Back from Helcon!

Another Helcon is gone (well, they’re still playing, but I’m already back home) and boy, it was a good one! We started games on the train to Helsinki. Robert managed to get himself to the wrong train (for some reason there were to trains to Helsinki within three minutes), but I had Olli and Sami with me, so we could play. I had hoped to play something with Robert already on the train station — thanks to a holiday bus schedules, we both had to arrive quite early — but a train station full of drunks just isn’t the best possible environment.

Sticheln box

It’s been a while since I last played Sticheln — so that’s what we played. Olli had some limited experience and hadn’t really made up his mind yet, but seemed to like it better now. Sticheln is good — as long as you stick to three players. We played six rounds and while I played some weaker rounds, we managed to beat Olli back from the top and I was able to take over. Ain’t completely rusty!

San Juan box

We squeezed in a quick San Juan before the train got to Helsinki. A good game, which I lost because I finished it too quickly. Sometimes rushing isn’t the best strategy, especially if you’re missing a critical big building.

In Helsinki we met with Robert and made our way to the location. It’s been cold, and it’s started to snow, too. So, there we were, waiting for the doors to open with rather wet snow falling over us… Fortunately we didn’t have to wait too long. After a quick trip to a close grocery store, I was ready for action.

Race for the Galaxy box

While waiting for the tournament to start, I got into a game of the Holy Grail, I mean Race for the Galaxy. It was somewhat rushed, we had 45 minutes and that’s what the game took. I think I figured it out pretty well, but others had more trouble with it, and I don’t think it was a particularly pleasant first touch.

I loved the game, though, and I’m rather glad I’ve got my copy coming, hopefully early next week. The game rocks. It’s like San Juan, only better. The simultaneous action selection works well, I like the consume mechanic, the card selection is interesting and, simply put, the game was fun! I got the New Sparta as my starting world and that settled my strategy: I got the Galactic Imperium and started exploring like crazy for rebel worlds to beat down. Add to that the New Galactic Order that rewards for military power and it works like a charm… or would’ve, had Ansi not hoarded rebel worlds when he noticed (or, when I was excitedly blabbing out about my delightful discovery) that I needed them.

Race for the Galaxy at Helcon

Game of the year, hands down. It’s seriously good. There’s a downside, no doubt about it, though — the game is a bit complex. I can see trouble ahead: the game seems designed to be played fast and I like that, but playing with newbies or simply slower people who’d like to take one phase at a time just might be too much for my nerves. Give me experienced opponents and I’ll pick Race for the Galaxy over San Juan every time, but with newbies, I don’t know.

Then, the tournament. It was a team tournament with three-players teams and three rounds. On each round, the teams first voted which games they wanted to include and then put the chosen games in order of preference. Each team got three games to play and could assign team members to different games any way they wish. I instantly recruited Robert to my team and when I heard Olli was coming too, I got him as the third member of our team, Tampere Avengers.

Turbo Taxi box

First round was light games. I got into Turbo Taxi, our other games were San Juan (Robert, our expert, took that and won) and Fairy Tale (Olli played this one, enjoyed the very competitive and brutal game a lot, but didn’t win). I believe I’m pretty good at Turbo Taxi, but still lost my game. It was tough. Stefu won, and I know he’s good… I hadn’t practised in a long time, so I was perhaps a bit rusty.

Still, it was a major embarrassment. I should’ve done better! Losing was completely out of question, with two (or one) newbies in the game! I don’t know if I like the game anymore… Well, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely not my favourite speed game, never was — it’s just not as much fun as some other games. I think I somewhat prefer slightly slower games: Flix Mix is a good example of a speed game with a slower pace, as is Sunda to Sahul — these two are my favourites, actually.

Industrial Waste box

Next round was medium-length games. Robert got Carcassonne and lost that, not a surprise really, while Olli tackled Einfach Genial with little success. I got Industrial Waste. It was a curious game: it was the longest game of the round and probably the longest game of Industrial Waste I’ve played. I drew a disaster after disaster from the pack. Mankka, Stefu’s brother, was particularly badly hurt as he was most of the time on the red. He ended up, what, 40 millions in debt — yet still got a pretty decent amount of points.

I was second: I only had to take one loan, which I paid back on the last round. I didn’t have enough money, so perhaps more aggressive lending could’ve helped a bit, but Marko who won, did fairly well without taking any loans at all, so beating him would’ve been hard. A good, tough match that dragged out perhaps a tad too much, showing the ugly side of Industrial Waste — and a probable reason why it isn’t a top-tier game. I still think Rio Grande should re-issue it as Al Gore’s Industrial Waste.

Amun-Re box

Last round had me playing Amun-Re, which I wouldn’t have chosen to play otherwise… I did my basic standard Amun-Re performance: two pyramid sets, some bonus points, but nothing big and ended last. It was a pleasure to see Petri, one of the better board gamers in Finland, play. Robert played Tigris & Euphrates and won, Olli struggled a long game of Imperial and won, too, I think. Thanks to the somewhat better last round, our team ended up, I believe, fifth out of eight teams. Not bad, but not quite what I believed we could do…

The tournament was quite good. It would’ve needed a computer to do the set up and there were some kinks in the selection system, but it worked out pretty well in the end. We got mostly the games we wanted, with some disappointments. Would I participate again? I don’t know — perhaps I would’ve preferred to play something else. Turbo Taxi and Industrial Waste were good games and tough fights, but the Amun-Re just wasn’t much fun. Also, the tournament would’ve been more fun if people would’ve known the games — now each game had newbies in it, which sort of removes some of the attraction of the tournament setting.

Agricola box

After a late lunch break — pizza from the grocery store, no expensive two-hour restaurant meals this time — I was more than happy to join Tommy in Agricola. I’ve been skipping the Essen stuff, mostly, but this one did pique my interest. For a reason, it seems! We quickly found out we had a full set of five players and a table full of cardboard: while Agricola is not a big league table hog, it still takes a large table to play it.

Agricola is a “life game”: each player starts with two family members in a two-room wooden hut and tries to make a living. The family grows, builds a bigger house, farms the land, raises animals and tries to get enough food to feed all hungry mouths. Each turn each family member gets to do one action: typically actions either get more basic resources or use them to do something useful.

We played the basic, family game without any of the special cards. Apparently they give the game more flavour, but it’s quite good even without them. Our first game took two hours, including plenty of reading rules and we did get quite a few things wrong, making the game slightly harder than it should’ve been. Still, it seemed interesting and most of us wanted to play a second round, this time with what I think were the correct rules.

The game sure flowed much faster. We finished the second game, with four players, in about 70 minutes. Not bad! The game is basically resource gathering and there are plenty of things to do, yet little time to do them. There’s no direct player interaction, except for the competition over the actions, which are a scarce resource if any. I like the scoring: it’s quite intuitive, as you get points for everything. It’s also fairly clever: most things give you negative points if you don’t do them, so you’ll have to balance doing a little bit of everything and doing plenty of something, as if you only do a little bit of everything, nothing’s going to get you lots of points.

So, yes, I love it. After that first game the game jumped from “hmm, this seems interesting” to “must buy as soon as the English edition arrives”. I’m waiting — there’s just too much German. It’s not that bad, at least except for the cards, but still I’d rather wait. Having an English edition makes it just that much easier for the other people I’d play with, even if I can cope with the German (I’ve realized I’ve learnt quite a bit of German).

I’d also like to add that Agricola does have elements that can cause disturbing table talk, particularly the bits about having babies and perhaps the bits about animals as well… So yeah, we did have a blast playing this. I don’t remember when playing a game was this much fun. And it’s not just fun, but there’s really a sound, mechanically solid game underneath that flavour and theme… Agricola is definitely high on my list of well-themed games.

Funny fact: Agricola — Latin for farmer — is also the name of the bishop of Turku from 16th century, who translated the Bible to Finnish and thus created the written Finnish language. Mikael Agricola was no farmer himself, but got his name from his father, who was. He’s famous enough to be the first thing that pops into the heads of Finnish gamers who hear about this game.

I had organized a card game session at the end of the evening. We played Hungarian Tarokk and Doppelkopf. Tarokk was good as ever, though it was obvious it would take a lot more plays to make it more interesting. New players are simply too timid to bid, even with really, really good cards, and that somewhat hurts the game. I can understand that, and I think I’ll need to encourage people to bid more, as winning the games as a declarer really isn’t that hard (and losing is a good way to learn).

Doppelkopf was a new experience for me. Markku aka JoeLamer had played the game against computer opponents and in BSW. It’s a tricky game: basically it’s a standard ace-ten game played on a double 24-card pack, but the trumps have been complicated a lot. Ten of hearts is the highest trump, then queens, then jacks, then the rest of the diamonds in normal order. Plenty of trumps, as each card is doubled!

It takes lots of play to get one’s head around all of this. I am humbled by the fact that Doppelkopf is very popular in Germany and played as a social game: nobody, and I mean nobody, plays games this complex in Finland for fun (I’m not counting Bridge, which is in any case pretty simple except for the bidding and perhaps the scoring). Talk about card game culture! We played three hands and each time I found myself holding one of the club queens, which made me part of the declarer’s team, so to speak.

Doppelkopf was fun, but I don’t think I’m playing it a lot. It’s just too darn complex and would require lots of repeat play. I suppose it could be a fun way to spend few hours with three like-minded individuals as that would give enough time to get one’s head around the game, but otherwise… well, there are games that are less complicated and pretty much just as entertaining.

Two-player card games: Schnapsen, WYSIWYG

I made a return to Schnapsen — I had tried it once before, about five years ago. It’s an extremely tight two-handed trick-taker. It’s an ace-ten game, played with a 20-card pack with all the non-scoring cards removed. It seems to be a game of memory: you must remember your own points and it certainly helps to remember the cards played and your opponent’s points.

I can’t see how two-player trick-taking could be much better… Of course, Schnapsen isn’t the most friendliest game ever, even though it’s pretty easy to learn, as long as you’re familiar with the ace-ten point structure (and a serious gamer should be). My play sucked: I lost 3-7, giving Olli four points from failing to score 66 after closing the pack. That’s amateurish…

We also played four hands of WYSIWYG — we weren’t close to finishing the game, but I ran out of time. The game’s supposed to be played to 100 points, but after half an hour and four hands, I had eight points and Olli had 33. Scoring seems pretty hard in the game: with good cards, getting a decent score is tricky as your initial hand value is deducted from your points. Maybe with more doubling? Also, the penalties for failing are pretty high, so I suppose the player with the lower-valued hand should just drive up the bidding and then try to make the declarer fail.

Anyway, it’s a fun game and while it lacks the punch of Schnapsen, it’s certainly more relaxed and pleasant to play.

Tarots

I finished reading the second volume of A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack (haven’t received the first volume yet, it’s coming from US while the second one was sent from UK). It’s a marvellous book, highly recommended for serious tarot fans — less serious tarot fans will do with the Tarot section on Card Games. One thing is sure: you need to love reading rules to games, because that’s what it is, rules to dozens of Tarot variations.

But if you’re interested in the topic, it’s a fascinating book. The development of Austrian Tarot games to their pinnacle in the Hungarian style is really interesting. The Hungarians seem somewhat odd people and they certainly have created some odd games, yet their flavour of Tarot seems to be the most interesting one. John McLeod, the maintainer of Card Games, favours Illustrated Hungarian Tarok, which definitely is one of the finer card games around.

However, the pinnacle of Hungarian tarot, the Royal Tarot, is Something Else. First of all: the game is no more about card points or something silly like that, it’s all in the announcements and bonuses. Then, the team structure is also rather curious: the team members sit next to each other. One is a starter and the other is a catcher. It’s very delicate, convoluted and interesting.

I’m definitely looking forward to getting the first volume… Last time I ordered a book from States, I got an extra delay as the book wanted to go sight-seeing Austria — there was a customs stamp from Vienna on the envelope.

Thursday session: camels and cards

Another Thursday session, this time with plenty of people: we had three games running at the same time. It was good, because that meant I was able to skip Bang!. Instead I played Yspahan. The game included two newbies and Olli, who has played about 500 games of the PC version. Now, guess the order? … Continue reading Thursday session: camels and cards

Thursday session: Hart an der Grenze, Funny Fishing, cards

The second Thursday session drew six players, then two latecomers. We could use more, but this was certainly enough to get games going. It was nice to see some new faces. We warmed up with a quick round of Ubongo Mini, which is indeed a rather good for that purpose. My dear friends at Marektoy … Continue reading Thursday session: Hart an der Grenze, Funny Fishing, cards

First Thursday session: Ubongo Mini, cards

I’ve started a new weekly game night. My wife wants me to see other people than her and Nooa, basically. That’s perfectly fine with me! Our first night had a good turnout of seven people, so we got two games going. The other table played Web of Power, Geschenkt and Phoenicia, while our table played … Continue reading First Thursday session: Ubongo Mini, cards

On The Spot Games

Yesterday I got a bunch of games from On The Spot Games. All the games are designed by James Ernest and Mike Selinker, and aimed towards somewhat mass-market crowd, I’d say — they are very simple games, some definitely aimed for the party game audience, others for couples or families. I already tried Kotsuku, which … Continue reading On The Spot Games

Geocaching card game

I wouldn’t post this, but I know I have a geocacher or two in my audience, who might be interested… First to Find! is a trick-taking game about geocaching. Game homepage has some artwork. The cards look nice, but actually it’s a regular deck of cards with new art. The game, it seems, is a … Continue reading Geocaching card game