Friday, 7 February 2020

What I played on my holidays

Whoops, this thing was sitting unfinished in the drafts folder, where it has been languishing for almost a month now. Be free, my pretty, be free!

I've just gotten back from three weeks spent home in Australia over the Christmas break. It was a precious, refreshing time for Mrs. Owl and I to check in with friends and family, have some good discussions, share many good hugs with people that we love and miss, and to look forward to a time when we won't be living so far away, if indeed such a day will ever come.

It was also a good time to sit down and play some board games. I'm not going to say they were needed quite as much as the hugs, but I have been sorely missing my board games in the last few months since moving to Southampton, and spending time around the table with old friends was balm for this gamer's soul. Along with a few old favourites, I got my hands on a bunch of new games, and thought it might be fun to share my first impressions.


This classic dice-rolling bluff game was a staple at the Oxford gaming club and is one of those games that always seems to happen somewhere around me, but that I've somehow managed to avoid having to partake in for years. My streak finally came to an end during a League catch-up, and as is my wont for push-your-luck games, I was first eliminated and went to make the tea while I waited for everyone else to finish. While it's fine for what it is, especially given that it's two hundred years old, I can't help but feel like I'd rather pull out Love Letter than this one any day of the week.

Century: A New World

Having played and enjoyed Century: Spice Road for the first time just a month or so ago (I have a draft blog post about it sitting around somewhere that this one is going to relegate to the bin), I was keen to partake in the maiden game of this part of my father-in-law's Christmas gift horde so that I could compare the two entries in the series. I was pleased that New World keeps the central resource-chain mechanic that I'd liked from Spice Road but that the interaction with other players on the worker-placement board adds a satisfying level of complexity that makes it a more meaty game, at the cost of only a little unpredictable gristle. If I had to choose just one of them to add to my collection, it would definitely be New World, but I'm not rushing out to door to buy either, just because they feel like the sort of games that will feel a little overly-mechanical once the shine has worn off them. Guess the only way to find out for sure is to play them a few more times, and I'm looking forward to doing just that just as soon as I can find a friend or friendly cafe that has copies.

Dragon Castle

Unsurprisingly, the game that stuck the most in my head during the trip was one introduced at a Nerd Club gathering. Dragon Castle is the solitaire mahjong game that I was first introduced to on Windows 3.1.1 as Taipei, re-imagined for we board game hipsters by introducing some neat little tile-placement and point-scoring mechanics. As soon as I saw it I knew that we were in for a good time, it just looks fabulous and plays unlike anything else I've met without being at all complex or difficult to pick up.

I was slightly annoyed by the way that despite being very clearly inspired by Mahjong, the creators seem to have gone out of their way to make the game unplayable with a normal Mahjong set (or at least one without a horde of extra tiles). The stuff that you get in the box is definitely enough to encourage people to buy Dragon Castle, but it just feels so close that the slight changes feel like they don't think their game is good enough for people to buy if they could just play it with their old family mahjong tiles, which just rubs this old chess variants aficionado the wrong way.

So once I got home I cracked out my tiles and used them to home-brew a version of the solitaire version of the game (yes, a solitaire version of the multiplayer variant of a solitaire version of a multiplayer tile game). It worked pretty well for someone familiar with mahjong tiles, but having done it I can see that a custom set that more clearly differentiated tiles would be a good idea, especially if you were trying to introduce the game to newer players. I used the 1s of each suit as replacement dragons, the dragons and blank tiles (also known as the good white dragons) as the replacement flowers, the 2-7 of each suit as the basic tiles and the 8s and 9s (turned vertically) as the shrine caps. I might try it again sometime if I'm with a mahjong crowd that just want to try something different, just to see if other people enjoy it as much as I did.


The end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 was just about the time that I was moving from an open gaming group where people regularly bought and brought new games and into a smaller one that I ran where we had a smaller, stable collection of games, so I never got a chance to enjoy Imhotep when it was all the rage.

Thankfully, I have friends that own it, and we finally sat down to a game years down the track. I was truly awful at it, and when you've got a very tight limited-action game like this one in which you have very little control (because in an action you can either load or unload a boat, but not both, so you're at the mercy of your opponents) and you're playing against people who have a better understanding of the rhythms of the game that's a thing that's going to happen. I'd love to play this one again and see if I can get the hang of the flow, as it seems like a game that has real potential to be an interesting puzzle for two, three or four players. It also has perfect information, so it's the sort of thing that we could play over the internet with friends back home in Oz, so that's a big positive.

The Bloody Inn

In Imhotep, I enjoyed the tightness of having only a few options and a limited number of opportunities, but in The Bloody Inn I found myself drowning in all the different things that I could do, but starved of turns in which to do them. Each turn you only get two actions, but it takes multiple turns to work up the resources to be able to do anything useful, and you just don't get that many turns.

I love the murdering-visitors-to-your-country-hotel-and-burying-the-bodies theme, it definitely appeals to me as an idea, but even though it clearly worked as a game mechanically and the final scores were all relatively close, I just spent so much time second-guessing and regretting my decisions that it just felt too much like work. Perhaps having played it a few more times would let it soak in, but I honestly can't imagine that I'm likely to give it a chance unless I'm in company of folks who really want to play as murderous innkeepers for the night.

6 nimmt!

I've actually played the classic card game 6 nimmt a bunch of times over the years, but for some reason I've never logged it over on boardgamegeek. Either that's because I actually haven't played it in the four years that I've been logging games, or more likely it's just something I missed. 6 nimmt! is the kind of forgettably simple card game that, while enjoyable when you're playing, just doesn't stick in your head.

Camel Up

Another day, another bunch of games. This one was spent at the new local board game café that has opened up in our home town while we've been away. First up was the lovely new edition of Camel Up, complete with pop-up palm tree and 'crazy camels'. I've admired this one from afar before, but never had a chance to play it, and I was keen to give it a go. 

I was pleasantly surprised by how unpredictable the camel race really is, despite the rules of the game being so simple. Of course, there wouldn't really be a game if the outcome was clear, since the whole thing hinges on betting on the outcome of the race, and it's nice when things just come together as nicely as they do in this game. I can just imagine the grin on Steffen Bogen's face when he came up with the mechanics, and I can only assume that it was joined by maniacal laughter when he devised the joy that is the chaotic element of the crazy racers that run backwards and disrupt the race. The little camels are just so cute when they're jumping on each other's backs, too! All in all it's an excellent little package, and while I'm not going to be rushing out to get a copy, I can see why folks might want to and fully endorse the idea of playing it again some time.


Next up was the only game that I encountered on my trip that I've never heard of apart from Dragon Castle, but unlike that gem, there's a clear reason that I'd never heard of Yoz. We were attracted by the very lovely wooden chest that it comes in, but as soon as we grabbed it we were warned by the proprietor of the café that "it was a kickstarter". Foolishly, we took no heed. Even his demand to see the cards "so that I can take out a bunch of them" didn't warn up away sufficiently, so we sat down to generic a co-op swords and sourcery adventure game that turned out to commit both of my cardinal board games sins, being a truly frustrating combination of the 'pray and roll some dice' and 'turn over some cards and see what random crap happens to you' mechanics. About ten turns in I turned up the "go back to the start" card, closely followed by the "everyone go back to the start" card. Ugh.

Needless to say, we lost. But hey, there were smiles on our faces anyway, so maybe it's not all bad.

Clank!: Gold and Silk

Finishing up the gaming extravaganza was embarking on an expansion to Clank! with the in-laws. I'd not enjoyed Clank! the one time that I'd played it in the past, but figured that if they enjoyed it enough to invest in an expansion then the least that I could do was give it a second chance.

Clank! is a deck-building dungeon crawl game in which the players try to steal as much treasure as possible and get out before they all get eaten by the monster. I employed a fast in-and-out strategy, that I was informed was unlikely to yield results, trying to grab a tiny bit of treasure and then bring on the end of the game before my opponents had a chance to escape with theirs. I feel like the strategy went pretty much as flawlessly as it possibly could have, despite a couple of near-misses, and yet two of my three opponents managed to get themselves out, both with more than twice my haul.

This probably encapsulates my feeling about the game. If going fast isn't a viable option, then the only workable strategy is to delve as deeply as possible and come back heavy laden and risk your chances against the draws from the bag of doom, and if everyone is doing essentially the same thing, then the difference between them just comes down to luck. That said, if you like that sort of thing Clank! is a pretty, well executed game, and this expansion is a cool variation on the theme, it's just that I guess it's just not my cup of tea.

All in all, Christmas 2019 wasn't such a bad little haul on new plays, including some games I definitely want to come back and revisit sometime. If you look at this to this handy graph from Friendless Stats, it looks like I tried only 9 games compared to 12 during our Christmas 2017 visit home, but last time actually included 5 games that I'd played in pre-history (I only began the somewhat obsessive recording of board game plays in 2016), compared to only 1 this time around, so they turn out about the same.

Hopefully, our next biennial trip back to Australia will see us playing just as many games with as many old friends. With any luck that trip will mark our moving back home for good, though, so we won't need to cram all our gaming into such a short frenetic period, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

No comments: