Alhambra

It’s Tuesday! It’s Game Day! And today, it’s time for one of the classics of the tabletop gaming scene – let’s look at Alhambra!

Alhambra

This game is one of a few that I bought after seeing the Tabletop episode, which I suppose a lot of people did. I mean, we’re talking the Wheaton Effect in action, and all!

Hopefully you all enjoyed the hell out of that!

I really enjoy playing this game. It’s one of these games that seems almost deceptively simple – I mean, you draw resources that you use to buy tiles to build your Alhambra, and the person with the most profitable buildings in their Alhambra will win. But yet, there’s so much to take account of just where you put those buildings…

Alhambra

There is a strategy at work here that I find very much akin to problem-solving, which is not why I like to play games one bit. And yet, I still like this game an awful lot. It’s certainly very attractive to play, and while I often fall into the trap of thinking “well, I’ll put that garden here, because it’ll give the girls something to look out from the seraglio onto…” rather than “I need to make sure I don’t block that with a wall that could lead to me using up turns just reorganising…”. I still tend to try and use as few turns as possibly reorganising, and mainly attempt to build my Alhambra straight off. It doesn’t always work, but still!

I’m not so big on Euro-style games as I was, but this is still one of the go-to games on a games night that I really enjoy. There are a number of expansions, including one that allows you to drive archways through walls or somesuch, but I haven’t actually felt a need to buy any of them as of writing this blog. While I’m normally an expansionist fiend, and this will probably sound a bit strange from me, it’s one of those games that I actually feel doesn’t really need any expansion. Carcassonne is quite similar in this regard – sure, the added mechanics can be fun, but I like to play the game with the core set only as much as I play with the extras. Alhambra doesn’t need more, it can be enjoyed as a beautiful game exactly for what it is.

If you haven’t already, you should totally go snap yourself up a copy!

Settlers of Catan

Hey everybody!
It’s that time of the week again! Time for another game to come under the spotlight of awesome, and following last week’s look at some of the expansions to the genre-defining Dominion, I thought it was time to take a look at another true juggernaut of the board game world, and bring to this blog a gateway game that, in a lot of respects, started it all. Today is a game day blog with a difference, as we look at Settlers of Catan!

Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan is an area-control, resource-management game in the German mould, first published all the way back in 1995. I say “started it all” as its success was unparalleled at the time, seeing worldwide sales rocket and really helping what I suppose you could call the non-traditional board game market really take off globally. Its popularity has been demonstrated time and again by being the only such board game offered for general sale up and down the UK, very much in the manner only previously achieved by Hasbro staples. Anyway!

Settlers of Catan

In Settlers of Catan, you take the role of a settler, aiming to cultivate the land nearby to gain maximum resources, which you use to increase your presence on the island of Catan by building roads and villages, and upgrading villages to cities. The board is made up of a number of hexagonal tiles that can be randomized each game, meaning no two games will play alike. Each hex represents a type of resource you can claim – wood, brick, ore, wool or grain. At the start of each turn, two dice are rolled to determine which hex tiles produce resources, and if a player has a settlement adjacent to any such tile, he’ll get the resource card for later use.

As the rules say, you’ll never gain all the resources you’d ever need simply from generating resources out of your own settlements, and a very big part of this game is the bartering system of trading with your fellow-players. When the game begins, you essentially have two free settlements, but due to restrictions on where these can be placed, you may find yourself blocked by other players, forcing you to always work for your resources. If your fellow players don’t want to trade with you, however, you’re always welcome to trade with the bank, or if you control a coastal settlement, you may be able to trade off-island. This affords the game a tremendous amount of player-interaction, as you all seek to gain resources and, potentially, off-load that glut of wood or wheat for the more lucrative ore you need to build your city.

Settlers of Catan

While there is technically no hand limit, a roll of a 7 will activate the Robber, who is moved to a tile to prevent it generating resources – if a player has more than seven cards in hand he must discard half of his hand. Furthermore, the player who moves the Robber can steal a card from a player with a settlement adjacent to the Robber’s new tile.

Robbery can be prevented by the use of the Knight development card. The development deck has a variety of other cards that grant several in-game effects, such as the Monopoly card that allows a player to claim all cards of one resource type from the other players. Development cards are bought with resources much like settlements and roads, and can be a viable strategy to gain victory bonuses, for example having the largest army. When a player reaches 10 victory points, the game immediately ends.

Settlers of Catan

A large number of expansions have been released for the game, such as Seafarers, where you explore a board made up of smaller islands; Cities and Knights, where you must work together to fend off barbarian invasion; Traders and Barbarians, which features a number of smaller scenario-based expansions and includes the official two-player variant (which basically uses two ghost-players). Two years ago, a second scenario-based expansion was released, Explorers and Pirates. In addition to all of these, there have been a host of re-skins of the game, from the historical series to Star Trek Catan, and card game and dice game alternatives are also available.

But here’s the thing, guys: I hate Catan. Actually, hate is a pretty strong word here – I dislike the game, quite a lot. Normally when I feature a game here on a game day blog, it’s a game that I have in my collection and one that I love, but this one is just awful. I first played it years ago with the ex-girlfriend, and we were actually both pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, but when it was featured on Tabletop a few years ago, I convinced myself to try it again, and bought the game, but couldn’t convince anyone to play with me. So I downloaded the app, and played a lot of Catan that way. I was learning the ropes, and it wasn’t all that bad – maybe we had been hard on it, back in the day. Heck, I even won a game! Finally, with all my experience on the app behind me, I brought it to the table nearly two years ago with some friends, and we played what I would consider my first real game. And it was awful. I was teaching the others to play, so we were going through it pretty casual-like, building settlements and roads, and all the rest of it, but it just ended so horribly that it soured us all towards the game, and I’ve never wanted to go back.

A big part of this is the fact that development cards are kept secret until they are actually played. No big deal in and of itself, as a lot of games have cards with a secret knowledge mechanic. Heck, pretty much all card games play like that! But when someone can just spring their Victory Point cards on you and basically claim victory out of almost literally nowhere, it leaves a pretty sour taste in the mouth for everyone at the table. I actually won that game we played, and I felt like a bastard for it – people were building their settlements and their cities, and felt like they were on track for a win, when I played my cards in very much a “oh, and by the way, I’ve just won” manner. It just really sucked.

This has also happened with pretty much all of my games with the app, too. You’re there, building your board-presence, watching what the other guys are doing, wondering if that hand of six development cards is just six knights, you build your city, you feel like you’re on track, the other players don’t have as many victory points on the board as you, but then – out of nowhere, the game is over and you’ve lost. It feels so damn arbitrary that it’s almost worth taking those VP cards out of the deck. But, while I may sound like an entitled arse for saying so, I don’t think it’s up to me to balance a game I’ve paid money for.

I’ve since sold my copy of Settlers, wanting nothing more to do with it. It’s just not a game that I find enjoyable, so was taking up valuable space in the game room that I could devote to others.

Have you played Settlers and loved it? I’d love to hear your experiences with the game!

Carcassonne

Yay, it’s another post! If you read my tagline above, you’ll see that one of the things I love is board games, but before I start talking about that in any great depth, I thought you’d all love to know a bit about my very first experience with this world. See, the board game world that I enjoy so much isn’t the standard fayre of monopolys, clue(do)s, and whatnot. It’s more what I jokingly call “serious board games”, the sort that require a massive amount of capital to support, not to mention whole rooms given over to store them. That’s not to insinuate there’s any sort of snobbery going on – I enjoy a good murder mystery, or race to buy up London, as much as anyone – but rather I just enjoy games that have more immersion involved.

So anyway. The game that got me started in all this was, as it most likely was for a lot of other folks, Carcassonne. It’s a simple and elegantly beautiful game from the German designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, where you place tiles to essentially build the game board, scoring points as you complete features in the landscape that you have claimed using your meeple. When the last tile has been placed, the game ends, and the person with the most points wins. That’s pretty much all there is to it – no snobbery involved here! Rather than go through any complex rule explanations with pictures or whatnot, I thought I’d let Wil Wheaton show you, in his awesome TableTop webshow:

Pretty awesome, I know!

Carcassonne got me insta-hooked on tabletop gaming, and since then I’ve been sinking untold thousands of pounds into the hobby. It’s something I enjoy, so what the hell, right? But why Carcassonne? What was so special about that game that tipped me over the edge? Well, I don’t know. Highly unsatisfactory answer, I know, but still – I don’t! It’s a really elegant game, with perhaps the perfect balance of strategy for me to enjoy it right out of the box. If you watched the whole video (and if you didn’t, shame on you!), you may have picked up on how easy it is to either play confrontationally, messing up other peoples’ plans and muscling in on their farms or cities, or equally you can just have your own little corner that you can make your own, and hope you have more features at the end. I’m sometimes a lazy gamer, and I don’t want to have to sit through half an hour of strife and torment while I try to continually adapt my plans for victory, sometimes I just want to put some tiles down and score some points, y’know?

Carcassonne

There are a lot of expansions for Carcassonne, which adds greatly to the depth of the game without really being all that complex (I think). I think we’re currently looking at the ninth “big box” expansion coming out this year, but there are also a whole host of smaller boxes, right down to single-tile expansions. Unfortunately, I don’t have all of them (to my lasting shame!), but I have a damn good selection, let me tell you!

Carcassonne

If I had to pick my absolute favourite, I’d probably say it was Inns and Cathedrals. It was the first large expansion for the game, and basically added more tiles, including tiles with inns and with cathedrals on. Genius, right?! To add to the main game shown above, the inns appear on road tiles, and their presence on said road makes it worth two points per tile when completed (though still one point at the end of the game). Cathedrals are full-tile city tiles, and when said city is completed it makes each tile worth three points – however, at game end, if the city was incomplete, it scores you nothing! The potential for adding cathedrals to an opponent’s incomplete city near the endgame is always sooooooooo tempting! Muwahahahaha! (I’m not actually a jerk like that – I like to think I’m a really considerate gamer, anyway!).

Carcassonne Inns and Cathedrals

The smaller expansions all add something, well, small to the game – my favourite is the Cult, six tiles which work similarly to the monasteries, though if you get a cult piece and a monastery together it becomes a fight to see who completes the feature first! Whoever loses gets no points for their own feature.

Carcassonne Cult

A lot of the Carcassonne mini expansions have been made available through Spielbox magazine, which is a German game magazine that does a lot to promote tabletop gaming. Published in German, with an English-language version also available, it’s definitely worth checking out!

Carcassonne Cathedrals of Germany
Carcassonne latest addition, the Cathedrals of Germany!

As well as expansions, there are ‘re-imaginings’ of the game released, the first being Hunters & Gatherers, a Stone Age version; Discovery; Winter Edition, and most recently, South Seas. All of these use the basic mechanics but with subtle twists. I’ve only played Discovery and Winter Edition, which are both as much fun as the regular game, though without the same level of expansion (all except Discovery have had some form of expansion to them).

Carcassonne Discovery
Carcassonne Discovery

Carcassonne Winter Edition

Carcassonne Winter Edition

Carcassonne South Seas
Carcassonne South Seas

Which leads me on to another point. I’ve played Carcassonne a whole load of times, in large groups and one-on-one. It’s an experience that is always changing, and always fun, and the level of expansion incorporation can make things as easy or as complex as you like. Personally, I enjoy at least a couple of expansions being involved. There are two small expansions of River tiles (River and River II) which have become practically ubiquitous to the main game, but in addition to these I would usually involve at least Inns & Cathedrals, Traders & Builders, the Cult pieces and the King expansion. There’s just enough going on with these that I feel the game is in a constant flux until the end. (I also have the ‘mini expansion’ of twelve tiles published in Games Quarterly magazine mixed in with the base game tiles, and while usually expansion tiles have a watermark telling you which set they came from, this one doesn’t, so I can’t split it off. Just thought you ought to know). Playing with all the expansions can be a bad idea, as there is so much going on – not to mention, so many tiles – that it can slow the game down. I’ve done it once, and covered the dining table with the game.

Carcassonne River II

In case you’re interested, the Guinness World Record for the longest boardgame play was for a game of Carcassonne in Germany in 2006, which lasted nearly 43 hours and used nearly 4200 tiles. The winning score was 4703 points! Sheesh!

Carcassonne was the game that got me into this delightful mess, and it’s always fun to get it out every once in a while.

As always, I’d love to hear what other people think of Carcassonne – including favourite expansions! Drop me a comment!

Carcassonne Count of Carcassonne
The Count of Carcassonne expansion brought the actual citadel of Carcassonne itself to the game!