A session report from March

Although the Gameshelf television show covers tabletop games and computer games in about a 2:1 ratio, this weblog has been skewing towards the latter for a while now. In the interest of balance, I am posting a session report I wrote up for a game party way back on March 15. I only ever posted it to a private mailing list, but I think maybe it would be appreciated by a wider audience. I hope you enjoy it. (I hardly ever write session reports, so I don't have anything more recent. But it's not like there's anything out of date. I still haven't played Container again.)

Jeff M. requested that I post a session report for Saturday's Ides of March game party at my place, so here goes.

Attendees: Stephen M., Karl v.L., Jeff M., and Greg L., plus Chris L. showed up for about 3 minutes before leaving to get food and never coming back. I guess something spooked him, or else he was waylaid by knife-wielding senators before he could return.

Games played: Fairy Tale, Pickomino, Marco Polo Expedition, Zark City, Tongiaki, Wits & Wagers, Saboteur, Tashkent Domino, Container, Carcassonne: the Castle.

Food consumed: pretzels filled with peanut butter, pretzels filled with honey mustard (both of these were brought separately with no apparent pre-arrangement), kung pao chicken, "champagne" duck, Singapore-style rice noodles, and Jeff was brave enough to try my homemade sausage-and-turkey chili.

Fairy Tale: Stephen, Karl, and Jeff showed up in quick succession soon after 2pm, and we jumped into this short Japanese card game of simultaneous drafting. Usually in this game, especially with four players, everyone ends up concentrating on one of the four clans, but this game we all ended up with multi-clan tableaus. We also had very few flipped cards, and no one really went for the big asterisk-card collections. Consequently the scores ended up pretty close; Stephen eked out the victory with 54 points, Karl had 50, I had 49, and Jeff (the only one who hadn't played before) had 36-- and if I hadn't purposely held onto a card that he wanted, he'd have gotten another 12 points (face value 3 plus 9 conditional points from the matching story card).

Pickomino: Greg showed up as we were starting the final round of Fairy Tale, so I was glad we had begun with a short game. We settled on another short game, this time a push-your-luck Knizia dice game. We had what seemed like an unusual number of bust-out turns-- Stephen never once took a tile, and I only took a tile on my last turn. I don't think we were being particularly risky, either; many times we had no real decisions, e.g. the current total was too low to take a tile and there was only one legal number to keep from the current roll. Maybe we had made bad decisions on earlier rolls, or maybe we just had bad luck, I dunno. Greg seemed to be in the lead for most of the game, but Karl ended up winning with 6 worms; Greg had 5, Jeff had 3, I had 2, and Stephen had 0.

Marco Polo Expedition: Jeff pulled this game from my shelf while looking for 5-player games. This is one of those games that I always enjoy but I can never seem to win. It's a somewhat light but solid set-collection/racing game, one of Knizia's underrated titles. Like most racing games, it's usually better to be following than leading, but you don't want to fall too far behind the pack. I can never seem to remember this, though, and twice in this game I jumped out to a lead but then got overtaken by the rest of the pack before I could collect enough cards to advance again. Still, I managed to get to the 6-point location near the end before the game ended, which was enough to put me in a tie for second. Jeff won with 12, Greg and I had 11, and Stephen and Karl both had 9.

Zark City: Karl suggested this one, a new Andy Looney game that was recently posted online. It's a streamlined version of Zarcana/Gnostica, played with Icehouse pyramids and a deck of cards (preferably Lost Cities cards, which is what we used). Like its big brothers, it's an abstract wargame of territorial control, but in this version your choices on each turn are severely restricted so the turns move very quickly: either add a pyramid to the board, add a card to the board, move a pyramid, attack a pyramid using cards from your hand, grow a pyramid (for defense), or draw three cards. The goal is to have your pyramids control a set of three connected cards that form a suited run or a three-of-a-kind. After a lot of back-and-forth maneuvering, I made a boneheaded move that I thought was blocking Jeff from winning, but then he simply attacked my pyramid and converted it to his color for the win. I do think that this game is deeper than it first appears, but really I was just careless.

Tongiaki: I was out of the room when this game was selected, but it's another game that I think is underrated so I was happy to see it hit the table. This game of South Pacific exploration can be a bit chaotic with 5 players, but sometimes you can make a clever series of moves that substantially improves your position, and if you're careful you can avoid having your efforts easily undone. I took the opportunity to end the game while I had presence on a nice big spread of islands for 24 points, thinking that Stephen was my main competition with 23, but it turned out that Karl had 25 points which gave him the win. Greg and Jeff both had 16.

Wits & Wagers: At this point, Greg said that he had to leave in about an hour, so I suggested this game from his bag. I'm not a big fan of trivia games, but I enjoy this one because it's more about estimation than knowing precise facts. It also doesn't outstay its welcome: a whole game consists of just 7 questions. I stayed the chip leader for most of the game by winning a few 3-1 payouts, but Greg won big on the final no-limit bet when he was the only one to pick the right range for the percentage of US Presidents who had been elected to two or more terms. Final balances were $125 for Greg, $70 for me, $10 for Stephen, $5 for Karl, and $0 for Jeff.

Saboteur: Greg had time for one more, so we played this hidden-roles game of dwarves mining for gold. I was a saboteur in all three rounds, and twice I was the lone saboteur, which seems nearly impossible to pull off in a five-player game. When Jeff was the second saboteur we managed to win, but that just meant Jeff was on the winning side in all three rounds, which gave him the game with 6 gold total. Greg had 5, Stephen had 4, and Karl and I both had 3.

Tashkent Domino: After Greg left, we ordered some Chinese food from Wu Loon Ming, but it turned out that they didn't deliver, so Jeff and I went to pick it up while Karl and Stephen stayed behind and played this little-known pocket-sized game by Kris "Gipf" Burm involving special dice with domino-style faces. In each round, the players start by rolling all the dice, then taking turns placing them onto the board, matching domino edges and trying to have the fewest pips unplaced by the end. I think they didn't finish the full game (best of three sets of best of seven rounds), but it sounded like Karl had a pretty big lead by the time we returned with food.

Container: After our dinner break, the remaining four settled down for the only really meaty game of the day. Container, a posthumously published game by Franz Benno "Transamerica" Delonge, is a pretty pure business game: factories produce raw materials that are turned into finished products that are sold wholesale, shipped to distributors, and finally sold at retail. One of several twists is that you can't use your own materials to make products, you have to buy them from someone else; similarly, you can't sell your own products at retail, you have to pick them up from other players' wholesale warehouses with your container ship and deliver them to the center island where they are auctioned off in a lot, where you can in theory buy your own products but in effect you'd have to pay 3x the cost due to a matching government subsidy for selling to other players. Another twist is that each player has his own hidden chart of prices that the products will be sold for at retail at game end, so you're never really sure who's willing to pay how much in the distributor auction. And, strangest of all, you have to discard the product you have the most of at the end, so you often want to buy products that aren't worth much to you at retail to protect the products that are. All of this is complicated by the inefficient markets: you can only set or adjust your selling price when you produce materials or make products, and the distributor auction is blind. This seems to have the effect of driving down prices of materials and wholesale product-- you can't respond quickly enough when a competitor undercuts your price, so you have to preemptively set a low price-- and driving up the prices at the distributor auction, since the buyers have to guess how their competitors value the lots and can't just bid to maximize profit. I was just starting to figure this out near the end of the game, when I switched from trying to sell scarce materials and products at high prices to making all my money at the distributor auctions, but by then it was too late because Stephen had amassed a big inventory of products to sell at retail. His final bankroll was $117, mine was $70, and Jeff and Karl were in a virtual tie at $46 and $45, respectively. I started out not liking the game because it seemed like the value of everything was purely relative so it was impossible to figure out how to set prices or choose actions, but once I started to see how the (very long!) supply chains were playing out, I was getting more into it. I still think it might be a little too artificially convoluted for its own good-- the inefficient markets in particular are frustrating-- but I'd like to try it again now that I have a better feeling for how the economy works.

Carcassonne: The Castle: We finished up Container by about 10:30pm, which was late enough to send Stephen and Karl home, but Jeff stayed behind for one more game. I'm a huge Carcassonne fan, and for two players this Knizia variant is my favorite. Jeff jumped to a big lead on the scoreboard by taking lots of quick 2-3 point scoring opportunities, which let him scoop up all of the bonus chits, but once I managed to cash in the big regions I had been working on I started to catch up. I managed to merge into one of his large tower regions to neutralize its value, and the early investments I made in some market-rich courtyards ended up giving me my first and only win of the day, 76-68.

With that, we called it a night. Thanks to those who showed up, and thanks to you for reading this far!

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