Gamer’s Notebook May 2007

This is part two of the extended Gathering and Eastbourne report.

The Alchemist

I liked this one. It’s quick, it’s quite light, yet it makes you think a bit. It may prove to be clever in a ‘sub-system looking for a bigger and better home’ way, but I doubt you will find one play a negative experience. I for one will enjoy pushing it to find the game’s limits, and to dig around for tactics that may help get me there.

Simply, you are testing, making and ‘patenting’ potions. Each potion recipe needs cubes to concoct, and given a good stir and bubble, it will produce different cubes and VPs – so the cauldrons are really little cube processors that will be familiar from many recent games. It also reminded me a little of Factory Fun, in an odd way. Blue and Red in, Yellow out.

Once your recipe is set, you price it with a VP chit, with the long term aim of scoring a hidden agenda – you want to make your secret cube colour is the most used in the game. This leads to some interesting strategies, such as setting up feeder recipes to create colours in short supply, to price accurately to get people to use your formula (because you can’t!), balancing rare and common ingredients going out against VPs coming in, and trying to make sure lots of your colour is needed all over the board. Not earth shattering, but it works quite a bit into its 45 minutes. What emerges is a decent little game with identifiable depth. As I said, I liked it and I bet it makes five plays without pausing for breath.


It is churlish to be hard on a game that had four adults giggling for over an hour. So I won’t. The level of humour in Hameln may not be intentional, though I strongly suspect it is, but it works very well indeed. Just like Emira, the humour is of a past age; that which existed before Political Correctness. In the town of Hameln, men work, women drop sprogs and children are lucky if they don’t get lured away to Transylvania. Marriages are arranged, and the woman often chooses the house, which the husband buys. Everywhere has rats, and everyone pays the piper.

We are offered three major plusses, in addition to laughter: chunky, characterful bits (as we have come to expect) and a proper, unfolding theme. You can tell that the Lamonts decided on the Pied Piper legend, just possibly based on the bits, and worked everything in to make the game re-tell the story over three rounds. And it does. They have also tidily enforced partnership play, so subtly you hardly notice it is happening.

For some reason, and my money is on systems, it doesn’t quite gel overall. There may, simply, be a little too much going on. Why are we contesting status in such a complicated way? Why do the rats overrun us so easily and effectively end the game prematurely? Why is the cat so expensive and limited? The game has pacing issues, is a touch chaotic, and the board is somewhat cluttered and loud. These are niggles that may have been ironed out with more time in development, or they may not. Combined, they take the edge off of a game that is almost there. Then again they may just be symptoms of some deeper ailment; the conclusion is that a gamer’s game, even a quick one, takes longer to stew than a quick filler.

Against the flow of opinion, I don’t mind Hameln and I will play it again happily. I will be keeping my copy. It is probably not as good a game as Shear Panic, but it does work because it is fun, thematic and has some good ideas. How many games in this year’s batch deliver fun? It is an ingredient that is often overlooked or never considered, yet Fragor seem to manage it every time.

Portobello Market

A prosaic game of placement, enclosure and calculation, this game is so fast it is over almost before you have a strategy worked out. Although now morphed into a street market theme, this was a railway game and the ancestry shows. But a twenty minute railway game? It’s okay, it works, and it has some reasonable ideas, but not my thing really.

Shogun (Wallenstein)

I still read requests to know how this game has changed from Wallenstein. So I played it. It hasn’t altered much, and what has changed is not necessarily for the better, apart from the transparent cube tower base which helps a lot. Instead of a squat, squarish format, the map is now long and thin. There are also naval moves to consider, but nothing too drastic, just coastal shipping. The map is fine and I did actually prefer the Japanese setting and theming. What I wasn’t so keen on was an action card auction at the start of each turn, for the same cards each time. Soon we weren’t bidding with any interest, and then hardly at all, so I would be inclined to leave this out. Otherwise, it is much the same. You pays your money, you takes your choice. Lovely production either way, and I still like the game despite getting kicked regularly.

Party Games

As the years progress, and I meet a different mix of people, I find myself playing more and more party games. In the past I would have felt a need to justify this statement, but no more. I like almost all of them, and I almost always have fun, often laughing to the point of mild discomfort. I don’t think there is any more justification required than that.

But here’s the rub. None of these wonderful games feature in my current Games Top Ten. That would be because in my mind, like music or movies, they live in a neighbouring postal area and so they have their own Top Ten. Which I haven’t got round to compiling yet. But these five are definitely in it.

Balderdash consistently amuses me. I think the mix, mood and wit of the other players are key factors, but broadly if you are willing to have a go, and there is a sense of humour present, it is a very funny game indeed – with the laws being my favourite source of giggles. I also feel, immodestly, that I am quite good at it. I seem to have a knack for getting into the feel of the questions, especially the acronyms. Balancing that brazen observation, I never actually win. To coin a phrase, ‘Will always play, and expect to do so for ever.’

I will also play Haste Worte whenever I get the chance. I don’t own a copy, so that basically means at The Gathering! The game has some flaws, not least the need to sometimes restrict, clarify and define answers. There also needs to be a fix for the ‘tactical nuke’ problem – where someone takes out almost the entire category using just one word, like Plants when the category is Things that are Green. Anyway, still a winner. Perversely, for some reason I like the handicap system in the end game which slows up the leaders.

Next up is Wits & Wagers. This games scores highly for a very simple reason: it neatly skips round the trivia game problem of people not knowing the answers. Here, we can guess, not feel stupid, and then bet on a range of likely outcomes using instinct and more, informed, guesswork. Clever. I like to play with proper poker chips for that authentic tactile experience. Another winner, even if the number content means it is a little less fun than others listed here. I guess I am a words and facts man, deep down.

Because of my ‘little rest’ from the hobby, I missed Smarty Party’s release and initial success completely. This year I put that to rights, playing my first game with the designer, Pitt Crandlemire. He is a bit good at his own game, but I still managed to make a fist of it. I can see the game replacing Outburst completely at Sumo Towers, and even making a run at our staple party game, Scattergories. Loved it, basically.

My favourite of the lot is Electronic Catchphrase. I understand this game is ancient, but I don’t care. It was in constant late night play at The Gathering, and having played once, I was hooked. I roamed the hall looking for games to join. I hunted the game down and bought it, almost taking one off the prize table, just in case. So simple, but brilliant. For British readers, it is absolutely nothing to do with Roy Walker.

The games I didn’t really get on with were Thingamajig and Abstracts. The former was hilarious, with Americans ribbing my every effort; the latter just put me under all sorts of pressure. Not good. Both rely on coming up with cryptic style clues, so to prompt Mozart as an answer, one might say, ‘Too Many Notes’. Given that I am a confirmed stranger to cryptic anythings, especially crosswords, I managed to cope amazingly well. But I am not good at this type of thinking, and I doubt I will put myself through it again. Here’s why.

I had to come up with a clue for ‘statistics’. For points, I am trying to get some players, but not everyone, to guess right. I went with, “What links Cricket, Baseball and Death?” Understandably, no-one got the right answer, probably because the clue was imprecise and crap. The best, and with hindsight obvious, answer was Throws, but I am not clever enough to have thought that up. The sick, depraved, never-wish-to-think-about-it-again answer was Runs. Ask a doctor. Ewwwww.

The game I didn’t like much at all was Time’s Up. Nothing wrong with it, very popular, many devoted, talented and spirited fans. The fault is with me. Being an introverted type, and English as well (it’s a burden sometimes), I don’t do charades. It’s all a bit too Will and Grace. I probably could, badly, but I won’t cross the pain threshold. As Time’s Up’s third phase is essentially charades plus a memory element, it is not really going to work for me. Combine these with Robo Rally and I am in a torture situation. That didn’t stop many extrovert types playing the game for hours on end. Moving swiftly on.


Despite this being yet another game about Venice, I was quite enthused when the game was being explained. It offers a newish twist on area placement, and has a neat card claiming system. Better still, idea wise, the victory point track is incorporated into the board and is actually interactive – your dobber position on the track can affect your scoring on the main board. Interesting. Unfortunately the track device doesn’t work too well in practice and the rest of the game is just alright. It is worth a try, to see the mechanisms in action, but I felt I could safely live without it in my collection.

Lords of the Spanish Main – Revisited

Sir Philip Eklund for Sierra Madre Games

I remain enamoured of this wonderful game after no less than nine plays. In my evangelical fervour I have taught around 25 gamers so far. Only one, Paul ‘Three Holds’ Heald, is no longer talking to me. I now have some more views to offer, and they will be concise and to the point.

  • 1. It’s great.
  • 2. Despite this, 40% of gamers aren’t liking it. I do understand.
  • 3. I have taken to running it like a role playing game (which is what it is in some ways), balancing roles, keeping the game flowing, and helping players through the tough first decade.
  • 4. I believe there may be merit in either
  • a) providing players with a Colony Start Package or
  • b) seeding the first ten cards with interesting and profit making colonies, enough for one for each player.
  • 5. It’s great.

Thank you for listening.


Guru is one of those rarities: a game designed with a novel theme that has mechanisms to match, or perhaps a well chosen theme grafted onto a novel mechanism. Only the designers know, and so far they aren’t telling.

The idea is obvious and overdue. You play a guru, or perhaps cult leader, recruiting new members to your movement. Your admirers must be chosen carefully, as you only want the right calibre of follower, presumably equipped with platinum credit cards. But, cleverly, the more members you take, the greater the chance your rivals will discern your recruiting patterns and call you out as a charlatan.

The potential investors, sorry, cultists are cards with multiple facets – card colour, pattern, body type, facial characteristics and so on. Your opponents try to deduce, you try to baffle and score points. Good idea, interesting, playable.

In theory.

The game falters because someone decided to let their six year old draw the pictures, and then overlay them onto psychedelic, indistinct patterns that leaves only the colour facet readily discernible. This means you peer, and squint, and try not to give the game away. But inevitably, even with bluffing and false moves, you do. Ironic, since this is the whole point of the game.

Despite this, I liked Guru. If nothing else, the idea is sound and they have nailed the theme/mechanism thing. You can see that with graphics that don’t originate from under fridge magnets, it would work. Its heart is in the right place, and with some development, an art transplant (sorry) and perhaps a new theme, I would not be averse to buying this one. I look forward to the second edition, or perhaps Pfifficus’ next release.

Mike Siggins