Saturday, 26 September 2015

First Plays - Thoughts on Some Games I've Played Recently

I've played a few new games recently, and while I've not yet played them enough to form an opinion (most of these I've only played once), I thought I'd set out what I thought.

Roll for the Galaxy

I've played Race for the Galaxy quite a few times, and I do like it, but I'm very bad at it, and find sometimes it is hard work trying to do well which detracts from the enjoyment of the game. Enter 'Roll for the Galaxy'. In many respects it is very similar to it's older cousin, but instead of using cards, you use dice to build colonies and developments. You roll your dice, and while you can choose any action, the symbols which are face up on the dice determine whether you can use roles selected by other players as well.

I thought this game was really neat, I already like it more than Race for the Galaxy, and although there's still a full range of different strategies you can choose from, it feels less work because you often have less options to choose from when making decisions and less things you can build at any one time.


I've had this game for quite a while but never played it before, but had a couple of games at the club this week. Boy am I bad at this game, I was eliminated very early on in both games. To me it is a bit of a mix of The Resistance and Love Letter. Some people may think this is slightly bizzare comparison but that is what it was like to me. Like Love Letter, you (at the start of the game anyway) have two role cards to choose from, but unlike in Love Letter you don't have to play it. You take an action either based on one of the roles in your hand, some default actions not related to a particular role, or by bluffing and pretending you have a roll card. People can call your bluff though, and one of you will lose one of your two roll cards then.

I certainly don't love this game (I don't think I ever will), and as I said, I'm very bad at it, but I'd be up for playing again sometime. Certainly it's okay as a quick filler.


This is a really nice looking worker placement game, set in a sort of post-apocalyptic future I believe, not that the theme matters. It has got some really interesting mechanisms. Your workers are represented by dice, I think you start with two but can acquire more. You initially roll all your dice, and can play only one at once, unless there are two or more the same in which case you can play all of them that turn. Once all of your dice have been played on the board, you take a turn to recall them and then re-roll them all in your play area. There's a snag though. If the total of all your dice is more than a certain number, you lose one of your dice/workers. So you want to get more workers to get too many or you might lose one.
From Board Game Geek

There are all sorts of action spaces your workers can go on, many of them are better the higher the dice number (but sometimes the reverse can be true). There's spaces that affect your maximum dice roll before you start losing workers, there's spaces that increase your card hand limit, and there's the usual spaces that get you resources, cards etc. There's also a rather neat mechanism whereby you can use resources to help build a building. It does tie up workers for a while, but it gets you a victory point star and what's more once it's built anyone who didn't contribute to the building suffers some sort of penalty or restriction to what they can do. Haven't seen this sort of thing before.

Overall a really interesting worker placement game, I enjoyed a lot. It didn't hurt that I won either, after my friend Neil (whose game it is) announced in no uncertain terms near the end of the game that he had definitely won. Victory is sweet!

El Grande

I included this in my list of 'Top 10 Games I Missed Out On' on my blog recently, and my friend Gareth noticed and brought it along to one of our next games evenings - thanks Gareth! I really enjoyed this game. It is one of the grand-daddy's of area control games as it came out 20 years ago now in 1995. It is a deceptively simple game, you get a hand of cards numbered one to thirteen and you choose one to play each round. These cards do two things. Firstly, they indicate turn order - the person who chose the highest numbered card goes first. It also has another number on which indicates how many pieces you can take from your stock to your supply (i.e. bring into use to be able to play on the board). The low turn order numbers have more stock-supply markers, the higher numbers don't allow you to bring in any pieces, so you've got to carefully manage which cards you play when.

The players then, in turn order, choose a card from one of six action cards available. These also have two functions, firstly to dictate how many pieces you can play on the board, and secondly it gives you a bonus action you can take which can be anything from 'move five of an opponents pieces anywhere on the board' to 'score an area'. Unless otherwise indicated by cards, there are three scoring rounds in the game, and you'll get different number of points for having the most pieces in an area, second most, third most etc.

In many respects this is such a simple game, but I really like it a lot. Shame it is so hard to get hold of an English version. Though I've just read there's a big box version coming out later in the year...

Mice and Mystics

I've wanted to play this for quite some time, and as it is advertised as for 7+ we thought we'd be able to play this with our six year old daughter who plays quite a few 8+ games quite happily now. I was therefore surprised at just how complicated this game was. By that I don't mean there's lots of really complicated strategy, there really isn't. It's just that there is a lot of rules to remember. There's all the general rules, then there's specific rules for the scenario you are playing. That's a lot of rules to remember and get straight. I watched the 'How to Play' video a couple of times, and read the rules before I'd got it completely figured.

In the end, I decided not to play it with my daughter, so my wife and I played instead. I liked the story aspect of the game, but because we kept checking what we were supposed to be doing it detracted from it a little. Probably not my preferred type of game, but I'm glad I got to play, and think it will be worth picking up again in a year or two and playing with my daughter.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review of 'Neither Here Nor There' by Bill Bryson

I am not a die hard Bill Bryson fan by any stretch of the imagination. I've enjoyed several of his books, but there's been a couple of others I gave up on. I decided to give this one a go though because I was visiting Paris and Amsterdam, two of the cities Bryson visited in this book. I'm glad I did.

'Neither Here Nor There' is an account of Bill Bryson's travels in mainland Europe. He mainly travelled by train and bus, and visited many places - mainly cities - in both Western and Eastern Europe. It took me most of the book to work out exactly when the book was set, I had been thinking it was around the year 2000, but when he was visiting Eastern bloc countries it transpired that his trip took place in 1990, when many countries were on the cusp between communism and capitalism. To paraphrase Bryson, he said he was sure the place (Sofia in Bulgaria I think) would be very different in five years time, and the inhabitants would be much better for it, but he was glad he saw it before it changed all the same.

The book is not only set in 1990 however, as it features a number of flashbacks to when he travelled in Europe as a student in 1972 with his friend Stephen Katz. This allows an interesting 'then and now' comparison which I think added to the narrative.

It's interesting that of all the Bill Bryson books I've enjoyed, I've liked each one for different reasons. For instance I enjoyed 'Down Under' for all the history and interesting stories of Australia and Australians, whereas I enjoyed the autobiographical aspects and social history in 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid'. I really liked 'Neither Here Nor There' because it made me get up and travel to a lot of these places. I really felt the excitement and adventure of travel in this book, and loved the descriptions of some of the places that made me feel like I was there (Sorrento and Lake Como both spring to mind). I also really liked the sound of Split, Croatia and Diocletian's Palace where the corridors of the old Roman Palace are now the narrow streets of the old town. I really want to visit.

This was a really good, classic travel book, easy to read with plenty of comic moments, but also beautiful descriptions, fascinating facts and the real feeling that you are travelling along with Bill Bryson at times.

I don't tend to highlight many passages in books that I read (though it is quite easy on my Kindle Paperwhite), but there was one paragraph towards the end of the book when Bryson was in Bulgaria that I wanted to quote, because I found it quite profoundly true.

"I know Communism never worked  and I would have hated living under it myself, but it seems to me none the less that there is a kind of sadness in the thought that the only economic system that appears to work is one based on self interest and greed."

Something to think on I think. I also wonder if one was to follow in the author's footsteps today, what sort of different experience they would have. Obviously, they wouldn't be travelling through communist countries, and so many Eastern European cities would be profoundly different. I suspect everywhere would be very different too, the internet and globalisation generally have dealt a profound blow to individual cultures all over the world.

Some of the adventures of travel are lost these days too - all those hours getting lost and not being able to read or understand anything would no longer be a problem. You can just pull out your smartphone for directions or instant translations when you don't understand something. My recent experience in Europe was greatly enhanced by this technology, though I was with my family and so being able to quickly find toilets, cafes, the hotel etc were really helpful.

Anyway, that's enough of being morbid. This is a great travelogue written at just the right time I think. A worthy 9/10.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review of 'Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City' by Russell Shorto

This is one of my three holiday reads, from recent holiday to Amsterdam & Paris. I started each of the three books either just before or while on holiday, but finished none of them. Holidays after all are about more than just reading. This was the last one to start, and I began (or picked up where the sample left off anyway) when in Paris the day before catching the train to Amsterdam. Part of the reason for picking it was to learn something about the history of Amsterdam to better enjoy the visit, so thought I should really start before I got there! I consequently read this straight through, and didn't put down for another book.

Anyway, on to the book. This is a narrative history book, relating the story of Amsterdam from its founding in medieval times right through to the present day. It's also an exploration of the concept of liberty, which Amsterdam has for much of its existence stood at the forefront of. If this sounds a bit high brow and technical, don't worry. While the author shares some interesting views on this, it doesn't get in the way of the main event of telling the history of Amsterdam. It just gives it a subtle extra flavour, and adds a bit of weight to the book. The story of the city it told chronologically, picking up all of the important stuff along the way, and offers us portraits of some of the most significant figure in its history. The main chunk of the book covers Amsterdam's struggle against its Spanish Catholic overlords in the 16th century, and the city's subsequent golden age in the 17th century when it was arguably the richest and most powerful city in the world. This is probably the best part of the book, but the section of Amsterdam during and either side of World War 2 is also excellent. The story of Anne Frank is of course covered, but we also get the story of another girl, Frieda Menco, who used to play with Anne and her sister, who survived the war and recently told her story to the author of this book.

The author has an insider-outsider viewpoint which I find quite useful - insider knowledge but maintaining an outside perspective to properly be able to see the bigger picture. He's an American, but has lived in Amsterdam for a number of years. He's obviously undertaken a lot of research, but also conducted in depth interviews with Amsterdamer's which really add significantly to the last part of the book.

As well as this one, his other major book which was written a few years earlier is 'The Island at the Center of the World', a brilliant narrative of history of the founding and early history of New York (originally New Amsterdam as it was founded by the Dutch). Despite covering a much wider time frame, 'Amsterdam' is a significantly smaller book in size and scope. It doesn't quite reach the heights of the author's previous work, but is still a great read.

In conclusion, this is a great book if you are looking to visit Amsterdam or interested in its history at all. There are few cities that can lay claim to the historical significance or legacy of Amsterdam, and its achievement is all the more amazing because of the short time in which it did it. The smaller stories in the book are excellent too, my favourite probably being the story about the heroics and ingenuity of Dutch resistance members during World War 2, particularly Wally Van Hall.

Really recommended, 9/10.

And Amsterdam itself? Would I recommend that as a place to visit? Well that depends. If you really like your history then definitely. It has amazing history, beautiful architecture and a lovely canal network with great boat tours. It has its seedy side too, which you can't help stumbling over from time to time (okay quite a lot really), so you'd need to not be worried about that if you were going to enjoy the city. It's got great museums, including the Amsterdam Museum which is all about the history of the city, and lots of old canal houses which you can look round.

You don't even need to go round any museums to appreciate the history though, just by walking round seeing all the old buildings will do that for you. Look out for the pictoral signs on building facades, there's lots of really interesting ones.

Final words of advice? If you are going to visit Amsterdam, be careful not to get run over by bikes - they are everywhere (they have their own dedicated cycle lanes which look a lot like pavements - be warned). Oh and take this book with you, and you'll be wowing your friends and family with fascinating tales of Amsterdam's history.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Review of "The Game" game. Erm...

Back from a great holiday to Paris and Amsterdam. While I was there I randomly came upon an excellent board gaming shop, Descartes. Of course, it wasn't ideal for me personally, as most of the games were in French and my French is somewhat sub-par. However I did pick up a copy of a great little card game called, rather unimaginatively, "The Game". Or to give it its full title: "The Game": Spiel... so lange du kannst". It has no in game text, so is language independent apart from the rules which I already knew, so snapped it up.

In case you are wondering, Spiel... so lange du kannst is German and translates as 'Game... as long as you can'. Though my copy says "le jeu n'est pas votre ami!" which I think translates as "The Game is not your friend". Which is somewhat different. Anyway...

Type of game: Co-operative card game
No. of players: 1-5
Age: 8+
Difficulty: really easy
Length of play: 20 minutes

"The Game" BGG link (you need the link otherwise you'll never find it)

This is a really simple game to play, one of those 'why didn't I think of that' games. It's also a co-op game which is interesting for a simple little card game like this. It reminds me a bit of Hanabi, purely because you are working together to put numbered cards on piles in some kind of order. It doesn't have Hanabi's twist though - in The Game you can see your own cards and no-one elses.

How to Play

The game consists of 98 numbered cards, going from 2 to 99, and four base cards. Two of the base cards start at 1 and cards played increase in number each time. The other two base cards start at 100 and you play cards in reverse numerical order. Each player gets a hand of cards, 7 with two players, 6 cards with 3+ players, and this hand gets replenished every turn.

On a players turn they have to play at least two cards, but can play more if they like (note however - when the draw deck runs out they only need to play one card)They can play on any of the piles they want, and can play on multiple piles in a turn. Each card they play must be bigger than the last card played for the piles going in ascending order, or smaller than the last card on the piles going in descending order. The only exception to this is that if you are able to you can play a card different by exactly 10 on a card to go back. For example on the ascending pile, if the last card played was 37, you either play a card greater than 37, or you can play a 27 card. Similarly, if playing on a descending pile and the last card played was 37, you would have to either play a card less than 37, or you can play a 47. This is really useful as it allows more cards to get played on a pile.

Playing the Game on the train to Amsterdam
The aim of the game is for everyone to successfully get rid of all of their cards (once the draw pile is empty your hand doesn't get replenished). Often this doesn't happen, as once someone can't play, the game ends, and then everyone adds up the number of cards in their hands, and the number of cards (if any) left in the draw pile. A score of less than 10 is good.

The trick to this game is getting the right amount of communication between players. You have to communicate with other players to co-operate in what cards to play, otherwise you'll lose badly. However too much communication will ruin the game by making it too easy. The rule is you can't mention numbers at all, but you can say things like "please don't play on that pile as I've got a good card for it", or "only go up a little bit on this pile if you can" but can't be more specific than that.

The Verdict

I really like this game. It is so simple to learn and play (after much pleading with us, we relented and taught my six year old daughter the game and she keeps asking to play it), but playing it well and winning can be really challenging especially if you stick to the minimal communication rules. If you are finding it too easy and you are winning too often, there are ways to make it harder too. It's good value for money (mine cost 12 euros), and has lots of replay value.

I've played this game with two, three and four players and it plays well with all player counts. It is an easier game with two players, communication is more complicated and with four players you can't as easily ensure no one plays on the pile you want to play on (sometimes they just have to, or ruin another pile completely). But even with two players it is a good, fun challenge.