10 Games, 2 Saturdays, 1 Mission: Play until our brains are fried. Nick shares his experiences and impressions of these 10 games hand-picked for maximum entertainment and played over the course of two gaming marathons.
These past two Saturdays consisted of birthday celebrations of the best kind, where I and another friend chose to forgo physical birthday presents in favor of something even better…. TIME. Time to step away from the responsibilities of life and do nothing but play tabletop games all day long. Fortunately for us, our small gaming group had time as well, and thus we dove headfirst into two meaty Saturdays of seemingly endless fun.
The first Saturday started with one of my top 15 games of 2020, Beyond the Sun. Despite me sitting at the table with the board facing the opposite direction, something that is usually relentlessly annoying for a very wordy game board, I was able to manage just fine.
Beyond the Sun was perhaps the favorite game of most players that entire day. The area control board of planets was hotly contested, more so than I’ve ever seen. Some planets with a colonization requirement of only 3 ships were seeing massive armadas (multiple ships tallying up to 7 or 8 or even more) occupying their territory with a fierce death grip.
It was difficult to ignore the allure of that half of the game and focus heavily on the tech tree because most of the public objectives and many great bonuses incentivized colonization and control. It made for a thrilling and intense game where all came away fully satisfied with the start of the day.
The next game on the menu was Reiner Knizia’s train game, Stephenson’s Rocket, featuring the Eastern US expansion map. I’m usually a train station kind of guy, throwing them down generously and early to get a leg up on scoring points when locomotives connect to rail towns. But with this map, there is an even higher scoring potential for industry investments, so I decided to mix up my primary strategy.
The center of the board quickly became crowded with my opponents moving locomotives, gaining stocks, and throwing down train stations. I opted to stick to the perimeter of the board, but with less help from others to get things rolling, and my best rail company quickly getting rammed into an inescapable corner by a devious rival, I found myself falling behind in the early game.
I had to pivot my strategy if I wanted to salvage the slow start. So I did what all the best train games let you do: I leeched the prized stocks from players who were in too deep to let me tank their rail companies. The interesting thing about having a heavy station strategy—where you want to connect to your stations and towns for maximum scoring—is that opponents can take advantage of your obvious intentions.
If I start steering a locomotive away from somebody else’s next big payday, they must begin burning off stock to veto my chosen direction and keep their plans from… derailing. With only a few turns, I can overtake the lead for a company’s stock and then let my opponents handle the rest of my dirty work, because now every city and town they connect to will serve to score me massive points as well. This strategy worked very well for me to the point where I made a huge point rush in the second half. Though I didn’t win, I was satisfied with my diabolical takeover.
Speaking of hostile takeovers, our next game was old reliable Lords of Vegas. This is a game that requires a higher luck tolerance than most plus a generous appreciation of the thematic intricacies of the design. When I first realized that a game titled Lords of Vegas has inherent risk and gambling integrated into every action available to players, I discovered my undying love for this box of bombastic fun. It had been seven months since my previous play, and this long-awaited reunion made our play all the sweeter.
Of course, I refuse to play this game with the provided Monopoly-like paper money, opting instead for Roxley’s Iron Clays. While it looks and sounds like Monopoly, Lord of Vegas deserves to be held to higher standard thanks to its clever, cutthroat strategic space. Our play was riddled with the usual casino dynasties and huge momentum swings, and it was an enjoyable ride to take with friends. Despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to bring down the 7-tile mammoth controlled by the black color.
Next, we leaped from one end of the luck spectrum to the other by digging into Hansa Teutonica Big Box. I can’t get enough of this classic, German-style Euro design. It never ceases to amaze us how each play has an extremely different feel from the last. This time, the most popular upgrade (gaining more actions per turn) was left wide open for me to exploit in the early game. I quickly threw down a trading post at this site and milked it for all I could while leaping to the maximum 5 action upgrade surprisingly early in the game.
We also saw another player make a great run for the coast-to-coast connection that scored them 7 points in the late game. I caught onto their intentions and did my best to be a thorn in their side by throwing down trading posts and merchants along their path. It turned out to be a wise play on my part, as I ended up stealing away first place from that player by only one point.
We followed up this cube placing extravaganza with a game that is fresh out of the oven: Bristol 1350. This is a plague-themed social deduction race from my friends over at Facade Games. I previously playtested and wrote a preview for this game, and it’s great to see the final form that Bristol 1350 has taken. A noteworthy change that I immediately noticed in the final rules is that nobody starts out with the plague during setup, as I remember that certain players could and did start with the plague in previous versions.
Yet with what felt like a rare stroke of chance, the very first cart mingle of the game resulted in myself and my cart-mates all contracting the plague, though we didn’t know at that time that all three of us had succumbed to the same fate . From there, we fanned out and did our best to sabotage the innocent victims of the other two carts.
Despite our best efforts, another cart of seemingly healthy passengers raced ahead of the rest and escaped town to our sadistic disappointment. They each revealed their secrets… one was healthy, as was the second, as was the—NOPE! The third passenger in the cart had contracted the plague during a seemingly harmless mingle long before the finish line, and he strung his teammates along the rest of the way before brutally stabbing them in the back! It was quite the sight to behold.
At this point, the board game marathon was winding down, so we found it fitting to play one last quick, simple game…. and that game was Social Grooming. Social Grooming is one of the three designs in our upcoming Kickstarter bundle launching later this year. While the other two games were cooked up by master chef, Reiner Knizia, this one is our own in-house design.
To play Social Grooming, I dealt out eleven cards to each player to form their own face-down deck. Then, much like the popular card game, Hanabi, we each drew one card off the top of our decks and held them facing away from ourselves so we could see everybody’s cards except our own. This is where the madness begins, as we immediately proceeded to offer the cards in our hands—something we knew absolutely nothing about—to others at the table.
Similar to one of our family favorites, Chinatown, players participate in a simultaneous negotiation phase. Yet negotiation becomes all the more tricky when you don’t know how valuable your own goods are. The key is to pick up on subtle cues and reactions while downplaying other people’s cards. When you see somebody’s eyes go as wide as flying saucers at the sight of your own card, you start to get a hunch for what you could be holding. And the good news is that you are allowed to keep your card instead of trading it if you feel it is valuable.
Yet value is partially contextual in Social Grooming. Everybody wants a 10 value card, as it is the highest point card in the game, but nobody wants two 10 value cards, because pairs will cancel each other out during scoring. The same card can be both very good for one player and very bad for another. And when you are able to keep tabs on what cards are currently bad for other players, there’s a whole nother layer to this tricky trading where you can bluff your reactions to an opponent’s card in an attempt to convince them to keep a bad one.
I’ll save further details for a future designer diary, but our session crowned two joint victors after three rounds of play. I found it quite funny that one special card type plagued my collection at the end of one round yet it was the only card I so desperately wanted and could not attain in the next round.
The following Saturday’s marathon was kicked off with a game I received for Christmas and finally got around to playing for the first time: Galaxy Trucker. In board game years, Galaxy Trucker is getting to be quite the old-timer, yet my first play of it proved that it still provides a highly unique and enjoyable experience.
The simultaneous, chaotic, real-time spatial puzzle of the first phase paired with a bombastic push-your-luck second phase makes for a perfect blend of entertainment. I dig how the game ramps up in craziness over the course of three rounds and you’re not completely out of the game after a rough beginning or middle act. I had always heard that this was a game about clinging on for dear life as your hodgepodge space ship gets blasted to smithereens, yet I got cocky after an easy two rounds where my ships suffered hardly a scratch.
Round three was where this wacky space game humbled me. I quickly built out a flawless left half of my ship before realizing that I had nearly walled off the entire right half of my board. The final minutes of building consisted of me scrambling to find the only piece that can fit into the one spot that I can even connect anything to, just so I could keep my hopes alive of filling in the many empty spaces still on my board.
This messy right side of the building phase was merely a foreshadowing of the flight phase, where very early on some nasty pirates arrived and blew off the right side of my ship that I had clumsily cobbled together last-minute. It’s as if they could see my weak point from a mile away and took a single pot shot to bring the whole thing down. Needless to say, I had to give up before round three was over so I could recede into a black hole of shame and lick my many wounds.
Fortunately, I came storming back in our next play of none other than Brass Birmingham. Brass is a game that never gets old for me, despite my many plays of it. I’m typically the player who can’t resist the big point pottery tiles, and sure enough, I got two of them out on the board before game end. In this particular game, the demand for coal far outweighed the supply, so players were frequently forking over five or ten pounds just to get a couple of those precious cubes. Meanwhile, the beer was bounteous and plentiful until the very last round of the game, where it dried up in an instant, forcing a couple players to pivot on their final plans.
The thing that gives Brass so much mileage play after play is just how interactive and dynamic the economy is. My plan to feed the hungry iron market can be completely obliterated when the person right before me cranks out an iron producing tile or builds on the space I was planning to use or spends the coal that I so desperately needed for my turn.
Designer Martin Wallace understands the importance of turn order, and he wields it with unapologetic brutality in Brass. Yet a lost opportunity in one area of the market simply means an open door in another area. Players must be as fluidly adaptive as they are cutthroat in order to thrive in Brass Birmingham. My many previous experiences with Brass helped me to come out on top in this particular session, and I was able to score the most network and building points in the rail era.
Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy
Yet our group hadn’t quite had enough of that economic savagery, because we next decided to break out the grizzly bear of a box containing Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy. My faction of choice for this session was the Descendants of Draco, who are buddy-buddy with the imposing ancients. Ancients are gray ships that show up on the board and take on any player who trespasses on their property. Yet the Descendants faction has the exclusive privilege of peacefully cohabitating with Ancients and even claiming control of their tiles.
In the early stages of the game, it can be quite difficult to take out an Ancient, and I used that to my advantage by exploring and churning out as many ancients around me as possible. I formed an early peace treaty with the Terran Alliance who were immediately to my left (left is a direction in space… right?); yet my insurance policy was the pile of Ancients he would have to bulldoze through if he wanted to reach my precious sectors with a later betrayal.
Meanwhile, I knew the Eridani Empire and the player who controlled them to my immediate right to be an overly aggressive bunch, so I constructed my explored tiles in a way that they didn’t have a single wormhole that would let them through into my territory. Between a peaceful neighbor and an impenetrable wall, these cleverly constructed defenses quickly lost their coziness when I realized that I now had very few options for scoring points in this space-faring war game.
So I did what any reasonable person would do and bided my time as I piled my biggest and best ships onto the sector that was right next-door to the central GDCS (Galactic Defense Center System) that looks suspiciously similar to the Death Star. This GDCS is known to Eclipse veterans as a lucrative opportunity for scoring big points and skyrocketing one’s economy. One must spend several of the game’s 8 rounds preparing to take this centerpiece down. Yet once a faction does all the hard work of taking out the GDCS and becoming the new occupant of the valuable central tile, they are now at their weakest, making themselves an easy target in the following round for anyone else to pile onto and perform cleanup crew.
So while I was amassing my glorious space fleet on one side of the GDCS, two other factions—the Planta and the Eridani Empire—were doing the very same thing on other sides the central tile. Judging by the gnarly blueprints on their ships, I knew I likely wouldn’t survive a showdown against either of them. My best bet was to take the coward’s way out and backstab the Terran Alliance who had spent all game building 3-point Monoliths on SIX DIFFERENT TILES in their region! Do not think less of me, for none can resist the allure of such an opportunity.
So with two rounds left to play out, I sent my fleet sprawling deep into Terran Alliance territory, squashing one starbase after another like ants under my space shoes. And inn the final round, the Eridani Empire sniped both the Planta ships and the GDCS before the fight could even begin with some of the best missile rolls this side of the Lylat System. They didn’t even break a sweat obliterating the central space and had earned three rare 4-point Reputation tokens by game end. Yet it was my own Descendants who ultimately reigned supreme after being branded a traitor and stealing away over twenty points worth of tiles and Monoliths from the poor, gullible humans of the Terran Alliance.
Despite Eclipse only being our third game of the day, we had nearly reached our limit for gaming that evening. Yet the group was gracious enough to play one last 20-minute game that was in need of some playtesting as requested by the one and only Reiner Knizia.
Like us, Reiner is quite excited to see his games, Soda Smugglers and Pumafiosi, be published with the help of Kickstarter backers, so he’s spent these past few weeks cooking up some stretch goal content for both games. Due to COVID restrictions, Reiner’s legion of play testers are a bit more limited lately, so he suggested that some further testing on our end wouldn’t hurt.
For a Soda Smugglers stretch goal, Dr. Knizia has crafted an 8-card event deck that is most comparable to the event deck in Quacks of Quedlinburg. At the start of each round, the Border Police Officer flips one event card and reveals the unique conditions of that turn. These clever events range from the Police Officer being more lenient toward travelers because it’s their birthday and they are in a good mood, to having a sniffer dog who aids in the search for illegal suitcases because he’s a good boy. In classic Knizian fashion, these event cards contain minor tweaks to the core gameplay that make for drastically different feeling rounds. After playing and enjoying the base game many times now, this optional content was a welcome addition to mix up the core formula.
I made a good run at smuggling my own suitcases of soda over our five rounds, but another crafty opponent adapted well to the different events. She knew just when it was the right time to either pull the trigger and smuggle piles of soda or resist the temptation and cross with legal luggage, and thus she emerged the Soda Kingpin of the night. As intended, Dr. Knizia’s upcoming game was a great way to wind our marathon down with some light, simple fun.
So there you have it… Two full Saturdays of board gaming bliss! Should you find your own small group to safely gather with soon, I highly recommend a similar session of entertainment therapy. And if you couldn’t tell from my experiences, I highly recommend all of the games mentioned above. Hopefully you enjoyed these musings as much as I enjoyed sharing them.
Article written by Nick Murray. To follow the above mentioned Social Grooming and Soda Smugglers as they come to Kickstarter, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!