Jimmy Savile, famously, has a habit of saying everything twice (except for the phrase “Now then”, which he says thrice) ; MidCon was the games convention where I played everything twice. Well, almost everything.
Funkenschlag (Power Grid), Goa and Caylus: I played each twice, whilst Puerto Rico was played only once, largely because we didn’t have time to play it a second time. All are meaty games and that’s fine by me; I get ample opportunity in lunch-times at work to play short and sweet card games.
Of those mentioned above, Goa was new to me and Caylus virtually new to me. Goa
is a neat game that always seems to end a turn or two earlier than you want it to, which is a sure sign of a game offering that old “there are N things I’d like to do each turn, but I am only allowed to do N-1” dilemma. It’s built around a spice theme, with a bit of exploring, auctioning and development.The exploring
This is very abstractly represented. A number of tiles are laid face up on an 8x8 grid, which, presumably, is meant to represent Goa (my lack of historical knowledge lets me down here). Each tile offers a special action or reward to the player who purchases it in the auction phase. The most common tile is the plantation tile, which yields a particular type of spice (garlic, pepper, cinnamon, chilli and … er … something else). At the beginning of the phase, the “starting player” is randomly assigned and given the “starting player flag”. The starting player’s first action is to place the flag on one edge of the unexplored part of Goa (i.e. one of the available tiles that is on the perimeter). This determines where the second player may place his counter; he may play it on any tile that is adjacent (orthogonally or diagonally) to the flag counter.
The next player now has to place his counter adjacent to the second player’s counter, then the fourth player and finally the start player do likewise (counters may only be played on empty tiles).The auction
The tiles that have counters on them are now auctioned off in the order in which the counters were placed. So, the first point of order is always to auction the flag, which confers upon the owner the right to place the flag in the next round and, also, grants him an extra action in the development round. After the flag is auctioned, the other counters are auctioned in order.
Bidding is once round the table, and if you succeed in buying the tile that you yourself nominated, then you pay the bid amount to the bank (takes money out of the game), otherwise a winning bidder pays the bid amount to the person who nominated that tile (keeps money circulating in the game).
This is the major area of interaction in the game. In fact, it is virtually the only area of interaction, although there is often an opportunity for a nasty placement of counters in the exploration round.Development
This is the action round. Each player generally has 3 actions, though there are opportunities to gain an extra action (e.g. through owning the flag). Broadly speaking, the choice is to perform action X (or Y or Z etc.) or improve the reward for doing action X the next time you perform it.
If memory serves, there are 5 types of action that may be performed or developed:Ships
– You need to have ships to develop an action to the next level (i.e. move your dobber to the next level on the action track). Using this power gives you a specific number of ship cards. Developing this power means that in future you will receive more ship cards when you next use the power.Harvest
– Produce spices on your plantation tiles. The tiles have to have empty “slots” on them (hence a “3 spice” tile is worth more than a “2 spice” tile, but is a “2 spice” tile worth more than a “1 spice plus 1 victory point at the end” tile?). Developing the power increases the production rate of spices for you on subsequent turns.Gold
– Collect income or improve your income generating ability.Expedition
– Take cards blind from the expedition deck and hope they give you the opportunity to do something useful. These are the “Chance” cards in the game; developing the power not only increases the number of expedition cards you may grab when activating this power, but also (usually) increases the number of expedition cards you may retain at the end of a round (i.e. increases hand limit). Expedition cards can often be played at no cost – i.e. they don’t take up an action.Colonise
– There are a number of special plantations that you may attempt to acquire. These have a fixed cost (the better ones cost more), and the required currency is “colonists”. So, you pick your plantation (let’s say it has a cost of 8), turn over 2 cards to generate a random number (each card has a range of numbers from 1 to 3), add to this your basic colonist rating (determined by how far down the colonist track you have developed) and then, if you still fall short of the required target (8, in this example) you may make up the difference in colonist cards.
There are bonuses, in the form of extra actions, to be had for developing all of your powers to the next level (e.g. get all your dobbers to level 2 on each development track and you get an extra action) but, equally, there are bonuses to be had for being the first player to reach the penultimate or ultimate stage of development in a given power (e.g. be the first player to reach level 4 of the colonist column and you receive an extra action).
I should also mention that developing powers gives victory points at the end of the game. These increase in triangular fashion (0,1,3,6,10) if memory serves. It is very hard to develop a power to the ultimate, not least because each progression to the next stage will require not only a ship card (as mentioned above) but also one, more or several (thank you, Angus Deayton)
spices of varying denominations. Thus, 4 points might be there for the asking should you get your Gold power developed to the highest level, but you might be lacking one or more of the 4 spices required to hit that level.
This last example gives an insight to the sort of planning that the game rewards. It is a low key but intriguing game that keeps things simple enough to avoid being a brain-burner. Winning the game
As mentioned above, players get points depending on how far they have developed each of their powers (ships, harvest, etc.) plus points may also be gained through ownership of special tiles and also by being the richest player.
Goa is clearly going to appeal to the Puerto Rico fan, and falls somewhere between that game and St. Petersburg in complexity and game length. Caylus
is a tricky game to describe. Let’s start with the board.
At the top of the board is the favours track. When players achieve certain goals, they receive favours from the king in the form of (a choice of) money, prestige, commodities, or an extra action.
Next up is the castle, which the King is having built. The King will reward players for helping build the castle. Prestige points (victory points) are given for contributing to the construction of the castle, and a favour is given to the player who contributes most in any given round.
The bulk of the board is taken up with a long and winding road, leading away from the castle. This road consists of spaces, some of which (mainly the first group of spaces) have neutral buildings on them; the empty spaces will have player-bought buildings placed upon them during the course of the game.
Each building grants the occupier of that building a special power (occupation is only temporary, so it might be easier to think of this occupier as a customer of the owner of the building). The buildings are the heart of the game. The powers do things like change turn order, yield money, yield commodities (which are needed to construct buildings or help with the castle), allow new buildings to be built further down the road on the next available empty space, and one or two other things beside.
On each turn, player have 6 agents (represented by cylindrical counters) that they may place to stake a claim to the use of a building on the current turn. Placement is in turn order, one agent at a time, so this is a game where your turn comes round quickly. Apart from in the castle and one or two other buildings, only one agent is allowed in each building.
Placing an agent counter costs 1 denier (cash) unless a player has passed (foregone the opportunity to place any more agents this turn), in which case the cost is 2 deniers. Every player who passes pushes up the cost of an agent placement by one, so once a second player has dropped out of play (pushing the cost of actions up to 3), the others tend to follow quickly.
Once the placement phase is over, players get to use the powers that their agents have staked a claim to. The turn proceeds in the order in which the buildings are laid out, starting with the building closes to the castle and working down towards the bottom of the board.
So, let’s examine a typical turn’s decision. This turn you want to build a building. The building you want to construct requires you to spend a purple commodity and a brown commodity cube. You already have a brown cube, so you need to find a purple cube. There is a building on space 9 that gives its occupier a purple cube. Only problem is, the carpenter building (the one that will allow you to build your building) is on space 7; if you place an agent on the carpenter on space 7, when it comes to activate space 7, you won’t have the purple cube you need, because that won’t fall into your lap until space 9 is activated, by which time your agent on the carpenter building will have naffed off back home.
However, let’s say there is another carpenter building on space 15. Only problem with this one is that space 15 is only one square away from the provost counter on space 16.Did I not explain the provost counter? Let me do so now.
At the very beginning of the turn, the provost counter sits with the bailiff counter on the last building tile (space 16, in the above example). The provost is a bit of a busybody and he decides what can and can’t be done each turn. Any tile to the right of him at the beginning of the “power activation” phase will not come into play this turn, even if it has an agent on it.
During the power activation phase (which comes after the agent placement phase), players get the opportunity to move the provost. Firstly, if any player occupies the Provost building (can't remember the proper name of this), he gets the chance to shunt the provost in one direction by up to three spaces for free. Subsequently, all players (including the player who got the free shunt) get one opportunity to move the provost up to three spaces in either direction, at a cost of 1 denier per space. This shunting of the provost is done in player order – hence there is much scope for “I’ll shift him forward one if you do likewise” style negotiation between two or more players whose agents have been stranded beyond the “provost line”. Great fun.
Where the provost counter ends up also affects how quickly the bailiff moves to the “end of the game” space; if the provost ends up ahead of the bailiff, the bailiff moves forward two spaces, otherwise the bailiff moves only one. When the bailiff reaches the "end game" square, the game ends (big shock, huh?)
After all the buildings have been activated then there is a castle building bit, where arse-lickers get to score points for sucking up to the King.Some things to note about the game.
Apart from the randomly determined player start order and the randomly distributed 6 starting tiles, there is no luck in this game. You can see what is possible at the beginning of the turn and attempt to achieve it, but other players have a nasty habit of grabbing the space you wanted to occupy, thus preventing your plan from coming to fruition.
As in Goa, there are numerous strategies you may pursue and it is easy to flip-flop between them. For instance, it is fairly common to spend a turn accumulating cash (to pay for agent placement), then a turn accumulating commodities (required for buildings), followed by a turn constructing buildings and/or building the castle.
Player interaction is not particularly direct, but it is there.So, how do you win?
Oh, you know, the usual thing: get more victory points that the other players.
There are two main ways to get victory points. There is the aforementioned castle building and there is the construction of buildings. Constructing a building not only gives immediate victory points (the more prestigious the building, the more points it yields) but also, in a very clever touch, any time another player places an agent on your building, you immediately get 1 victory point (placing an agent on your own building only ever costs you 1 denier, no matter how high the current cost is for placing agents on neutral buildings).
I’ve only played the game three times, coming first once and last twice. Taking my advice, therefore, is like drinking from a poisoned chalice (should have chosen the vessel with the pestle), but I think a good strategy is to construct a useful building very early and then spend a period accumulating cash before working towards being able to build a monster prestige building at the end (these usually require gold as a component). The architect building is a good tile to use, as it enables you to build over an existing neutral tile; this is very useful in eliminating a rival supply of something one of your buildings is producing (e.g. if you have a tile that gives the occupier 2 pink cubes, then building over a tile that is the only other source of pink cubes is going to make your tile very popular).
Cash, gold and cubes are all worth victory points (VPs) at the end but with gold providing far more VPs than the others, there is the usual stampede for gold towards the end of the game.
In summary, I would describe Caylus as an intricate game, in which turn order is very important. The best laid plans of mice and men can easily go down the Swannee but it is not catastrophic, except in the final round. Although it is a thinker’s game, the range of options available each time your turn comes round is sufficiently limited to keep the game ticking over. Though I have doubts that this game will still be widely played in a year’s time, I expect it is going to be played a lot in the next few months,Meanwhile, back at the con
But you don’t read con reports to find out about the games. You want to know who got lost getting there? How incompetent was the hotel? Who got drunk? Who turned up unexpectedly?Who got lost getting there?
Not me, guv. I confounded Birks’s law (“Harrington will always be late for any inter-city train he attempts to catch” by catching a train that was an hour earlier than the one I was intending to catch. I left Old Street at about 1:05pm, in the expectation of getting to Marylebone an hour later, which would leave me 40 minutes to have a leisurely bite to eat and get a ticket before the 2:50 left for Birmingham Snow Hill. To my surprise, I made it to Marylebone at 1:40pm, ten minutes before the Birmingham train was due to leave. I was 6th in the queue for a ticket, with 3 windows open so, surely no problem in catching the train?
Naturally, I was behind three people who wanted to pre-book a ticket for a journey from a different station on a future date using a payment method not yet fully approved by Chiltern Railways, Watching the old boy at the middle window trying 17 different orientations of his credit card as he tried to work out the correct way to put it in the chip & pin machine was like having a glimpse into my own incompetent future. I finally got to the ticket window 2 minutes before the train was due to depart so, out of courtesy to the other punters behind me who were also trying to catch this train, I paid by cash rather than Amex.“That’ll be £26 pounds, sir.”
“Here you are, here’s £25 ….” (fishes in pocket for remaining pound coin, realises he put all his pound coins in the school dinner money box that morning) … “hang on, I’ll have to give you another £20. Give me back that fiver.”“What fiver, sir?”
“I just gave you a twenty pound note and a fiver?”“Are you sure, sir?”
“Yes, I am. I was fishing in my pocket for an extra pound coin, realised I didn’t have it and ….”“Excuse me sir, is this a 5 minute argument or the full half hour?”
I eventually got the correct change, legged it to the train, got on the “No mobile phones” compartment and had a peaceful journey to Snow Hill.How incompetent was the hotel?
The hotel was better than last year, but still not great. There were no problems with my booking, once the oriental PC-literate booking clerk had sorted out the hotel’s booking system, which the other booking clerk had crashed through over-enthusiastic use of the Esc key.
It took me fully 15 minutes to work out how the shower worked. I was about to put in a call to Alan Turing and the rest of the Enigma team when luckily one of my random manipulations brought forth a gush of warm water.
The bar area at MidCon is virtually deserted these days, as the dwindling numbers at the con have removed the requirement for an overspill area. I am not sure whether the lack of warm bodies was responsible for the arctic temperatures in the bar area or whether the hotel was engaged on an economy drive, but it was bloody cold.
Beer prices were outrageous as ever - £3.20 for a pint of Murphy’s – but at least this year there was generally at least one barman there to serve us. This was generally sufficient, except at lunch times, when thirsty people had to wait an interminable length of time while the barman took food orders.
Our room had no remote control for the telly and the hotel took over a day to provide one to us, but as this came just in time for me to be able to watch highlights on Sunday morning of England’s victory over Argentina, I wasn’t fussed by this.
Saturday breakfast was fine, but on Sunday they ran out of beans and sausages fully half an hour before the breakfast period was scheduled to end. I suspect that the kitchen staff were concentrating instead, by that stage, on preparing for the lucrative Sunday lunch-time market.Who got drunk?
Nobody, so far as I know. John Wilman didn’t turn up …
Friday night the South London Mafia went out for the obligatory curry in Ladypool Road. I must confess that I am close to being played out on the curry front. I find the cuisine stodgy, though the starters are mostly very good, and I can’t understand the hobby’s general preference for this cuisine in preference to Chinese.
Saturday night’s meal was at the relatively posh (for Birmingham) Italian restaurant, San Carlo’s. As Rob Thomasson put it, “I hope we get seated upstairs again where all the airbrushed semi-naked bimbos go.” Actually, I paraphrase Rob, but whether to preserve his blushes or to provoke them, I’ll not say.
San Carlo does good Italian food, has a fine wine list and is clearly a great “going out” place for Birmingham’s movers and shakers. The loudish music contributes much to the lively atmosphere but this year, stuck on the end of the table, I found myself unable to hear the conversation of anyone sitting more than two slots away from me. More signs of old age, I suppose.Who turned up unexpectedly?
Andy Bate resurfaced on a scouting mission to see whether it would be suitable to turn up next year with his son in tow. If memory serves, his son is about 11 and like my youngest, has been battered into submission and agreed to become a board games nut.
It was great to see Andy again and fill him on all the hobby events he has missed, even though most of these involved deaths: the death of Sharp, Loveys and the postal gaming hobby itself.
Other than that, it was definitely a case of the hard core being the only ones in attendance. Many mainstays of the Diplomacy scene (Vick Hall, Mark Wightman) were nowhere to be seen, but it was nice to see Toby Harris, though I never got a chance to speak to him. Serial con attendees such as Mark Stretch, Mick Haytack, Len George and Paul Evans were among many notable absentees. It would appear that MidCon has fallen well behind ManorCon, BayCon and StabCon in terms of popularity, and is now to be ranked alongside the likes of RamsdenCon, MayCon, TowerCon, OxCon and MasterCon. Personally, I think this is a bit baffling. In terms of location (central), timing (a month after Essen) and suitability of gaming rooms (a zillion times better than ManorCon’s 12-yards-wide circular tables, for instance), it should be doing much better than it is. It’s not yet at the stage of unviability but some form of publicity campaign is required to return it to prominence.