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