Pairs well with: Any old cocktail so long as it has an umbrella in it. You’ll be needing that shade. Brutus rating: 2/10 for picking the meeple the other person wanted GODDAMNYOU
Aren’t you guys lucky – this week we have a super exciting time-lapse of our game of Five Tribes thanks to our lovely friend Pete! Enjoy and keep on reading.
Have you ever wanted to own your own camel herd? A golden palace? How about controlling all-powerful djinn for your mischievous bidding?
It may sound like it’s taken straight out of a Disney film, but trust us, Five Tribes has all of the hallmarks of a great fantasy board game.
Five Tribes first grabbed our attention back in Essen Spiel, 2015. Brightly coloured and beautifully charismatic it was no surprise that Days of Wonder were pushing it to as many people as possible. Fortunately for Days of Wonder, the Misery Farmers were in fact drawn to the camels.
‘Holy shit it has camels. Like, a lot of camels. At least four camels. Guys, stop, we’re playing this. We need to see if it can compare to Camel Cup…’
The game is set in the mythical land of N’quala, where the design and artwork of the game leave little to the imagination. The aim of is to use the five different tribes – the varying coloured meeple who are randomly allocated across the board – to control the kingdom. In short you’ll need to collect the most money (which double up as victory points), where you may dictate, sat atop your pile of cash.
Confusingly, that means that Five Tribes is NOT for five people. Five meeple, not five people. Cast away that spare friend and get them to be in charge of snacks.
Now, let’s get back to those tribes. A round kicks off with some jostling about turn order which relies on a bidding mechanic. After this, each player selects one square of randomly coloured meeple, each of which have a different profession, and therefore have a different action associated with them. Blues are builders, they gather you money based on the surrounding tiles. Reds are assassins, they allow you to kill lone and undefended meeple. Whites are elders, they summon djinn who may grant you extra actions. Etc, etc.
Wait! So the five different tribes are each a different colour? And any meeple of the same colour has the same profession?
Yep. N’quala is definitely not a place of very cleverly distributed jobs. No idea what you do if you want to build something and you’re not the builder tribe, for example. Pff. And what, when your hair starts to go grey do you go and leave your family to join the elders tribe? I mean I know a few badass old people but as a rule they must suck pretty hard at most things, like manual labour.
However it normally works, they’re all gathered together and mixed up at the moment. Probably for the best.
The key to this game is looking very, very intently at which squares to begin and end your turn with. Choose which action you want to achieve carefully before moving anything.
‘Right, that’s my turn… hmm… no… I’ve done this wrong, can I try again? Does anyone remember which order of different colour meeple I put where? Did I pick up 4 or 5 to begin with? Oh God, which tile did I start with, they all look so similar…’
^^Literally, fuck you. Don’t be that asshole.
To be fair, it’s a little unintuitive before you get used to it. You pick up all of the meeples from one tile and then spread them around one at a time on each tile as you move in any non-diagonal direction you like. You have to end on a tile with at least one meeple of the colour you’re about to put on it, and then you pick both of those up to keep or put away. That’s probably how the game has been described by our friends both as “reverse-worker-placement” and “the tidying-away game”.
The number of meeple you pick up on your last tile dictates just how much of that action you can do. For example, picking up three reds allows you to kill a piece up to three squares away. Not entirely sure how that one works, perhaps their morale allows them to travel faster if they’re egging each other on.
As well as taking actions through meeple, each board square has a symbol on the bottom left hand corner that provides you with an additional action, should you choose to use it. This allows some great combo-moves (obviously depending on your foresight and ability to count small wooden folk).
And so, each player picks up and redistributes meeple throughout the game, using their skills to generate victory points. Briony is particularly good at a strategy relying on market traders: it’s always satisfying to generate enough points in a single track to beat everyone else and their diversity tactics. She annoyingly does this with the science track in 7 Wonders and is rarely, if ever, beaten.
What about the camels, I hear you cry! You’ve been shouting it at us from the moment we stopped mentioning them. Well! If you pick up the very last meeple of ANY colour in a square, thus leaving empty, you are allowed to park a camel of your colour on it (which is worth a certain amount of victory points at the end of the game)*.
Yup. You know when we said that you’re not the tribes? Turns out you’re the camels. The better you make use of the human tribes to your own advantage and the better spots, goods, djinns, and many other things you end up for yourself, the closer it’ll bring you to victory.
Particular tiles have a palace or palm tree symbol also. This means that if any action occurs on this tile a palace/palm will be added. Whoever controls the tile with their camel** at the end of the game scores 3 points for each palm tree, 5 points for each palace.
Scoring at the end is a complicated affair, since there are a lot of different and interesting criteria to judge who the best bunch of camels are. But the game comes with an adorable picture sheet to help you tally up with. It’s all good.
As all truly great, repayable board games Five Tribes can be played with many strategies. A full game takes around 45 minutes to play, which means that you can try new ideas, refine old ones, and base your tactics off of the other players. It has that element to it where you’re desperate to try a new tactic before you’ve even finished the game you’re playing. You can even play it many times in one night if you like camels that much***.
The real winner, as ever, is board games. And camels. Camels and board games.
*’What do you mean that’s all the camels do in this game? Where is the excitement, the drama?’
‘I don’t know, maybe they’re the retired camels from Camel Cup?’
‘Hmm. Fair enough. That’ll do camel, that’ll do.’
**Strategic camel placing is a great strategy for this game. It is now commonly referred to as the ‘parking your camel’s butts’ method.
Pairs well with: the blood of rival gangs mixed in with some post-apocalyptic moonshine. Brutus rating: 8/10 for backstabbing
It’s almost a year ago now that UFOs were last sighted in the skies over the Misery Farm for our second play through a Watch the Skies event, and in that time an awful lot has happened. The world turned. Our Prime Minister was accused of the kind of scandal that satirists dream of (#PigGate #NeverForget), and America lost its collective shit and voted for an orange balloon in a wig to run as Republican presidential nominee. Our long-time RPG matriarch, occasional guest correspondent and one-time GNN news reporter has had a small “human” baby (All Hail).
Oh, and the apocalypse went down.
Our story today really starts sometime in March. Zane Gunton, organiser of Bob and Lizzy’s first Watch the Skies (and indeed their first Megagame experience) had another game in the works and was looking for teams of three to live out what happens in the South of England after the world has ended. Aftermath is set some time after capitalism has fallen, society has broken down, and the snows of a winter long enough to do Westeros proud have finally started to melt.
Bob, Lizzy and Briony practically fell over themselves in excitement once it dawned on them that finally, after all these years, this was their chance to live out their mad, anarchist, Amazonian death-warrior fantasies. They’d survive the apocalypse and they would do it in true style, god dammit.[i]
This Megagame was hosted, unlike our two previous experiences, somewhere actually pretty accessible. It was in the centre of a town, in an large bunker-like room. The good people at Southampton Guildhall would probably resent that comparison but they’re the ones with a shabby basement-level ‘suite’. Rumour has it that the room was one of the more expensive parts of the endeavour, but where better to host the Aftermath of the apocalypse than a subterranean grotto?
It even came with a passably-stocked bar, which let us buy booze more cheaply than normal at the very reasonable and restrained time of around 1pm (with the excuse that red wine looks a bit like the blood of your enemies). They could clearly tell that we weren’t the kind of, fancy, business clientele that normally meet in the city centre’s guild hall. Not sure how, but it might have had something to do with the (fake) blood smeared across our faces or the leaves stuck in our hair (what? That’s just how we normally wake up on Saturdays.)
We walked in bright and early (so, so early), into a really well set-up room. Tables were covered in maps and there was a lot less prep to do beforehand than previous Watch the Skies events. Bob nearly lost her mind when she saw that the maps were proper Ordnance-Survey ones because that bitch is crazy and really, really loves maps.
To get into character we started by greeting everyone who came near us with a cheery smile and the phrase “death to man”. Of course, the only people allowed to approach our table at the beginning were control, who quickly pointed out that they weren’t male at all but just nebulous god-like beings there to impart wisdom and make the game work. They escaped our wrath.
The next person who came by our table was the event photographer who, rather than being terrified by our sharpened nails (yes really) and spatters of gore was deeply entertained and gave us badges emblazoned with the motto ‘Stop Harrassment in Gaming’[i]. Which was lovely, but didn’t really convey the kind of terror we were hoping to inspire. Luckily we could let our barbaric blood-thirst flow free once the game started.
Our theme was, to put it mildly, heavily influenced by raging death cults. The apocalypse hit us hard (as it had everyone) and driven us to some rather extreme methods of survival. Old Lady Lizard (Lizzy) had amassed a group of female followers and preached to them about the cause of the end-times: not just capitalism but its patriarchal roots. Death, destruction and madness brought Nameless B (Briony) and Crazy Bob (Bob) into the fold and, in our insanity, we concluded that the only reasonable response was retribution and vengeance to the male puppets of patriarchy for bringing about disaster.
Gameplay was actually really good, and one of the best ones we’ve experienced in a Megagame yet. Although it took us maybe a turn to get the hang of things, it was actually quite simple. We had cards representing resources and people, and it was our job to use them in as creative and effective a way as we could. Given cards representing groups of survivors who’d joined our cause, we named them “The Valkyries”, “The Matriarchs”, “The Harpies” etc. We had a great time.
We could place cards on our own board to determine what we’d do locally in our home base of Arundel Castle (a real castle about an hour’s drive from where we live and an excellent defensive fortress)[ii]. A controller would come round and together we’d explain and work through what the units were doing, be it gathering supplies, fortifying the castle, or cutting down trees. ‘Housekeeping’ was also an option. An option which we ignored.
Resolutions were conducted using a method we can only describe as ‘Blackjack’. A controller would decide what kinds of numbers we’d need to aim for, what difficulty we were at, and we’d play a mini round of Blackjack. This was great as not only did it combine elements of luck and personal decision-making, but Blackjack is Bob’s favourite betting game.
Bob: We’d better play it safe and hold it there.
Lizzy: That doesn’t sound like us.
Bob: (shocked) Wait, you’re right! That doesn’t sound like us! HIT ME!
The other main thing to do in a turn was, of course, to leave the castle and go out into the surrounding area to kill, maim, and loot. This was done via more cards (that represented our bands of survivors, our supplies, any weaponry we might have, etc) and written instructions, complete with details like co-ordinates of where we were heading. After a few misunderstandings and mis-readings (controllers are, after all, only human) Bob took to writing the instructions in block capitals with copious underlining.
This was where all the maps came in. Our tables were each supplied with a map of an area in the South of England, along with markers describing some local information. If we wanted to go somewhere, we had to decide where, how, and how long it would take. This more realistic approach is one of the ways in which the gameplay was really intriguing. We couldn’t just make up places we were going, or be vague, we had to actually choose somewhere real. We had to consider terrain (roads, in the post-apocalyptic South, are clogged with abandoned cars and near-useless), buildings, and which places would have the kinds of supplies we were after without being too full of homicidal locals.
All of which worked in our favour during what’s now being lauded as ‘The Great Victory’.
Apparently our approach of raiding parties, killing sprees and general unwillingness to civilly interact with our neighbours had not gone unnoticed. A lot of the rest of the room (playing as the government (‘Gold Command’) and local law-enforcement (‘Silver Command’) had actually done a pretty good job, it turned out, of trying to bring society back together. There were regular news reports on the radio (that signified when a new ‘turn’ in the game began), apocalypse-proof farming initiatives, safe-zones, and capitalistic enterprises springing up all over the damn place. The army and the police had, pretty quickly, been despatched to sort out the havoc going on around Arundel Castle.
You know that shit is about to go down when half a dozen green-shirt controllers all surround your table at once with a couple of the guys from silver command. One (whom we recognised as the Military Advisor for France during our first Watch the Skies. His tactical skills had clearly helped him survive the great apocalypse) was wearing a police hat and a stern expression. Zane ‘Megagames’ Gunton himself broke the news that there were tanks and approximately 200 people approaching the castle fortifications.
Unluckily for us, we actually had no weapons beyond some mediaeval stuff we’d picked out from the armoury and some medical supplies. We’d sent our only rifles off with our original hunting party (who had never returned). The tanks were well-equipped and heavily outnumbered us.
Luckily for us, we were a band of insane warriors who had spent much of the previous turns erecting even more fortifications than the castle already had. Briony had in fact insisted that we block the only susceptible part of the castle seen as we had some spare builders and a lot of trees lying around. Also, as a storm was raging in-game, we had brought all our survivors inside the castle walls and they were ready to dispense some guerrilla defensive tactics. Also, did we mention we had a fucking medieval castle. Those things have been around for literally years.
The poor attackers weren’t quite sure where to start. Here’s a transcript of how some of that went down[iii]:
“Er, we get take up a good position and start firing at the castle.”
“You can’t just say you take up a good position. Where?”
“Ok, er, here. This high ground. *gestures at map*”
“That’s more than two kilometres away. Your mortars would be useless”
“Oh. Er. Here then!”
“That’s inside our fortifications. That line there is our fortifications. It’s clearly labelled fortifications” (Controller: “They’re right, I watched them build them.”)
“Damn. Er. We start from the hill and start slowly approaching?”
“Ok. You’re walking slowly down a hill, towards our fortifications, in front of a great big castle?”
“Did we mention it’s a castle?”
We did have a pretty damned defensible position. A lot of the plains on one side of the castle had been flooded, and we’d done a lot of work in fortressing-up the rest. We had also dispatched some particularly fervent warriors into the forest (hereafter known as Guerilla Warfare Woods) to stage slash-and-run attacks with medieval axes and some scalpels we’d nicked from a hospital.
A few excellent card-draws later (including a straight 21) the police were too afraid to approach and the army were losing people. They withdrew. We tallied up a few more on our death-count and drank to our own victory. It was a glorious time.
We had a really good time in general. We later found out that we were having some pretty incredible luck at drawing cards behind the scenes with the controllers as well as at our table. All just part of what can make a Megagame really exciting.
Our isolationist approach did mean we didn’t get much interaction with the rest of the people in the room and thus had a fair bit of dead time as the poor controllers rushed around trying to resolve everybody’s plays at once. In fact, the first and only interaction we had with another party was a small band of traders cautiously approaching our table. The travellers were represented by one guy who we’d seen across the room talking to a lot of the other groups. Naturally, we immediately attempted to kill him. He got away (thanks to some unlucky card draws) but dropped some awesome stuff (stolen rum goes great with human flesh). He had then later alerted all of the other groups, and silver command, to our hostility thus beginning their plotting against us.
We once heard someone run over to a table and say “Wait! I’ve just realised that that is the most suspicious thing I’ve ever heard. Did you say a unit of 29 old ladies walking by with zimmerframes?” which kept us amused for a while. Otherwise we didn’t find out much about what was going on in the greater game until the summaries at the end. We even heard the same problems from some people who were actively trying to find other groups, so perhaps the game was spread out over slightly more land than was ideal or the players were wildly under-estimating how far and how efficiently they could travel.
The summaries at the end are always one of the best parts, bringing together the stories of what had been happening for all of the different groups, and really giving everyone an understanding of how their actions actually affected everyone else.
Some of our favourite other-group themes included the return of capitalism from Team Apple (who brought WiFi and radiation-resistant technology in the form of the ‘iPocalypse’ to the wasteland), the cannibals who only managed to kill around 6 people (psh! Our kill count was nearer 70), and a group who were on a stag party when the apocalypse happened, and just kept on partying. Their table was decked out with Hawaiian flowers, cocktail glasses and pineapple juice, and a large part of their end-game was devoted to throwing a party big enough to invite all the survival groups in the South. In the words of their controller, “their star is burning very brightly but I’m not sure about their long term strategy for survival,” which sounds like a nice way of saying ‘they’re playing a good game but they’re all going to die soon’.
Gold command had apparently had a fantastic game, but the disconnect between what they were doing and what the survivors were doing was enormous. They had no idea of what we were doing and we had little idea of how well their mandatory ID cards and ‘education’ policies were going. Amusingly, the silver command in control of our area (whose attempted arrest of the Morrigan had gone so disastrously poorly) had decided that Gold Command were fascists and seceded from the government in the final turn.
Oh, and there was apparently a ‘Cult of Bee’ people.
As for your noble reporters, our game also finished on a pretty good note, though we felt a lot like the game had run out of time before really getting to the finishing point, especially as our final orders weren’t resolved before time was called. One, maybe two more turns and the shit would have really hit the fan. There was not just one, but two large groups of people heading towards Arundel Castle. The army had returned with reinforcements, and … a strange band of old ladies were on their way with homemade bombs. The two sides would, we assume, bump into each other and end up fighting each other instead.
This was particularly amusing news for us, since (predicting this kind of reprisal) we’d secretly abandoned the castle a couple of turns ago, and all of our forces were out raiding the towns and farms around Littlehampton[iv]. As a distraction Briony had spent several turns constructing some trebuchet’s for the inevitable second wave attack on the castle, and had left the builders there to (wo)man them. May as well get some medieval siege-killings in while the rest of our survivors were racking up the raiding party’s kill-count, right?
We can’t thank the organisers and the controllers enough for putting up with our mad ways. It’s definitely an amazing Megagame, and one that we highly recommend to others if it happens again. We also can’t even begin to thank Zane’s wife for making apocalypse-proof cakes, which were distributed around the halfway point of the day. Those lemon drizzle cakes were boss.
The real winner, as always, is cake gaming.
[i] And by ‘style’ we of course mean ‘soaked in blood’.
[ii] Not only is Arundel Cast a real castle, but it’s actually owned and sometimes lived in by an earl or duke or something. This pleased Bob immensely as the implication was that the Morrigan would have killed and eaten him in order to gain access to his sweet medieval armoury.
[iv] A plan which Briony had great difficulty with, since she was having a very hard time listening to her roleplaying side over her highly trained strategy-game side. BLOOD AND DEATH TO ALL, but you know, while maintaining an impregnable stronghold.
Pairs well with: Rudimentary fermented fruit? Whatever, we just had some wine we found in the back of Briony’s cupboard. It worked out alright. We hunted and gathered it.
Traitor rating: a firm 6/10 for tile-dickery
Do our long-time readers remember Dr Photographer? Such fancy pictures. Anyway one time he kindly lent Lizzy his copy of Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers to see her through a Christmas with her family. This was several years ago so, naturally, Lizzy still has the copy* and it’s her go-to Carcassonne edition to this very day.
By the way, did you know there was a world championship Carcassonne tournament at Essen Spiel every year? We were pretty surprised. Yeah, it’s a popular game with a few bajillion expansions, but is it really the kind of thing you can have a world tournament of? Well, we suppose it must be. In hindsight we realised that we had made up and attended our own tournament for Codenames which is a much lesser known game, so really, who are we to judge?
Hunters and Gatherers is pretty similar to regular Carcassonne in a lot of ways, but all stone-age and stuff. Instead of a road you have a river, instead of castles you have forests, instead of farms for farming you have meadows for hunting, but the basic principles tend to still be there. In addition to this, at the end of the game you cannot score points for any forests or rivers you failed to complete which we feel is a just end to that one slacker friend who deploys his remaining meeple in a last ditch attempt to get some half-assed points. It makes the end game much more excited, and makes you that little bit more keen to just get that damn forest-ending tile that you’ve been looking for for like five turns now NOT ANOTHER CURVY RIVER ARRGH!
This does mean that when Lizzy plays real Carcassonne with the big kids then she always gets confused playing with the river expansion – an expansion where the first few tiles are just to place out a river for the rest of the cities and roads to go around. “Lizzy, why are you trying to put your meeples on the river, are you drowning them?” “That’s where they go!” “Is… is she new to games?” It’s embarrassing for everyone around.
One of the main parts of playing Carcassonne is just taking a tile out of a bag. The “taking a tile out of the bag” phase, if you will.** Since your entire turn relies heavily on which bit you take out, it’s easy to see how much of an effect that old toad Luck can have on your game. Particularly with your first few plays-through, or if you don’t play that often.
Nobody ever wants a river tile, for one thing. Or a road tile, if you’re playing vanilla Carky. Long river, curved river, ending river. NOBODY CARES, RIVER. GO HOME.
Just as in regular Carky lots of the points can farmed in the cities, in Hunters and Gatherers the points are in the forests. Two points per forest tile compared to only one point per river? Psh. Easy choice!
But there comes a stage in your Carcassonne life where it’s become your go-to game with a certain friend or two for a while. Or maybe you’re stuck on holiday somewhere or the internet hasn’t been working properly and Carcassonne is one of the games you have around. Whoever loses is really determined to play again, and the winner is determined to prove that it was definitely mad skillz and not just luck which earned them that victory. You start playing a lot of Carcassonne. Like, a lot.
Before you know it, randomly placing tiles wherever will add to your current river and your current forest turns into actually developing some kind of advanced, coherent and complex strategy. Briony likes to think that placing a tile with a tasty animal on it anywhere on the board may in fact bring her more points. ‘Are you not going to farm that…?’ ‘I don’t need to, I brought a badass MAMMOTH to the party. I get cool points.’
Brionys of the world aside, you start thinking not just in terms of how to increase the length of your rivers and size of your forests, but how many extra points each extra tile is worth. You start spreading your bets and stop relying on that one exact freaking tile you need with some forest on one side and a bit of river on the other side but only while facing a particular direction.
Fucking hell, you start to think, river tiles do have a use – to join up your meadows. You become resentful of players who seem to understand the concept of scoring points better than you – “Briony… are you playing the points game? The game where you try to get points and then win?”
“Yeah… not on purpose, but I seem to be doing well at it”
Basically, you just start thinking about all of the things you should have been thinking about from the beginning. Huts, for instance. Never underestimate a well-placed fishing hut.
Ok, you say to yourself after the third game in one evening. That’s why there’s a world tournament for Carcassonne!
Of course this seeds some serious resentment when you (Lizzy) play with somewhat less-practiced players (Briony and Bob). Bob will start with very careful placement of each tile, considering every position and muttering encouragements to herself (‘Come on, Bob, we need this, buddy’ – Bob). Her response to then having her carefully-farmed meadow hijacked is to accuse Lizzy of LITERALLY BEING SATAN and start her own settlement miles away from anyone else’s.***
Meanwhile Briony, despite having a pretty good score early on, fosters an incredible inability to perform the most basic function of Carcassonne – fitting the pretty picture tiles together so that the edges match. The situation has reached a point where if any of us mis-place a tile it is now referred to as ‘doing a Briony.’
“Briony, buddy, it’s Bob’s turn. Also that tile doesn’t fit there.”
Soon the tides turned, and everything was once again right with the board-gaming world. That is, Lizzy was trouncing everyone.
Another feature that makes Hunties & Gazzers different from regular Carcle is that you get a selection of shiny gold nuggets in your forests. Ok, so there aren’t even forests in regular Carcle, but the nuggets actually have their own little neat mechanic. When you complete a forest with at least one gold nugget in it, no matter who’s the greedy point-grabbing owner of the forest, you the completer will get to draw an extra, exciting non-bag tile. Not to be underestimated as a tactic! More tiles, more points. And the bonus tiles tend to be a little extra nifty, too. More fish than you could have dreamed! Golden mushrooms (for an extra point), a magical fire that scares away tigers!
Oh, that’s right, there are tigers. As well as delicious huntable animals like deer and mammoth, there are also tigers. These do naff all except eat deer at the end, and lower your score if you’ve got a little gatherer lying down there trying to catch them. Arseholes.
Briony: Can I put the tile-
Briony: Can I put it-
Others: STILL NO.
Briony: Ok I’m putting it-
Others: STILL NOOOO
So overall, Lizzy actually managed to convert her two sidekicks (cough) to Hunters and Gatherers as a superior game of Carcassonne. Maybe it was the wine speaking, but it also could plausibly have been the neater scoring mechanics and the more charming scenery.
There was only some mild and mostly-accidental cheating.
(the team spots a river tile going into a meadow tile… where it most certainly doesn’t fit)
“Wait. Look at this tile here. Who let this slide?”
“Have we had too much wine?”
“It was Briony! I remember!”
“Oh shit it was. Should I take two points back?”
“Nah we’re just going to make fun of you about it for a while.”
Briony, we want you to know it’s OK and we understand. Except we don’t, because we can think laterally.
The real winner here was wine. And probably Lizzy. And this cat who had a snooze in the box while we played.
* In Lizzy’s defence, Dr Photographer-friend has about a thousand different Carcassonne games and expansions, he probably hasn’t noticed it’s missing. Probably. Or maybe there are “missing” posters and a reward out somewhere… don’t tell!
** Or you could employ a sly-Bob tactic which involves slowly taking a tile, pulling a face, and slowly putting it back in the bag when she thinks Briony and Lizzy aren’t lookin. That’s right, we’re onto you Bob. This part is called the ‘drunk cheating’ phase.
*** Blackjack and hookers optional. Mammoths mandatory.
Pairs well with: Sloe gin with lemonade. Because it’s adorable, just like the game.
Traitor rating: 3/10. It’s dickery by omission – avoid picking the cards that will ruin your opponent’s adorable little planet. Because you’re mean, and you hate happiness.
A smaller game, the kind that fits well at the beginning of the evening or slotted between two longer games, The Little Prince also works well as a soothing follow-up to something a bit feistier. Worried that your friends will never speak to each other after a long slog of Game of Thrones: The Board Game? Concerned that your compatriots will never stop calling you traitorous toaster scum after you defeated them at Battlestar Galactica? Worried that you and everyone else are going to murder Lizzy because of her stupid smug victory face after a game of Scoville, and then get in trouble with the police in the morning? Then maybe The Little Prince is for you!
Funnily enough, one of those above situations was what led to The Misery Farmers playing The Little Prince together for the first time. Even though it doesn’t have a whole world to offer in the way of strategy or unique aspects, and it’s not as catchy and unique as some of the other short games we all know and love, it does definitely hold a top spot as being something peaceful and adorable to play. It would probably be very kid-appropriate (we don’t know any children ourselves so we can’t check), but it’s also a fitting introductory game for e.g. nice mums who have nothing against board games per se but everything’s changed a lot since Monopoly and they’ve misplaced their spectacles and what does this card do again?
It also mercifully doesn’t take a lot of explaining, because getting heavily beaten at precursory strategy games by Lizzy make Bob and Briony very… thirsty. Rules-explanation took the following, somewhat slurred, form:
“So this tile is good ‘cause it’s got loads of shit on it, where this other tile is good because of all this stuff on it. But this one, he’s a bastard because he’s got all this bad stuff on him.”
Thanks thirsty Bob!
Luckily in the cold light of day we can briefly explain the rules a little better.
The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet is a short game based on the French children’s book of the same name.* You assemble an adorable little planet made up of 12 tiles with, as Bob so helpfully explained, stuff on them. The game lasts for the same amount of turns as you need tiles to build your planet, and there’s a neat strategy of turn-taking in which a player picks three tiles from a tile-pile, chooses a tile for their planet and then decides whom to pass the remaining two tiles onto for next picksies.
It does have a few unique twists that make it interesting. Some of these tiles will determine how your planet will score points at the end, so you can find yourself with a choice between taking a tile which might get you points or tiles which might get you ways to earn points. You’ll have the complete set of tiles by the end anyway, but do you want to decide on point-scoring tiles earlier, or do you want to leave it until later so your comrades are equally clueless for now?
Collecting certain types of ‘stuff’ is how your victory stars are reaped. Obviously, you should maximise the kinds of ‘stuff’ which your point-scoring tiles say you need to get points. The objects themselves are fairly whimsical; it’s as if a little prince made them up. Items such as sheep, cardboard boxes (with sheep in them), snakes, roses and lamp-posts are all among his imagined items, and are all adorably drawn.
Briony, never having read The Little Prince, would like to know where the clearly man-made lamp-posts came from. Who installed them, and for what purpose? Which interplanetary council maintains them and pays the lamp-lighter to light them?**
The job of maintenance and management clearly falls to us as sole members and executors of the planet-construction committee, replies Lizzy. Very sadly, the game involves no complicated mechanics for lamp-post-powering or allocation of maintenance workers or electricity. Now that would be a great game. We could call it ‘The Little Misery Planet’ and it’d feature lots of sexy worker placement and focus on the logistical challenge of planetary maintenance.
A further layer of interest is added to the actual game by the presence of Baobab trees. Baobab trees, unlike most other features, take up a heck of a lot of space. Chief Science Advisor of the board game company clearly knows how to do their job, and knows how trees work. They need roots, you see. Lots of roots. To root them down. Particularly space-Baobab-trees, you see, to protect them against floating away. It’s basic science.
You’ll also notice, however, that the big trees are pretty big, and the planet pretty small (the little prince obviously wants a little planet). No, that tree you see on the tile isn’t just a scaled-up picture of the tree to represent the actual tinier tree down on the planet’s surface – it’s the actual size of the tree. The problem is that the deep, anchoring baobab roots take up a lot of space, and can start breaking up the planetary core! This means that your planet can only really sustain up to two live Baobab trees.
Oh balls, there are a lot of tiles with Baobab trees! What happens if, in your haste to set up some lampposts and acquire some points you acquire one too many Baobab trees? All three tiles with the trees on get flipped over. That means everything on those tiles, lampposts and all, are gone. No points for you! Be sad!
The thirst-quenched Misery Farmers had some very sad tree-times on their planets. Very sad indeed. Only Lizzy managed to successfully employ a strict tree-avoiding strategy to avoid the dickery, since she was very aware that Bob was still fuming at her from a previous game, and that no amount of peaceful adorable game-theme would protect her from Bob’s venom.
The other farmers though? Not so careful. Ex-Baobab wastelands everywhere.
The game is neat, and kind of cute. Probably of particular appeal to small children and drunk adults who need a bit of help getting through the rest of their evening. And more so to those who have actually read the book.
The real winner, as usual, is board games.
(And also, as usual, Lizzy!)***
* Is it really a children’s book? Philosophical treatise? Morality fable? No one knows how categorise it. Finding it in a bookshop is bloody impossible.
** Those who HAVE read The Little Prince will agree that the lamp-lighter is owed some serious overtime.
*** Lizzy was not supposed to win this game. It was supposed to be FUN.****
**** We’d like to pretend this was the first time Bob has sent a regretful ‘Sorry I threw pieces of game at you’ text message to Lizzy the following morning, but it would be a lie.
Pairs well with: Martinis. Shaken, not stirred. (Rumour has it they’re actually better stirred, but that’s just the kind of shit you’ve got to deal with as a spy.)
Traitor-rating: 2/10 for the ability to try to put off your opponents mid-game.
We three kings* board game enthusiasts have had a lot to say about what some of the best games from Essen 2015 may have been. There have been a lot of candidates and a lot of enthusiasm. It’s almost as if we really, really love board games! Weird.
The excited froth of enthusiasm shall continue to spill forth as we move on to what really is one of the best, and surprisingly so, games of the year: Codenames. Don’t be put off by the box art which looks like it was designed in MS Word and features the thrilling byline of ‘TOP SECRET WORD GAME’,** this is some addictive shit. We hope you’ll forgive a bit of brief explanation, since the game is pretty simple to play and explain.
In Codenames you (usually) play as two different teams of spies. One person per team is the spymaster, the rest of you are regular vanilla-spies sitting in the field awaiting instruction.
The ‘board’ consists of a 5 x 5 grid of cards, each with a different word on it. The two rival spymasters, presumably sitting nice and comfortably somewhere in Spy HQ playing with some gadgets and looking at a dozen different CCTV monitors, have access to an extra card which they share, but which the rest of the players aren’t allowed to see. That card shows the ‘board’ as a 5 x 5 grid with each card marked as red, blue, grey or the single black.
This little card means that the spymasters can know which of the words on the table are the codenames of red-team spies, blue-team spies, regular confused passers-by and THE ASSASSIN!
The actual game is a word association game, with the aim being to contact all of the spies on your own team before the other team does the same, and to not contact the assassin (for obvious, game-ending reasons). The spymasters will take turns giving exactly one word and one number, the word being one that they’re trying to associate with some on the table and the number indicating how many words they’re trying to link.
One of the first things you come to notice as you play the game is that you really feel sorry for some of these spies. Agent Ghost? Cool. Agent Roulette? Pretty classy. Agent Ham? Umm, maybe not so much. Agent Ketchup? Are you sure you work here? Oh and I’ve got to say I’m a little embarrassed to be working with Agent Pants over here. There’s a reason we gave her that name.
And sometimes you’ve really got to question just what the secret service were thinking about. Agent Spy? I mean really. AGENT SPY? What do you think the point of a secret codename is? Maybe to avoid revealing your identity as a spy to everyone? Tsh. Some people just weren’t cut out for this business.
The plus side of Spy HQ’s batshit, overboard spy-naming policy is that you’ll never be short on variety between different games, even when each one is only about 15-20 minutes long. The box is jam-packed with different words, two sides to each, and you can get through a hell of a lot of games (trust us, we’d know) before you need to come across the same words that you’ve already used. Even if that weren’t the case, the way that the board is always different means that it’s unlikely any of your games will ever resemble each other. And other factors, like the impossible and bizarre ways that you and your friends’ brains work.
Bonus points for the game come from its flexibility. In our short time of owning it we’ve played it on beds, on floors, in hotel lobbies… even on walls. While procrastinating our PhD research doing important board game research for this blog we even spotted someone on /r/boardgames who threw together a makeshift copy for a family gathering. Pretty impressive.
Codenames is more fun than we ever thought a word association game could be, and at least part of that is thanks to the mad things you’ll try to connect, the connections that seem startlingly obvious to some and mad to others.
Lizzy: Water; Two. Bob: Right. Ok. So, I’ll go for… ‘Well’ *Well is correct* Bob: Good. Ok, so next I’ll go for Bridge.. *Bridge is incorrect* Bob: WHAT. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BRIDGE IS INCORRECT? Lizzy: *silence* Bob: Bridge! Water goes under the bridge! Lizzy: *awkward silence* Bob: Seriously? ARGH.
Bob: Wait, so what the flip was the other word for water? Lizzy: Palm. Bob: P… pardon? Lizzy: You know, Palm. Palm trees… are… er… sometimes near water. And Palm Springs is a place that sounds like it’s named after some, you know, springs. Bob: … I think we should be on different teams.
Other times you find that special friend who just seems to share your brain.
Spymaster: Bond; Four. Secret agent: Right, well. There’s Octopus, because of Octopussy, (correct answer), Moon, because of Moonraker (correct answer), Spy because James Bond is a spy, (correct answer) and… well, James Bond holds a gun in the palm of his hand, so… Palm! (correct!!)
Another great feature of the game, although one that only really works with a group of 4+ playing, is the constant (but friendly) mockery of the other team’s guesses. Not to mention trying to put them off!
Lizzy: Right guys. Beef; Three. Opposing Team (pretending to talk to each other, but loudly so the other team can hear): OH! Yeah. She’s probably referring to the great Beef Revolution of ’93. Or she means ‘Beef Dice’. Isn’t that the sequel to Sushi Dice?
LWH Codenames Tournament
As we briefly mentioned last week, one of our local conventions Little Wooden Houses ran a Codenames tournament at their latest shindig. Teams of 3 people competed for the coveted Tiny Trophy of Being Good at Games in an incredibly tense competition. Team Misery decided that despite wearing her ‘Captain Hangover’ hat, Bob should be spymaster as it’s very easy to get inside her head.***
The first match was against a team of raw recruits who’d never met. It’s easy to underestimate a team of nice (ha!) ladies but all early pleasantries were rapidly erased as Bob politely but firmly invited the opposing team to suck her dick when they took an early lead.**** Team Misery sucked it up and got their shit together to win convincingly and immediately take on the next challengers.
Round Two (or ‘Semi-final’… it was a pretty small tournament)
On round two, shit got serious. These were no fresh-faced n00bs, but experienced gamers and long-time friends. It would be easy for them to work together, and the stress was real. Ground rules were firmly laid (no speaking at all from the spymasters apart from clues (a rule which Bob finds supremely hard to follow), and taunting and smack-talk from team-members absolutely allowed). Adrenaline pumping and neurons firing, Bob flopped her enormous spymaster-schlong across the table with a steady ‘Culinary, six.’
Six correct card choices left the opposing team in the dust, and Team Misery advanced to the final round unbeaten.
The final match was played as best of three rounds, against a team which included a girlfriend-boyfriend pairing (Dr Boyfriend and Cthulhu-Joss) and Dr Charlie. Harsh.
A strong start in the first round got Team Misery off the ground, but they were nearly brought down by an incredible last-ditch hail-Mary clue from Charlie, whose team needed to get five correct answers in one turn to win.
Um. What. Surely this could never work! But after the initial laughter, Joss and Al took to the board to give it their all.
‘Er. Did the Nazis ever go near some Czechs? Czech!’ *1/5 correct* ‘Well, they probably had ships. Ship?’
‘They love to MARCH!’
*3/5 correct, panic from Team Misery*
Team Misery watched in shock as all their dreams decayed in the face of insanity. If the opposing team got one more correct answer, they would win.
‘Aw nuts. Isn’t there a movie about Nazis where they’re all somewhere really cold? And they’re zombies? Dead Snow! Yeah. Maybe he means that! ICE!’
Thank goodness for good guys. (That’s us, by the way.)
Round two was almost as close, but went to team Charlie, making it even-Stevens going into the final round.
Bob meditated while Lizzy and Briony made a break for stress-wees and tea.
It was a tough board for the team. ‘Hollywood’, ‘France’, and ‘New York’ were all needed, but ‘England’ was the assassin and ‘Beijing’ belonged to the opposing team, so a simple clue like ‘places’ was out.
‘Cannes, three’ managed to tie Hollywood, France, and Premiere together, but that was just the start. An incredibly close, tense game ensued, until both teams were down to their last two words.
Bob made a desperate bid to tie ‘New York’ and ‘Forest’ together with ‘Jungle, two’ (urban jungle, right?) but was thwarted by Lizzy’s insistence that ‘Jungle Jam’ was a thing (she meant a jungle gym. Like the climbing frame. Bob actually broke the rules when that went down as she was incapable of stopping a stress-pressured ‘Mrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp’ from escaping).
To be fair, the team’s eventual demise might also be put down to a glorious moment in which Bob forgot which colour she was, and gave a clue for the wrong team’s spies. Some swearing followed.
A smooth final two from Team Charlie and it was all over. The tiny trophy of ‘Good at Games’ was wrested from the Misery Farm’s grasp, and Bob unclenched her butt-hole for the first time since the tournament started.
Codenames is a frickin’ excellent game. Good as both a light party game for the inexperienced, and as a brain-crusher for more experienced players. Incredibly stressful. Highly-recommended.
The real winner was the stupid other team. But also, board games.
* Too early for Christmas jokes? What? Christmas jokes are never appropriate? Psh.
Brutus Rating: 7 out of 10 back-stabbings to the back.
Pairs Well With: Alien-enhanced protein shakes.
We here at the Misery Farm have once been told off by you our loyal readers for doing ‘play through’ style game reviews when it’s only the first time one of us have played a game. This is probably fair, since trying to gain an overall impression of a game while learning the rules and often losing horribly is not particularly easy. So you’ll be pleased to know that we, here, at the Misery Farm, are offering a super-experienced review of Watch the Skies! We have played it twice.
For those who don’t know, WtS is a ‘megagame’ designed to be played by around 50 people. If you think setting up Eldritch Horror or Twilight Imperium is a ball-ache, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Firstly, you need a great big space, preferably with some kind of upper-story balcony and some smaller adjoining rooms. Then you need big maps, and tables, and lots of bits and pieces of game. And lots and lots of tea.
You also need a dedicated team of rules-explainers and –enforcers, who will basically herd the rest of the players to do the right thing at the right time (the Controllers). Usually these are also the organisers, and their state of being during the entire game appears to be one of high anxiety and stress. The first game we played in Southampton was organised by experienced controllers, and even they seemed close to breakdown at all stages. Our poor mates Charlie and Mac who organised the event this weekend didn’t stand a chance.
Teams represent countries, and are usually made up of four players; a Head of State to organise the others and divvy up resources, a scientist to develop exciting tech, a Foreign Secretary to sit on the UN council and hopefully avoid international disaster, and a military guy to explode stuff. Bonus points for dressing appropriately for your nation and role.
Up in the gallery sit the primary antagonists, the Grey Menace/aliens. Sightings have been rumoured for a while, but the public doesn’t know for sure that they exist. These guys might be good, they might be evil, they might be somewhere in between. All you know is that they’re showing up on Earth with alarming frequency, and they have some kind of mission. One final team is the Global News Network (GNN). They basically document what’s going on in the style of an international newsgroup, publishing a ‘newsletter’ as often as possible.
Bright and (very) early on Saturday morning, friends and acquaintances from all over the south of England gathered in a tiny village somewhere in the Oxford countryside for a good old-fashioned game of XCOM meets Model UN. Like the enthusiastic group of nerds that we are, everyone showed up early and eagerly, to the mild annoyance of the organisers who had barely had a chance to lay the flag-decked tables out. The aliens settled down in their balcony hideout, ready to watch the actions of the pathetic humans below them. While the humans obviously hoped for a peaceful outcome, they were not particularly comforted by the aliens’ Sith-Lord-meets-Borg-Queen aesthetic.
Lizzy and Bob were there representing the Misery Farm and, appropriately, playing as the global news team along with their beautiful and masterful ex-Cthulhu-GM Emma. Early optimism and merriment was only slightly marred by the presence of China one table over, who had brought along Durian sweets and were now stinking the place out with their gassy, eggy odour.*
By late-morning the game was in full swing. France was already mildly inebriated from their grape drinks ** while Britain’s main bribery tactic appeared to be biscuit-based.
In the newsroom stress was high. It turns out that pumping out fancy-looking and moderately-highbrow front pages every 45 minutes is not easy. Finding the ‘big stories’ every turn is a particular challenge when heads of state constantly vie for your attention in the hope of increasing their public relations, while neglecting to mention juicier but less marketable stories. Everyone is still denying the existence of aliens, and no amount of coaxing will get the truth out of them.
The USA was particularly guilty of trying to distract us from the real stories (as it is in real life, so it is in Watch the Skies), as in the same turn that they invaded Angola, attacked Madagascar, and publically announced the existence of aliens, they begged for a front-page picture announcing a new Holly-Bollywood film release (Hot Runnings is to be released in 2022, and will feature rising starlet Hannah Hendrix as a functionally-dressed heroine who dreams of Olympic success).
The team were getting pretty excited with our shiny printing press. Bob, ever the organised-one when it comes to avoiding her PhD work, had brought her laptop, a printer and made an excellent (if awkward to fiddle with) template for news stories. Over the course of the day we trotted out eight different editions of the GNN Times, printing out ten copies of each issue and distributing them around the room. By the second issue we even had the genius realisation of how far technology has come when we realised we could actually take photos of things going on in the room and feature them on our papers!
By the afternoon it was more or less chaos around the room world. This is no jibe at the
organisers – it’s pretty much an inevitable result of gathering 50 people in one place and givingthem alien technology. China was selling their babies to aliens, Brazil was trading cows for better, beefier cows, and France sabotaged the British laboratory to stop them getting ahead. Trying to keep up with it all was nearly impossible, and our newsletters reflected this by getting sillier and sillier.
After USA officially and publically declared the existence of alien life even the weather report at the top of our paper went from “Global rain” and “Cloud cover” to “Who even cares anymore?”
Our news-reporting tactics varied from actually occasionally being told about what the hell was happening from a few kind people to sneaking around and trying to eavesdrop for some excellent quotes.
Occasionally we would saunter up to a head of state to ask them what the haps were, and they’d casually reply “Oh yeah, nothing much. Someone just destroyed an alien base in Angola, though.” Which would leave us running back to the desk excitedly to knock Emma off the table and quickly type it all up.
Eventually we were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for … something. We actually don’t know, and nor do the organisers, but it apparently felt like time that we got one. We even managed to snag an interview with the aliens, who convinced Senior Correspondent Emma of their peaceful aims a few minutes before launching a psy-ops mission which made half of Europe believe that entire cities (buildings and all) had been abducted. Probably not the best way to convince us of their sincerity. Brazil, the ‘nice guys’ of the day, were the only team to continue to believe that the aliens were actually peaceful. ‘“Everything probably fine!” –Brazilian President’, shouted the smaller headlines.
As the afternoon was coming to an end, China and the USA got bored and frustrated with the whole affair and not knowing what to do, so decided to nuke Brasilia. The whole room stopped and mouths were agape as the two defence ministers went rogue, and as even their heads of state froze and looked flabbergasted. Their reasons are still unclear, but Brazil was pretty upset considering they’d just built a theme park featuring alien-enhanced beef called ‘Brazil-Land’. When questioned, the USA claimed that it was because the aliens were communists, while China told us to go away as they’d created their own free and independent news media, which had already won 286 Pulitzer-equivalent prizes.
The game works on many levels. It’s role playing, it’s strategy, and it’s highly competitive. Alliances are made and broken as countries try to fulfil their secret objectives, and rumour, hearsay, and espionage tactics threaten to bring the whole thing down at any moment. Your ally from turn one might suddenly turn around and steal your research, or Russia might initiate a bioweapon attack on the aliens under the guise of returning the corpses shot down in air combat. Both of which happened, of course.
All the same, it’s a lot like hard work. The stress is very real and exhausting. Toiling and planning for turn after turn only to fail an important dice roll at a crucial moment is incredibly frustrating. Worst of all, an effective costume pretty much demands high heels, which hurt like Hades after five hours of rushing around looking stern at heads of state.
At the end of the final round small summaries were given, and praise was given out to people in certain positions who had done particularly well. Dr Hates-Dice, Emma’s husband, was lauded as the best president the planet had seen, despite regular gaffes in what he’d said to the press (“We’re all tired and one of us is drunk” being particularly memorable). He had his face in the papers shaking hands with other heads of state twice and had been an excellent negotiator of pacts and treaties.
Meanwhile the overall best country turned out to be… Brazil! Despite having their capital nuked, they’d remained peaceful, resilient and friendly. Particularly to the aliens who, as it turned out, were actually quite nice apart from their anti-human prejudice.
Everyone applauded and collapsed and the wonderful beautiful organisers presented us with some beer which we gratefully crawled to after a hard day’s sky-watching. The beauty of the game continued to unravel for hours afterwards, as people discussed goings-on in different parts of the room across the day. So much happened over so many hours that it was impossible to have any idea of the full extent of what was happening at any one point. You might set something in motion at one point and have no idea of the consequences until hours later.
The first time we’d played Watch The Skies was amazing, this time was even better. Hard work, but amazing. Stay vigilant, humans. The next time it could be you.
*Apparently they tasted like cheese. Good work China.
** Fizzy grape juice in wine glasses.
We apologise for the quality of the photographs in this edition of Misery Farming. Bob’s point-and-click camera had an unfortunate case of early death and so we were forced to rely on an iPhone camera and prayer. We blame Dr Photographer-Friend for forgetting to sign up.
Brutus scale: 7/10
Pairs well with: cola and vodka. you know, the stuff you drink when you first start drinking and haven’t acquired much of a refined taste yet.
So we’ve just been informed that Settlers of Catan has now actually been renamed to just ‘Catan.’ This is presumably a move to make it ‘catchier’, ‘edgier’, more ‘down with the kids’. It’s also a move that could be described as ‘dumb’ and ‘unnecessary’. All of the expansions are already called ‘Catan: Slightly More Convoluted’ or ‘Catan: Now with Pirates AND Robbers’ or whatever, it just seems a bit redundant.
‘Wanna play some Backgammon?
‘Oh we just call it Gammon, now’,
‘But that’s already a thi-’
Anyway. Let’s have a show of hands, who hasn’t played Settlers of Catan yet? It’s OK, this is a safe space. There’s no judgement here (except probably from our German readers. Over there I believe it’s as ubiquitous a part of family game shelves as Scrabble or Monopoly in the UK). Until recently, Bob was one of you. In fact she still sort of is. Despite the fact that Catan is THE gateway board game for future board game addicts it just somehow passed her by. There were always newer, flashier games to play, or no one around with a copy handy and a willingness to explain the rules.
By 2015 this state of affairs had become something of an embarrassment. What kind of board game reviewer hasn’t played Catan? A piss-poor one, that’s what kind. Luckily salvation was on the horizon in the form of a local mini-convention. Lots of friendly local nerds gathered at a hotel to share their (collectively enormous) stash of games, make friends, and carouse until the early hours. When the incredibly friendly and helpful in-house vendor heard of her plight he cheerfully not only conjured a show copy of Star Trek Catan to learn on, but a couple of experienced players at a loose end and willing to teach a newbie. Despite Bob’s ordeal, Briony’s first Catan experience was simply to be told to play it. She then won. Like, by a lot. And since those friends were the only people she knew with a copy, has never been asked back to play it again.
Catan was one of the first European-style agricultural resource management board games to gain mainstream success. In case you have also lived your life under a rock until now, it’s comprised of a randomised modular board made of cardboard hexagons, so no two games are ever identical. The aim of the game is to build towns and cities which generate resources from nearby hexes, depending on dice rolls. Mo towns and cities = mo victory points. Longest road between settlements also = mo victory points. Instead of making your settlements bigger and more numerous you can instead choose to earn points through development cards, which grant favours like extra roads, resources, or knights. Get the most knights in the game, earn some victory points. Get 10 victory points and you win the game.
There is also a nasty mechanical implement in the Robber. He’s a dick who shows up every time a seven is rolled. Because every player rolls two dice on their turn, he is statistically likely to show up pretty damn often to annoy the crap out of you. His job is to sit on a hex so that it denies you resources, and steal from you.
Star Trek Catan is pretty much regular Catan with a Star Trek: TOS makeover. The robber is a Klingon battle cruiser. The resources are things like dilithium, tritanium, and oxygen. Roads are itty-bitty starships and towns and cities become outposts and starbases respectively. It’s pretty damn adorable. The only real difference is that the ‘Helpers of Catan’ expansion is integrated into the game in the form of Kirk, Spock, etc. showing up to give you a hand.
It is not an easy game to get the hang of right away. While it doesn’t immediately punish you for every mistake, and strategic errors made in the early game can be overcome, this very much depends on the savviness of the other players. There is no open conflict mechanic, but there are definitely ways to stab your fellow settlers right in their puny, exposed backs, enough for a 7/10 on our ‘Brutus Scale’. This game is war. Gentle, cerebral, agricultural, sly road-blocking war. Any fault made in another player’s turn should be harshly punished, while any obvious strategy should be blocked or made unfeasible. Sun Tzu’s wise advice to ‘know your enemy, especially if it’s Lizzy’ is to be heeded here.
Success means being able to tally this awareness with an overall strategy based on early settlement placement, as well as being flexible when the fucking dice keep rolling nines and you’ve banked heavily on an ‘eight’ hex. A new player is at a distinct disadvantage. Bob’s first game is marked by banter, desperation, and a pair of dice that refuse to roll anything but a seven. You may think this is an exaggeration, and that in any case sevens are the most likely outcome so it’s not a surprise anyway, but really this was ridiculous.
After eight turns which included six sevens someone brought out their freshly bought, unrolled Firefly-licenced dice, reasoning that the stacked dice was probably the reason for this being a show copy. Luckily Momus, the god of irony and mockery, was grinning down and sent another two sevens in a row before letting the players get on with the damn game.
Bob managed to earn four whole victory points, and the winner was a Settlers savant who sat down with no prior knowledge of the game just as the rules were finished being explained and asked to join.
This is not the end of the review, gentle readers. Oh no, Bob had only just whet her appetite for sheep and wheat. Despite a miserable score the potential for fun in Catan was unmistakeable. By sheer coincidence Catan: Creators Edition (the latest Catan ‘videogame’) showed up in the following week’s Humble Bundle along with Ticket to Ride, Smallworld 2, and some other crap that no one cares about. Pennies later, the download was quick and running the game only made Bob’s elderly and increasingly senile laptop fall over and die twice. It includes the original vanilla game, Catan: Seafarers, and Catan: Cities and Knights.
In general it’s a faithful but cheap and somewhat nasty port. The rulebook, for example, is dreadful. It has no easily-searchable index, bundles all three versions together in its explanations (confusing as fuck, yo), and is remarkably brief on the details. This is fine if you already know the rules, but not great if you’re trying to find the expanded rules which apply only to Cities and Knights, for example (it looks like there’s a dragon involved? Is that right?).
It does, however, come with some pretty great little game ‘scenarios’, which alter the gameplay to make certain strategies more viable or difficult, and reward you in different ways. There is also a whole gang of computer-generated characters to play against, including knights, mothers superior, craftsmen and nobles. They curse you in different ways when you screw them over by plonking a settlement in front of their longest road, and have a rotation of phrases during their turns. The game also makes a variety of noises to let you know when somethings happening (gained some sheep? Have a sheepy ‘baaa’ noise. Gained some wheat? Have the sound of… uh… some grains? Being scattered? Whatever, they tried.)
Of course the best thing about having a digital version of a board game is that play is much faster, meaning you can play several games in a day instead of doing your PhD research, which all of the misery farmers approve of. Although computers don’t make the same mistakes that humans do, you can definitely begin to identify winning strategies and refine them to work in different situations. ‘Desperate resource-grabbing Bob’ is long gone, having been replaced by ‘longest-road-builder of Catan’ Bob, ‘successful sheep-farmer’ Bob and ‘fuck you and your army I’ve got a monopoly on the supply of wheat so good luck building a city’ Bob. Lizzy better watch her back, harbourmaster Bob’s a-coming.
Lizzy is tempted to counter that the game is actually a lot better as an app, after you’ve played it your first few times and have been gently welcomed into the gaming world. But that may be because there’s just too much opportunity to ruin each other’s game. If, for example, you’ve earned a reputation as someone who’s ruthless and always wins games, then nobody will ever trade with you. Ever. Even if you’re desperate. Even if they’re desperate. At least the AI on Lizzy’s phone won’t bully her quite that badly.
Bob is very enthusiastic about Catan. It’s a bit like watching a grown adult who’s never eaten peanut butter before try it, go mad, and refuse to eat anything else for three weeks straight. Suddenly a whole new world has opened up to her, and she tries to tell all of her friends about it, but all of her friends already know about peanut butter. It’s actually quite surprising that she’s eaten five jars of it in a row and neither thrown up yet (metaphorically) nor gotten bored of it.
Soon she’ll realise that peanut butter involves far too much dice-rolling, luck and reliance on other players. Until then, we’ll have to cope with playing more Catan than is healthy. (Are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice game of Caylus? Bob?)
Briony has only played Catan several times, and unlike Bob has not gotten hooked. Any board game that has memes about sheep trading are way too cool for her, and she prefers to instead to engage with these types of games by turning up, ignoring the rules, being mysteriously silent and then thrashing anyone else without batting an eye. The good thing about this strategy is that you can get away with doing it once, and claiming that it happens as consecutive times. But, she supposes, at least Catan is a good way for normal people to be swayed to the way of the board game nerd.
Credit for the incredibly sunshiney photographs go to Dr Photographer-Friend. Credit for the photographs, that is, not for the sunshine. He hates the sunshine. And happiness.