2015: A Year in Misery

A New Year round-up and big thank you from all of us here on the farm.

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For those board-gamers who follow the Gregorian calendar (as opposed to, say, the Mayan calendar… hint hint) then you’ll have noticed that the year 2015 is steadily running out of steam. With the trudging inevitability of indigestible ham, sour champagne, and your uncle’s ‘humorously’ cynical Bah Humbug black Santa hat, Christmas is pushing us kicking and screaming into 2016. It’s just what Jesus would have wanted.

2015 has been a big year. Briony and Lizzy achieved academic accolades, and Bob reached rank 14 in Hearthstone. Truly a rollercoaster of events.

This year also brought Bob, Briony and Lizzy’s crazed dream to fruition. No, not the one with Jason Momoa riding a unicorn; the one where we spontaneously decided that it would be a great idea to start a board gaming blog. It was either that or, you know, do some work for our sodding PhDs, so the choice was clear.

To celebrate our first year of being real-life bloggers we’re bringing you – arranged via meticulous colour-coding, secret voting and over-the-top spreadsheet-based organising – a thrilling Top 5 of the board games we’ve reviewed this year. Complete with a few bonus extras.

‘Bonus extras such as what?’ We hear you ask, glugging mulled wine and hiding in your childhood bedrooms from enthusiastic family celebrations

Well, how about the weirdest search term to lead intrepid Web Explorers to our blog in 2015? These wondrous search terms have provided literal minutes of entertainment for us, and we fully intend to release a ‘Top 10 WTF search terms’ in next year’s annual summary. Exciting stuff.

This inauspicious award goes to “can kids hide drugs inside of dice?”

…shit. Can they? I mean, it probably depends on the dice. And the kids. And the drugs. We all know how edgy and craze-balls young board-gamers are. It all starts with a light dabble in Dobble and Sushi Dice and then BAM! Before you know it your kids are hopped up on DnD and Twilight Imperium, attending all-day Magic the Gathering events and saving their pennies for Essen. Anyway, we sure hope the hand-wringing parents or ingenious teenagers found their drug-related answer somewhere.

And now for the interesting bit! Let’s roll some drums! Here are the top five, in descending order:


 

5: TZOL’KIN: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Plastic Cogs

Official MF drinks pairing: Sacrificial human blood and/or a Bloody Mary

Tzol’kin secured a top spot in the team’s favourite games by being Briony’s favourite game overall,* out of everything we reviewed in 2015. She just loves some hard-core corn.

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Briony: I loved this game. Such cogs, such corn. Butt-loads of worker placement (but with a twist!). My only regret is clearly not making enough time for Lizzy to come and play it with me. For now I’m happy with my record of never losing.

Bob: I have definitely played this game and can definitely remember playing it. There were giant dials, that was cool. It was one of those initially-overwhelming games that eventually gains an internal sense and logic, which you realise just a couple of rounds too late to actually be able to plan anything effectively. Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe next time it’ll be onward to Aztec victory over the Spanish invaders!**

Lizzy: I’ve not actually played this game, so I’m not really sure what I’m Tzol’kin about. Hey! That’s a point. If this is supposedly Briony’s favourite game, how come she never invites me round to play it?

* And obviously because of this she knows that it’s spelled Tzol’kin, not T’zolkin, then. *cough* (thank you to the person who pointed that out!)

** That is absolutely not what this game is about, Bob.

[drumroll, etc]


4:LETTERS FROM WHITECHAPEL: The Case of the Illogically-Numbered Board

Official MF drinks pairing: Gin from your local 1880’s London gin distillery

Our next favourite game is more or less just hide-and-seek with Jack the Ripper. Also, the person you’re hunting happens to murder a few people as you’re playing. Still, as an excellent reflection of the discrimination of the time, as the murders don’t really play that much into your motivation as the fuzz/bobbies/peelers Police. You can still win the game after everyone’s been murdered, it’s just finding Jack that counts.

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Briony: Although a very good game, it can be totally ruined if the person who is playing Jack the Ripper runs out for a toilet break, leaving notes of where they’re hiding unguarded. Remember, it’s not polite to use toilet time to corner the Ripper.

Bob: How did this game make it into our top 5? The subject matter is grim and bizarre as you follow a trail of viscera all over the stinking slum that is Victorian Whitechapel. Despite this point in its favour it’s like playing Minesweeper, but where Lizzy is the mines so you have no titting chance. Fantastic moustaches can only go some way towards making up for that.*

Lizzy: This one is my absolute favourite game at the moment, and it has been for nearly a year. It works particularly well with a good group of people, since it’s got a surprising amount of roleplaying potential to it. Some of us particularly love to flourish all of our clue-hunting by weaving some great stories into the game.

*I know what you’re all thinking. ‘Hey, why don’t you be the murderer for a change, Bob? Then you can cause some misery yourself and stop complaining!’ Well, gentle reader, you are wrong. If I played as Jack two things would happen. Firstly, I’d fuck it up and be accused of cheating. Secondly, Lizzy would find and arrest me and then my humiliation would be complete.  Then there would be more complaining.


3: POTION EXPLOSION: Ignoring Lab Safety 101

Official MF drinks pairing: Clumsily mixed cocktails

A big hit at this year’s Essen Spiel, this game brings together the classic elements of marbles, fairy dust, and Alchemy-school exams. Think of it as the entrance-exam to Achemists’ post-graduate research centre.

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Briony: At Essen I was confused why this game was so damn popular. Then after queuing for what felt like an age I finally got to play it, and totally understood in a zen-like moment. Two of my four companions then promptly bought it before even finishing playing it.

Bob: I have introduced a ton of people to this game by now, and no-one has disliked it. There’s no other game quite like it, except maybe those addictive online Flash games like Bejewelled and Bubble Cannon. It’s fun and tactile but not completely un-cerebral. It’s a little too lightweight and one-dimensional to earn a higher spot on our list (once you’ve nailed the play tactics there’s very little to do apart from mock your opponents), but it’s a definite recommended buy for play with all members of friends and family.


2: ELDRITCH HORROR: Misery, Doom, Tentacles (a normal Friday night in!)

Official MF drinks pairing: Very strong whisky. Strong enough to forget the horrors.

Across the world terror and madness loom. Unrest in the streets, nervous whispers from the darkest corners of society, and bizarre, otherworldly creatures appearing in cities with alarming regularity. You and an intrepid band of investigators must discover the truth, and suppress the rising horror before it’s too late! Sadly, it’s already probably much too late. You’re all screwed, and the world gets eaten. Happy gaming!

 

Briony: As someone who enjoys Cthulhu roleplay this game was already right up my street. Add some worker placement, and random monsters into the mix and boom. Good board game. It’s a shame it’s so hard to win… (Warning: do NOT play with more than 4 players).

Bob: Definitely one of my all-time favourite games. It’s a chaotic collaborative mind-fuck of a game which deserves all the love in the world. It took the gameplay of Arkham Horror and streamlined it into something magnificent. Lots of bits, lots of variability in play, lots of horror. Not recommended for noobie players, and if you do choose to play with more than 4 players, make sure everyone is ready to spend 6 hours on it and role-play their moderately racially-stereotyped characters.

Finally, in the number 1 spot it’s our favourite game of 2015……


1: CODENAMES: From Essen, With Love

Official MF drinks pairing: Vodka Martini. Shaken, not stirred.

A deceptively clever spy-themed party game. Form teams and use word-association clues to contact your code-named agents in the field. Get it wrong and you risk contacting the assassin, or just accosting some bewildered passers-by and accusing them of being part of an intelligence group. Special commiserations to agents Ham, Toe, and Spy, who were clearly at the very back of the queue when pseudonyms were being handed out.

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Briony: Over the short few months since we first played this game it has proved to be an exceptional source of both fun, and anxiety for whoever may be the spy leader. No two games are the same, and you’ll remember all the word combinations for a long time to come.

Bob: This game is very stressful. It’s the most thinky, stressful party game I’ve ever come across. It’s excellent.


Our final honourable mentions go to the games with the Most Misery and Most Farming. Congratulations to all our winners, and thank you to everyone who read our blog, commented, or even just gave it some love on Facebook. You’re all rad and we hope you have a wonderful new year!

Most misery: CAYLUS

For being less of a game and more session of calculating a perfect game strategy which will inevitably fall apart due to your own idiocy or the sabotage of the opposing players. It’s like a maths exam in game form, but with castles made of pigs.

Most farming: AGRICOLA

Because well…. obviously.

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Happy New Year!

 

Caylus: Is that a lot of rules or are you just pleased to see me?

By Briony, Lizzy and Bob.

Brutus rating: 6 knives in the back out of 10
Pairs well with: The best French wine that £4 can buy and a crushing sense of defeat.

The bottle's empty for a reason
The bottle’s empty for a reason

Recently your friend Bob has been ‘Doing Exercise’. This is deeply unpleasant (and if you’d like to charitably sponsor her ill-advised half marathon you are welcome to do so here). Anyway, as part of this whole fitness drive she decided to give ‘Tough Mudder’ training a go. For those of you who don’t know what that is, congratulations. Nor did Bob until last Monday, when she found herself army-crawling across a muddy football pitch with the prospect of push-ups at the end of it, while a group of athletically-attired strangers whooped and cheered her on. The cheers straggled after a few minutes; it’s difficult to stay enthusiastic when you’re standing in the cold watching an overweight goth clumsily wriggle across some grass. It felt an awful lot like PE at school, and even ‘giving it your best shot’ did not make the experience of doing walking lunges while overhead-balancing a car tyre more pleasant.

Getting into the spirit..
Getting into the spirit..

It turns out that ‘Tough Mudder’ is just like Caylus. That is, just like crawling along a muddy pitch ‘Doing Exercise’ and wallowing in despair, particularly at yourself and your abilities. Caylus has a reputation that precedes it as being a particularly difficult and frustrating game. It is long, it is punishing, and it wants you to know that it’s all your own fault for getting yourself involved in the first place. And now you’ve fucked up your turn, well done you. “Those jumping jacks/turn order mechanics were just a bit too much for you, weren’t they?” says Caylus. Yup, they were. Once you’ve knobbled yourself over once there’s very little you can do to get your enthusiastic strategy back on track, and instead you’re left to be cynical and grumpy in the corner while everyone else carries on with a lovely evening, occasionally encouraging you not to give up and to stick it out. This introduction to the game might make a person think ‘why would I ever play something that makes me so disappointed in myself, not to mention cold and muddy?’ (OK the metaphor’s getting a bit stretched here), but it is impossible to stress enough how amazing that ‘eureka!’ moment feels when you get it RIGHT. Displacing water in a bath never felt this good.

And now for some game context – ‘The year is 1289. To strengthen the borders of the Kingdom of France, King Philip the Fair decided to have a new castle built. For the time being, Caylus is but a humble village, but soon workers and craftsmen will be flocking by the cartload, attracted by the great prospects and desire to please the King.’

Building things out of your pieces: the real game
Building things out of your pieces: the real game

Slowly but surely you and your fellow players will be building up the board with buildings and farming resources, turning the village into a thriving mercantile city with a glorious castle dominating the skyline. Also, the castle is going to be built out of pigs. Pigs and velvet. Honestly, you may as well wildly point at the nearest object to yourself and declare that it will become part of the castle. That, my friends, is how castles were build back in the day. Foolproof.

6D-32-72Alongside building the castle you can reap victory points by various other means: gold mining, collecting favours, exchanging money, etc. Going through each of these individually would be deeply tedious and abstract and therefore better left to ‘real’ board gaming blogs (or even (gasp!) the rulebook). Instead let’s talk you through some turns of the game using a recent game between Lizzy, Briony, Bob, and a generic white male gaming buddy (here known as ‘Gord’) as an example. This way you’ll hopefully get an idea of the mechanisms, type of play and how scoring works. From there we’ll highlight some particularly good strategies we’ve come across, and discuss some select ones in a bit more detail. We’ll also discuss the crushing misery of failure. Woo!

You call this a meeple?
You call this a meeple?

A turn of Caylus has a few different phases. Firstly, the worker placement phase in which each player places a worker in turn on an existing building. This lasts until you run out of workers (6), run out of money to place workers (it costs one franc per placement), or you choose to pass (i.e. if there is nothing more you want on the board). The meeples, by the way, are just disappointing cylinders. The pigs are just cubes. We take this to be an artistic statement about capitalism and despair in medieval France.

A pile of pigs, velvet, gold, stone and wood
A pile of pigs, velvet, gold, stone and wood

We’ve kicked off with Briony’s workers claiming a broad range of resources intended for castle building, while Lizzy’s workers are grabbing up some stone and wood and generally sturdy things (stone and wood? To build things with? Ridiculous. It’s almost like she’s seen a building before.) Gord has gone for a construction angle using some architecturally sound pig and wood, and Bob has got some velvet as it is the most flamboyant and least buildy resource available.

Secondly, there is the job phase. As all buildings are built along a road leading from the castle, the jobs are resolved in the same order as if we are travelling down the road ourselves6D-32-88 (Fortunately we don’t actually have to move for the game, which is good because, ya know, moving). Each building will offer something like resources or the ability to build, and you take the things that your workers were placed on in the order of the road. Order in this game is extremely important, and worryingly easy to forget. To both generate resources and to build stuff you need to work out at what point you are receiving things, which must occur before building in the castle, or having enough resources to build other buildings. We advise the use of the medieval equivalent of a stock-checker at all times.

6D-32-16Thirdly, there is the castle building phase. This can only be done if you place your worker in the castle position during the worker placement phase. A vital part of this is actually having the right resources to build, which sounds simple, but when you’re collecting multiple different things in the previous phase and having to plan out steps far in advance then it’s very easy to accidently pick up a velvet when you really needed a goddamn pig (One of the few games that can trigger the lesser known phenomenon ‘pig-rage’). In order to build in the castle you must have 3 resources, one of which must be a pig, and each of the others must be different types (why, why is a pig a major building resource? This is never addressed anywhere in the rules. This sounds like an extremely inefficient and wriggly way to build a castle. Does anyone have any theories?). Again, a simple premise, but if you organise your stock slightly wrong or spend something you weren’t intending to then it’s pretty easy to rock up to the castle with two pigs and a stone and be disappointed when the king laughs at you. Foolish peon, bringing two pigs with which to build a castle, he needs only one pig! And some velvet! And a rock of indeterminate size!

Another important aspect to bear in mind with castle-building is the extremes that it produces.

Bob's score definitely going in the wrong direction
Bob’s score definitely going in the wrong direction

If you build the most castle in the turn then you receive a favour (which is spent in the favour-reward track of your choosing), however if you place a worker and don’t have the resources to build then you immediately receive minus points. His royal highness is mightily pissed. Bob has demonstrated this consequence beautifully in her very first attempt at getting some victory points, and is now sat sulkily at -2 points, hoarding velvet.

As with many worker-placement games, a viable early strategy is to simply farm resources until they dribble (painfully – in this game they’re represented by wooden cubes) out of your ears. Making more resources happen more easily is therefore an even better strategy, but difficult to do consistently. The very best strategy (that we’ve found), is to be given resources as an idle tax while other players are trying to gather their own. There are three buildings which have this effect, and if you manage to construct all three of them you have effectively broken the game. It’s ridiculous. Especially when you combine it with building green buildings (which have to be built on top of existing non-taxed resources, therefore forcing players to give you extra resources AND generating extra income from green buildings).

A quick break for blog-notes
A quick break for blog-notes

This is the only real mechanical issue we’ve found with Caylus, but it’s a biggie and is very difficult to stop. No strategy should be that OP, unless there are other big earners that we’ve somehow missed (entirely possible, somehow we don’t get round to playing Caylus all that often). And no, we’re not going to tell you which buildings they are; that would be cheating.

As the game progresses and other players’ strategies become clearer, the daggers come out. Let’s be clear: the biggest dick in this game undoubtedly belongs to you, and it’s aimed at yourself. Even people who are normally competent in their everyday lives can just repeatedly screw themselves over in this game, more than seems statistically probable. You’ll miscount your resources, you’ll forget how to build anything, you’ll even forget when the game ends.

Having said that, there are some excellent ways for other players to knobble you over too, such as by taking the resources that you can see other players eyeing, muscling in on their share of the castle, or by moving a little white token called the Provost. 6D-32-27This little guy, combined with the Bailiff (upon whose head the Provost gently sits), determines how far down the ‘road’ your workers can be placed and have effects, as well as when the game ends. If you can end someone’s turn before they’ve got all the resources or victory points they want, then you can really make their day unpleasant. Luckily, despite the constant shifty eyes and threat of skulduggery as pacts get made and broken, players are often far too focussed on their own misery to try and inflict it on others. That’s what keeps the Brutus Rating at a 6/10.

Despite its typical Uwe Rosenberg-patented Agricola-esque misery this game is, in many ways, perfect. It’s an incredibly ‘pure’ game, in that it relies on a strategic understanding of the mechanics’ abstract interplay. In fact it’s so computational that Chris* maintains it’s not actually a game. We would disagree; its dry strategy, intricate game scenarios and yet almost absurd lack of flexibility makes playing it surprisingly intense. It brings out serious turn-narcissism** as you desperately and meticulously line up your strategy. And when it works… oh god, when it works…. The feeling of relief, pride, and joy is, we imagine, much like giving birth. No exaggeration. This game is definitely not for everyone, requiring a fair amount of time and dedicated concentration, but it’s so very worth it, and makes you genuinely feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of it.

As a final tip we strongly advise keeping tabs on the timing and resources you have at all times, and be aware of when the round, or even game, will end. Briony has solved this in a rather eloquent way on her copy of Caylus. The kind of eloquent way that was triggered by in-game anger and a sharpie. Be warned, folks, but also enjoy trying new strategies.

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We recommend it more highly than Tough Mudder training, at least.

*Friendly robot boyfriend, see Steam Park and Shinobi-WAT AAH! reviews, previous.

** There’s a fairly well-known concept in the psychology of narcissism called ‘conversational narcissism’, in which a speaker in a conversation pays almost zero attention to the other speakers, instead focussing entirely on what they want to say and simply waiting until a moment when they can take their turn to talk. Bob insists that ‘turn-narcissism’ is the same and totally real, but applies to when you’re waiting to take your turn in a tense game.

Credit and thanks to our pal Dr Photographer for the photos