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Our Favourites: Through The Ages

At Guru Towers we spend a lot of time discussing Through The Ages as if each move on our PBEM games is genuinely affecting a whole civilisation and could end up costing lives and liberty.

This is an incredible achievement for a game that tries to sum up thousands of years in the life of a civilisation using nothing but cards and cubes.

And this is more or less the point - the first time you open the box and check out the pieces (first on anyone's list of things to do after buying a game) it takes a lot of effort to stop yourself asking;

======Where's the map?======

Ah, my imaginary question man - you were the guy who asked about why there are no plastic ships in Supernova, weren't you? I'll give you a similar answer, though it came as shock to me - you don't need a map of the world to play a civilisation game!

The borders here are abstract - any civilisation can attack and defend against any other whenever they like.

Through The Ages represents most of the aspects of your civilisation; the level of your technologies, the development of buildings, great wonders, the strength of your army and even your system of government are represented by cards.

===Cards? But where's my Tech Tree?===

Technology cards represent your technology for you. There's no traditional "tree" of developments since there are no prerequisite technologies involved - to play a new technology you just need to spend a currency called "technology points", representing research done across your nation.

You gain these by having Laboratories or by possession of other cards with the appropriate icon.

======Icons? What Icons?======

Every card has a symbol on that shows its effects on your civilisation. A lovely golden harp for "culture points", a light bulb for Technology, a sword and shield for strength and the appropriate token for bonus tokens.

This system is helpful in itself, since a quick sum of all the relevant symbols will give you your current scores - but they're kept up to date on the main board too, for reference and scoring purposes

====That doesn't sound like a Civ game!====

I wasn't sold either on looking at the bits, but it is in the playing that Through The Ages becomes the outstanding civilisation building game it is.

Each turn you must spend your limited number of actions to take cards, play them, play technologies, upgrade your armed forces, increase your population, improve existing buildings, build wonders in stages, choose tactics for your armies, fight other players and much more.

And how many actions do you have per turn to do all these countless things? Six.

Actually, four and two.

Your number of actions is determined by many things, but mainly your system of government. You start off with a Despotic government, good for four civil actions (building, feeding etc) and two military actions (recruiting, attacking etc).

This should show you that there is no way on Earth to do everything you want in a single turn. TTA is all about doing as much as you can, and making the most out of what options you have.

Want more actions per turn? Well, you're going to have to change your government! Like all other technologies, governments are represented by cards and must be paid for with science points. You also have the choice to use up your whole turn by having a revolution (which is cheap) or a peaceful transition (more expensive but leaves you actions)

=====Is it just Multiplayer Solitaire?======

This is traditionally one of the biggest insults you can throw at a game - that it has no player interaction and amounts to little more than two to four people playing diffeent games and totting up scores at the end.

Not so in this case.

Player interaction occurs in many places, some of the more obvious are;
  • In the card row - all players are playing from the same deck, if you like, so competition for the best cards will be intense! As the cards are played, newer ones are more expensive than those already out and available, so you must also push your luck if you want that card you've been waiting for to be cheap, because someone else may grab it on the way down the row. You will also find yourself considering adaptive blocking (that is, changing your strategy to incorporate a card you're taking to keep it from your opponents)
  • The combat system - you can be attacked by either aggressiions or wars in the full game, and these can have disatrous consequences - even if you're not in immediate danger - you must keep your military strength close to that of your opponents or you will be an easy target later!
  • Events - many events you play can be more beneficial to others than yourself, you must always bear in mind their consequences in the long term for ALL players.
  • Colonies - When colonies come out of the event deck, players bid strength for the right to take them - they can be highly beneficial, but you must sacrifice your units to do so.
  • Points - the biggie! It's an indirect conflict, but Culture is the sole method of determining victory or loss in TTA. You cannot afford to be left miles behind, because there is no assurance you will catch up!

======I'll read the rules later! Is it any good?======

Absolutely! Through the Ages takes the classic Civilisation themes and distils them down to an incredibly tight and streamlined system. Each turn your choices are agonising and frequently painful - since the best move right now may not be the best long term.

I'm on a big rulebook clarity drive right now following my moans about Supernova's rulebook (though the game is fantastic), and while Through The Ages takes you step by step through every option as you would play them, it separates the learning of the game into a basic, advanced, and full game - I liked this organisation since we could pick it up as we went, but for people who want to be going to the end of Age 3 in their first round, they will find that the rulebook contradicts itself later on, as basic game rules get overruled by later additions.

A bit of care and attention from players should overcome this issue without too much trouble, however.

======What about the quality of components?======

The third edition, which is the version we sell , is far superior, with a matt finish to the boards and linen finish to the cards which makes the whole thing feel much nicer. The new player boards also do away with your starting cards, since these are now pre-printed. Though, typically, you won't have enough space on this board to put all your new ones (Doh!)

======In conclusion then?======

I reckon you can't go wrong here.

If you want a game that sums up the difficulty of building a society from scratch, with all its pitfalls and potholes along the way, I can highly recommend it. If you're after a game with depth, this is also an excellent choice, as what seem to be unbeatable strategies in your first couple of games become less and less powerful as you play more.

People, however, who are after a massive scale wargame, with units moving across the board in fleets or armies and bashing each other will be disappointed. While the combat system in Through the Ages is clever and potentially devastating, it is completely abstracted - there are no massive dicefest battles. Sorry.

For those wanting something along those lines I'd recommend Twilight Imperium (it even has a tech tree!) though the theme is very different.

There's ample opportunity for player interaction, sicne you are all sharing the same limited choice of cards, and sometimes it may be worth adapting your strategy to use that card that your opponent will definitely take if you don't.

That being said, like so many games, I am no genius at Through The Ages, losing more than often - but this leads me to my most crucial point. You can enjoy a game of this perfectly well even if you are unlikely to win - the simple act of runnign an efficient Military machine can me fun, as can the capability of balancing your income and expenditure on a knifepoint.

I can't really say much more to recommend TTA, so I won't.

Get it. enjoy it, and keep playing!

As ever, even if you think TTA is rubbish, or if you simply HAVE to win all the time for a game to be fun (and the better player ALWAYS will in TTA) and find talk of "enjoying while losing" anathema, I hope you enjoyed the review!


Kahmate - bite size rugby

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora (I die! I die! I live! I live!)

If there’s one think more thrilling than watching the New Zealand’s rugby team perform their pre-match Haka, it’s watching them play rugby afterwards - unless it’s a World Cup year but we won’t go in to that.

From a gaming perspective rugby is a very hard game to model, for a start it has 15 players on each side, the re-starts are not uniform and 40% of the action (scrum, maul. lineout and ruck) is opaque to all but the cognoscenti. For the full 15 man aside experience Crash Tackle has the best reputation as feeling like a game of Rugby. However, for those needing a quick rugby fix without all the trappings could do no better than purchase a copy of Kahmate.

Kahmate is a stripped down and slightly abstract re-creation of rugby. There are only six players on each side. The set-piece is entirely lacking from the game and if anything it feels more like Rugby League (without the be-loved Eddie Waring ‘oop and oonders’). For all of the things the game does not have it has the most important it feels like rugby. Territory and match ups are all important, it’s hard to score from your own half and you are always looking to maneuver your players to get the uneven match up fast guy versus slow guy, big man versus small man.

How does it play? The game is played on a board eight squares wide by eleven long. Each player has 6 disk team members. Two of the team members are’ normal’ they can move three squares with no diagonal movement allowed. The other players have special characteristics, the fast guy can move four squares but is a runt so has a penalty when tackling or being tackled, the tough guy moves three and has a bonus when attacking, the strong guy moves two but has a bonus in attack and defense, and the clever man has a bonus when defending. Success depends on getting the right men in the right place at the right time.

On a players turn they can move up to two team members, pass an unlimited number of times backwards (behind of diagonally) to team members up two squares away or kick the ball forwards up to three squares. Kicking diagonally is allowed. Only one team member disk can occupy a square and when a player, with the ball, comes into contact with a defending player he can try to force his way through him. Force through and tackles are handled in the same way; the attacker is the player trying to force or a player attempting to make a tackle. Each player starts the game with an identical hand of six ‘Stamina’ cards numbered one to six and he plays one of his cards to resolve the play. Bonus points are added or subtracted from the cards and the higher number wins. The losing team member is flipped over to show he is collapsed in a heap and can’t be used on the players next turn. A successful tackle with a two point card advantage causes a turn over; otherwise the ball is reset behind the player tackled. The card played is discarded and can only be picked up again to be played after all six cards have been played. Thus timing the use of cards is crucial you don’t want your skinny bloke trying to tackle the strong man on the line when you only have a one value card left in your hand.

The game was a finalist for the French Tric-Tac boardgame award 2008 award and is the first game from Igor Davin. It’s a pleasure to play, each game takes about 15 minutes and it feels like rugby that for me is the most important thing and I’d recommend this game to anyone who loves the oval ball but does not have the time to play one of the longer rugby simulations.

New Releases : 1st April

It’s a great week for new releases and re-stocks.

Small World is the buzz of the board gaming world at the moment and it will be in the shop on Wednesday.

Bakong is a family game themed as an adventure game of plundering the ancient riches of Cambodia.

Bang! (and expansion Dodge City) is a cowboy themed party game has been re-released in a fourth edition.

Re-stocks include 3 from the ‘Geek top ten Agricola, Dominion and Tigris and Euphrates.

I have added a few items to the Special Offers section, including Galaxy Trucker and Neuland

I have added the excellent living card game Call of Cthulhu to the range.

Our Favourites: Cosmic Encounter

Ah, Cosmic Encounter.

Let's explain - my love is a new love. I am not someone who played earlier editions, nor am I someone who had even heard about the game except occasionally mentioned by others fondly, before Fantasy Flight announced it was reprinting this awesome game.

Let me be frank and up front - the reason Cosmic has lasted so long is because it is a work of genius.

Not because it is complicated. Oh no! Far from it.

Let me start with what it is NOT.

It is NOT a game of space battles and whoosh bang explosions. No. If you are looking for a space battles game, this most categorically is not it.

It IS a game of negotiation and adaptation, cunning and misdirection.

======How DO I win?======

The aim of any game of Cosmic Encounter is to gain a number of "colonies" on other players' planets. you do this by defeating them in battle and establishing a base there.

The way Cosmic works is that it starts from a very simple game, and then messes with it in fun and exciting ways. Each of these can be added to your games as you like, creating extra chaos if you want it, or keeping things relatively simple.

======So what's this Simple Game then?======

Ah, my old friend the bold question and answer format! :p

The simple game here is a majority number game.

You are assigned by a deck of cards to an "encounter" - this is simply a very abstracted combat sequence.

You send a number of ships to the encounter (at least one, not more than four) then both sides play a card. You add the number on the card to the number of ships you sent to the fight, highest number wins, ties to the defender.

======Wow. That is simple. And rubbish.======

Frankly, yes.

So in the deck of cards are a couple of different ones; a negotiate card, that lets you make a mutually beneficial deal with you opponent, and a morph card that is always counted as identical to your opponent's card.

Both of these are joined by "artifacts" which are just simple "special" cards allowing you to take actions not normally possible.

======OK, that's sounding a little more interesting======

But still not wonderful, right? I hear you.

How about this for another building block. When you're involved in an encounter (either attacking or defending) you can ask the players not yet involved if they'd like to help you out. Of course, they will reap the benefits of a victory, so is it worth asking for their help? Or will it help them more than it helps you?

======Wouldn't you just hold onto good cards?======

No! Here's the clever thing with your hand of cards - it starts at eight, but you don't get new ones til you've used or got rid of ALL the ones you had. That card with a zero on it? You'll have to use it at some point!

======Nice! But come on, more variety, please!======

I'm a big fan of variable player abilities, so lets talk about the single most important aspect of the game - alien powers.

Each player in the game chooses at random (or from several picked at random) at least one power. This is simply a way in which they can break the rules. FFG have included 50 different ones here. That means you could play 50 successive games and never have the same Alien. For me, that is magnificently crazy.

Let's look at a couple for examples:

Normally when you play a card for your encounter, it is discarded. If you are the CLONE however, you get to choose whether to take it straight back into your hand or not - bearing in mind the other players now know what it is.

Can't win an encounter? No worries! LOSER aliens get the option to "declare an upset" and reverse the outcome, so the loser wins and the winner loses. Problem is, you must decide to do this before you play your cards.

Hopefully you can see how ingenious these powers are in changing the game.CLONE has a quandary - is that card worth taking, since everyone knows what it is? Also, if you're down to your last card and you pick it back up - you won't get any more cards to play with til you play it again!

As for LOSER - do you declare an upset? How confident are you that their cards are THAT much better than yours?

======And there are 50 of these?======

Oh yes indeed, From Amoeba to Zombie.

But, Wait, as they say! There's more!

Each Alien Power has a "flare" card; a powerful ability that either gives powers to other aliens, or massive powers to the right alien! These are shuffled into the deck at the start of the game as required, and add even more variety and craziness to the game. They are optional as well, since they are very random and can sometimes be irritating to some players (Resurrection is particularly annoying).

======So, even more variety?======

Oh, indeed. You get even more than that, too, in the form of Tech Cards. These represent abilities you can earn by spending ships. Again, these are entirely optional so you can decide to use them, or not. I haven't played a game with them yet since I have been having enough fun already, but for even more variety and value I say thanks to the designers.

======And the big finish?======

Cosmic Encounter is a game that can be tailored to suit almost any group of friends, so long as they enjoy games at all. The simplicity of the base rules is an absolute godsend to world weary rules explainers like myself.

The fact that in subsequent games you can add in the other rules one at a time is also helpful if you're the poor soul who has to introduce them to your mates.

There's a lot said about the various different games you can experience from getting different combinations of Aliens, and their interaction is really what this game is all about. Take for example the VIRUS, which everyone initially thinks of as outrageously overpowered (it multiplies its ships by cards instead of adding them) but the first time someone got it in our games, someone else got ANTIMATTER, which makes the lower score win. That made every encounter between them far more in ANTIMATTER'S favour. Interesting.

It is very easy to get attached to your favourites (mine is GAMBLER) and wish for them to come out of the deck as often as possible - unfortunately this is unlikely (1 in 50 chance) so you must learn new things every time you play - sure you may have had an easy time with VIRUS last time out, but this time you've pulled out HACKER - much harder to get the most out of and you're not going to win as any encounters on your own.

It is this that brings freshness and fun to every new game of Cosmic Encounter you play. To win at Cosmic, you must be adaptable, cunning and persuasive. You are even given the option to have more than one Alien power if you wish - making for even more combinations and possibilities!

Not many games live on for as long as Cosmic Encounter, and while it will not suit everyone with its chaotic nature and vastly variable playtimes (some games last fifteen minutes and you won't get a go, others can go on for many hours) but if you're up for fun above all else then I'm not sure it has a peer.

Ten games in, I'm most looking forward to the next hundred.

As always, whatever you think of Cosmic Encounter, I hope you enjoyed my review!


Second Look: Supernova

I don't normally go in for long rules reproductions, but here since it is not a very well known game I thought I'd have a go. The headings should give you an indication of what to skip if that's not your thing,

Ah, Supernova.

How I love your tile-adorned board's appearance, looking like a tactical display from a really attractively designed spaceship computer system. Clean and abstract, with easily distinguishable iconography the state of play is easy to see for everyone even from the other side of the table.


So, er... what happened with the rulebook?

Let me explain; my ideal rulebook is in turn order, with all options for each phase easily findable and simply described in each part. In Supernova's rulebook, a whole section at the end called, inexplicably, "components" describes several of the major choices in your turn totally out of order and making the quick location of rules tough if not frustrating.

Crucial rules included here include:

* The choice to exchange a tile for an encounter - many other players of the game didn't even know you could do this after reading the game rules twice!
* You can only raise each technology once per turn.

If you miss these your game will be very different from those played by other people.

Never mind the strange absence of any tiebreaker rules (answered instead, unsatisfactorily and self contradictingly, in the extensive post publication FAQ) but when one of the player aids isn't just unclear but CONTRADICTS a rule we're in real trouble.

This particular rule is to do with buying new battle cards - on the player aid it says, clearly enough, pay 1 resource unit (RU) to take three cards - keeping two and discarding one. That is what the aid says, no question.

Problem is, the rulebook says (paraphrasing here) "take three new cards of which you can keep two but must discard as many as you take from your either your hand or the ones you picked up". As far as I know there's no way to sum that up in a pithy little design and single line of instruction so while the confusion is understandable I find it inexcusable.

OK... rant about rules presentation over, I can talk, perhaps surprisingly, about what I really want to:


Quite aside from the fact it looks good on my gaming table, a fairly done to death angle on this game - congrats Mr Mike Doyle on the majority of your work - there's a lot of great gaming fun to be had from Supernova.

=======What's the game all about?======

You and your opponents previously led reasonably content, peaceful lives in the same set of systems, coexisting for the most part peacefully. Thing is, you've just found out the giant star in the middle of your home systems is about to go KABLOOEY and wipe out your civilisation.

Oh Dear.

What to do? Well, it's time for a brave odyssey out into uncharted space to gain as much influence in the new expanded galaxy as possible, while hopefully avoiding getting irradiated to death by the eventual, titular Supernova,

======So how do we win?======

Like so many games, we resort to everybody's love - the abstract method of victory points summation, in short - points mean prizes!

During your expansion you will place tiles on hexes to show your influence and control over them each is worth a point - if you have a tile under a planet or moon during scoring, you get more. Your RUs (resource units) are worth points too - as is your special power if you can resist the urge to use it.

The game is played over a modular board to keep the relative sizes similar however many players are involved, and battles between races occur when one player places a tile on an opponents controlled hex. These are resolved using numbered cards, with the higher total emerging victorious or ties being broken in the defence's favour.

In the service of your victory you can upgrade your weapons for an attack bonus, shields for a defence bonus, comms for extra battle cards at the start of your turn and engines for extra tiles to place.

======Wait. No Plastic Spaceships? No Dice?======

You don't need tonnes of plastic in every game! There are spaceships if you know where to look. Each battle card in your hand represents a part of your fleet, and is shown in the same 2d abstract style that characterises the game art, bigger ships are worth more in value.

The battle card system is ingenious. No matter what your starting hand size (dependant on comms technology's level), your hand of cards is only refreshed to a max of four once the current player is done with his tile laying, so if you use all our good ones in one battle, he may press home an advantage by attacking again elsewhere. The balancing of when to play your cards is crucial to success.

You are also restricted on which cards you can play - three suits exist (blue, green and orange) with some low value Silver cards, which are wild. Of these, in battle you are only allowed to play a hand of all different, or all identical colours (bearing in mind silvers can be played with any). This can lead to some frantic hand juggling as you try and form the best fleet to take out your opponent without crippling yourself for a later assault.

I can appreciate combat in Supernova is not to everyone's taste. Decades of resolving space battles by dice rolling and making "pyow! pyow!" noises as you move plastic ships about may be ingrained on you.

My description of the board as a ship's computer display is probably worth restating now - we're at a large scale here, as much in terms of time as size, and the fates of individual ships or even actions does not matter. The 9 tuns of the game are meant to represent 1000 years of time, so a little license is granted. I for one thought it works really nicely, and the escalation of conflicts in each turn is as fun to watch as it is to do.

======You mentioned planets and moons...======

Yes. Yes I did.

On each big board (there is one per player) there is a planet with a moon orbiting it. Each planet is already occupied by its existing race, and control of that planet gains you its ability - anything from a boost in weapons technology to being able to gain more RUs a turn. Planets are extremly valuable for points at the end of each phase too, the most valuable thing in fact, at 5 VPs per planet.

The moon doesn't give you technology, it gives you cold, hard, orange-sugar-candy-alike RUs - these are worth 1VP each even if you don't use them to upgrade technology, buy research and the like. Moons have a little problem for any would be overlord, and that is that they move each turn on their fixed orbits, meaning your influence must extend to much of their orbit if you want to get the most out of them.

Of course, anyone who owns a planet won't just let you mine the moon for free, so if someone else controls the moon's planet you must pay them half what you earn.

======Right, so I just lay tiles , battle and upgrade?======

You have one more crucial task. Somehow, not explained by the rules, you have the power to bid for control of the destructive solar flares that emanate from the dying star. Presumably there's som kind of flare redirection system being run by someone for profit, I don't know.

The practical upshot is that at the end of each round, if there is a flare (a coin flip determines that) , you make a blind bid in RUs and the winner decides which hexes (not tiles, crucially) are "burned up" and removed from the board. In early rounds this isn't too bad as only two will get destroyed but the supernova at the end of round 9 will destroy five whole hexes, which can make a massive difference to the final scores.

======Rules out of the way, what do we think?======

It is a testament to Supernova's fun factor that I am still a fan despite requiring serious work on rules before you play. It is a very simple game, which is complicated immensely by the way in which the rules are written. A turn is simply draw cards, gain income, place tiles and battle, spend RUs and swap cards if you didn't fight and that's it.

A simple step by step approach would, in my opinion, make the game easier to learn and as a result a lot more popular with new groups, who may see the complex arrangement of rules as promising more than is really there.

But simplicity of play turns does not mean simplicity of tactics - every single move you make, as well as every investment decision, affects your next one. The way in which you are forced to play tiles for fortification (simply putting a tiel on top of an existing one) before any expansion means you are always making the judgement call whether to consolidate your postion and go defensive or expand aggressively, but spread yourself thinner. This makes each turn a forward planner's dream

Of course like The Jam said, The Planner's Dream Went Wrong, well - in this context that's syntactic nonsense, but you get the idea.

The way in which the players can interact in terms of tabletalk or game politics is freeform and loose, with all manner of cooperation possible, either by mutual non-aggression or softening up other players, but as with any game like this, no rules enforce such alliances so, like me, you are always ripe for backstabbing if you rely too much on your "ally"'s honesty.

While these things are not covered by rules we found they really add a lot, capturing the feel of a "galactic council" if you like, cajoling, bullying or even begging others to take certain actions.

This brings me neatly onto the question of theme, or to be more exact, the question of "does Supernova actually feel like a game of galactic conquest?"

In my opinion, absolutely yes. While the necessary idea of your tiles representing "influence and control" rather than military forces may seem a change from the norm for fans of, say, Twilight Imperium 3, I simply see this as a question of scale rather then being overly abstract.

While there are plenty of choices to make, the encounter system hasn't been popular with my games since you are throwing away a tile that is a definit 1VP in value for an encounter of probably minimal or possibly negative long term value. I'm not sure that part of it is as good as it could have been.

Still, for the feel of large scale galactic events and desperate conflicts over resources, I really enjoyed Supernova - I think it should be looked at by every Sci-Fi fan and also many Eurogamers will find much to enjoy from their end too. I like it so much that I considered it for a rare 9/10 rating, but the rulebook just edged it downwards. It may go up as my feelings on that mellow a bit over time.

I commend the honourable candidates from Luaaq, Agni et al. to your attention!

Whatever you think of Supernova though, I hope you enjoyed the review - thanks for your time.

And whatever you do, keep playing games!


Our Favourites : Le Havre

Brian Wilson of Beach Boy’s fame went mad shortly after hearing ‘Sgt Pepper’ by the Beatles he felt that the pop music bar had been raised and he had to respond but before he could finish, his masterpiece, ‘Smile’ he lost his sanity. The album was locked away for forty years only to be re-recorded and released in 2004. This work was met by bewilderment and disappointment by fans forty years for this? It was as if the lost Library of Alexandria was found only to contain a shopping list for sandals and pomegranates. The reason ‘Smile’ was a non-event was it lacked context, maybe if it come out forty years ago it would etched itself in to our musical consciousness.

Now Le Havre on the other hand has context coming out of its ears the context is Agricola. We only had a year between these two games and for most of us it was a mere six months. In my gaming groups we have stopped playing Agricola because Le Havre just seems to do it better - or so it seems. I find it impossible to think of playing Agricola without reaching for Le Havre, and every time I play Le Havre I make a mental note to play Agricola again. The games are intertwined and I am not sure if Le Havre is a great game in it’s own right or great because of Agricola. Maybe if we had to wait forty years for Le Havre it would be another ‘Smile’ a non event.

My first impressions of Le Havre were that it was a re-mixed Agricola; the designer acknowledges this and his debt to Caylus. However with more plays I believe Le Havre is much more than a re-mix and I suspect it deserves to stand on its own two feet as another work of genius from Uwe Rosenberg.

Le Havre has 300 or so less cards than Agricola and simpler game mechanics, but the choices seem far more bewildering first time you play. This is because, though the number of cards in the game is smaller, they are all going to be on the table at some point (with the exception of the special buildings). Compared to Agricola, where you only have to worry about your own cards, this can seem at mind blowing the first time you play, and I know has put some off the game from an initial outing. But persevere to your second game and the building functions and their relationships become less intimidating.

Thematically it’s spot on again. Whereas in Agricola, you come out of your hovel faced with weeds and mud you know is going to be back breaking labour to turn it into a farm, in Le Havre, you are coming out of your town house, puffing on a Gauloise and sniffing prosperity carried on the Manche air. Starvation is not on your mind it’s all about deciding the best way to turn a few Francs; is it exporting the finest agricultural produce in the world, or sending it to Paris or shall I become an industrialist? Choices choices.

How does it play?

The board (it’s almost unnecessary) is pretty simple. It’s a repository for basic materials (Francs, Fish, Wood, Clay, Iron, Cole, Grain and Cows). These materials also have their own offer spaces from which players can pick up accumulated goods (ala Agricola). There are also seven turn markers that players in turn place their ship markers on. There is space for the different ships that become available as the game progresses, a space for building proposals and for special buildings.

The basics of game play are very simple too. On your turn you place your ship maker on the next available space, fill the ‘for offer’ spaces with the basic materials listed on the turn order tile (these are placed randomly on the seven turn circles at the beginning of the game). You then do one of two things – take one pile of goods from an on offer space or use a building by putting your marker on the building and taking the action listed on the building. You can also buy or sell buildings at any point of your turn.

The buildings come in three types, the starting buildings have already been built by the town and be using them you can build new buildings from the available proposal section. The too build section is three rows of cards which have been shuffled in to three columns then sorted (lowest number first) by number order. The first three cards in each column are available to be built (or bought) the rest are visible for all players to plan ahead. You can also buy and sell buildings. After a player has taken the seventh turn of a round then everyone has to feed (Agricola again).The food cost increase through out the game and a player can substitute Francs for food. Each round card doubles as a ship that becomes available to be built in the following round. The round card tells you how much each player has to feed, whether there is a harvest or not (if there is you gain another cow if you had two and another grain if you have one), the card also tells you if the town is building a special building and or the town may build the lowest numbered building proposal. If a player has built any ships they provide a permanent source of food. If he is still short he has to take a loan of five francs. For each loan a player has he loses seven victory points at the end of the game. He has to find one Franc in interest each round, no matter how many loans he has. Loans can be repaid at par at any time and can even be cancelled by using the local Court building. Coming to Le Havre for the first time from Agricola I tended to avoid loans, because as we know from Agricola not feeding is a very bad thing.

However, in Le Havre failing to feed is not disastrous and can be a good short term tactic. I imagine credit was in short supply in 17th century Germany, not so in Le Havre. You might be short of the readies at turn end but you take those excess Francs you borrowed to the butcher on the next turn and slaughter that fine herd of Charolais, live off steak for the next few rounds and visit the tannery to turn the hides into leather and cash and pay off that loan. In Le Havre not having a ready supply of cash is a bigger sin than not feeding.

Why do you need the cash? Well for it gives you victory points at the end of the game, but more immediately the buildings of the town and those built by other players have an entrance fee. The fee is either cash or food, with cash being able to be substituted for food.

All of the basic goods in Le Havre have on their flip side the developed equivalent for fish its smoked fish, cows its meat, Clay its brick To develop these basic goods you will need to use buildings such as the bakery to turn your grain into fine baguettes. To use a building it has to have been built by a player of the town. If you built it it’s free to use, if it’s some one else you have to pay them an entrance fee. To convert basic goods to their developed flip side there is also an energy cost energy comes from wood, its developed side Charcoal, Cole and its developed side Coke.

The early buildings either give you additional resources or convert these resources into there developed side very necessary to help you get a food engine going. Later in the game the buildings help you turn your goods into money and thus victory points. I mentioned earlier that on some round ends the town builds ‘Special buildings’. At the beginning of the game the deck of 42 special buildings is shuffled and the top six are used in the game. These, unlike the building proposals, are not visible to the players until they are built. These buildings can be very powerful and change a player’s strategy when they come out. The ‘Wharf’ building(s) is usually built about of a third of a way through the game. This moves the game into a new phase as it allows the buildings of ships. The first ships available to be built are wooden, then iron, then steel and at the end of the game luxury liners. Ships provide a permanent food source, victory points and the ability to export your goods for cash. The luxury liners only provide victory points. Ships abilities get better the further up the tech tree they are. Shipping goods require the ‘Shipping Line’ building to have been built and it allows players to spend energy (three per ship) to export goods on the ships they own thus turning them into cash, the more advanced the ship the more goods can be sold. With the exception of cows, the developed goods sell for a lot more than undeveloped goods. Players are usually trying to find a strategy that will let them make one or two visits to the shipping line at the end of the game for large points. Goods can also be sent to Paris for sale but it’s a less profitable activity than selling abroad.

When the last round is finished all players get one last action, and for the only time in the game players can simultaneously use the same building. Handy if you have timed things to perfection for one last lucrative shipping action. Unlike Agricola, where family members, come back to the farm at the end of a turn, in Le Havre your marker stays on the last building you used until you move it to another building or the building is sold to the town. This can rather frustrating if someone is sitting on a building you really want to use, however denial is not too important in Le Havre. If the building you want to use is blocked there are going to be some good choices elsewhere, and if the building is in demand from other players then shift your strategy elsewhere.

Victory points at the end of the game are totted up from a player’s francs, victory point values of buildings and ships, some building provide extra victory points for owning buildings of a particular type. Seven points per loan outstanding is deducted from this total - the highest total is the winner.

The semi-random way the buildings come in to play can cause quite different game experiences, and that’s one of the things I like about the game after spending so much time playing Agricola. Agricola has a prescribed order of play sometimes it can feel stifling. The ability to do things in Le Havre depends on the buildings draw; it’s a little more random, a bit Gallic. Some Anglo-Saxon players have found it a difficult to adjust to a more free form game after the strictures of farming in Germany.

Another plus point for Le Havre is that all the buildings are available to all the players there’s no complaining that some one got a ninja hand draws.

I don’t think Le Havre scales as well as Agricola the solo game is not as much fun and the game allows for five players but is not a great experience. I think the sweet spot is three players, for a more open game two players is great and feels tougher and tighter with four. Another criticism levelled at Le Havre is that it is longer than Agricola which is true however it does not feel as is time is dragging when you play.

I have yet to meet anyone who has played Le Havre who has not played Agricola first, some prefer it others are not as keen. I think any one who has played Agricola should give Le Havre a try and if you love great development games but were put off by the theme of Agricola then this might be the ticket, after all sea air is preferable to wading through mud.

Thousands of Board Games - New service

Currently we stock (when we say stock we mean in stock) about five hundred games - these are games which are the most in demand or that we believe are excellent and deserve to be played by gamers everywhere.

However, our 500 is just a fraction of the boardgames available. BoardGameGeek has over 35,000 games listed in it's database - from the obscure, to the terrible (Dog Monopoly anyone?) , to the ancient to ....you get the picture.

We would like to make some of these games available to our customers in the Guru style - unbeatable on price and service. To do this we have set up a new section in the shop called 'No Frills' - think of it as a budget airline. It will get you from A to B at the best price - however we don't expect you to pay to use the toilet. The catch with this section is that we have no photos or descriptions of the products in this range and, because we have to order them in especially , you may have to wait up to 10 days for delivery. The way it works is that you place an order with us, we add it it to our regular orders to our suppliers (usually two or three a week) and when it comes into stock we will post it out straight away. If there is any problem with us securing the games we are not going b*****t you, we will refund the payment straight away and even tell you where else it is in stock (it might be 35% dearer but if you have to have it now we understand)

Many of you have already asked me to find rare games and as it is a service i enjoy providing. Now i would like to make it easier for my customers by having the games listed on the website.
I am constantly adding games to the 'No Frills' section and it will eventually hold well over a thousand games - combined with our 'In Stock' games i hope we can provide the best possible range, price and service to the gaming community.

Age of Steam - For Heroes!

'Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.' Dr Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)

The good Doctor was not a boardgamer (at least Boswell makes no mention of an Advanced Squad Leader habit in his biography); he spent his time writing his dictionary, winding up Boswell and getting all weepy about London, however had he ever played boardgames his dictum would surely have been:

'Ticket to Ride is the game for boys; Railroad Tycoon for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must play Age of Steam'.

Age of Steam' ,the brandy of boardgames ,reverses my usual boardgaming preference - that they should be social affairs, preferably cause some laughter at the table and leaving everyone at the end of the evening feeling that they had a good time. Age of steam is brutal, there does not seem to be any other way to describe it. It has player elimination - almost unheard of in a modern board game. It punishes bad play, requires 100% concentration for two hours just to survive let alone win and leaves you feeling that you have just sat through a school exam - which you have not revised for.

Have i put you off yet? No - let's carry on then. My first game of
Age of Steam , to borrow from Hobbes, was nasty , brutish and short. I went bust after five turns. Embarrassed, I sat and watched the rest of the game whilst four, normally, pleasant and gregarious gamers became fractious and paralysed by analysis. I was hooked. In my next game i managed to last the course, watching my opponent, normally a gaming bon-vivant, turn a shade of grey,reduced to mono-syllables. The game requires you to keep three plans in your head simultaneously because you will not be allowed to achieve the your preferred choice, if any - to be successful at the game you need to deny your opponents easy points. It's the sort of game where you watch other player's moves , praying they don't do something nasty to you. Your prayers are seldom answered.

How does it play? You own a railroad company and need to build links between towns and cities over which you ship goods. Victory points are awarded for net income and completed sections of track. Each turn players build track and ship goods - sounds simple doesn't it? You start the game with $10 and a level one engine - you are going to have to service your debt every turn and pay a $1 in engine expenses per level. So at the end of the first turn you have to find a minimum $3 in expenses

Each turn sees players issuing new shares, $5 per share ($1 interest per share per turn ), then bid for player order. The only player who does not have to pay for their bid is the first person to pass in the bidding. The top two bidders pay the full value of their bid, everyone else half rounded up. So if you issued a share to fund building and turn order bidding you are looking at turn end minimum expenses of $4 and you have no income. Yet.

Once player order is decided in order each player selects a role for the round. The selections include 'first build' - this allows you to build first your track first, 'First move' this allows you to move goods first, 'Engineer' - allows you to build four sections of track instead of the normal three, 'urbanisation' allows you to upgrade a town to a city, 'Production' allows you to add two random goods cubes to the goods board, 'Locomotive' this allows you to increase the level of your engine and thus ship goods further and 'Turn order' which allows you one free pass in the next round of turn order bidding.

Once the roles are decided then players take it in turn order to build track(whoever choose 'first build' builds first). Each player builds up to three sections of track, usually these will link towns or cities. A player puts their marker on any link they have just completed to markt heir ownership They might also cross over other players track, the cost of the track depends on the terrain and complexity of track placed. Space is limited on the board so players often use there builds to block out other players. The player who choose 'Urbanisation' can upgrade a town to a city. The new cities (8 of them) come in different colours. The next part of the turn players ship goods - all cities start with two random coloured goods on them. Players move goods twice during this phase, being able to forgo one move to upgrade their locomotive by one level. Goods must be shipped to a city of the same colour and must stop as soon as they reach a city of the same colour. You can only ship goods over as many links as you have an engine level, so at the beginning of the game you can only move goods over one link. Moving one good one link gives you a $1 boost on the income track. If you have an upgraded engine you can move goods further and receive a bigger income boost, one per city/town passed through. The highest level of engine is 6. You can also move goods over other peoples links - givng them income points. Why on earth would you want to do that? Sometimes it's necessary to give you the maximum income boost and deny it to your opponent the other ,reason is that each turn, once a player has got past to an income of $10 they see their income reduced. As if it was not hard enough to just break even as soon as you start to make money your income is reduced. So if your opponent is nicely placed on an income of $9 give him an extra point and then watch his income go back $2 at the end of the turn to $8. It's a nasty game - surviving requires elbowing people out of the way, winning trampling on their face. Income reduction is a catch up mechanism, somehow it feels more like an instrument of torture than a method to stop a runaway leader.

After moving goods players receive income, pay expenses and reduce their income if necessary and If you can't pay expenses your income is moved backwards for every $ you missed. Down to zero and you are bust and out of the game. Getting in to the black in this game feels like an achievement in itself. After income comes goods growth. Each of the cities on the board and cities available through urbanisation either has a number or a letter. These correspond to a table of goods which is randomly populated at the beginning of the game. A number of dice equivalent to the number of players is rolled and then the goods in the top row corresponding to the column of the die roll are moved to the cities. If a player has chosen 'Production' earlier he can
take two random cubes and place them any where on the goods table before the dice are rolled for goods growth.

At the end of the game players incomes are multiplied by three, three times their shares issued is subtracted and one point is for each section of track in a completed link is added. All players then need a stiff drink to calm their nerves.

This game is not for everyone. If
Ticket To Ride is your favourite game then you will might hate this game. However, if you love Railroad TycoonCanal Mania then this might well be the game for you - it's a step up in complexity but is hugely rewarding once the initial shock is over come. Now I'm off to bury my head in an ice bucket..and clear my head for another game of 'Age of Steam'

This week's new games (16th March 2009)

Following on from last weeks Ilium we have another archeology game, this time aimed at the younger gamer - Archeology - The Card game

Age of Steam 3rd edition – the greatest railway game ever (as voted by members of boardgamegeek) has been re-printed by Fred distribution, it comes with an additional maps for solitaire and two players, lots of plastic trains left over from Railroad Tycoon and a lawsuit. However, it’s a must have for board game aficionados – whether you buy this edition or track down one of the rare Warfrog copies on ebay

'Steam' – Martin Wallace’s new rail game is being published by Mayfair in April and some of you may want to wait for that. It will be fully compatible with the forty or so Age of Steam expansions and includes a basic game that is less unforgiving than the full game.

Bonny and Clyde – it’s rummy with a twist set in outlaw recession era America.

Carcassonne Big Box – the ultimate Carcassonne collection contains the base game and a lot of expansions

Two expansions for Cutthroat Caverns arrive this week - Relics and Ruins and Tombs and Tomes add new rules and adventures to the base game.

Small World now has a release date of 27thMarch and we have it available for pre-order.

Android - For Heroes!

"For Heroes" is our semi regular section on the more complicated (or, heavier) games in the world. These can offer great rewards to the brave gamer, but are challenging and sometimes mystifying to new players. Allow us to guide you through some of our favourites:

Android, by Fantasy Flight games, is an oddity - released after a highly successful and evocative viral marketing campaign it became a surprise release towards the end of 2008. The package is gorgeous, feeling "deluxe" in presentation and ambition.

It concerns the trials and tribulations of three to five investigators as they try to apportion guilt in a recent murder, whilst preventing their opponents from succeeding as well as battling their own personal demons. It takes place on a massive board depicting the Earth based city of New Angeles and the moon base above it.

And I love it.
To read the full article click here

There's something any review of Android should get out of the way very early on indeed - it is not for everyone - it has been the subject of much debate on the Geek, but I should be able to explain why I believe it is for MOST people.

I hope I can convey in this review what a game of Android is like and how it works. I also wanted to show you, from experience, how each game can be affected fundamentally by its most ingenious feature - the conspiracy puzzle.

My lofty aim is that this review can be followed and understood not only by those thinking of buying this game who have already done some research, but also understood by those they intend to play it with (who may know nothing). I hope I can achieve this in general enough terms that we avoid a rulebook rehash - a form of reviewing I find about as fun as a movie review that just tells you the plot and then says "It's OK".

I'm now up to 5 games played of Android and am loving it!

CAVEAT: I would recommend, from experience, that you don't try and teach four players at once! At least not while trying to play as well. :D

What I am currently liking a lot is how the different investigators are forced, due to their strengths and weaknesses, to take sometimes very different approaches from each other in order to win.

Though I have never won I have had immense enjoyment every time, and felt in control of events and able to affect the game significantly even if I felt unable to win.

I was also impressed by how despite the killing of one of their suspects, usually key to victory as it is the highest scoring thing in the game, the winner on two occasions still adapted and came out on top.

To people who don't know much about the game, I will explain its structure in very general terms.

======The Game itself - what is it?======

Android is a game that, like many others, uses the universally accepted all-purpose nebulous currency of Victory Points (VPs).

The winner of the game is the player with the most VPs at the end of the game. (well, duh!)

The trouble is, every turn you have a very limited amount of time to do things - usually allowing for a total of 6 "time" points. The task you have is to use your time well enough to score many points, while fighting off other players traps and roadblocks.

Your characters have a lot of personal stuff to use and think about - a guilty and an innocent hunch to prove, their own stories you live through during the game, and two decks of cards, one that helps them, and one that hurts them.

The detail of the plots, cards and how they work is unnecessary for a review like this, but I think it's worth taking a look at how you can get those all important victory points.

There are three points scoring methods;

1. endings to plots (between -10pts and 14pts),
2. having the right hunches (0pts if unsuccessful to 25pts if both guilty and innocent is correct),
3. picking up tokens from three places (Haas and Jinteki token 3vp each, conspiracy line completions 4vp each).

Aside from scoring for completed lines (horizontal, vertical and diagonal sets of five) the conspiracy puzzle does something even more crucial - it can modify any or all the other points scoring methods by anything from 1vp extra up to potentially 4vp extra. It can also make things that are worthless except in exchange (the favours) crucial to victory.

======So this puzzle is the key to everything?======

Not always, but perhaps.... the cool thing about the puzzle is you can only do it if you forgo your right (and time) to do something else important (namely work toward your hunches) - Android is a game where you have very limited time resources to do everything.

You can't afford to ignore the conspiracy though.

FWIW, I think the puzzle can easily be underestimated as a force in the game. Even if you don't want to spend time on it, rest assured that it will affect the outcome of the game significantly if someone else does.

======Get to the point now, Algo!======

OK, so through a game turn you'll be following up leads, playing nice cards to help yourself and spending your hard earned favours to gain good stuff from special locations. On other people's turns you'll be playing bad cards to give them a hard time of it, some immensely satisfying (like taking half their time points away) and some just mean.

The card mechanics are a little complex to explain, but in summary you must play good cards in order to get the credit you need to play bad ones and vice versa.

Everything you do will cost you time, so all the considerations you make must be not only made with other players and your next turn in mind, but also with the economic use of your limited actions at the front of your mind.

I think this is where some players have lost patience with things, as the sheer number of choices and resources you have to use means you can get bogged down in your options if not careful.

For me, being the type of player I am, the speed of moves is not an issue, but I can see the point of view.

======Alright, alright. But is the game any good?======

It REALLY deserves a look. I appreciate many will find themselves unhappy with some of its mechanisms and its harshness with "take that" methods of winning, but if you let it, it can become a fantastic way to spend your time.

Plus, it feels to me like, while playing Android, you are actually playing three or four games (a card game, a race to complete the puzzle, evidence placement and plots) all of which are interconnected. The three to four hour running time doesn't really hurt that much given this fact. Sure, you could play four to six games of Shadows over Camelot in the same time as a five player game of Android - my advice would always be DO BOTH - In fact I have done precisely that on one recent game weekend!

Then I think about how you have 5 murders to try out and five very different characters to play as.

Each murder is essentially a set of rules specific to this particular game, so the basic one "Evil At The Estates" is the basic rules as written, but others change anything from movement rules to requiring any Earth based leads to be moved to the moon when followed up.

Every investigator has not only their own plots and rules, but entirely different card decks (noth light and dark) meaning that each is new and interesting to play - once you've exhausted your knowledge of one you can always start from scratch on one of the others.

While games are even more expensive than ever, and the economy is so bad I think this big box has ALREADY given me value for money at £6 a game or so, since a movie costs about that much. The inclusion of these different investigators and murders increases this value further.

======Hmm, interesting, but it sounds complicated======

My advice to new players is not to get hung up on winning the first game so much. There's so much going on you'll get a headache and won't enjoy it.

I've never been too hung up on winning anyway (lucky, really!) and I don't think anyone who views games as a social and fun activity can get too upset if their first game is a little unsuccessful points-wise (like mum!)

Take it easy and it'll all become clear, on average, about turn four. If you are really insistently unhappy at the disadvantage your mates may let the game be restarted and you can really go for it then.

If not - don't worry, just have fun. It's a fairly forgiving system so long as you keep an eye on your plot baggage (and remember draws are broken in favour of the bad outcome, just like in Shadows over Camelot) and you can still enjoy making things difficult for the other players as well as getting yourself back in the hunt.

======Wrap it up, half the audience are asleep!======

I'm very impressed with Android - I think everyone should at least give it a go. It is clear it does not work for everyone and that's fine, but everyone I have tried it with had a good time and got something out of it.

On a personal level, I am pleased with the variety, the value for money side and replay value.

I highly recommend it.


Essential Expansions: Merlin's Company (Shadows Over Camelot)

For some people, us included, games are even better when they get more pieces, rules and ways to play. While not all expansions are created equal, and some disappoint, this series will only concentrate on those we believe add value and longevity, as well as the crucial factor - fun, to all your favourite gaming experiences.

As described in more detail in the post on Co-Operative Games, Shadows over Camelot is the rather evil little game of heroism and treachery from the Knights Of The Round Table. Knights travel to various quests to overcome the evil threatening the lands, but where there are heroes there is always the ever present threat of a traitor in the ranks, sowing destruction and mistrust.

You can pick up Shadows Over Camelot here.

So what does Merlin's Company, the expansion to this game, add to it?

Well, on first opening the box it appears like not much, but let me tell you - this is a little box with a lot of punch! It introduces a higher level of difficulty but with the ability to customise things to your liking.

Firstly, it introduces Merlin himself, who acts independently of the knights, moving to quests as a result of a card draw (more on Travel Cards later) and helping out whoever is present by giving them extra cards or blocking the placement of siege engines. He is undoubtedly a powerful aid in your efforts but is unreliable and may end up in worthless locations, such as the two wars, if you are not careful.

The travel cards are a major obstacle to overcome in your efforts. Some of them do nothing, some move Merlin, but far more concerning are the ones that cause you trouble, either getting you lost, captured or even attacked! Bearing in mind in the original game you could travel without any danger at all, these additions make things significantly more difficult.

Adding even more difficulty are Morgan's seven witches, seven different cardsadding nasty magical effects to the rules that severely hamper the knights' efforts. These vary from increasing the penalty when you make a false accusation to preventing the use of life points for extra actions, directly damaging the knights.

To balance things out a bit they have included a whole load of new white cards to give the kights some more powers, one crucial one is the Dispel card that removes one of the effects of the witches and another is the truce card that ends a war in a stalemate with no positive or negative effects.

However, even with the addition of Merlin and the new white cards, the difficulty of the game is definitely increased if all new rules are used - the witches and travel cards can make even the most simple of plans extremely dicey. This may turn some folks off the game, but for my group of friends it added a lot of fun and I reckon, significant extra longevity to what is already a fantastic fun game.

In addition to these new rules we get the eighth knight, Sir Bedivere (who can discard one of his cards to gain another one) and along with him seven extra knight cards, though these use the same models as in the original game, which have more interesting if harder to grasp abilities.

Now, to the most interesting and crucial change - the addition of Sir Bedivere means that the game is playable with 8 players now (rather than 7). To adapt to this change you get a new set of loyalty cards in the box, with not the one traitor card, but two.

That's right - you could be facing two traitors in the 7 and 8 player games!

Naturally as loyalty assignment is blind, the two traitors won't know who the other evildoer is, but their potential presence will cause serious concern especially since it is possible that no traitors at all are present in the game so players must be very careful about making wild accusations.

Shadows Over Camelot is one of my, and my friends and family's favourite games - it is an ingenious mix of interplayer politics and co-operative crisis management. It is one of the first games I recommend when asked for my favourites, and Merlin's Company is an exceptional expansion to the experience - adding just enough in all areas of the game, without greatly increasing its complexity or teaching time.

Both are highly recommended!

...keep playing!


New To The Hobby: Jamaica

For anyone new to any hobby with its own customs, traditions and concepts - simply picking up the basics can be an intimidating prospect. For casual or first time players of many modern Euro or Ameritrash games a certain amount of what for the designers may be assumed knowledge is alien at best, or impenetrable at worst.

For this reason many gamers talk about Gateway Games, a sort of game that can be used as the eponymous entrance into the hobby.

As an introduction to many of the more nebulous concepts involved in modern games, and as a game in its own right, I can heartily recommend Jamaica, a game of Pirate Ship racing with a whiff of cannon smoke thrown in.

Each player takes the role of a pirate captain and gets their own ship, action cards and board (representing the holds of your ship) and a little gold and food to be getting on with.

The rules are simplicity itself - each turn the first player is called the Captain. They roll two normal dice and decide which one will be used for the "morning" and which will be used for the "evening". All this does is affect the actions on your cards, which are various combinations of two from the following:

  1. Load Food equal to the dice roll (i.e. up to 6)
  2. Load Gunpowder as above
  3. Load Gold as above
  4. Move Forwards
  5. Move Backwards
That's it. Your card shows one of these on the left (for which the morning die will be used) and one on the right (which uses the other). Each card has appropriate and amusing artwork showing a lot of investment in the concept from the makers.

You win a game of Jamaica by having the most points at the end of the race (which finishes at the end of the round when the first ship has crossed the finish line)

Points=Doubloons + Treasure + Points for your position on the board.

Now the really clever bits of Jamaica are the decisions surrounding the dice and the action cards.

Consider that you are the captain and you roll a 6 and a 1. The card in your hand shows a food loading in the morning and a forward movement in the evening - which dice do you want in the morning and evening? If you put the one in the morning you will load one food and then move forward six spaces. The problem with this is that one food is not very useful and blocks up a hold (your holds can never be topped up and new stock always replaces their entire contents) so would it be better for you to take 6 food and then move one place?

Food is exceptionally useful since on most board spaces you will need to consume food or be forced to move backwards due to shortages. The alternative can sometimes be to land on a port, which costs your precious doubloons but for which you don't need food.

The only free spaces to land on are the pirate bases, and these sometimes have treasures on, but to get to them often involves taking a longer route.

Combat occurs when you land on the same space as an opponent and takes the form of a dice roll, with your gunpowder tokens adding to this number (rolled with a special dice that goes 2,4,6,8,10 and also has a "kaboom" symbol which is an instant victory) - to victor, as is traditional, go the spoils! These will be either a piece of treasure or the contents of one hold in your opponents ship.

So getting back to my original point, what does Jamaica teach the new gamer that will come handy in other games?

First, we get the concept of combination - that is, rather than playing a card that moves you forward three spaces, or gets a certain amount of money these cards instead combine with the dice - this system is useful for understanding concepts like those in CCGs or CCG inspired games like Race For The Galaxy.

Secondly, as well as a choice of moves, we introduce the concept of the least worst choice - when you are not the Captain and the dice are not set up well for you, what do you do? What do you do when the Captain rolls a double 1 (a specialty of yours truly)? Contrast this to a simple "move as far as you roll" game, or the community chest or chance cards in Monopoly and you'll see why I find these types of decision more interesting.

Thirdly there' s no fixed route to victory. It's possible to gain 30 points through doubloons alone and if you are in a good position too you are likely to win, but those who send all their time collecting gold will suffer in position to those more interested in getting to the end first (with its 15 point bonus) and if they are significantly behind they will actually lose points. Also, while it may seem a good idea to avoid combat, if you have plenty of gunpowder cards in your hand you may decide simply to take people's doubloons away by force and win through this method.

For these reasons I reckon Jamaica is an ideal choice to introduce new folk to the gaming hobby, or to try out some of these concepts for yourself. The theme is excellent (who doesn't love pirates?) and the production values are top notch - the artwork is gorgeous and all the pieces of exceptional quality.

I highly recommend this as a fun, shortish (though the length will depend on the number of players) gateway game not to be taken too seriously. If you're looking for something that accurately depicts the life of a pirate you'll be disappointed, but as a step up in class and interest from dull roll and move race games it is a great choice!

....keep playing!


We are currently offering Jamaica at half the RRP - click here for its page in our shop

The Tower of Babel , The Library of Alexander and Reuters

For most board gamers newish to the hobby ( in my case returned) BoardGameGeek has inspired many purchases, inspired wish lists of obscure and wonderful games and provided hours of games related browsing. With over a million users and an open approah to contributions the amount of information is amazing at times bewildering. After using the 'Geek for a while we get to know which reviewers are trustworthy in their opinions and which are fan boys. It is a great resource for rules translations, player aids and debating the merits of different games, games companies and genres. It's democratic nature is both it's strength and it's weakness.

For a source of boardgame information which can be 100% trusted then i recommend you turn to Counter Magazine. It is a quarterly publication, looks like an Old Boy's magazine and is a paper only publication. Don't let that put you off - it is a gold mine of boardgame knowledge with the reviewers all being game experts with thousands of games played under their belts - if they say a game is good - believe it! If it receives feint praise then you know what means. Counter runs to about 100 pages of dense text, including reviews, industry comment and general articles about gaming. The annual subscription is £14 and is, in my opinion, the best investment a boardgamer can make. It's also quite funny in an Anciene Regime sort of way.

Counter, being a quarterly publication, is not where i turn for up to the minute industry news and for that i go to BoardGameNews - the 'Reuters' of the boardgame world, a website that gets the hot stuff before the 'Geek and you don't have to spend five hours searching for the latest snippet as it is laid out in easy to read fashion. It also has regular writers who are industry figures and have opinions worth reading.

This week's new games (9th March 2009)

New releases this week include Ilium, a Reiner Knizia game in which player archaeologists collected sets of treasure from the ruins of ancient troy. A family game, this is quick and easy to play.

Catan : German Geographies is a game released to celebrate (modern) Germanys 60th birthday. It’s Settlers set in Germany with a few rules twists to reflect the subject matter.

I have added ‘One more Barrel’ to the range, this Essen 2008 release from Giochix, an Italian publisher, is a boardgame about the second Iraq war. Part-war game part Euro game the idea of the is to expropriate as much money as possible. It looks fantastic and I’m hoping to get a copy to the table as soon as possible.

For the wargamers amongst you there are some interesting new releases this week. World at War : Blood and Bridges is a game that asks what if the ‘Cold War’went hot and how would the British Army of the Rhine fare against a Warsaw pact attack. This platoon level simulation is Lock n Loads most ambitious game yet to use the World at War system and will be a must buy for fans of the system and those interested in British military history.

The second new release is Memoir ’44 Campaign book Volume one – this adds over 50 new scenarios to the Memoir ’44 system and also allows players to experience a whole campaign.

The third is the first map expansion for Tide of Iron which adds new terrain features and can be added to the existing maps to create epic battles.

Our Favourites : Canal Mania

Now I don’t know many people who have a Mania about Canals though do occasionally see bargees puffing on pipes, working complex looking locks and generally having a peaceful time on Regent’s Park canal. Looking at recreational canalistas it’s hard to imagine that Briton’s Canals were once the arteries of the early industrial revolution. They are a fascinating historical subject, both economic and social, but compared to the belching steam of the early railroad canal’s have not fired the creativity of games designers or imagination of gamers.

However, The Ragnar brothers (Angola, Fire and Axe, History of the World. Monastery) are inspired by the less trodden path’s of gaming theme and in Canal Mania they have created a game faithful to the subject and also great fun to play.

Why do I like it so much?

1) Canal Mania scales perfectly between two and five players
2) It’s complexity sits nicely between gateway games like Ticket to Ride and more complex fare such as Railroad Tycoon or Age of Steam
3) Its quick to play a 2 player game can take 45 minutes and a five player game can finish in 90
4) The rules can be understood after 10 minutes but it also provides challenging tactical game play

Canal Mania has similarities to several Train games, Like ‘Ticket to Ride’ you need to connect cities to score points for contracts (think ‘tickets’) awarded by parliament and like Railroad Tycoon/Age of Steam you move goods along your (and other players network) for victory points. There are some key differences though unlike Ticket to Ride you can’t just build canals any where you like they have to be between towns and cities that match the Parliament cards you have selected and unlike Railroad Tycoon placement of goods is involuntary if certain cards are selected and then there are restrictions on where goods can be placed.

How does it play?

Two to five players compete for victory points that are awarded for 1) completing canals 2) The type of canal counters used in completing the contract and 3) Shipping goods.

The board depicts the major industrial cities, towns and ports of England they are colour coded for goods placement and shipping. The distinction between towns and cities is only important when placing goods . Superimposed over the board is a hexagonal grid with most towns being no more than four hexs from any other, terrain type is either easy or difficult to build in and it is on these hexes you will build your canals. Each player has the same set of canal counters 16 stretch canals, 12 locks, 4 aqueducts and 3 tunnels. Each player also receives an Engineer card who will help you build your canals beware though these engineers are a fickle bunch and don’t expect to keep your starting one for long.

Five starting contracts are placed face up on the table to be selected by the players and the rest of the contracts are shuffled and then a sixth starting contract is placed on top of the pile. Each contract will command you to construct a canal between two towns, sometimes they instruct you to connect the two via an intermediate town each contract specifies the victory points awarded for completing the canal which also doubles as a maximum length in hexes for the canal (Parliament doesn’t want you greedy early capitalists stretching the Canal’s unnecessarily). The contracts represent real Canals and add to the thematic fidelity of the game. Each player is given one junction contract (anywhere to anywhere maximum two hex length) which he can use later in the game, and he will because their use is crucial to completing high scoring networks or sneaking into other peoples. More on this later. The build cards are shuffled and five are drawn and placed face up by the board.

The build cards depict a length of canal and they match the starting canal counters of the players. There is also a Surveyor build card that acts as a wild card and some of the build cards have a colour block on them matching the colours of the towns and the cities. Like Ticket to Ride players will have the option of either choosing three face up build cards or using cards in hand to build a canal. If a face up card is selected that has a colour block on it then the player must place 2 goods tokens of the appropriate colour on matching cities or towns their being a hierarchy in which they can be placed (connected cities, connected towns, unconnected cities, then unconnected towns). Choosing where to place goods tokens and knowing that goods are most likely to appear in cities is a key part of the strategic process in building a network.

To build a canal stretch cards are played from hand. The same canal type can never be placed next to another of the same type and must be able to be placed in the map terrain. So for instance a nice easy two hex canal from London to Maidstone would need a Stretch and a lock piece and to play them you would need a stretch and a lock card. Easy. With canal pieces that need to be cut into more difficult terrain you need more cards to play them. An aqueduct requires 2 marching cards and a tunnel three. A surveyor card can substitute for any other type of card.

So you need to collect a fair number of cards to make your build actions efficient. Never fear because the engineers make the process that much easier, one allows you to substitute a lock or stretch card for each other, 2 others reduce the card requirement by one for ,respectively, building aqueducts and tunnels, one chap allows you to use a surveyor card as two other cards and the last allows you to take four build cards. I mentioned earlier that these engineers are fickle at the beginning of your turn one of your possible actions is to swap your engineer for any other players which they can’t refuse.

If a contract is fulfilled by building the canal then points are awarded for the value of the contract and the type of canal used in the build - stretches are worth zero points, locks one, aqueducts two and tunnels three.

The other actions available at the beginning of your turn are to select a new contract from the face up tile (or one of your two available anywhere to anywhere contracts). You can only ever have a maximum of two contracts in play. You can also swap engineers or you or you can discard the five face up build cards (ala Thurn und Taxis)

The second part of your turn I have described take build cards or build a canal.

In the last part of your turn you can ship goods. Shipping goods involves moving goods along a network of canals as far as you can with the restriction that it can not go through the same colour town twice. You score points for the number of towns or cities the goods travel thorough including the start and the destination. If you use another person’s network they score points for towns they connect to on the goods travel route.

In any phase you can, instead of taking an action, take blind a build card from the top of the build draw stack.

Fittingly, the end of game is reached when a player passes the ‘Railway’ age marker the end is nigh for players and canals. Play continues until one player reaches a pre-determined number of points (for example 50 points in a five player game), then the current round finishes and two further complete rounds are played. Then players move goods in turn until no more can be moved.

Scoring contracts provides the bread and butter points in the game with success going to the player who has best managed to create an efficient goods shipping network, partly by having a monopoly on some goods, partly by having the longest canal routes and by being able to deny points to other players by shipping goods available to a number of players. The ‘junction’ contracts are vital to strategy as they allow you to either complete your network or even better tap in to other players to siphon off goods they were hoping to keep to themselves.

I thoroughly recommend Canal Mania as a next step up from the Ticket to Ride series , for train games enthusiasts who like to try something a little different or for anyone who loves games where the theme is an integral part of the game.