Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Naked wrestling on the pebbly shores of the Thames…

Players: Neil, Phil, Andy, Gareth, Jon, James, Tom, Noel, Paul, Dan, Alex, James II

I’m getting older – there’s no escaping it. If the old adage is to be believed, then my life has actually just begun, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. And as I slowly advance along the scoring track of life, I find that my tastes in gaming seem to be changing along with the number of candles on my birthday cake.

When I first discovered designer games (after previously dabbling in the usual fare of Risk, Axis & Allies and numerous party games), I was enraptured by the complex mechanisms and strategic options available in the classic eurogames. Step forward Tigris & Euphrates, Power Grid and then the monumental Caylus. Oh the joy of the tiles and little wooden cubes. Even my wife indulged me in some 2-player Caylus jousts from time to time. But then something happened. We had kids. And I’ve been permanently knackered for nearly a decade. And with this foray into fatherhood has seemingly come a change in what floats my gaming boat.

Nowadays, my first question when considering whether or not to play a game is often – “How long does it take?” If the answer comes back as 45-60 minutes, then I’m interested, but if it’s any longer than that, then for some reason I start to get all nervous and twitchy. Eclipse? Terra Mystica? Through the Ages? Not for me thanks. Obviously my ability to concentrate for long periods of time has receded along with my hairline.

Having said that, probably my favourite boardgame at the time of writing is Railroad Tycoon – hardly a 10 minute filler. I love laying down those brown or green track tiles (the correct ones for mountains and plains of course…), plastic trains and beautiful empty city markers, creating an efficient transport network as I go. But why am I happy to concentrate for 90-120 mins on this game, usually ending with a feeling of contentment and enjoyment of time well spent? I’ll have to have a think about that one…

Anyway - moving swiftly on from my inconsequential ramblings, to what actually happened at the London Apprentice tonight. It was great to see Alex (and mohican!) and James II back with us after a long absence, and also Noel (after having had a baby and a self-confessed ‘jolly’ to the US..)

A few classics and a few newer offerings played tonight, whilst Tom seems to have developed an unhealthy obsession with unclad grappling in the gravel…

Witch's Brew (thanks Tom)
Upon learning that Neil would be arriving at the Apprentice early, Tom gave his wife and daughter a quick kiss goodbye and sprinted out the door, speeding through red lights and past startled pedestrians.  As Tom sprinted towards the Apprentice, I saw a happy bearded face lit up at the window and smiled.  The door of the upstairs was flung open to the sight of Neil in all his glory.  Plus Gareth II and Phil.  Confounded at every turn!
Making the best of a bad situation, it was agreed that the four of us might as well play a game and by happy co-incidence Tom had brought with him the rather lovely (but for some strange reason out of print) Witches' Brew.  And thusly, potion making began in earnest.
Tom definitely explained to Gareth that he was able to simply say "So Be It" if he had the same role as another player; however, methinks think he derived a bit too much pleasure from throwing down his card and exclaiming "I AM RATTLES THE SNAKE HUNTER!"  Neil also had an aversion to sharing with the others but got away with it due to his natural Suffolk charm (Norfolk people take note).
In the meantime, Phil was trying to break the game by devising a strategy so that we ran out of available vials.  About 3/4ths of the way through, he admitted defeat and stopped picking the Fortune Teller.  Tom meanwhile was trying to play intelligently in terms of when I committed to a role; as a result, it soon became apparent that Tom was losing rather badly indeed.
So the fourth raven was collected and with a last throw of the dice, Tom attempted to hoover up the large batches of remaining ingredients in front of Gareth and Neil with the Begging Monk.  Alas, Tom was one ingredient short and, as everyone had figured out long before, Neil turned out the rightful winner although not by as much as suspected.
Gareth and Phil drew for second place. Naturally, the IBG tie breaker du jour of wrestling on the pebbly beach next to the pub was agreed upon.  Gareth hasn't been the same since. That's what happens when you take on Phil "The Lover" Thomas. (Note to Ed:  that's an Agricola joke) (Ed: thank goodness for that…!)
Neil 24,  Gareth 21,  Phil  21,  Tom 19

Agricola (thanks Philip)
A 3 player game with drafting from E,I,K and Gamer's decks.
I was going first again, with Andy second and Neil 3rd. Andy checked the decks to exclude things seen last week (by him, me, Natasha and Gary).
My first pick for the draft was Reed Collector and Ceramics, but neither were as important as the Market Crier and Wood-Fired Oven I took later.
I started with Market Crier. Andy predictably took 3 Wood and Neil unpredictably took 1 Reed (from the Reed accumulation space- there was only one occasion in the whole game when someone used the "Take One Building Resource" space). I Took "One Grain", Andy took 2 Wood, and Neil Plowed a field.
Somewhat surprised to be still on lead, I played the Inventor- in fact turn was just liked turn 1 except that Andy took Clay instead of Wood and Neil took Clay instead of Plowing.
I now took 4 Wood, Andy took 3 Wood and Neil gained 4 Wood from a Gamer's deck occupation which would give 3 VPs to the player(s) with the most animals. I Took "One Grain". Andy played the Market Stall, becoming first player. Neil went Fishing.
In round 4 Andy picked up 2 Reeds, Neil 3 Wood and I took start player with the Wood-Fired Oven for 15 food. My recollections now grow vaguer. None of us had any problem feeding, even through Sheep had come out on turn 4.
I played Reed Collector in Turn 5 and picked up 2 Reed in turn 6 as well as playing Carpenter. Neil used his wood to make a massive 6 space pasture, in which he then placed 3 sheep. Andy was ahead on expanding rooms and Family Growth (turn 6) although he had no Minors he could play with it (which was true throughout the game). He also beat me to the Clay Oven. I sacrificed the chance for family Growth in rounds 7 and 9 in order to pick up 6 Wood at once. I did however manage family Growth in round 8. Nobody grew their family in round 7. Andy had his second family member before Neil's first.

I played Ceramics and the Pottery and built a Schnapps Distillery while continuing to "Take one Grain" regularly- although Neil's late Field Watchman meant I had some completion for that. I built 4 Stables midgame but left Fences to the end. Andy played an Occupation in the mid-game but I can't remember what it was. He also Remodelled at some point.
I was only able to Plow twice- both with Plow and Sow. I sowed Vegetables as I had plenty of Grain. I build a Cooking Hearth quite late- Andy and Neil had Fireplaces before then. Andy renovated to a 4-room Stone House before the final turn, while me and Neil still had Wooden Huts. There seemed a shortage of Reed, even with the Reed Collector. At any rate I ended up using "Take One Building Resource" for Reeds in turn 13, although I could have just taken Reed. I also accumulated mounds of clay, enough that Neil had no Clay for renovating.
Which meant I could wait until the final move of the game to Renovate and Fence. My penultimate move was Lord of the Manor for 2 Bonus VPs (4 Vegetables, 4 Fenced Stables) I thought it was going to be 3 Bonus VPs (4 Pastures), but Andy pointed out I could fence 2 more spaces with 3 Pastures... which means House Steward was the better play. Anyway I had all 3 types of Animal, though Neil definitely won Most Animals.
Philip 46*; Andy 37; Neil 30.
*(I think it was 46 but it could have been as low as 42, my sums aren't adding up very well).

Heroes of Normandie (thanks Dan)
Let me transport you for a moment to a calm and gentle paradise of rich rolling meadows, punctuated with a tangle of boccage and humble stone dwellings. The remnants of a hazy spring morning are burning away under the golden rays of the rising sun. Birdsong soars in the air, a cow lows somewhere in the near distance, and there is the occasional staccato interruption of cockcrow. All is at peace and another long lazy day lies ahead. Go ahead, close your eyes for a moment and take a deep breath of the cool air, enjoy the feel of the warm sun that pierces through the soft morning breeze. Now let’s introduce a tank to this scene. A US army Stuart M5 to be precise; although it’s classed as a light tank it is armed with machine guns and a menacing 37mm main gun, the twin V8 engines and a revolutionary automatic gearbox making it one of the fastest and most maneouverable in its class. Now imagine all fifteen tons barrelling through the hedgerow, tearing the soft dewy grass into a mess of mud, leaves and engine oil, before it comes to an abrupt stop shortly after plowing through a German foxhole where the enemy have stationed their crack snipers. Then, the driver reverses the vehicle and drives back and forth across the shallow trench a few times just to make sure that nobody gets out alive. This unusual tactic will not go completely according to plan however, as a crazed German veteran armed with what must be an unlimited supply of Panzerfaust rocket grenades appears on the scene and turns the Stuart into something resembling an art nouveau chimenea. For his trouble, Helmut will then become the subject of intense suppressive fire, a hail of shots from high caliber machine guns that will send him scurrying up the nearest tree. He will become easy prey for the lantern jawed All American hero who is even now sharpening his combat knife in readiness for the desperate hand to hand melee that will shortly ensue. The twee melodies of this countryside setting have now been supplanted with the roar and clank of armoured vehicles, the boom of explosives, and the red faced screaming of combat orders. All around this happy montage can be found similar histrionics as the US 4th Ivy Division desperately attempt to break the German line. This is Heroes of Normandie, a self-styled game of Hollywood movie combat, where the action is intense and freewheeling, and risky and dangerous tactics are absolutely appropriate behaviour.

The first mission of the evening saw the two sides clash over a middling piece of ground that both headquarters had designated as strategically important. An early Bazooka assault on the German Panzer Luchs II resulted in a critical hit that saw the luckless vehicle explode in a belch of black smoke. The advantage swung even more heavily in the favour of the US after they managed to station troops in an entrenched position enabling them to shoot down the enemy as they emerged from their hiding place in the woods. There was a lot of attrition as both sides took to defensive positions then, in the final two turns, the US made a move into open ground to secure the objective. By this point the German forces were too thinly dispersed to be able to react in force and a suitably heroic charge by their commanding officer was caught short by a painfully effective counter assault in the final move of the game.
Daniel secured the objective for the US with enough of the boys left for a good ol’ Hoedown. Paul consoled himself with a tub of Stippgrütze sorbet.

There was an escalation of hostilities in the second mission as US forces trapped behind enemy lines desperately tried to break through with support from a motley array of heavy vehicles. A wave of US tanks trundled into what at first appeared to be a field day for them. A machine gun group, comfortably dug in to a defensive position, ducked down to avoid a barrage of fire only to then be surprised by a Willys jeep cresting the lip of the foxhole, hanging for a moment in thin air with wheels spinning before it came crashing down on top of them. Another German fire squad, hiding in a hedgerow nearby, had the bushes cut from around them and scattered as a heavyweight Sherman M4 bore down upon them with guns blazing. The German commanding officer was separated from his troops and helplessly fired pistol shots as the parade of US armour trundled past the bushes he was hiding in.
However, things turned sour pretty quickly with the discovery of a German PAK 40 cannon dug into a defensive position. Coupled with support from rocket grenades, this beast effectively wiped out half of the US tanks in the space of two short turns leaving the early surge to victory crippled and broken. Despite the reversal of fortunes, the yanks refused to give up and pulled an unorthodox short cut to enable a flanking maneuver. The ground forces engaged and the Germans found themselves bereft of any leadership after a rather excessive, yet thoroughly enthusiastic, dogpile onto Major Gruber. This meant that Paul was unable to order more than two units a turn in the last few rounds, however both his Panzershrek and PAK 40 were still active and able to fire rockets at will from their opportunity fire positions. This led to an exciting end game with a succession of ever more desperate plays for victory and increasingly tense last ditch turns of cards and rolls of the dice. Eventually, both of the remaining US tanks were incapacitated with the game going right to the wire of the very last order of the very last turn. Gripping stuff!
Paul was able to stage his own mini Schützenfest, whilst Daniel was left playing the Harmonica on the front porch.

Libertalia (cheers Tom)
All were delighted to see everyone's second favourite Irishman (after Graham
Norton), Noel, and to hear tales of his adventures in the 13 States.  Despite promises to himself, he had been lured in by the siren call of bargain games and arrived with a lovely new copy of Libertalia.  Jon had genuinely enjoyed his game last week and Tom had played a number of games online.  James was new to it and Noel had only played against Americans which apparently doesn't count.
Frankly, we all ended up with 21 of 30 potential characters, passing through our hands and I can't rightly remember all of the details.  However, if the action was played out in a classic movie montage (Team America style), it may have been like this:

-  Noel holding his hands out in a beneficent pose as Jon and Tom scratched their heads.
-  James looking confused.
-  Noel holding his head in his hands at his Brute's rather hilarious suicide run whilst Tom and Jon point and laugh.
-  The ghost of Natasha, face as red as a baboon, looming over Jon's shoulder, face locked in a silent howl.
-  James gazing down at his ship, dismayed at his ramshackle crew.
-  Tom pointing out the Cabin Boy's rather amusing likeness to a certain Mr Ricketts.
-  James looking at the barmaid, thinking that he's sure that she was Jack Bauer's daughter in 24.
-  Tom gleefully murdering his entire crew with his Mutineer, whilst protecting his craven Gambler at all costs.
-  Neil shouting across the room at Gareth II to stop his world record attempt at the loudest game of Puerto Rico of all time.
-  James fingering the French Officer (card) nervously not quite sure when to play him.
- Tom attempting to explain the reason why he played his Andy the Cabin Boy rather than the Recruiter as his final play whilst Noel and Jon look confused.
-  James with his head in his hands after realising that he chose the wrong time to play The French Officer.
-  Tom and Noel disrobing for their wrestle on the beach after their first place tie (Noel doesn't want to talk about the official tiebreaker)
-  A sheepish looking Tom as, at 11.30pm, Jon and Noel find his Quartermaster on the floor underneath his chair.  I swear that I took those eight doubloons off my total...

All round, Libertalia remains a smashing game.  Be sure to bring it again next time you grace us with your presence, Noel!
Tom  91,  Noel 91,  Jon 89, James 71
Stone Age (thanks Neil)
'Our ancestors worked with their legs and backs straining... in Stone Age, players live in this time, just as our ancestors did. They collect wood, break stone and wash their gold from the river. They trade freely, expand their village, and so achieve new levels of civilisation. This is exciting and interesting.'
Now, as part of my recent teaching to some creative writing undergrads I asked them to become more away of literal and figurative speech. To be careful around the use of cliches, to try and consider each and every word they chose to use. So let's have a closer look at the game of Stone Age through the marketing spiel as Philip, Andy and I played it last night...
First off, I have to admit that we hardly 'lived in the time as our ancestors did'. Philip and I had our glasses on for starters. What would those ancestors have made of them? With Philip on hol at the mo' only Andy had done some hard work during the day and yet, it is fair to say, he looked pretty refreshed upon his arrival. Our ancestors would have been proud of Philip's venison and black pudding dinner, maybe less so about my house salad.
Secondly, 'collect wood'. Now this is something we did do. In abundance. We collect timber shaped pieces of wood, meeple shaped pieces of wood, brick shaped pieces of wood... you get the picture. Was it 'just like our ancestors did'? Mm, not exactly. You know. Andy and I collected a lot of wood early on, indeed I also hoarded brick shaped wood and meeple shaped wood too, but the energy expended was, frankly embarrassing in compared to the stone age days.
'Break stone'. Can't say we did any of that. I dropped a couple of pieces on the floor was the nearest we came to that. But they both wooden bits. It might have been whilst the others were scrabbling around trying to find those bits that I rearranged the huts and cards but I couldn't possibly admit to such a thing!
'Washing gold from the river'. Nope, the Thames wasn't laden last night and never has been as far as I know, so, we didn't do that either. One of the dropped bits undoubtedly resurfaced covered in smashed chips but we just wiped it on the green blaze, sorted.
'Free trade'. If only. Every trade costs you know. Bits of wood, precious bits of wood that we'd been working hard to collect. And competitive it was too. The huts were in demand from early doors and although I picked up six of them it was tough let me tell you. The cards trade was even more intense. Those other boys were there collecting cardboard like it was the precious gold mentioned above. And then there was the 'free' element of the dice rolls. Always a gamble. Philip didn't get the rolls that Andy and I did it's true. His technique undoubtedly accounting for this, the determined use of the stone age dead animal smell dice cup turned swiftly upside down and planted firmly on the table. That was the most energy any of us consumed throughout this hard time, legs and backs decidedly unstrained.
Expanding our village. The player boards are difficult to expand. On occasion they got a little lumpy with bits of wood and cardboard on them. And my sixth hut had to be crammed in with my nine workers struggling for space amongst the food. Village expansion, not exactly.
'Achieve new levels of civilisation'. Now, this is where we did meet the job description. We were magnanimous in our skill sets, impressive in our competency range and unyielding in our capacities to collect all that wood and cardboard. 'Exciting and interesting', we flooded the whole room with our infectious, life affirming qualities; did you feel it Isleworth??
I love box descriptions. I was recently asked to write one for a Spanish designer. I carefully selected every word, thought through every phrase and sentence. He liked it... wonder if any potential publishers will?
Whilst Philip and Andy moved further up the food track, and collected all of the green civ cards between them, they didn't quite match my number of huts and points scored from those, as well as my great hoard of workers scoring at 5 points each. A close contest, all could have won or lost with one more item. But they didn't. I did, yippeeeeeee!!
Neil - 157, Andy - 149, Philip 145 (or thereabouts)

Sleuth (thanks again Tom)
I'm running out of steam here a bit (my punishment for actually winning a
couple of games for once).
After Libertalia, Slackey Jack and his crew of misfits decided to turn their attention to a recent jewel theft with Sid Sackson's Sleuth.  It's basically a cross between Cluedo and Sudoku or at least that's what my addled brain was saying after 45 minutes of hard thought.
Again, as everyone is basically keeping themselves to themselves other than posing the occasional question, it's not scintillating material for a report. However, Jon made the mistake of giving me the working sheets which I will now analyse with my Secondary School level qualification in Psychology:

Tom - Clearly reasoned with an almost flawless notation system.  No wonder he won with such gusto.  Impeccable handwriting too.
Noel - An elegant attempt at playing Noughts and Crosses with himself.  Appears that crosses won most of the match-ups.  Circles only present in the box for actual solution - not sure why.
Jon - Wrote a long boring stream of consciousness report on the plot of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in his margin - lots of mentions of jewels. Draws a lovely triangle.
James - Simply wrote "I am a fish" a hundred times over his paper.  Clearly a Red Dwarf fan.

In the end, Tom was triumphant.  Noel has since noted that we misplayed the game insofar that you can identify the missing jewels at any time but it was agreed that I reached the solution just before him in any event.  Or at least I think I had, otherwise we'll need to have a rematch down on the shore.  I'm still finding pebbles in my shoes from last time.

Time for an end-of-evening filler, and this clever little card game was just the ticket. Apart from slightly dubious, although admittedly paper-thin theme (Jon has a distinct aversion to all thing occultish...) this is a great little drafting / bidding / mis-direction game.
Players are bidding to declare how many of each particular suit are in the game, but each time they play a card, they must change their bid for that suit. How close (or far away) a player is with their bid will determine how many points they receive (or give up!)
The first round, Noel and Tom did well, and Jon did ok.
The second round, Tom did very well, Noel barely broke even, and Jon did ok.
The third round, Noel did better, Tom still did well and Jon did ok.
It came down to the bid on the final card, which Jon was 1 out, allowing Tom to move his bid on his last turn to the exact number, with a subsequent 4 point swing in points.
Tom 19; Jon 16; Noel 12

Also played tonight was Puerto Rico and it's smaller (and better) brother, San Juan. But no reports. Let's pretend that Alex and his Mohican triumphed famously...

And so that's enough unclothed altercations for one evening. See you next week for even more tomfoolery (except that Tom might not be there, in which case it will simply be foolery...)

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