Archive for December, 2010

Games weekend – 3-5 December 2010

First weekend of December is our regular post-Essen Games Weekend, when we get to play that large pile of games acquired at Spiel with as many of our friends as we can fit in the house.  I’m never sure of the numbers, but it’s usually around 30 people at one time or another from Friday evening to Sunday evening.  Unfortunately by the time I get to write up a blog post, it’s all getting to be a bit of a blur, owing to lack of sleep (not to mention excess of food and drink).  This time’s been no different.

I can only write from a personal perspective, so if I’ve missed out some of the significant events, many apologies, I’ve either forgotten them, or wasn’t a participant.  I’m also missing out any personal commentary on individuals to protect the guilty (except me) and indeed the innocent.

We had the best turnout on Friday evening that we’ve ever had.  Despite weather warnings, somewhat ameliorated by our emailed comment that there was little snow in Stroud (a situation that changed overnight), 9 or 10 people made it to Forest Green on Friday.  We decided to leave the meatier games till Saturday, so contented ourselves with 7 Wonders and Braggart mainly.  7 Wonders was almost never back in its box for the whole weekend, so gains the award for ‘Most Popular Game Of The Weekend’.

I managed to persuade an unsuspecting victim (sorry Bart) to play test Quatre Bras, my version of the battle of that name using Martin Wallace’s Waterloo system.  I reckon it went pretty well, though it was a bit longer than expected, owing to the unreasonable resistance of the Allies to the inexorable advance of the French – who advanced inexorably till about the 6pm game turn, then found the last mile a bit too difficult, ending up retreating in a more or less historical outcome; it’s always good if such a game can end with a believable result.  As Bart is Dutch, I’d have to say that the Dutch fought well, except for the Dutch cavalry, who were historically accurate.  Only one small tweak was necessary as a result of the play test, and I now feel it’s finished, subject to a few more games.  “Best Unpublished Wargame Of The Weekend”.

On Saturday we (well, I really) planned to play one or both of the major lengthy games purchased at Essen, High Frontier and Dominant Species.  However, prior to the arrival of all those who wanted to partake of those delights, we had time for a quick outbreak of cockney accents, in the playing of London, another Martin Wallace game.  Two of us had played before and the other two hadn’t, so it was something of a learning game – though when one of the newbies is Richard Breese, it’s going to be a challenge anyway.  I started off by expanding my city stacks to 7, which I didn’t think was excessive, except that everyone else retrenched to about 5, so the poor flocked to my bit of London, mostly south of the river.  We failed to invest in Street Lights or Sewers, so by the end of the game my poverty level cost me 30 points.  Despite 2 Undergrounds, the train system south of London and various high profile buildings, I was third out of four players in VPs, unable to overcome the overcrowding.  An enjoyable game, though there was some criticism of the rather anti-climactic end game, which lacks the pace of the rest of the game.  London was played another couple of times, so London probably takes the “Most Popular Board Game Of The Weekend”.

High Frontier: finally it hit the table in a 5-player extravaganza of high tech science and engineering.  The game that *is* rocket science!  In space no-one can hear you say “WTF?!?”  Personally the game was everything I thought it was going to be: complicated, complex, unforgiving, dense, deep and supremely challenging.  It was also very frustrating, that aspect partly generated by my hostly duties that ate into my thinking time (getting my excuses in early!) – next outing will have to be a pre-planned and dedicated HF time.  We played the basic (sic) game with the quick (sic) start rules that mean you start with 3 cards in your ‘where you put your hand of cards area’ [this is a game where your cards in hand have to be displayed next to your play mat not in kept in hand, where you burn water for fuel, where you can use water tanks to upload software upgrades and where only the Chinese can do nefarious actions].  I’m not going to attempt a rules explanation or review here; see for my review on BGG.  Suffice it to say that there seemed to be considerable range in the speed with which players picked up the game, and I wasn’t at the top of the range.  My initial operations were to claim some areas away from the competition, but unfortunately that meant that my areas were time consuming to get to, whereas perhaps the more popular Martian landscape might have been easier.  By the end of the game I think we’d all created at least one factory and its product, so as a learning game we’d achieved the objective of getting our heads around the basics.  Rules were consulted many times, as expected, but things will go much more smoothly in the second game.  Won’t they?

Apparently not for me, because we had a second go early on Sunday, and I made a pig’s ear out of a mission to Mercury, then a further part of a pig out of a plan to go to Venus.  Bart seemed to get the hang of it pretty quickly though.  High Frontier’s definitely “Most Unforgiving Game Of The Decade”.

But I’m slightly ahead of myself.  Saturday evening, after a memorable pork roast (thanks, Charlie), four of us unpacked Merkator, Uwe Rosenberg’s latest offering and another one on my must play list this weekend.  It’s a lot shorter and, I feel, more accessible than either Agricola or Le Havre.  The game revolves around picking up goods and fulfilling contracts at various European locations from the perspective of Hamburg merchants during the period of the 30 Years War.  I’m not sure why the game has a 30 Years War theme, because it doesn’t really impact on the game at all, other than that the final card in the game is the Peace of Westphalia (and quite why that’s a contract card is a mystery). I guess the theme has been pasted on over the top of a pretty good game system – the game works, so I’m not unhappy.  Goods are coloured cubes (there’s novelty), but each colour represents one of two kinds, determined when received.  Most contracts require specific goods, or for the more expensive ones, a number of goods from a group of types, for example ‘4 types of food’, which could be satisfied by wine, livestock, grain and plums.  Play Merkator and see the world – well, a bit of Europe anyway; travel is the central mechanic.  You gain or lose time counters depending on the location you choose to go to, broadly the further away from Hamburg the more difficult.  Importantly any other player can pay you time counters in order to accompany you on your journey, and though only the active player can pick up the stock of goods there, accompanying players can still gain bonuses and fulfil contracts.  This little mechanic can give you almost another whole turn for relatively little cost, if your opponent is going to a location that’s key for you.  The pace of the game is steady, with thinking time taking place primarily in other player’s turns.  Progression is via the neat mechanic that rewards players who fulfil contracts with a further contract of the next level up.  So you can progress from the starting contracts with values of 2 to 5, through 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, all of which have more difficult conditions but gain you more VPs.  The final contract is the Peace of Westphalia (14 points), awarded to the first player to fulfil a 10 value contract.  VPs are gained from the value of your best 5 contracts, the others being only half their value, with additions from special buildings that give VPs for specific conditions.  I enjoyed the game a lot; recommended for those who like solid and interesting resource management Eurogames.

Final game late on Saturday was Der Ausreisser, which was fun as always.  “Most Fun Game With Counters.”

Sunday, after a disastrous replay of High Frontier, three of us took up the Dominant Species challenge.  Another biggie, possibly the biggest heft factor since Die Macher.  Each player, for example, gets 50 cubes representing the species in his or her group of animals (ours were Mammals, Reptiles and Birds), plus 6 action pawns, quite a few cones to mark domination, and there are innumerable tiles, markers and cards, plus a very large and well-designed board.  I would put the complexity at roughly the same as Die Macher, but the subject matter (Darwinian survival of the fittest before the onset of an Ice Age) more accessible.  There are lots of pros to DS; firstly it has the best laid out and best written rules I’ve seen.  We occasionally had to look things up, but I don’t recall us having any actual problems with rules interpretation.  Most of the information is on well laid out player mats, or on a clear top left to bottom right action placement and action sequence section of the board.  This is another pro, and is where the complexity arises, because the actions interlock and affect in various ways how your animals survive and prosper.  Illustrating this:

  • I want to Adapt, because my creatures will match environmental elements (bugs, sun, carrion, seeds, water for example) better, and can then dominate terrain tiles.
  • I want Abundance, because I can put more of the relevant environmental elements on the board and then dominate more terrain tiles.
  • I want to be in charge of Glaciation, so that I put the advancing tundra tiles (the Ice Age remember?) where I choose, so that my domination of terrain tiles isn’t threatened.
  • I want to do the Wanderlust action, because I can put new terrain tiles down, so my creatures can expand into and dominate them.
  • I want to Migrate, so that I can move my creatures to more suitable terrain tiles and away from the advancing tundra.
  • I want to Speciate, because that means I put more cubes on the board; a cube equals another species, more cubes means I get points if the tile scores.
  • I want to Compete and eliminate species of the other players, so that I can dominate terrain tiles.
  • But most of all I want to Dominate, so I can score terrain tiles that I’ve got most cubes on and that I also dominate.  Then I get VPs, and I can play one of the very powerful Dominant Species cards, one of the five visible cards who’s effects I’ve been drooling about since the start of the turn.

That’s not all of the actions I could carry out, but most of them.  And I’ve only got 6 action pawns in the 3-player game.  So I’ll have to make difficult life and death choices; each of my cubes is a whole species, and some are going down to extinction, never to return (except of course through play of a Dominant Species card).  Scoring varies dependent on the terrain tile, with the player having most cubes getting most points, BUT the player with the best adapted (dominant) species picks a Dominant Species card to play; domination can come with as few as one cube.

We played about half a game, then decided to call it, as it was getting late in the day.  I think we’d all cottoned on to the flow of the mechanics, though not yet to actual strategies.  I felt I had enough to work with, I could see how the game fitted together and would welcome many more plays to see how the strategies themselves evolved.  I think the other two players were perhaps less clear about how the mechanics meshed, but would certainly play again.  From my point of view, a good experience and starting point on what I hope will be a longer journey of Dominant Species enjoyment.  “Heaviest Heft Of The Weekend”.

Our final game was with Pete Burley and son, Fred, a play test of Pete’s new game Space Hockey, an abstract two player football-like game, set in space.  As this was a play test, I’ll probably write more on it another time.  Suffice to say, it worked extremely well, I liked it a lot, and I’m looking forward to playing again.

In conclusion I had a great time over the whole weekend, and it certainly looked as if everyone else did too.  My thanks go out to all who made it through the ice and snow to make it such an enjoyable gaming experience.