Venom of the cobra, teeth of the tiger

This is Afghanistan… Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Ghengis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated.
Mousa, Rambo III

Afghanistan, scene of many a fruitless invasion, and much bloodshed through the centuries. Afghanistan, now the stage on which we four would play out our own simulation of the latest attempt(s) at conquest. Afghanistan, setting of GMT’s counter-insurgency (or COIN) title, “A Distant Plain”.

I’ll be honest, my initial impressions were that it looked a bit complex and even a little dull. It was certainly a lengthy affair, clocking in at around seven hours in total. We played the medium scenario, beginning with the sample game and continuing on from where that left off. We were all first time players, but had all done at least a little bit of preparatory reading.

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We drew randomly for factions. I drew the Warlords, then happily traded them for the Coalition. I had been doing some background reading on counter-insurgency (specifically, Paddy Ashdown’s thought in the Independent on strategy in Afghanistan) and felt I could put his “Clear, Hold, Build” strategy to good use. As we were playing the medium scenario, I started the game with drones and predators, both of which I used to good effect on Taliban targets in repeated air strikes.

As with many GMT games, the cards are all based on actual historical events, so it is possible that playing will add to your understanding of an admittedly complex situation.

The game plays with four factions, with the Coalition and the Afghan Government being more or less on the same side. We worked quite well together, but I’m sure I kept the level of Patronage too low for his liking. And it was ultimately having spent too many Government resources, which meant I was not able to respond to a late Warlord offensive by training more police, which led to the game being lost.

The Taliban and the Warlords are even more “sort of” on the same side, and I did spend some early efforts in trying to build an alliance with these local, heavily armed, poppy farmers against the Taliban. This was not very successful, but in my head, these guys were not the real enemy, and then they ended up beating everyone!

They’re Afghan freedom fighters! They’re on our side! WE’RE AMERICANS!
Austin Millbarge, Spies Like Us

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The game has a large amount of ebb and flow to it. One small quibble I have is that it does seem to reward greatly whoever happens to have the first pick in the turn before the propaganda card, which is almost wholly random. This may be sour grapes, but the Warlords won in this way. I am convinced that if I had been in that position with either of the last two propaganda cards, I would have won the game. Maybe this is something that can be mitigated with more experience?

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So, did I enjoy the game? Yes, it’s very engaging and demands your attention throughout. The mechanics were, despite my fears, fairly easy to pick up. In fact, it is almost a bit like a good old Euro resource management game when you get down to it. I have been turning over my moves and mistakes in my mind over the following 24hours, which is always a good sign, too.

Mistakes: not taking a harder line with those pesky Warlords; not committing more troops. For some reason, I kept a limited engagement never getting more than half my bases or troops out on the board. Perhaps it would have been better just to commit near wholesale, and then withdraw gradually. Not sure. All told, a good, solid war game I’m sure I’ll want to return to before long.

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Mousa: Very good. It says “May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the Tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.” Understand what this means?

Rambo: That you guys don’t take any shit?

Mousa: Yes… something like this.
Rambo III

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Kirsty, fill your house for free!

Just because it’s free, doesn’t mean it can’t be fabulous.

Kirstie’s Fill Your House For Free, Channel 4 (2014)

Recently, I have been playing games about taking stuff which is just lying around. Bin raking games, if you will. Unappealing as this sounds, this oh-so-specific sub-genre theme for games is a remarkable amount of fun!

First up, it’s Arctic Scavangers, which is a deck building game set in post-apocalyptic frozen wastes where tribes of survivors compete for scarce resources by lifting stuff that’s been left lying around, then taking it home and converting it into bookshelves. For the really valuable “scarce resources” like grenades or vintage curtain sets, I’m afraid it’s every man (or woman) for themselves – you’ll have to fight it out.

I’m afraid I’m not really cut out for this sort of game. Very unpleasant business, all this scrapping over material items. The whole game I didn’t win a single conflict and in the end I just stopped trying and, so, the fickle wandering population of the North went to live with my competitors – who promptly ate some of them.

The game is pretty good – in my opinion – and I’d be quite happy to play again. But not brilliant. Unlike the next game …

I picked this up for a song at The Works recently on a whim. And that has paid off big time! What a great little game. Comes in a lovely little, portable box; plays in 15 to 20 mins; simple to teach and learn; my wife and kids love it; and it’s stacked full of strategy.

The idea is simple, everyone is heading off down the local dump (or recycling centre, or somesuch) to pick up some junk to sell. You can keep the stuff you find for face value, or trade it in as sets to make a bigger profit.

Each turn, cards are turned over with sets which can be traded in, then everyone plays a card face down to indicate whether you are going to the dump on foot (1), bike (2), motorcyle with sidecar (3), car (4) or truck (5). The number in brackets is how many items you can carry back with you, but also the order in which you set out.

So, if you decide to go on foot, you will get first pick of the stuff there, but you can only carry 1 thing back with you. On the other hand if you load up the truck, you’ve got space to carry loads, but all the good rubbish might be gone by the time you get there.

Worse still, if two or more players opt to take the same means of transport only one of them gets to go and the other(s) has to stay home! This leads to a constant second guessing of the other players and frequent recriminations when your plans to head down the dump are scuppered when you learn that you friend has borrowed your car to go there and left you stranded. Of course, there’s always the option to stay home and steal the stuff the other players have taken from the dump while they’re off getting more!

Special note of praise for the cards which specify the orders available to trade in which state not only the value you get for trading them in but also (in smaller print, bottom right) how much more that is than simply keeping the goods for their face value. Very helpful in working out which are the best cards to aim for.

As I say, a great game – by Friedemann Friesse (of Power Grid fame) – which I’d highly recommend. Maybe you can pick up a copy for free if someone if throwing theirs out?

Power up!

Image Credit: www.cityofzombies.com
Image Credit: http://www.cityofzombies.com

Glasgow Science Festival: State of Play is an event at this year’s festival which offers the chance to explore, discover and experience science using board games.

This is the fourth and final guide in a series which provide an introduction to the games in question, organised by the relevant branch of science. Rounding off the series we have renewable energy and mathematics …

Name of Game

Power Grid (2004)

Type of Game

Economic Strategy Game

What is it about?

Build a network of electricity generation in order to keep the lights on in cities across the country. Players bid against each other to buy power plants and the fuel needed to run them. Will you choose to build plants burning coal or oil, or uranium-powered nuclear power stations? Or perhaps you will invest in the latest renewable technology?

No. of players

2-6 players

Ages

12+

Length of Game

120 mins

Summary

Monopoly, but good!” Lots of strategy, but with good player balance – get your thinking caps on!

State of Play Rating

4 out of 5

Name of Game

CO2 (2012)

Type of Game

Complex area control / worker placement game

What is it about?

Manage your resources to become the power company with the best reputation.  But beware – if the level of Carbon Dioxide rises too high, the game is over for everyone!

No. of players

1-5 players

Ages

12+

Length of Game

120 mins

Summary

An in-depth euro-style game which rewards strategic play. Best for those who want to save the world.

State of Play Rating

3 out of 5

Name of Game

City of Zombies (2013)

Type of Game

Educational maths game

What is it about?

Roll dice and perform “Countdown” style calculations to defeat the zombies and escape with survivors.

No. of players

1-6 players

Ages

6+

Length of Game

30 mins

Summary

Learn number bonds, mathematical operations and numeracy while destroying zombies. What more could you want?

State of Play Rating

5 out of 5

Making mountains out of molehills

Zoos

Glasgow Science Festival: State of Play is an event at this year’s festival which offers the chance to explore, discover and experience science using board games.

This is the third guide in a series which provide an introduction to the games in question, organised by the relevant branch of science. Next up we have zoology and paleontology …

Name of Game

Zooloretto Mini (2010) and Zooloretto Dice (2012)

Type of Game

Quick and simple set collection game

What is it about?

Draw tiles or roll dice, then choose the best ones to collect animals for your zoo. Matching sets of animals mean more points, and the player with the most points wins.

No. of players

2-5 players

Ages

7+

Length of Game

10-30 mins

Summary

Fun games of species conservation for all the family. Best for those who love animals.

State of Play Rating

4 out of 5

Name of Game

Dino Hunt Dice (2012)

Type of Game

Push your luck dice game

What is it about?

Throw dice to collect dinosaurs for your zoo, but watch out – keep going too long and you might get stomped!

No. of players

2-8 players

Ages

6+

Length of Game

10 mins

Summary

A simple yet brilliant game of luck and nerve. Best for those who quit while they’re ahead.

State of Play Rating

4 out of 5

Name of Game

Mole in the Hole (1995)

Type of Game

Family strategy game

What is it about?

Play as moles trying to burrow into holes to reach the next level. Be the last mole left and win the golden shovel!

No. of players

2-4 players

Ages

8+

Length of Game

30 mins

Summary

Deep strategy meets a fun modular board. Best for those who can plan ahead.

State of Play Rating

4 out of 5

You and me, it’s Chemistry!

ChemPhys

Glasgow Science Festival: State of Play is an event at this year’s festival which offers the chance to explore, discover and experience science using board games.  You can get your tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/glasgow-science-festival-state-of-play-tickets-11140083289

This is the second guide in a series which provide an introduction to the games in question, organised by the relevant branch of science. Next up we have chemistry and physics …

Name of Game

Compounded (2013)

Type of Game

Set collection and negotiation game

What is it about?

Compete against other players to collect elements and trade them to build compounds, improve your lab and progress up the periodic table to victory!

No. of players

2-5 players

Ages

12+

Length of Game

60-90 mins

Summary

Equal parts education and entertainment. Best for those who love to laugh while they’re learning.

State of Play Rating

4 out of 5

Name of Game

Polarity (1986)

Type of Game

Dexterity game

What is it about?

A two player game played with magnetic pieces. Place your pieces carefully and capture your opponent’s to win.

No. of players

2 or 4 players

Ages

8+

Length of Game

20 mins

Summary

A beautiful game of magnetic forces. Best for those with a steady hand.

State of Play Rating

5 out of 5

Name of Game

The New Science (2013)

Type of Game

Modern “worker placement” game

What is it about?

Players take the roles of Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and other lumenaries of the 17th Century scientific revolution. Be the first to make scientific discoveries in astronomy, mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry.

No. of players

2-5 players

Ages

12+

Length of Game

90-120 mins

Summary

A terrific challenge in a historical setting. Best for those who enjoy an intellectual puzzle.

State of Play Rating

4 out of 5

Just what the doctor ordered …

Glasgow Science Festival: State of Play is an event at this year’s festival which offers the chance to explore, discover and experience science using board games.

As most of the games are modern, designer games they may well be unfamiliar to people. This brief guide is the first in a series which provide an introduction to the games in question, organised by the relevant branch of science. First up is medicine…

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Name of Game

Operation (1965)

Type of Game

Dexterity game

What is it about?

Cavity Sam is unwell! Compete against other players in taking turns to operate and remove plastic objects from Sam without setting off the alarm. The most successful surgeon will earn the most in fees and win the game.

No. of players

2-4 players

Ages

6+

Length of Game

15 mins

Summary

A quick and fun family favourite. Best for those with a steady hand and nerves of steel!

State of Play Rating

3 out of 5

Name of Game

Pandemic (2008)

Type of Game

Co-operative “threat management” game

What is it about?

Players work together to stem the spread of deadly diseases across the globe, while trying to discover the cures and prevent them ushering in the end of the world!

No. of players

2-4 players

Ages

10+

Length of Game

45-60 mins

Summary

A modern co-operative classic. Best for those who work well as part of a team.

State of Play Rating

5 out of 5

War Games

I said, war, good god, now, what is it good for?
Absolutely, nothing
Say it again, war, what is it good for?
Absolutely, nothing, listen to me
War, it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
War, friend only to the undertaker, war

–War, by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1984)

I just bought my friend Risk Legacy, which got me thinking about war games. In a way, this was a selfish present, as I fully expect to be invited to join in the epic 15 game campaign which will shortly begin. It’s also incredibly selfless of me, because he is a huge Risk fan and I think it’s slightly tedious after the first few hours! Like that guy from Board With Life, my favourite is Lord of the Rings Risk, but I hear Legacy’s pretty good too. In essence, though, my gift was a commitment of time: a promise to spend time with my friend. This is, after all, the very essence of this hobby of ours- board games are about enjoying time together with friends or family.

Which is all very well, but I want to talk to you about conflict.

Specifically, board games which simulate conflict, war and aggression. I grew up playing Diplomacy. A lot of Diplomacy. Before the internet, people used to play this classic by post. One game could last years! But not us. We would gather together in a group of seven and put our friendships to the harshest of tests, simulating the pre-World War One conflicts between Europe’s 7 Great Powers of the early twentieth century.

russol

Diplomacy gets a lot of bad press, but it’s a classic for good reason. It famously features no dice or other random elements at all. Tactically, the game is about outguessing, outsmarting and outmanoeuvring your opponents. While strategically, the emphasis is on forging, managing and – inevitably – breaking alliances with other players. We fell for this heady cocktail in a big way, devoting hours at a time to playing and replaying the years 1901 to 1910 (or so) on cardboard using plastic pieces. We would even, on special occasions, play in evening wear- as if we were ambassadors of the Great Powers, deciding the fate of a continent after dessert and before the port and cigars arrived.

grahamrossiain

I was also peculiarly fond of an old GW game called Blood Royale. This was another game of European conquest, involving largely the same powers, but several centuries earlier. The game lasted a long time, but crammed a lot in: international trade, combat, royal families and lineage and a juicy selection of calamities and events. Indeed, you would usually spend more time attending to your family’s genealogy than in actual combat. I still have the game, but I fear that I might tire of it fairly quickly these days. The plastic coins for currency were a definite plus in comparison with the usual paper money, and regions on the map producing resource tokens which could be traded and sold seems years ahead of its time.

There was also a really interesting mechanic for recruiting armies. Each player had a finite stock of 20 cardboard tiles representing their armies. In addition to paying their wages, if an army was defeated, the tile went into a sort of “limbo” area meaning that you couldn’t replace your losses immediately, but wait a full turn before they became available again. So, you had to be careful about committing your full forces to any given conflict, as a heavy defeat would leave you effectively defenceless for the whole next turn.

The wargamers among you will be weeping with frustration at this point, so I’ll move quickly on to cover some more recent, card driven offerings. First up, A Few Acres of Snow, which Alastair reviewed recently. This is set in the British vs. Canadian/French conflict for control of Canadia back in the 1750’s – I have only played once, and I won convincingly but it left me a bit cold (if you’ll excuse the terrible pun).

I was new to the game, and to this style of game in general. Therefore, I reverted to type and I chased the end condition and victory points. I won by simply building a lot of settlements, after only a few scattered skirmishes. It felt a little bit like we were playing two different games, where the Canadians were itching for a fight, and the British were just quietly getting on with infrastructure and local government. In most games that would spell a bloody disaster for the planner/builder. Possibly, this is some deep “make civic administration, not war” moral which designer Martin Wallace is trying to install in players. But, I’ve only played this once, so I’m prepared to be proved wrong.

And then there’s Twilight Struggle (sadly, not Rocky IV the board game). Lots more cards simulating the cold war era intrigue between the great global superpowers of the Vampires and the Werewolves. I only played half a game, so that may not be 100% accurate, but you get the gist. It looks pretty good, and someday I’ll play the other half!

“War is sweet to them that know it not.”

Pindar (518-438BC)

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon A Time is a storytelling card game for 2 to 6 players of pretty much any age. If you can read and communicate, you can play this game. Ever fancied taking control of your own fairy tale? Ever postulated at a pathetic Prince in the pages of a parable, or dreamed of determining that the Dragon didn’t defeat the Duke? Then this game is most certainly for you.

Once Upon a Time Cards

There are those who would question whether this was really a “game” – is it not more of a shared narrative experience? While there are competitive elements, seeing players try to railroad the story away from the others’ ideas and towards their own randomly selected ending, there is much, much more fun to be had in sitting comfortably, joining in with the tale telling and seeing where it takes you. It’s a joyous, rewarding (and often humourous) way to spend 20 or 30 minutes which genuinely spans generations. It’s simple to learn, easy to engage non-gamers with and completely memorable: the first time your son decides that the best way to free the princess from the tower is with a magic, flaming wolf, will stay with you, trust me!

My beating heart belongs to you …

On my last night on earth, I won’t look to the sky
Just breathe in the air and blink in the light
On my last night on earth, I’ll pay a high price
To have no regrets and be done with my life

–“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” by Noah and the Whale (2011)

Last Night on Earth is a game which pits a rag-tag team of human survivors against the zombie hordes of classic horror movies.  Ordinarily, it plays from 2 to 6 players, but on gathering we had seven players.  What to do?  Play two zombie scenarios in tandem, of course!  In our case, the dual objectives were to blow up the town, then escape by plane.  Simple.  What could possibly go wrong?

First things first, to pick two survivors.  I chose Sister Ophelia and Agent Carter.  A partnership which would be known in team as Team Awesome.  A team that was a very close partnership indeed.  Sister Ophelia was nominated as one of our pilots.  I decided that this skill would have likely been picked up from her time working with Mission Aviation Fellowship or similar.  Some of the other skills she displayed later in the game were harder to explain, however …

The objective for our half of the board was to find the flight plans, get some gasoline to fuel the plane and get the frak out of there.  My own thoughts were that – in the circumstances of a zombie apocalypse – I would be quite happy to escape in the plane without a valid flight plan and simply take our chances with the FAA!

Agent Carter came armed with a pistol and some bonus skills in finding things (something all FBI agents have, no doubt).  Fairly quickly he had taken out enough zombies with his pistol to acquire some additional sharp-shooting skills and had managed to locate some gasoline for the airplane.  He had also managed to ascertain that the flight plans were not filed in the airfield office, as they ought to be.  Things were going well.

Sister Ophelia meantime emerged from her forest cell, having recently begun a spiritual retreat at the Blessed Convent of Aviation only to find that the dead were walking the Earth – and not in a good way.  Undeterred, she managed to evade the first few zombies and locate the flight plans in a forest cabin.  From there she made her way to the office, where Agent Carter pressed a pistol into her hand.

It appeared fairly quickly that this was not the first time she had handled a firearm.  In the game, you roll a 3 or higher on six sided die to hit with a pistol.  Sister Ophelia must have rolled something like eight 5’s or 6’s in a row, dispatching zombie after zombie until the airfield was clear of the undead.  At that point, the zombies were actually hiding in the trees to avoid her.  In what was, I felt, a defining moment for her character, Sister Ophelia raced from the office to pursue a zombie into the woods before calming offing it with her sidearm, rolling another natural six.  It was about this point where the reformed nun remembered she had once been a keen amateur boxer!

At this point, by rights, Sister Ophelia and Agent Carter should have sauntered casually to the plane, fired it up and waved casually at the rest of the survivors and zombies as they flew off into the sunset.  They could have done this approximately 1/3 of the game in – and it would have been a victory in terms of the scenario conditions.

But the game and the characters get under your skin, and they both wanted to stay around to give the others a chance to blow up the town and get back to the plane.  That ultimately proved to be their undoing!  Well, that and the three turns they spent first bickering and then … um … getting to know each other better.

My beating heart belongs to you
I walked for miles til I found you
I’m here to honor you
If I lose everything in the fire
I’m sending all my love to you

— “Last Night on Earth” by Green Day (2009)

What a great game this is!  I have played three times now and lost each and every time.  The last two times, only by a gnat’s wing.  It is a credit to the cinematic quality of the game that all the players spent as much time creating and telling stories about their characters (like the above) as we did rolling dice and moving plastic pieces.  I haven’t laughed so much in ages, and I’m itching to play again soon – just so I can see Sister Ophelia in action once more!

Suburban dreams …

Suburbia – where the suburbs met utopia.

Pet Shop Boys “Suburbia” (1986)

 

Suburbia is essentially Sim City, the board game.  I’d heard a few people say that before I had played it, and thought it was said with a slightly dismissive tone.  But, wait a minute:

SIM CITY – which is totally awesome!   AS A BOARD GAME!!  How much cooler could that possibly get?

Lost in the high street, where the dogs run …

 

My first game was played at our local hostelry, The Village Inn which is, indeed, in the high street (well, main street) and definitely in the suburbs – so thematically, we were right on the money.  We were two pretty experienced gamers, an enthusiastic medium experience gamer and a newcomer to designer games.  For three of us, this was our first taste of this particular game, so the potential for getting lost was significant, to say the least!

I only wanted something else to do but hang around

 

Run with the dogs tonight - in suburbia
Run with the dogs tonight – in suburbia

Let me say at the outset that the game is a delight.  It is pretty straightforward to learn and although we all had a few “So, I can take this tile, and … ?” moments – we were all pretty much up to speed most of the time.  The scoring is probably the most complex part of the game, but it is worked in such a clever way that it adds to the interaction between players.  So, players may have to decide whether to build an office block in their own suburb, which gains extra points in their own commercial zone; but also enriches the player opposite, with his empire of office supplies stores!  But as the game doesn’t require a huge amount of brainpower, there’s plenty left for witty in-game commentary.  For example, my own aforementioned suburb which cornered the market in office supplies early in the game, was quickly dubbed “Staple City”.

Mother’s got a hairdo to be done
She says they’re too old for toys

I ended up with a pretty comprehensive victory, but actually, the fun part of the game was not in the winning.  Like Sim City, just building up your city, checking off goals and making it a nice place to live is a satisfying – and fun – exercise in itself.  It’s like playing Lego – it satisfies that same urge to build, and create.  And it is made even more fun with the addition of other players.

Simple fun in a quick and engaging package – and even better than Sim City!