Between Games

First, an apology to Efrat. In the report of last week’s session, I should have mentioned that she brought the Manhattan Project game we played, and I also should have thanked her for bringing it. So, belatedly, thanks Efrat!

Now onto my report of this week’s session.

Azriel, Peleg, and Sheer came along and we started with a new game to all of us: Between Two Cities. It’s a tile placement game with shades of 7 Wonders. The neat thing is that you build two cities, not one, sharing one with the opponent to your left and right. Your score is the lowest city score you have.

The game is played in three rounds, with a hand of tiles dealt to you in each round. (The middle round has duplex tiles which are somewhat trickier.) There are different types of buildings, each with its own scoring mechanism. Neat. You choose (secretly) two to play, and pass on the rest. Then, after placement, you pick up those tiles you have been passed, choose two, pass on the rest, and so on.

A city – but not a high scoring one!

The game is fast, and I suspect has greater depth than we gave it credit. For example, since you know the pool of tiles, you can guesstimate what the other players are holding and likely to play so as to improve their cities.

The scores were close, but Sheer’s two cities were top and that made his lowest score the best score. I think what was also interesting is that we played without table talk, and that smoothed and sped up play. I want to try this again.

While I remember: this game also game with a unique set of starting player cards. You draw randomly, and it tells you how to determine the starting player. For example, alphabetical by city of birth. This is a neat idea that is, of course, available to use for all games. Maybe I will adopt it as the house standard.

Then, an old favorite: Dominion: Dark Ages. We took five basic action cards and five from Dark Ages to give a slow, smouldering deck. I went for a money strategy and an early finish. Sheer and Azriel were using Rampage and Pillage cards, and Peleg was doing that too, but with a bit more variety. My strategy paid off just in time, as I was able to finish the game and claim the win by a mere two points.

We ended the night with a three handed game of Eight Minute Empire while Peleg busied himself on a conference call with Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Warren Buffet. Sheer had never played this. After playing it, he described it as ‘the worst game I have played in a long time’ so I don’t think he’ll be playing it again soon.

It was Azriel whose play was spot on, and he handily beat Sheer and me. Once again, he professed to not understand the set scoring. Once again, he scored the most for his sets…

As an aside, Sheer’s comment reminds me to note that every gamer has his own style of game that he likes or dislikes. For example, when we played Santiago, Efrat said she disliked auction based games. And then there’s my own dislike of complex abstract games. Then again, for every game we hate there will be many gamers who love it. It’s a funny old world the world of gaming. Thankfully!

Thanks to all who came and made the night so much fun. We had a lot of laughs.

A Feast of Spenser

Gallery

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So, here are books seven to thirteen to in the Spenser series by Robert B Parker which I recently finished reading. For reviews of the first six, see: The Godwulf Manuscript God Save the Child Mortal Stakes Promised Land The … Continue reading

The Two of Swords – K J Parker

I finished the second and third volumes of this fantasy tale with mixed feelings. The central story is a war between two counties that seems not be to either’s advantage. The narrative is largely told through the eyes of individual contributors to the action – soldier, spy, diplomat, and so on – giving some finely observed detail to add to the sweeping grand maneuvers.

The author is a great storyteller, and the book is jam packed with twists, turns, action, and adventure. It’s also an exceedingly complex plot where, at times, it can be hard to work out if a character’s motivation is all that it seems to be. Subterfuge, deception, and treachery are ever present. But, was it worth it? Was the book too rich for my tastes?

Originally, the three books were actually a series (19 I think) of novellas that you subscribed to, and the author released to a monthly schedule. I cannot help wondering if the cramped nature of the book, especially in the closing stages, was the result of writing to a deadline and a formula.

The books are good, but not great. I don’t think the format allowed Parker to be at his best. It was a worthwhile experience, and I am glad I read it, but I hope the next book by the author follows a more traditional route.

Water, water, everywhere…

This week’s session started with a five player game of Eight Minute Empire. Roy and I had played it before, but the game was new to Avri, Azriel, and Efrat. Although Azriel said he was struggling with the concept of a set, I should have remembered the lad has form in the field of misdirection. And so, once again, the youngster won, albeit just one point ahead of Roy. As expected, it was a tight game, proving this is a nifty little filler game.

Next up, Santiago. This is a 2003 game featuring a specialized turn order auction mechanic combined with tile placement and bribery. (Efrat, midst game, said she dislikes auction games and wouldn’t be rushing to play it again. I sympathize.) Avri and I had played this before, and there was a brief rules introduction before we started. There’s a lot you can analyze about the game and the value of your decisions (assuming matters work out as you think…) and Avri is well skilled in doing exactly this. Of course nothing turned out the way I had hoped, and my bold strokes turned out to be foolish foibles. Such is a life in games, sometimes! Anyway, Avri saw everything turn out well for him, and he was a relatively easy winner, with the rest of us a bit behind.

It’s early in the game, but already things don’t look good

With Roy departing to save the western world, that left four of us to plot how best to build an atomic bomb or two.

Yes, the theme of The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction is to build weapons of mass destruction. It’s a card game version of a successful board game, and cuts the action down to simple bare-bones card combinations. You have a hand of five cards, each with one or two workers of different types, as well as resources. You must choose how best to use each card, and how best to use that card in conjunction with another card. For example, one card might have two scientists and a enrichment plant. Which should you use? The two scientists can be combined with some yellow cake to get you uranium. But maybe it would be better to use the enrichment plant. And so it goes. Fun. Fast. A good filler. Avri won just ahead of Efrat. Azriel and I were too busy enjoying the game play to think about anything as sordid as winning the game…(Ahem.)

A good night. Thanks to all who came.

On the Road to Waterloo

The Battles of Waterloo is the Richard Berg design published by GMT Games (1994) on the four battles of Waterloo: Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre, and Mont St Jean. Each hex is 210 yards, each turn is half an hour, and each unit is a regiment. Units have strength points at the rate of one per 300 infantry, 200 cavalry, or 6 guns.

The physical components – especially the maps and counters – are very good, but the rules are somewhat troubled. You can play the game with the original rules, but there are some areas where you will have to use your judgement. A later rewrite didn’t completely solve the problems. However, the core design is just so damn enthralling that it is worth slogging away and filling in the blanks. Not ideal, but the absence of any more games using the system meant there was no commercial impetus to fix the rules properly. On Consimworld, Richard said the issues were to do with the complex Allied Army command structure. Unfortunately, that’s only partly correct. The irony is that the game system does quite a good job of replicating command and control issues.

I played it a few times when it first came out, but only tried the Waterloo (Mont St Jean) scenario. It is a bit of a slugfest, and I don’t recall Napoleon ever coming out on top. This time around, I decided to play Quatre Bras – the encounter between Ney and Waterloo that featured the classic non appearance of the entire French I Corps. The historical situation, apart from the I Corps, is that Ney was not aggressive or as forceful as he should have been had Napoleon’s orders been clearer. The special rules handle this well, though it is a bit frustrating for the French side to have the tools to do the job, but be held back by command issues. One good thing about the Quatre Bras game is that there is no guarantee Ney will be so slow as in his real life performance. So, after a first attempt that saw Ney fairly easily rebuffed, it was good to see that in the second run through, the French were victorious.

Here come the French!

Although there were no more in the series, if you look closely you can see how some of the ideas here have been sharpened up and packaged inside the Fallen Eagles system. the scales are similar, though Fallen Eagles allows much more stacking, and uses one hour turns. That series now covers Waterloo, Austerlitz, and Ligny, and seems to be doing well. Also similar in scale is the Napoleonic Battles Series from the Gamers, but there are going to be no more of those as sales, apparently, were disappointing.

The Allies are waiting…

Love Like Blood –

Tom Thorne may be a retired detective, but the author clearly cannot let go of the character, so once again he pops up in an unofficial capacity, becoming central to the story. In this case, matters start with the murder of Detective Inspector Nicola Tanner’s partner, in what seems to have been an attack meant to silence Tanner, working on several ‘honor’ killings. Tanner is taken out of the firing line, but she is not convinced anyone will do enough to find the killer, and she persuades Thorne to get involved. From this point on, the roller coaster ride begins.

Thorne and Tanner are comprehensive and believable characters, and their interaction and involvement are key to the success of the novel. However, the supporting cast are not always mere fillers, and the overall impression is of a well constructed, realistic, gritty crime novel. In other words, a damn fine read.

The honor killing part is handled without sensationalizing this difficult cultural issue. I did, however, think there was a degree of political correctness on show with the attempt at evenhandedly apportioning the sources of such crimes across multiple religions. That was the only very minor criticism I would make.

It’s best to read the Thorne books in order, but if you prefer just to dive in here, you will not lessen the enjoyment too much. It is a solid standalone tale.

True Blue – David Baldacci

True Blue is a typical Baldacci tale with twists and turns, complex intertwined stories, and some great ideas.

The main character comes with an enticing setup: Mason Perry is an ex policewoman who was framed for a crime she did not commit. Released from prison, she is out to get to the truth, but there’s a US district attorney eager to see her back in prison. Matters are slightly complicated by Mason’s sister being the chief of police. It’s a recipe for conflict of interest and loyalties, and Baldacci duly goes to town.

In addition, there’s Roy Kingman, the lawyer who finds the body of one of his partners at his office. Kingman and Perry are, inevitably, drawn together as the plot threads become entangled.

Unfortunately, I found the character portrayal of both sisters less than realistic. With that fundamental flaw, for me the book did not work. The Kingman character was a bit better, but not Baldacci’s best.

As usual, the plot is well constructed, and the pace of the action is relentless. But with my lack of empathy for the Perry characters, I was less than enthralled.

Not recommended.

Eight Minute Empire

Despite the misleading title, this is a decent filler game that does a good job of synthesizing some worker placement themes into a fast, fun, and thoughtful challenge.

It’s designed for two to five players, and the game length varies according to the number of players. If you are super fast, you could finish a two player game in under ten minutes, but I would guess most games will take 30-45 minutes.

There is a double sided board, allowing you to choose what map you want to play on. Each is split into continents and areas. All players start in the same starting area (with three armies) and then the game begins by laying out six cards. The first player chooses a card, plays any price, executes the action, and the player’s turn is done.

You start with a set amount of money that has to last the game. Each card has a price according to its position in the row, varying from 0 to 3. If you run out of money, you have to take the ‘0’ card. Each card has an action – introduce new armies, move armies, build a city, or eliminate an army – and a commodity. At the end of the game you get victory points for areas controlled, continents controlled, and sets of commodities. Control comes from having the most armies plus cities in an area.

You can only add new armies to the start area (which is where every player’s army starts) or where you have a city. And you can build a city where you have an army. That means you need to think about when and where (or if) you want to take a turn to build a city.

The key trick in the game is to watch the available cards, work out what you need, work out what your opponents need, and take the card that best advances your position whilst least advancing your opponents’ positions. You are unlikely to get stuck with analysis paralysis, but the decisions are not always easy.

Susan and I played this a couple of times, once with a third (novice) player, and enjoyed it. It’s a very good example of a filler game, with a nice balance of luck and skill, and is highly replayable, even if it will take you more than eight minutes to play.

The Norman Geras Reader

Norman Geras was a Zimbabwean born political thinker, a Marxist by belief, and a Jew by birth. A Professor Emeritus of Politics at Manchester University, he was a prime mover behind the Euston Manifesto.

I came across him late on in his life, courtesy of his blog. The posts there reflected not only his wide interests (including a love of cricket) but showcased the continually high quality of his writing. Generally, he was clear and to the point. And sometimes that point was the one on which he skewered antisemites with his razor sharp keyboard. For example, see here.

While my political beliefs are not those of the late Mr Geras, I admired his writing so much that I had to buy this selection of his output. Although I have read some before on his blog, it was good to refresh the experience. I don’t normally mention the non-fiction books I read, but I wanted to make this an exception. While there are some passages that only hard-boiled academics and Marxist thinkers will follow, there is an abundance of other, solid, thoughtful material. Geras’ death was a real loss. This reader is a good way to remember and honor him.