (thanks Jon)

No-one wanted to play with Jon this evening (understandable…) but Neil took pity on him and agreed to another 2-player game.

Last time, Jon had had his butt whipped by Neil, who had expanded his farm to gigantic proportions – battery chickens and intensively-farmed pigs – so this time he made sure that he grabbed an expansion board or two himself. Jon was the first to create some capacity, and was able to grab a couple of large sets of animals that had built up on the supply board.

Neil decided to build the Assembly Hall, which enabled him to place fences for free at any time, as long as he gave Jon an equal number of fences. He used this after Jon had built his own fences, and meant that he didn't have to use the 'build fences' action at all throughout the game. He also picked up the Farm Well, giving him a free feeding trough for the last 3 rounds. Jon had considered purchasing this simply to fill up another expansion board, but had been too slow off the mark!

Jon had built plenty of capacity at the start of the game, and was now filling it up with sheep and pigs at every opportunity. He had not managed to acquire more than 1 horse, as Neil had accumulated a veritable team of them (yes, that's the correct collective noun!)

As always, the game ends about 1 round too soon, but there was just time for Jon to upgrade his cottage to a Half-timbered House, which Neil had also had his beady eyes on. Neil had to settle for the Storage Building, to generate points from his abundance of unused building materials.
The points were tallied, and Jon's collection of sheep and pigs were enough to provide the win, although the scores were, as usual, pretty close.

With the variety of buildings available from both expansions (and the fact that no more than 1 person can be found at any one time who is willing to play with Jon) this game has the potential to stay on the radar for a long time to come.

Scores: Jon 47, Neil 42.5

Nanuk (thanks Jon)

End of evening; 6 IBG’ers still seeking entertainment; it must be time to go and hunt a few wild animals in the frozen wastes. It was all new to Soren, but to be fair, even the experienced old hands struggle with this one.

Philip and Dan benefitted from an early polar bear assault on the other 4 brave hunters. Philip then shafted Dan and Jon to further increase his hoard.

And thus it continued - "10 seals in 5 days?? You are surely doomed!" Philip always seemed to have 2 birds in his hand (although none in the bush...) and Jon and Soren never seemed to be able to pick the winning team.

Nevertheless, this one is always good fun, and a great way to round off the evening.

Scores: Philip 17, Tom 12, Neil 12, Dan 12, Jon 7, Soren 5

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Cult of the New vs the Tried and Tested

Every week at the London Apprentice, board gamers start to arrive, maybe as early as 6.30 to get some early evening food, with most having walked through the door by 8pm. Many will bring games, some struggling with more than they can carry, some with just one or two under their arm and some come happy to enjoy those brought by other people. The games are piled onto a table in the corner and from 7.30 onwards the pile of boxes can start to resemble a treasure trove of cardboard delight, with the latest releases from rubbing sometimes shoulders with classics from the 70s. There are two player games and seven player games, 10 minute fillers and 3 hour marathons, brain burners and dexterity challenges. The games may feature orcs and trolls, knights and traders, cunning business men or ruthless mafioso, architects or thugs, town planners or explorers, adventurers or corrupt politicians, or whatever else a game designer’s imagination can conjure up.

Often some short games are brought to the table to amuse the early arrivals whilst they wait for those that popped home en route from work to put the kids to bed first. Then, when most attendees are indeed in attendance, the big question starts to go around ‘what do you want to play?’, ‘no, what do you want to play’, ‘how many people have we got? 11, well that’s two four player games and a three’, ‘does anyone want to play Terra Mystica?’…

Some people are polite, some people will be blunt, some people have a very good idea of what they want to play and some are genuinely happy to play anything.

When I’m asked this question, a few things go through my mind:

 - "is it a fantasy game (I’m not really into fantasy games, but have no problem with other people playing them)?"

 - "how much brainpower do I have left after a day of work (indeed how much would I have had at the start of the day - but that’s another question)?"

 - "how long will it take?"

In my gaming biography I have gone through periods of enjoying many types of games, but now I’ve come to a place where I normally like to play more than one game in an evening (ruling out a three hour epic), and I quite like games in which I have to think, but not necessarily for the whole evening, and I like to use the different parts of my brain by mixing the thinky stuff with something that might involve some manual dexterity, some negotiation or some bluffing. 

And then there is another question that is often key in my choice and often overrides everything else:

 - "Have I played the game before?"

This is quite often a very emotive subject for regular boardgamers and there are two very extreme schools of thought. 

In one corner we have ‘The Cult of the New’, board gamers who simply love experiencing a game they’ve never played before. Some of our regular gamers have vast collections of 300+ games (some would claim that 300 isn’t vast), buy new games every week and just love the thrill of an original idea, new rules, virgin pieces and the chance to try something they’ve never done before. Why play games more than once when there are so many that you haven’t yet played?

In the opposing corner we have  the ‘Tried and Tested’ band of cube pushers, who prefer to learn the depth of a game by playing it many times, really getting to grips with the way it ebbs and flows, fine tuning their strategies and doing the same again next week, only slightly differently to see it it works better. These players might not have such a large games collection, but their games will be more worn. But how did they find that they liked these games in the first place?

I find myself somewhere in the middle. I do enjoy learning new games, and two or three years ago I could easily have had my head turned by a different new game for weeks on end. But after a while I found myself wanting to go back to the games that I really enjoyed and play them again to get more out of them and that only playing a game once, especially the good ones, was vaguely unsatisfying. I tell myself that I'd be more than happy to only play Kingdom Builder, El Grande, Ticket to Ride, Lords of Vegas, Acquire, Yspahan, Tikal and certain versions of Settlers of Catan for the next year. But then we'll see if my head isn't turned next Wednesday when the newest Stefan Feld game is sitting on that table in the corner and I'm asked if I'd like to give it a try. After all people have read very good things about it.

And taking all of that into account, this is what we ended up playing…

Santa Cruz (thanks no body)
When I arrived I found James, Lucas and Donald part way through a game of Santa Cruz. I don’t know how to play it, so looked over their shoulders for a few minutes before my food arrived, nodding knowingly when a move looked good.

Scores: Lucas or Donald (first), Lucas or Donald (second), James (third)

After Santa Cruz, while the rest of our motley band started to play Glass Road, James asked if I’d teach him Suburbia and Donald and Lucas seemed quite happy with that. As soon as the game was set up and Paul started to explain the rules, Dan walked in, made our remaining number ‘five’, and as Suburbia has a capacity of four players, we decided to keep Suburbia on ice and try another game for the larger number.

Cheaty Mages (thanks Dan / Natasha)

The clue is, after all, in the title, but I’m not completely sure that Lucas, James, Donald and Paul knew what they were in for when they sat down to a five player Cheaty Mages with Natasha.

Now the four of them had already shown themselves to be generous souls (ie spring lambs prancing merrily to the slaughter) by breaking up what looked like a perfectly serviceable four-player Suburbia after Natasha strolled in at a clearly advertised yet somehow still wildly surprising 8.05pm. And everything seemed to be going fine as the rules were explained, and it became obvious that this was a carnage-based, chaotic, throw-stones-and-duck kind of game that probably wouldn’t be much in the way of fun for fewer than 5.

The paintball-in-a-phonebox vibe was perpetuated through Rounds 1 and 2, as Natasha did precious little of any note or effectiveness but the other four largely knocked one another out and propelled Natasha’s chosen Mages to primacy. Nobody had any idea why all players start with 2 coins. Nor indeed any idea why they are called coins and not simply points. James had a fine line in gloating. Who’s got 8 coins now? Hmm? Lucas? Anyone? Hmm? But then...

“What foul dudgeon be this?" cried Donald, in his best medieval tones, "The judge - he walks among us, o fie! Tis witchcraft!" For you see, a card had been turned - and Natasha herself, in another guise, was revealed as one of the judges: Lester, the show-off. Despite this revelation, Lucas still believed he could win, based on having lots of coinpoints, and especially more than James. But how could a mere mortal hope to defeat the living avatar of the game itself? The human embodiment of Cheaty Mages, made flesh? Show-off indeed. 

Final Points: The Judge 28, Lucas 23, Everyone else 8, Hmm, 8 coins? Who has 8? Hmm?

Glass Road (thanks Neil)
After having played four games in the afternoon, one with Josie - her first - and three solo, I was always going to do really badly wasn’t I? Philip was keen and his eyes lit up instantly as we flipped over his building, the Office. As I went through the rules with Andy and visiting policeman Anthony I warned them not to let Philip get the Office.

First player selection: Philip. The Office was his. Drat!

With no other glaringly obvious combinations of buildings several of us dived in with the Feudal Lord, trying to uncover a perfect building but nothing was forthcoming. I started collecting resources, as did Andy, and Philip was busy building up room for his monster last move. He neatly collected another good building, the Anthony was playing a traditional learning game and twice stymied himself by not having the resources available to pay for an action. Glass Road can be cruel at times. He was looking good on collecting the different Landscape Tiles for his Estate building. I eventually picked up the Mason’s Guild giving me three VPs per brick instead of one, together with a couple of high value buildings. Andy had also locked in to several of those, and also scored well on glass and sand.

Philip though, was in his element. Collecting resources, converting them, compounding that conversion and all the while picking up some high scoring buildings himself. Victory was comfortable. In writing up this report I’ve realised I didn’t add my score correctly so I actually did three points better than I thought I had. And to think that’s been getting me down all week, should have written this earlier perhaps!!

Final Scores; Philip - 24 1/2, Neil - 21, Andy - 19 1/2, Anthony - 12 1/2.

Santa Cruz (thanks Neil)

As Anthony made his way out with James’s money for two trades in, - quite a rarity that! - Philip, Andy and I decided the best option for a quackish three-player was Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle’s Santa Cruz. James’s crew had played it earlier and Philip thought he could remember most of it from his one previous play. So, he explained it all and Andy and I looked at each other in non-comprehension but opted to ‘see if it all becomes clear as we crack on’.

It’s pretty straight forward, a few options to take but not that many really. Timing is the main factor I’d say, playing the scoring cards early so that only you benefit. Apart from that, a bit of set collection, area majority, but only just. We hadn’t bought into it though.

Philip taught us well and took a good lead after the first half. I’d assumed my natural position of last but that did allow me to select a better hand of cards, just not the skill to use them. I scored early though and began bridging the gap to the others. Andy and I continued our looks and Philip told us that ‘second time I thought it should be good. Once you’ve understood it though, it’s a bit boring.’ Summed it up for us I’m afraid. Saying that it’s so rare to play a game that leaves you feeling like that so that must mean there’s a wonderful selection of good ones out there. Merkle’s others I’ve played, Verrater and Attika, are among some of the very best.

Final Scores; Andy - 146 (he wasn’t sure how either!), Philip - 143, Neil - 141.


Who was the last person to go to Strasbourg? asked James as he was defamiliarising himself with the rules, in order to find the starting player. Of course our resident Frenchman Lucas, who claimed only to have gone there as a young boy. But at least he’d been there, which was more than the other three Brits at the table could offer. He later justified some eyebrow raising moves with the claim of a Strasbourgian family traditions, so would Lucas fulfil him family destiny, or would he be thwarted in reaching his destiny?

The game is designed by Stefan Feld, which for those of you familiar with the likes of Rialto or Bruges will know that this means a neatly designed Eurogame with lots and lots of options at each turn, providing a thoroughly satisfying gaming experience. And so it turned out this time, with players travelling back to the medieval French borders to indulge in some bidding, some toying with the guilds and some dallying with royalty. 

Each player is assigned a deck of identical cards, which they work through with typical Feldian rules, bidding for the right to carry out certain actions, which might mean placing on the board, taking guild tiles, selling guild tiles or placing chapels and other structures on the board - for their personal benefit, of course.

Paul started by spending lots of his tiles as he fancied those spots on offer, while everyone else held their bigger cards in reserve. Everyone else, it turns out, was correct to do so as Paul found himself drifting behind in the points stakes. James operated with typical cunning, claiming at every stage that he was doing terribly (this time he wasn’t completely wrong). Donald was going for the shield guild and buying big money tiles, although had a few too many left that he wouldn’t benefit from towards the end. Dan pushed a little bit of everything in a well balanced way. And Lucas of course had to prove himself to his forebears by coming up with a fiendishly clever strategy which all revolved around betting all of his money on two final round auctions, earning himself huge points as he did so.
But Dan proved to be the black horse and he confidently surpassed Lucas’ total plus some to spare, all within the last round. I’m still not sure how he did it, as Lucas looked odds on to me, so congratulations were certainly in order.

Scores: Dan 61, Lucas 53, James 32, Paul 29, Donald 23

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Boardgamers Ride Again

I didn’t make it last week for the second week in a row, which might have been penance for my heinous counting error on the last blog, but actually it was just that I could’t make it (my 17 month old can count up to eight with less mistakes). Bless the uncredited villager for attempting to allow me to fade into obscurity.

What happened on Wednesday night? Although I can't be perfectly sure of its accuracy, my understanding from afar, is as follows…

"Some locals were enjoying a quiet drink downstairs at The Apprentice, with a wind blowing down the river and the smell of rolled dice in the air.

At 7.00 on the dot, Tonio rode down Church Street on a grey burro, sporting a sombrero and handlebar moustache to make a reappearance having read about the cowboy heroics the previous week. Andy and Dan, uncharacteristically early, were settled in upstairs where the action would take place, chewing on cigar butts and competing at spitting over the balcony. Under his wide brim, Dan had the look in his eye of someone bursting for an outlet, somewhere to let out the words he’d been letting simmer inside him for the many, many months (since his last games report). He didn’t want to play games, but he needed to get the words out lest they fester for longer. He needed a fix, an escape; he needed to blog. The double doors burst open and in strode Neil, the imposing figure that quietened the locals chatter to a few scared whispers when he looked menacingly left, then right. The whisper went up ‘it’s him, the one from the board game. It’s really him’. And it was. John B challenged Gareth II to a ‘who’s got the most games’ duel (where was James when he was needed?) The bar staff smiled meekly when Philip asked for a salmon linguine and asked bravely if he was sitting upstairs for the 164th consecutive week. Then in walked Jon, aiming to round up this rabble, have them choose their games of choice before 9.45 and mercilessly get everyone to write a report. The scene was set, and no one quite knew what was going to happen next…"

Players: John B, Jon, Gareth II, Andy, Dan, Tonio, Neil, Philip (more than likely plus some uncredited villagers as I’ll almost certainly have missed some)

Qwixx - the card game (thanks Jon)

Trust John B to be able to bring out a neat little card game that takes only a few minutes to play but has enough decisions to make it interesting. This is the card game version of the SDJ 2013 nominee (more on that later) and involves playing cards in either ascending or descending order and marking them off on a natty little scoresheet. Once played, a player cannot use a card lower / higher in that colour (think Lost Cities) which gives a nice push your luck feeling to the game.

As usual, the game's owner misrepresented the likely winning scores (see Glass Road a few weeks ago...) by claiming that 90 was his highest ever score and a winning score was likely to be much less than that…

Suffice to say, John's experience shone through, and he succeeded in beating his previous highest score. Whilst Jon and Gareth were only 1 point apart (a long way back!)

Scores: John 92, Jon 70, Gareth 69

Qwixx (thanks Jon)

With the other table still attempting to use their skill and cunning to co-operatively beat a deck of cards, John brought out the original game, which is very similar to the card game, but uses dice. It's essentially Yahtzee for the modern generation - nothing to go crazy about, but simple and quick enough to be able to play with the whole family, which makes it a winner for those of us in a certain age bracket.

This game very much followed the patten of the first, with John steaming out ahead, and this time nothing between Jon and Gareth. Jon and John were up for another round, but Gareth was pleased to see that Hanabi had finished and hurriedly exited the table of fluffy little fillers!

Scores: John 82, Jon 65, Gareth 65

Hanabi (thanks Neil)

Over an extended weekend in Suffolk I'd played two games of this co-op and, unbelievably, we'd scored 25 both times, the first times ever. Better take it to the club I decided. Three newbies, Andy, Dan - watch out for some mentions of his amnesia - and Tonio. Must have had a good tutor as we got four of the five 1s out pretty quickly and moved through the blues and whites as well.

Despite his incredible intellect Dan managed to prove that his memory is made up of nine parts amnesia. 'This card is red, and this one's a 3. Or maybe the other way round.' As it was it was down to me to discard a rather useful red 2, thankfully we got away with it! 

Eventually the green 1s reared their heads and we picked our way through quit comfortably. That I had three of the 5s meant it was down to me to complete our incredible success. For a first game it was impressive. In fact if you ask Dan about it I'm sure he'll have it tattooed on his brain, just below the yellow stickie that reads 'dementia'. Respect.

Final Score: We got 25 out of 25, CLASS!

4 Monkeys (thanks Dan - feels good, huh?)

The monkey game was called 4 Monkeys, it's sort of like mixing Ligretto with filing a tax return. We were all completely terrible at it although John B seemed to do alright in the last round. We didn't keep scores but he must have won even though he finished the first round with the kind of negative score usually reserved for Alan Davies on QI.

Escape - Curse of the Temple (thanks Dan, that’s better, let them out)

We lost twice at Escape, the first was down to our complete inability to function as a working team. In the second game Gareth II "did a Tonio" by being the last man left behind in the collapsing temple, which was funny seeing as Tonio was the one who abandoned him to his fate. There may have been some inadvertent cheating going on too, but it's not the sort of game where anybody cares much.

Railways of North America (thanks Neil)

Always up for some train action, Jon, Philip and Andy helped Neil unpack not only his Canada map but his main box too. Philip's cube distribution was notable for the proliferation of yellow cubes on the Western side of the map. Apart from that everything seemed ok. The main differences with the map were 1. The introduction of the snow line, north of which each track build costs an additional $1,000 per hex, 2. Ferry hexes to connect a few towns offshore, plus 3. Mines which cost $10,000 each and you get to put between one and five different colour cubes on a grey town, quite a gamble but when money becomes no problem it's good value. The major routes are few and only of four or five point value.

The initial auction for first player was quite high, Jon taking it for $13,000. He picked up six points for it and it looked a reasonable return. Whereas he'd begun laying track in the north-west Andy started south-west. Whilst not inevitable that they would meet it did happen. Philip started somewhat differently picking up three cards in the first turn, unusual. I went for two hotels amongst the close-knit Ottawa, Montreal & area, and began building there too. It was pretty profitable keeping away from the others and I managed to only take three loans all game. I had a poor return on my first attempt at a mine but the second proved beneficial. One more turn would have been good for me as the others were running low on deliverable cubes.

Philip built some impressive stretches of five hexes utilising one of his magic cards. Andy went for the bonus for first to
build their four engine and ended up with a 'sizer' which he used twice to take him away from the rest of us. Jon had added points for delivering the first three cubes but his initial lead had been reined in half way through and despite his concentrated efforts he couldn't compete towards the end.

An intriguing map which looked quite small for four but performed brilliantly. It's certainly expensive to build above the snow line and there are a mass of grey cities needing expansion. Scores were close at the end but victory was Andy's, very good!

Final Scores: Andy 50, Neil 45, Philip 39, Jon 38

Damage Report (thanks Dan, same time next week?)

DR is set in a disintegrating spaceship but was more like a pick up and deliver game, moving bits around the ship as required by cards in each of the board sections. I think we sort of broke the game in the second outing as we just piled up a huge amount of stuff in one of the rooms and kept turning over the repair cards until we reached one of the victory conditions. 

There's a neat but annoying mechanism where you use sand timers to delay your next turn and the delay gets longer based on some shonky logic to do with life support systems. It's real-time so there is a pervading sense of calamity all the way through; each of the characters has a fairly specific role to play so I'm not sure how much real collaboration is going on and how much is led out by the game itself.

And so, the brave board gamers had put their lives on the line, survived, and will live to shuffle another day.