After the sad news of the death of Terry Pratchett this week, it seemed only right and proper to play a game based on his work. Miss B has read one of his novels, The Wee Free Men (one I haven’t yet read), and so has been introduced to the character of Tiffany Aching and the environs of Lancre, so was interested in playing The Witches, a game which features Tiffany and other trainee witches trying to deal with enough problems to keep their homes from descending into chaos.
There are a number of interesting things about The Witches. One, which probably won’t surprise Discworld afficionados, is that all of the player controlled characters are female. It’s sad that this is worth remarking on, but this game is unique within my collection in this respect. Another is that, while there are bad guys to defeat, most of the challenges are mundane things like dealing with a farmer’s sick pig, or helping with a pregnancy. Also that you have to be really careful in using magical powers for fear of the cackles that lead you into darkness and becoming like Black Aliss, but take comfort that having a cup of tea with your fellow witches can help you keep the darkness at bay.
This is basically an adventure game where you wander about and deal with challenges around the board (which increase in number each turn if you aren’t quick in dealing with them), but designer Martin Wallace has done a lovely job in making the game feel like its source material. The detail is all neatly abstracted away, so to deal with a problem you just roll a couple of dice, then choose to either run away or play cards to help yourself, then roll a couple more dice to finish off. It’s really simple once you’ve done it once or twice (though I found it took a little while to explain everything before we started), and when you get going the game flows really well.
Miss B got the hang of the game right away and was soon off solving problems. This is one of those games where we naturally start building a narrative around our characters as the game develops. Miss B’s version of Tiffany Aching turned out to be a natural at comforting folk grieving for their deceased relatives, while my Petulia Gristle, in addition to being a dab hand at curing sick pigs, also had a real knack for fixing broken arms. And when you manage to get help from the older witches, particularly when you manage to get three of them at once (the unstoppable Power of Three) the results are really satisfying. B was frustrated for a while by the perception that I was getting more luck than her, but in the end, while I dealt with more problems overall, she managed to solve trickier ones and we ended up in a tie for points, broken by the fact that I had fewer cackle tokens and won by the slimmest of margins.
The general opinion in the gaming world seems to be that this is a bit disappointing as a game, being not very challenging. I’d say that it is no less challenging (in terms of strategy and skill) than most other adventure games I have tried, and out-charms just about anything. I like The Witches a great deal and hope to play it a lot more. It seems to me like a nice way to go about remembering the late Sir Terry.
The verdict from Miss B (aged nearly 8¼): “It was really good but I found it frustrating at times. It’s good fun. I think it was coincidence, but I was Tiffany Aching, who started with an invisibility tile and I was the only one who drew invisibility cards! I give it a 9 out of 10.”
The game: The Witches (Mayfair Games), 1 to 4 players aged 13+.
One of the new and interesting (to us) games that we saw at UK Games Expo was called The Downfall of Pompeii, discovered when Miss B was offered a place in a demonstration game in one of the trade halls.
I sat alongside Miss B while she played cards to make her people move into the city of Pompeii and then, in the second half of the game, placed lava tiles onto the city while the terrified inhabitants ran around trying to reach the exits. Victims of the volcano, by the way, get thrown into a 3D volcano which sits in the corner of the board and is a lovely little gimmick. Never underestimate the value of a simple gimmick like this in attracting a 7-year-old — or her father — to a game.
One thing that made me chuckle about the game, incidentally, is that the designer felt the need to add a historical note at the end of the rulebook to point out that the inhabitants of Pompeii were killed by pyroclastic flows and not the lava, which works better for the game. I just love that the inaccuracy is acknowledged like that.
Miss B wasn’t really sure what she was doing during the demo game at the Expo, but when we sat down to play at home, she quickly got to grips with things and was happy and intent figuring out the best place to place her people so they would have the best chance to escape when the eruption came. In the later part of the game, when the lava starts flowing, the meanness of guiding the molten rock to cut off each other’s the escape routes of was all taken in the spirit of fun, with plenty of aggression going both ways. All in all, this was a hoot to play.
It’s an interesting game, this. Setting up the game involves seeding a deck of cards with special events in a prescribed way which isn’t too onerous, but seems a bit of a chore. The first part of the game seems maybe a bit dry as you place little wooden markers on the board, but it is diverting enough. All this doesn’t go on for too long, though, and it is all made worthwhile by the carnage that happens once the volcano erupts which, as I have said before, is just great fun. The box says it takes about 45 minutes to play and I think we took comfortably under an hour, so that seems a reasonable estimate.
I’m hoping we’ll get to play more of this.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 7½): “I really like the volcano because it’s 3D and I like the decoration on it. I give it a 9 out of 10. I think it’s better with 2 players than 4 because it’s more of a panic and you have more people to save.”
The game: The Downfall of Pompeii (Mayfair Games), 2 to 4 players aged 10+.
Years ago I had quite a lot of time playing games with a lovely family who kept on letting me into their house despite the fact that I spent a lot of the time eating their food and playing their board games. Several of the games we played regularly came from the “Empire Builder” range of train games, including Euro Rails, Nippon Rails, and Iron Dragon. They all shared the mechanic of drawing a rail network onto the board with crayons and then driving trains around delivering goods to fulfil demands specified by cards. This was all good stuff, though the games could go on for quite a long time.
Recently I found out about a newer member of the range, Empire Express, which stripped out some of the more complicated elements of the system (which nonetheless weren’t actually complicated), made the map smaller, provided a core railway to get you started, and sped the game up quite a lot. Sold!
I’m quite impressed with the optimisation of this game. The fact that you can start with a load of track already built and some demand cards that fit that track means that you are off to a flying start without having to have a few turns of trying to figure out a plan and initial network from whatever dross you are dealt. To be honest I missed the train upgrades, which aren’t available in Empire Express but are in the sister games. But the easier start and speed of play make up for the simplifications. Miss B and I took about 90 minutes to play this from a standing start, which is far quicker than I expected.
Miss B took to the crayon aspect like a duck to water. She didn’t need much help with route planning or drawing; we quickly got into a routine where when she drew a new demand card I would explain her options from it, she would make a decision as to how it would fit into her plan, and then she was off again pretty much on her own until a new card came out.
I’m definitely very happy to have got hold of Empire Express as it allows us to play a style of game I enjoy and haven’t had much chance to do for a very long time indeed. But as usual I will leave the last word to Miss B herself…
The verdict from Miss B (aged 6¼): “I like it when I get long routes because then I get more money but I have to make sure I don’t spend too much to make the tracks otherwise I might lose the game. ”
The game: Empire Express (Mayfair Games), 2 to 6 players aged 10+.
Catan Junior is pretty much what you’d imagine from the title: a version of Settlers of Catan, reworked with a younger audience in mind. I was a little wary of this, having heard less than stellar reports of an earlier attempt to shift the Catan franchise towards a younger audience (Kids of Catan), but over the last few months a steadily expanding body of positive reviews have built up. Then, while I was off at the highly enjoyable TringCon, I stumbled across a copy at a very reasonably price, so I laid my cash down…
I mean, there are pirates in this version of the game. Surely that’s enough?
Actually, my early impressions of the game are great. The basic mechanics of the game are almost identical to the original Settlers, but trading has been tweaked (so you trade with a non-player market or the bank), resource cards have been replaced by gorgeous tokens (though the design of the gold counters leaves something to be desired) and the development cards are now “Coco the parrot” tiles which do something good for you when you buy them.
We’ve played this a couple of times so far, with three and two players, and both worked well. Actually, during our first play I rushed reading the rules and we ended up playing with unlimited trading and no bonus for collecting parrots. This actually worked out quite fun, mind, but we have shifted to the proper rules now. The game zips along quite quickly, even with Miss B getting distracted and singing a song or chatting about the fact she doesn’t think there should be as much wood as it isn’t as interesting as goats.
In some ways I think this is actually better than the original Settlers. It is certainly less likely that someone makes a poor or unlucky start and never recovers. This could really turn into a very good gateway game which I’d be more than happy to play with an adult group. I think the “Junior” label is a bit unfortunate as it makes the game sound like more of a kids’ game rather than the great little family game it actually is.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 5¾): “Catan junior was 10 out of 10 when you could get a lair onto Spooky Island because you had the most Cocos. I liked it because it was still part of the points because lairs score points when they’re on the board.”
The game: Catan Junior (Mayfair Games), 2 to 4 players, aged 6+.
Miss B game me a bit of paper. It was actually partially used a sheet of stickers, on the back of which were a load of letters and squiggly symbols, some of which were next to boxes. “I made you a code because I didn’t want Mummy to see what it said,” she explained.
I was just about to go out for the evening so I promised to read it the next day and she said she would help me in case I found it tricky.
The next day we sat down to decipher the message, which was actually a perfectly good substitution cipher, even though a few of the symbols looked like the same squiggle. There was a key provided and the boxes were for me to write the deciphered plaintext. A few minutes later (with Miss B helping in the cryptanalysis process) we had the deciphered message:
“TO DADDY ID LIKE TO PLAY THE SETLER GAME”
I am so proud, and on so many levels.
And when such a cool message is delivered in such an awesom way, what could we do? Well, that afternoon we cracked out Settlers of Catan and had our first game with the proper rules. This is quite a bit of extra complexity over the “KinderCatan” rules we had used before, but probably no more tricky than some of the other games we have played. After having fun building the board from the hex tiles, Miss B learnt the game from a bit of advanced briefing and then getting the rest over the first few turns. In play she fixated a bit on getting the longest road rather than building settlements, but it all worked out pretty well for her.
Settlers has never been great with two players, but the additional space available did make for fewer problems in play as we effectively each had half of the board to build on without interference. A potential problem in the game is that it is very easy for old hands to take advantage of younger and less experienced players in trades. Aware of this, we didn’t do much trading and on the times that we did, I always asked “are you sure this will be good for you?” before going ahead — and in many cases Miss B decided to not go ahead.
Overall this went really well and we’re hoping to drag Mummy in for a three player game in the not-too-distant future.
The updated verdict from Miss B (aged 5½): “I really liked building the roads and the settlements.”
The game: Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games), 3 to 4 players aged 10+.
It’s time for one of the biggies: the Settlers of Catan. Actually, I think Miss B would struggle greatly with the full game, so a simplified version is in order, so enter Kindercatan, a variant aimed at providing the bones of the full game with not-completely-trivial gameplay that a four-year-old could enjoy.
Well, I can’t speak for a four-year-old, but the five-year-old and I thoroughly enjoyed the game. We were actually using a brand new set, so had all the tiles and counters to pop out, which was fun but meant we took a long time setting up, alongside a lot of questions about what all the bits were for. I made a minor mistake with the setup (due to having only printed out a black and white version of the rules), but that didn’t seem to cause any problems.
Kindercatan definitely introduces some of the core concepts of the game in an easy way and Miss B was soon completely comfortable with resource production, trading with the bank (there isn’t really much room for trading between players) and building stuff, and in a very close finish she won the game. We’ll definitely be playing this again and I don’t think it will be far down the line before we play the full game.
The verdict from Miss B (age 5¼): “I liked it but I don’t know why I liked it.”
The game: “Kindercatan” variant of Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games), normally 3 to 4 players aged 10+.