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Tabletop Round-up 02/03/15

It’s not often that I have a night where I think that I would like to play the exact same games the following week but Monday was one of those nights. It’s nice to make a little bit of progress on  understanding a game even when I know that I may be scratching the surface of something incredibly complex.

Coloretto

Players: 5 (Plays 3-5)

Duration: 10 minutes

Coloretto is a simple card game where players try to collect sets of cards of the same colour. The larger the set the larger the score but players only score positively for their largest 3 sets. Any sets outside of this score negatively. On their turn players can either draw a card from the deck and place it in a row in the centre of the table (the number of rows is equal to the number of players) or take all of the cards from one of the rows (closing the row for that round). Players who take cards are then out for that round. Each row can have a maximum of 3 cards and when every player has taken a row the round ends, the rows are opened and play starts again. The game ends on the round in which there are only 15 cards left in the draw deck.

I love this game. It can be a tough decision whether to draw or not on your turn and if so then where should you put that card. You want to leave it with other cards that you might want but also make it unattractive to other players. Perhaps you should just take a row but ducking out too early means you won’t get many cards but then again waiting too long could get you stuck with a row that is losing you points … or maybe not. Rounds go by nice and quickly and although you are only making decisions on your turn you are still invested on other players turns too. Coloretto is the sort of filler that I think I could play every week – rounds are short, it takes no time to learn and has just enough complexity to make you ponder but not pontificate.

Dominion

Players: 4 (Plays 2-4)

Duration: 30 minutes

With most games you can generally get a feel for how to do well, it’s just a matter of figuring out the best route to the goal but even when you haven’t balanced your resources, controlled key territories or collected the best cards you can usually see where you went wrong. Dominion is not like this. To me it’s a kind of magic. A primordial card soup of shuffling and deck-building where creative card combinations seem to scatter out skilled players hands like pixie dust. On the surface I know that this isn’t the case. Despite the empire building theme it’s a pure exercise in puzzle solving and statistics but seeing all those cards is like opening the back of a clock. An impossibly sophisticated sum of mechanical parts. However, Monday’s game let me tug the littlest corner of the curtain aside to see how the magician works and I think I saw Debbie McGee falling through a trap door.

Dominion is a deck-building game where players start with a common deck of ten cards and then buy cards to add to their deck, reshuffling and redrawing as they go. Generally cards are of three types: Treasure cards (currency in values of 1, 2 or 3 gold), Victory cards (worth 1, 3 or 6 victory points) and Kingdom cards (special actions). On their turn players take an action using one of the cards in their hand and then buy a card from the common pool of Treasure, Victory and Kingdom cards (adding it to their discard pile). Finally they discard the rest of their hand and redraw up to 5 cards. The game ends when either the 6 point Victory cards are all bought or any three others. Players add up all the victory points in their deck and the one with the most is the winner.

So where’s the magic? Each game uses only 10 types of Kingdom cards that are chosen from a pool of around 250+ (with all expansions) which is a huge amount of potential combinations. While it may seem like the best course of action is just to buy more Treasure cards until you are filthy rich and then buy all the Victory point cards, this will take a long time and investing in a neat combination of Kingdom cards will get you there a lot faster. Straightforward cards let you take more actions or draw more cards but others let you upgrade cards or mess with other players. A crucial ability lets you trash cards from your deck which thins it out meaning that killer combo can come up more consistently. The latter is the one that I only fully grasped the other night.

The last bit of sleight of hand is knowing when to start purchasing victory point cards. They don’t have any bonuses so clog up your deck meaning that you only want to buy them at the very last minute. There will always be a moment in each game where one player has their deck clockwork running and will start a points rush. After this tipping point players will then start their own rush hoping that their own decks are strong enough. If you haven’t managed to get yourself in a good place when this switch occurs you may be in trouble but games are fairly swift so you won’t have long before getting another shot at cardboard alchemy.

Alien Frontiers

Players: 4 (Plays 2-4)

Duration: 2 hours

I have featured Alien Frontiers in a previous Round-Up so I won’t do a full rules explanation but to sum up it’s a worker placement game where the workers are large dice that represent spaceships. They are rolled at the beginning of a players turn and then assigned to various orbital facilities to gain resources and ultimately land colonies on the planet that makes up the majority of the board.

Like my last game of Alien Frontiers I was slow getting off the mark and despite a healthy late game I just couldn’t catch up with a leader whose strong start meant he could coast into victory. Like the previous games winner he won with only a few spaceships (dice) and was not shy about using the Terraforming Station to sacrifice the ones he did have. I am going to have to rethink my strategy for this one a little. Next time I am going to have to try not to spend so much time building a fleet that will arrive late at the party. More Alien Tech too because it gives a lot more options like special powers to manipulate dice or move other players.

I really like this game but it does suffer from a lot of down time in between turns. Thanks to the last group though I have come up with the idea of buying a second set of dice meaning we will be able to roll and plan for our next turn as soon as the previous one has finished. I am looking forward to testing this in the next few weeks. Fingers crossed that the last two slow games haven’t put everyone off!

String Railway

Players: 4 (Plays 2-5)

Duration: 30 minutes

Why is it always the novelty games that are the highlight of the evening? String Railway takes place in a large loop of string stretched out on the table. Two extra pieces of string are added into the board to represent a mountain range and a river. Each player has a home station in one corner and is given 5 pieces of string in their colour. On their turn a player draws a card and places it within the boundaries of the game somewhere and then has to place string to join it to a station they are currently connected to. Points are awarded for any stations they pass through and lost for crossing other bits of string. After 5 rounds the game ends and the one with the most points wins.

Fairly straightforward but it was really interesting to see how the play area developed. Stations can go anywhere so each game is totally unique and seeing the whole game grow was amazing. It being a spatial game there was a fair bit of jostling around with players insisting they were touching more stations than seemed feasible but this was all part of the fun. String Railway was definitely a great closer and anything that has players engaging in friendly argument about such creative boundary disputes is always a lot of fun.

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Monday Night Tabletop Round-up 23/02/15

Betrayal at House on the Hill. Betrayal at House on the Hill. Betrayal at House on the Hill. It just doesn’t sound right. THE Betrayal at THE House sounds more natural surely? Well, thankfully for us grammar pedants it’s a sideshow to XCOM which, now I think about it, doesn’t make sense either.

XCOM: The Board Game

Players: 4 (Plays 1-4)

Duration: 2 hours

Like the video game it draws its inspiration from, XCOM is about a special task force that is desperately trying to save the Earth from extra-terrestrial invasion. Players take one of four distinct roles (Commander, Chief Scientist, Central Officer and Squad Leader) with rounds broken into two phases (a timed phase and then a resolution phase) both of which are controlled by a free companion app which players must download to their smartphone, tablet or PC. The aim is to complete a final mission before the XCOM base is destroyed or two continents descend into total panic (continents move up and down a panic track depending on player actions).

During the timed phase the app will rapidly assign task after task each with a strict time limit. The Central Officer is in charge of relaying information from the app to the team, placing UFOs on the world map and assigning satellites into orbit, the Chief Scientist decides on, and assigns scientists to research projects, the Squad Leader deploys soldiers to the current mission or garrisons them to base defense and the Commander tracks the budget, draws crisis cards and assigns fighter ships to defend against UFOs.

Once the timed phase is finished play moves to the resolution phase and players get to see where their frenzied and headless decision making has got them. This phase uses a push-your-luck dice mechanic where dice are rolled to determine success. Players can keep rerolling for better results but when they do the risk of failure goes up (determined by an 8-sided alien die).

During the resolution phase the Commander resolves crisis cards and balances the budget. Assigning satellites, fighters, scientists and soldiers takes money and any overspend pushes the most panicked continent event further down the panic track (any money left over can be used to buy new fighters or soldiers). They also roll to see whether fighters are successful in shooting down UFOs over continents to which they have been assigned. Failures result in fighters being destroyed and UFOs not shot down send the continents they are hovering over further down the panic track. The Central Officer also does this for satellites to knock UFOs out of higher orbit.

The Chief Scientist rolls for their research projects with success granting new technology and additional powers to the team. Failure exhausts scientists meaning they can’t be assigned during the next timed phase. Finally the squad leader rolls those accursed dice to complete missions and defend the base from direct alien assault. Fails result in dead soldiers and less time and resources to get to that final mission.

XCOM is stressful. You never have enough resources to do everything you need and are constantly trying to balance global panic with the need to complete missions which is how you ultimately complete the game. The team juggles research and defense so the squad leader can get to and then complete the final mission. I was the squad leader and it didn’t go well. In the end we actually failed on multiple fronts as the world descended into a terror-fuelled chaos and our base was infiltrated and destroyed by an aggressive alien assault. It was tough. What made the loss even harder to swallow was that the next table also playing XCOM managed to carve out an impressive victory with a pile of incredible technology that saw them tear through the final mission in one round. No doubt they are terrible cheats*.

XCOM is pretty much everything that a good co-operative game should be. Player interaction is high but strict time limits mitigate the alpha gamer problem where one player controls the whole thing. It’s difficult but not unfair and I felt that it would be beatable given another shot (although I should note that there are three levels of difficulty above the easy setting that we played on). The dice may be a sticking point for some. Naturally the good rolls average out with the bad but seeing a four man team getting wiped out by bad luck can be frustrating. However, I would gleefully jump at the chance to suffocate under the inexorable alien tide once more. Welcome to Earth.

*they’re not, we sucked.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Players: 6 (Plays 3-6)

Duration: 90 minutes

Betrayal (sorry THE Betrayal) is a game where 3-6 players explore a creepy mansion, building it as they go with tiles randomly drawn from a pile that includes kitchen, dining room, graveyard and laboratory. Nice. At a certain point called ‘the haunting’ the game changes and depending on various factors a scenario is chosen which sees one player turn against the others. I believe there are about 50 scenarios in total and they are all totally different.

In the one that we played one player was revealed as a life sucking monster that was trying to kill the other players to keep her youth. The good guys needed to reach 5 rooms and complete a ritual that would send the monster back to her grave. We started pretty well as 4 of the rooms were out already but eventually time got the better of us as at the end of the monster’s turn we aged ten years and slowly died one by one. As the holder of some magical macguffin I was immune to the monster’s aging witchcraft but it became strengthened by each other players death and I was finally bludgeoned to death in a showdown over a bottomless chasm. Usual Monday stuff.

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This Weeks Addiction: The Americans

It’s 1981. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are small business owners that live in a nice suburb of Washington. They are loving parents. They are intelligent and charming. You would like them. They are also smart, resourceful and ruthless KGB sleeper agents that have been living in the US for the past 20 years and are willing to employ extreme methods to serve their Soviet handlers. You would still like them.

The Americans is similar to the Sopranos in making us like characters that we definitely shouldn’t. Tony Soprano should be beyond sympathy but after a few episodes I was under his spell. His humour, intelligence and vulnerability made me forget he was actually a monstrous criminal. The same is true of The Americans. Phillip and Elizabeth are dangerous spies that commit treason as part of everyday life and will protect their identities with murderous efficiency but throughout the series I found myself rooting for them, hoping their relationship would hold together and that their true identities would not be discovered. I was also rooting for the FBI agent that just moved in across the road. The agent whose job is to catch spies. It’s complicated.

Like The Sopranos The Americans is not about the incredible situation in which it is set but about the lives of the people that are surviving within it. Characters are conflicted when higher, idealistic goals contradict their personal feelings and their priorities and loyalties come in to question. There are no heroes or villains here and the classic roles of bad Soviet spy and good lawman are not so clear.

I have only seen the first series of The Americans so far thanks to its availability on Amazon Prime but I have my fingers crossed that the second and third will be available soon because it is a great series. Plus it has big 80s hair. Perhaps I should have started with that.

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This Weeks Addiction: Hitman GO

Hitman GO is a puzzler where you have to guide Agent 47 from one side of a small grid to another without being apprehended by guards who are also prowling the level. Hitman fans may get a bit of a shock when they see GO but the series’ core elements are all present in its strange tablet-based second cousin. Purists would point out that deep-down, Hitman is really a puzzle where observing and memorising enemy movement and behaviour is a much more powerful weapon than a pair of silenced pistols. GO has taken this central idea, added a turn-based element and presented it in a board game style that is both stylish and clean.

The point of each small level is to get to the other side. After each swipe Agent 47 moves one space in the desired direction and then each guard takes their action too. Basic guards may move along a prescribed path, spin on the spot or just stay facing the same direction. If you are in a space in front of one of them they apprehend you and it’s back to the start. In the early levels you can try to sneak around or dispose of guards but later levels let you throw rocks as a distraction, get access to one shot sniper rifles or fire the iconic silenced Silverballers.

Enemies get more complex too and there are dogs that chase you down or snipers that stare down lanes in the grid but the incredible visual design means that you easily remember what each does. The soundtrack is simple too and the gentle background music is replaced by Hitman favourite Ave Maria in levels where you have to assassinate key targets. Other sounds are the gentle toppling of pieces and the swish after each movement. It’s wonderfully pared down.

In addition to just getting through the level there are a number of extra objectives that you can attempt which give you extra stars that unlock new bundles of levels Angry Birds style. These add an extra layer of playability to each level but if you don’t get them then you will not be able to play later levels which could be frustrating for those that want to see everything. Naturally there is the option to pay real money for hints or unlocks but such painful wallet-wringing is a bit unpleasant and I can’t see many going for it.

Hitman GO is an excellent title. The basic gameplay makes for a solid puzzle title but the Hitman skin and tabletop presentation make it something special.

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Monday Night Tabletop Round-up 09/02/14

Red7

Players: 4 (Plays 2-6)

Duration: 5-10 minutes

Red7 is a card game which consists of 49 cards numbered 1 – 7 in each of 7 different colours (with each colour matching a winning condition). At the start of the game players are randomly dealt 7 cards to their hand and then one face up in front them (this area is called the palette). In the centre of the table (or canvas) there is a card which states that the highest card wins (the red winning condition). At the end of their turn, players need to be winning the game or they are knocked out. They do this by playing a card into their palette to satisfy the winning condition, playing a card onto the canvas to change the winning condition, or both. Examples of winning conditions are highest card wins (red), most even cards (green) and most cards under 4 (violet).

Red7 is a brain burner. Each turn is a puzzle that you have to solve and due to the diversity of the cards in this game each turn will be unique. There may be multiple solutions to getting through your turn but some are better than others. You will want to use only one card whenever possible (running out of cards means you can’t go and will almost certainly be out) and you may also want to attempt to plan for future turns too. As a downside, player interaction is low as even though other players palettes do affect your turn the player right before you may change a rule and ruin any plans you have made. However, at about 5 minutes per round this is not a problem and it’s still fun to see players squirm as you change a rule right in front of them. If you like logic puzzles and card games (which I do) then this inexpensive filler is a must.

Brass

Players: 4 (Plays 3-4)

Duration: 3 hours

There is something nice about playing a game about your local area. Brass is set in the Industrial Revolution of the North West of England and seeing Runcorn on the board is oddly satisfying (as opposed to actually going to Runcorn which is definitely not). The game takes place over two ages, (canal and railway) and players are trying to score victory points by building various industries (coal, iron, cotton, ports and shipyards) represented by tiles. The catch is that once built the industry will not generate income or score until it is ‘flipped’ which is achieved by meeting certain conditions depending on the industry.

At the beginning of the game players are dealt 8 cards (each of which either feature a location on the board or a type of industry) and 5 stacks of industry tiles (one for each type of industry) with lowest technology type at the top. On their turn players play two cards and take two actions depending on the cards (they then redraw two more cards). As an action players can build an industry, build canal/rail links, develop industry, sell cotton or take a loan.

Building is probably the most common action. When players build an industry they pay the cost on the tile and place it on the board. Certain tiles may require coal or iron which can be obtained from other industries or bought from a distant market. When coal mines or ironworks are built, coal or iron cubes are placed on them and when a connected industry is built that requires them they are removed from the tile. Once they are all removed the tile is flipped (generating money and victory points). Shipyards are expensive to be built but score a lot of points and are flipped immediately. Cotton mills and ports can be built too but are only flipped during a sell cotton action. Building transport links is only allowed from towns that you already have an industry or transport link to and allows you to move coal, sell cotton and score points.

Developing industry is a simple action where you discard tiles from your stacks to get to the better (higher scoring) industries lower in the stack and taking loans gives you a cash injection but lowers your income. Selling cotton is a tricky action that lets you flip a cotton tile but you will need to sell it through a port that there is a transport link too. Additionally the port they sell through also gets flipped.

Once the cards have all run out the canal age ends. At this point players score for any of their flipped industries and canal links. Then all level one industries and canal links are discarded, the discard pile is shuffled into a new deck and the railway age begins. Once the cards are exhausted again there is a second scoring round and the player with the most points wins.

The above may give you some idea of how the game plays but there are a lot of finer details that make Brass a much more complex experience. The concept of having to flip industries before they can score can take a little while to get your head around but it’s not the only quirk. Income is measured on a track in increasingly sized bands so an industry income level of 5 may only correspond to an actual increase of £1. Loans aren’t ever paid back directly but knock you down the income track by entire bands so you are encouraged to borrow heavily early on when the bands are smaller which seems odd. Other weird things are the need for coal to travel along transport links when iron can somehow fly and the fact that all level one industries and canal links are discarded from the board halfway through the game making the canal age (which scores low) feel like an extended setup phase. These abstract elements do clash with the theme and the misleadingly simple looking board does hide a deeper more obtuse layer.

At three hours Brass sits right at the very top of my time limit for mechanics-heavy games and it’s one of those that I am not sure whether I am actually enjoying or just appreciating. Thankfully we had a Brass fan teaching (or reminding) us the game so it went fairly smoothly and the explanation for XCOM at the next table went on twice as long so it can’t be all that bad. Brass is not a game that I would want to play every week or even every month but like Container a few weeks ago it’s one that gets into your head and pushes you to think about every move. We will meet again!

It’s worth noting that historically Brass is very accurate in where the industries are placed and the transport links between them. For someone living in the area it’s entertaining to see that Blackpool’s only value was as a transport link (no industry just tourists) and that you only go to Barrow when you absolutely have to. Just like real life.

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Monday Night Tabletop Round-Up 26/01/15

Small World and Abyss feature again this week so I won’t explain how to play them for a second time but just relay my experience of this particular play. I am worried this might be a bit confusing for some so I will try and include a brief description.

Yardmaster Express

Players: 4 (Plays 2-5)

Duration: 10 minutes

Some games play themselves and Yardmaster Express is definitely one of them. Players draft ‘cargo’ cards and each turn add one to the rear of their train over a set number of rounds. Cards have two sides which feature both a number and a colour and when placing a card, the right side of the previous card must match either the number or colour on the left side of the new card . If a player is unable to make a match then they pick any card and use that one flipped over onto its back. All the backs are the same low number and act as wild cards meaning they will match any colour. Once the game finishes then you add up the points values for each of your cards and get a bonus for the longest run in one colour. That’s pretty much it.

It would probably take more time to explain than to play Yardmaster Express. Reactions from the table were generally muted and it was described as ‘like Dominoes’ and as ‘a children’s game’ which is probably a fairly accurate summation. However as a quick filler to chat over as people arrive it works perfectly and is a nice, light introduction to drafting mechanics.

Bausack

Players: 10 (Plays 2-8)

Duration: 30 minutes

Bausack is all about building towers out of blocks which sounds fun. At first. However you will need a surgeon’s nerves of steel to do well at this dexterity game. At the start a huge assortment of wooden blocks in all kind of shapes and sizes is poured into the centre of the table and each player is given a number of beans (14 each for a 10 player game). The first player picks a block and passes it to the next player who can either add it to the top of his tower or pass it to the next player. The first player to pass has to pay one bean, the second player two beans, the third three beans and so on. If the shape gets all the way around to the player that initially nominated it then it must be used. After the block is used the next player along from the one that nominated previously picks a new shape and the process starts again. When a tower falls over that player is out and the last man/tower standing is the winner.

This game is tough in two ways. First is the decision whether to play or pass. Passing on a difficult shape can leave you short on beans meaning you may be stuck with an even harder shape next time. Secondly when you do have to start placing shapes you need steady hands to actually get it on the tower. Like a lot of these sorts of games it’s definitely a crowd pleaser. Staring at someone trying to balance a wooden egg on a wooden toblerone doesn’t sound very gripping but it certainly is. Even better is watching other players gingerly putting their drinks on the table or eating their meat pies with the daintiest of touches lest their wooden towers topple onto the table. I rarely play this game as I seem to be unable to even balance two cards flat on each other but I gave it a good go and wasn’t first out which was a good result. I even managed to get the hula hoop on the Christmas tree. You don’t see that every day.

Small World

Players: 5 (Plays 2-5)

Duration: 90 minutes

It was back to the competing world of dwarves, elves, ghouls and giants for another game of Small World, a simple game where players pick a race, run it into extinction and then start all over again. After an initial dip a while ago I am very much enjoying repeated games of this dog-eat-dog territory control game. The mix of races and attributes really does give you a fresh experience every time and I am discovering new ways to play it each time. The latest lesson I have learned is that if you think someone is the leader then pick an aggressive race and go for them. The last couple of games have been won by the same guy who, with good consistent scores across each round, managed to slip under our attention and occupy what seemed like half the map by the end. Picking the right race may seem like an obvious choice but if you can keep your in-decline race safe for a while then they can sit and earn you a nice few points each turn that may not seem like a lot but over the course of the game can net you a crushing victory. Next time I play I am going to try and stake a claim on a patch of the board and then protect it with two races. A swift decline race surrounded by a fierce active race may be my path to victory. Fingers crossed.

The other lesson I learned is not to underestimate those elves. Their ability is that if one of their active regions is conquered they don’t lose any units and redistribute them all. This may seem like a very dull power where others give you point boosts or special abilities but effectively it means that they can stretch themselves as thin as they like and not worry about overextending themselves. This turns the game on its head a little as once you get thinned out then you start to think about going into decline but those elves can come back every round. They may look like flower-sniffing dandies but those elves come back fast. Beware.

Abyss

Players: 3 (Plays 2-4)

Duration: 90 minutes

It was my second run at Abyss and now the rules were clear in my head I was hoping to put up a good fight. In Abyss you use cards (callied allies) in 5 different colours to purchase sea lords which net you victory points and special powers. You can also obtain lands which net you score multipliers depending on your lords and allies. On this second time I had a clear strategy which was a cowardly lord rush – a straightforward plan to get any high value ally and then be the first to seven lords which would close the game. I didn’t really care which lords I got but if I could buy one then I would do so as fast as possible before other players could net any multipliers. A crude and boorish strategy … and it worked! Just.

My plan was almost foiled by another player who pulled off a nice combo that netted him two lords in one turn and a land too. Due to my scattershot approach I wasn’t really focussed on clever combos and if the game had gone on another round or two I would have been sunk as I had nothing left over. To be honest it was a bit of a panic strategy (if I can call it a strategy) but by just a few points I managed to stay ahead of the other players surging up behind me.

I probably won’t try this approach again and I only pulled it off due to a lucky start that netted me a host of high value allies at a very low cost. However it is a testament to the game that there is a lot of ways to play even if they are the sledgehammer/nut variety.

This Weeks Addiction: Crossy Road

Ace Combat Infinity has still been occupying way too much brain space this week but another little game has managed to get under its radar and score a direct hit on my free time. Crossy Road is a simple cross between the gameplay of Frogger and the endless style of Temple Run. It’s a straightforward score attack game where one mistake sets you back to the beginning. Thankfully the levels are randomly generated so you never feel like you are having to repeat the same thing over and over. In fact sometimes you lose track of your progress altogether until you realise that you are getting close to your high score, panic, and dive under a car.

The game has over 60 characters to unlock which you can either pay for with real money or wait to earn with in game coins which is a little addictive tug that will have you coming back to it very few hours. This trickle of rewards and score attack gameplay pretty much sums up what a lot of free mobile games offer at the moment but Crossy Road’s simplicity and just-one-more-try pull make it a lot of fun.