Category Archives: Session Reports

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?

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!

Lessons in Luck (1)

I’m a teacher. All I need are minds for moulding.

– Dewey Finn, School of Rock (2003)

Today, at my sons’ primary school was the first day of this year’s “golden time” sessions.  Parents are invited to volunteer to run various fun activities for the P4-P7 pupils at the school.  I am one such volunteer, and my fun activity is – of course – board games.  In fact, as the school has taken to describing it “Games you’ve never played before!”.

Jungle Speed
Jungle Speed

I had a group of four, and so we settled down to a game of Forbidden Island. One child (my son) had played before and it was new to another three. I explained the rules and we sat down to raid the island for treasures, not forgetting our wellie boots. The four of them: Messenger, Engineer, Explorer and Navigator gathered first, synchronised watches, and raced off to collect treasure cards.

Those cards were kind at first, with few “Waters Rise” cards appearing early in the game.  Perhaps this lulled the team into a false sense of security.  Then, like waterbuses, the flood cards started appearing in pairs and the water began pooling around the ankles of all four players.

The game (played at Novice level) ended with a success for the team in just over 30 mins.  Before that, the game had clearly started to exert its unique brand of tension on each of them.  Each “Waters Rise” card turned over to a groan, and each tile lost beneath the waves mourned like a deceased pet.  Frenzied pointing across the table and cries of “No, no, no. Move there, then flip that tile over! Move me with the helicopter!” were music to my ears.

25 mins to go and we have time for something else.  But what?

Having recently picked up this dexterity game in a local charity shop at the recommendation of another parent volunteer, I suggested this to my four pupils with the summary: “It’s a bit like snap”.  Having removed the arrow cards to simplify matters, I dealt the cards, instructed them on turning over cards in the correct manner and sat back to the game which followed.

It started slowly at first, but matching the pattern not the colour became easier as the game went on.  One player came within a single card of winning, only to have the totem grabbed from under them while in the throes of victory.  This game did not conclude, and victory was shared on a (very) rough card count between two players.

Now, what shall we play next week … ?

Clash of Civilizations

Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him:
“What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee?”

And Hezekiah said:
“They are come from a far country, even from Babylon.”

And he said,
“What have they seen in thine house?”

And Hezekiah answered,
“All the things that are in mine house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not shewed them.”

And Isaiah said unto Hezekiah,
“Hear the word of the Lord. Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried into Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

2 Kings 20:14-18

I start with this … observation … about the character and, let us say, track record of the Babylonian civilization for no particular reason.  And certainly not, because it throws any light whatsoever on the events which unfolded this weekend.

We gathered, the seven leaders of fledging stone age tribes which would – in the millennia which followed – develop into giants of civilizations which would stride across the known world like the very Colossus at the harbour in Rhodes.

My own experience of this game stretches back to my school days, when we spent many, many hours creating (and destroying) civilizations courtesy of Civilization and then Advanced Civilization, with their iconic jigsaw style boards.  I still have some of the components from that original set (which did not used to belong to me) including some of the “house rules” we liked to observe:

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Some decades passed, and then I met a man at an underground venue who told me he knew where I could score another game of Civ.  Foolishly, I took him up on the offer and the addiction (which had only been dormant – never extinct) resurfaced like a submarine with fake reactor problems from the Sean Connery film “The Hunt for Red October”.

I have a soft spot for Illyria due to its “Twelfth Night” connections and was third to choose – so managed to get the thinking man’s civilization.

CAPTAIN.
This is Illyria, lady.

VIOLA.
And what should I do in Illyria?

Twelfth Night, Act 1

What should I do in Illyria? It is a good question, Viola.

Mostly building cities and learning new skills – that’s what gets you victory points in this game.  Also exchanging an unusually erudite class of table banter.

Very early in the game, the Cretans took two cities in what I would ordinarily regard as Illyrian territory:

With the benefit of hindsight, I should not have allowed this to stand.  I was too generous, and ought to have protected my boundaries with more vigour.  It left me too hemmed in for building cities – I think I had a maximum of six the whole game.  Although a protracted conflict is to no-one’s benefit in this game, my neighbours to the East and West (Asia and Italia) were both understanding and co-operative.  I ought to have joined them in their sporadic assaults on Greater Crete.

Ah well.  It ended with a Cretan victory.  We did not complete the game to the end, but my 1,777 points were good enough for a mid-table finish (4/7).  Egypt were a close second, and had the game played to its conclusion may have even stolen the win.  Babylon had a solid collection of Civ advances, but a series of costly calamaties and conflicts hampered their development too much.

The second new era game also ended before completion.  It is an unapologetically long game, but a lot of the start of it feels like set-up.  Perhaps one solution would be to have a bronze-age set up – so that it plays to the end more quickly – maybe there’s something like this on BoardGameGeek?

DUKE.
“If music be the food of love, play on;”
Twelfth Night, Act 1

Space Cadets – damage report

I never wanted to go to space. I never sat gazing at the stars, yearning to be among them as they burned their stellar invitations in the night sky. There was always enough to explore here, on Earth…

Hmm. It’s easy to forget. There, on Earth, I should say. Estranged planet of my birth. Home. Despite the cards life had dealt me, it was still my home, it was – it is, still where I belong. And now, I’ll probably never see it again. So this is my fond farewell to a planet over three million years away – which may not even exist any more. My body may be minutes away from being abandoned to the cold vacuum of space, but my soul’s coming home at last.

I was only trying to buy a copy of Monopoly …

No, wait. I think that’s the plot from Red Dwarf, isn’t it?

Whereas I’m here to tell you about Space Cadets. Space Cadets is a cooperative board game for 3-7 players, played against the clock, where you take the roles of spaceship personnel trying to steer an increasingly ramshackle craft through uncharted space and collect the space treasure – returning to your own galaxy / dimension / time zone before the whole damn thing explodes, killing every last man, woman and alien life form on board.

Actually, it is a bit like Red Dwarf – and in a good way, too. Do you remember that episode where the crew are tracking some object through space and Lister, Rimmer, Kryten and Holly are all on the bridge tapping away on their computers, and all talking across and over each other at the same time. And it’s really tense moments because the object could be anything, hostile robots, space junk, aliens! And then the whole apparatus goes down because Cat has unplugged it all to use his hairdryer?

The whole game is a lot like that. And if you think that sounds like smeg loads of fun, then you’d be dead right.

The basic gameplay is basically performing ostensibly simply tasks of manual dexterity and/or mental agility under high pressure circumstances. Which is fun. But you get to play at space ships while you’re doing it. And quote lines from Star Trek and Babylon 5 and, yes, even Red Dwarf at each other. Which is really fun – if you like that sort of thing (which I do)!

So, I started out in charge of Engineering, which means doing a funny little 7-piece jigsaw puzzle. The object is to try and get as many complete circles in your puzzle, which translate to energy capsules for various parts of the ship.  So, if your shipmate wants to fire torpedoes, first of all I have to earn some weapons energy circle thingys.  Then, later in the turn, the weapons guy has to do some Tetris puzzles to load the torpedoes and a shove ha’penny game to fire them.

Each of the stations in the game operates in a similar way – with minigames for scanning, tractor beam, helm, damage repair, shields etc etc etc.  Having acquitted myself with such high honours in Engineering, a shift change meant a well earned promotion for me.  I took the news with surprising humility and settled into a role I was clearly born to – although not all of the crew took the news so well.

To tell the truth, my captaincy did not last very long.  We managed to grab a second space crystal (not a euphemism for drugs!) of the three required for victory and made an ill-fated attempt to jump to hyperspace.  Turns out that, while in engineering, I ought to have been doing something called “Jump prep” – which would have been useful…

Still, the effort was bravely made and our adventures have been recorded for Space Corps staff training purposes.

I have been told that Space Alert is a much better game. I haven’t played Space Alert, but Cadets is certainly a great fun evening of sci-fi gaming, so it gets my recommendation.