The Pirate Republic – a megagame review

Last Saturday, I dressed myself in a waistcoat, popped on a jaunty hat, and asked my wife to apply my eyeliner for me.

Of course I did, because I was going to a Pirate Megagame! “What is a megagame?“, I hear you asking….

A megagame is a a room full of people all roleplaying as different characters, playing out some grand scenario. Imagine a combination of board game, role play game and hugely overcrowded dinner party with people that keep lying to you.

I’d never attended one, but I’ve been very keen on the idea ever since reading the Shut Up and Sit Down review of Watch the Skies. The amazing Pennine Megagames team have been running multiple games likes this for several years, and hearing about the Pirate Republic, it seemed time to put my oar in the waters…

The Pirate Republic!

The Pirate Republic was a one day swashbuckling adventure in Manchester, involving 60 or so fantastically well dressed players. The official description is below:

“The year is 1712 and the foul war of the Spanish Succession is finally coming to an end. Having fought for years, in some cases with honour, many fine sailors in the Caribbean find themselves unemployed and unwanted by their previous masters. Nothing to look forward to apart from poverty, starvation, scurvy and a miserable life.

So, do they roll over and die? No! They do what any self-respecting freedom loving sailor desires and follow the path well trodden by the buccaneers of old. Taking to the high seas, in fine ships stolen or borrowed from those who are better off, even sometimes bought, for a life of adventure, riches and partying until they drop.”

Basically, we got a boat, a crew, and the open sea, with ports to visit or attack (also run by other players), other pirates to attack and a mervant navy to hijack (run by a particular well dressed individual and his nation team). And we had to say “AAARRR!” a lot.

That sounds… weird. How was it?

Firstly, megagames are, well, Mega. There are 60 different stories going on, countless plans, subterfuge and miscommunication. Nobody has a full idea of what is happening everywhere, and its easy to be completely out of the loop of huge swathes of action – but it doesn’t really matter! For example, we completely missed the battle for Nassau, the Pirate Island, we didn’t attack a single merchant ship, and only visited 5 out of about 30 ports.

Of the 70 players present, I estimate there were 30 people I didn’t speak to, and others who I heard of only through reputation. We faked a poisoning at one point, and spread the rumour simply by wandering up to randomers and telling them there had been a poisoning and wandering off. Yet, somehow, news of it spread to the very port we were trying to deceive without us telling them directly. Beckybecky just shared a brilliant blog post about her adventures on the day, and whilst I don’t think I was directly involved in any of them, its amazing how much of it I heard through hearsay, frantic whispers and glancing at the huge central board map.

There was an annual Pirate council, which was helpful for hearing about some of the larger plans and escapades, as well as the opportunity to stand to be the new Pirate King each year. I only stood for this once, and even I didn’t vote for me!

In the process of plotting a mass poisoning

Secondly, plans will fail, but putting them together can be very satisfying. Your day will involve constantly, excitedly, talking to different people trying to scrape together plans, fervently promising to support your new friend to the bitter end, only for events to lead you to be at the other end of the map at the exact moment they said they needed you. But it doesn’t matter, because a different event meant their plans changed too – or they died horrifically, but who cares, they were only a scurvy pirate anyway…

We planned our grand poisoning and betrayal of Portabello colony intricately. This involved striking deals with other pirates to get them co-ordinated, getting the Control to agree to new rules for poisoning a water supply, and getting the Dutch colony to make us some fake uniforms for tricking the Spanish guards. Despite needing to postone the entire thing three times, we actually managed to pull it off, with the lovely guys on the Portabello table rather disappointed to discover that rather than allies we were just terrible, terrible people.

The French proved extremely happy to direct and fund terrorism.

Thirdly, abandoning plans can be equally enjoyable. As the port of Portabello fell, the other pirates sailed to chase a Spanish galleon, whilst we were left to guard the new pirate port we had taken. Instead of this, we did a runner with all the treasure, hiding out in tiny French colonies for the rest of the year. We had multiple people coming to us asking what we did with the treasure, but disingenuously showing a blank face and feigning confusion created enough uncertainty for safety.

After a year in game had passed, our treachery was forgotten, and we sailed forth in our newly purchased and outfitted fleet, and tackled a single Dutch merchant vessel (seen in the photos above). Unfortunately, they fled, and were replaced with a newly built fleet from a nearby Spanish port… Portabello. We outgunned them effortlessly, but unfortunately ended up outmanned when we boarded them. Despite a heroic one-to-one duel with their captain, the Governor of Portabello, who died at our hands, we lost the battle overall, and our entire crew was executed…

Fourthly, there’s a lot of fun to be had outside the normal arc of the game. After our unfortunate demise, we reincarnated back as new characters in the same French port we had hidden in for a year. We decided the life of pirates wasn’t for us, so asked them if they had any potential terrorist acts they would like to see performed. They asked us to try to burn down a Spanish port. After a quick discussion with Central Control (who were getting a little exasperated by our constant requests for poisoning rules, hidden uniforms and similar) we came up with a plan. The French gave us a small fishing vessel, and we set sail as an unarmed ship to a small Spanish port… Portabello!

The longsuffering Portabello port team. Every one of us ended up executed as a result of the actions of my ridiculous crew.

We sent Mike, our least vocal player to the Portabello table to haggle for hiring a warehouse for our (hypothetical) new fishing business. I knew they would never consider such an offer from me, as I had been central in the betrayal previously, but Mike won them over with his honest face and 3 remaining teeth. For one gold, they allowed us to hire a warehouse, and then we managed to buy an entire shipload of gunpowder from another colony. Port Control came up with a rule for the explosion, and we detonated the warehouse at the base of their fort, causing… not enough damage. We returned to the French to see if they wanted us to target any other colony: they gleefully gave us a handful of gold, and pointed us towards the current Reputation leaders, Havana.

The Cubans were so nice to us we (almost) felt guilty. Not only did they happily rent us a warehouse inside their harbour, but they even offered to buy fish from us! Central Control were too tired to be annoyed when we asked for a mechanic for getting fish, and just sighed at us “Whatever! Look, here’s a card for 3 fish, just have it and leave me alone!” Learning from our previous mistake of under-powered terrorism, this time we attempted to smuggle in three entire boatloads of gunpowder, then, after brazenly taking gold payment for our 3 fish, we called over Port Control for a further detonation. Little did we know that Cuba had also gone off piste, and had a card they’d bought from Central that made them extra vigilant against fire or explosions! We caused 50% damage to their fort, but two of the three of us were executed as a result.

Our performance sheet for the last year. Most of the actions detailed are not present in the games rules.

For the final year of the game, our remaining living crew member returned to the French, and gleefully accepted a small bucket load of gold to buy and outfit a reasonable sized brig, and immediately set sail to the first battle we could see, where 4 Spanish ships were attacking a single Spanish ship that had recently turned pirate! Joined at the last moment by a captured Spanish galleon, we fought tooth and nail, sinking a larger frigate, but losing our own ship in the process. Overall, the pirates won the battle, and Ship Control ruled that our crew member survived, clinging to wreckage, as the final moments of the last turn ended…

Final thoughts?

We had a great day. It was exhausting – I literally sat down twice for a total of about 3 minutes in 8 hours – and I was very ready to be done by the end, but I’ve been left with amazing stories, and a feeling of having taken part in something much larger than myself.

There was definitely stuff that didn’t work: there were crew morale, ship gold and rum trackers that were rendered completely pointless within the first year. Some of our friends who attended found this quite frustrating as it rendered their initial plans pointless.

I suspect that most introverts would find the process a little daunting, and you need a willingness to accept “flexible” rules (ie. Control making them up on the spot). Despite any other issues, it was a unique experience, and I’d be very willing to participate in another one in future; just don’t make me play Portabello port!

Fancy taking part in a megagame? Visit Pennine Megagames and sign up for one today.
I may even see you there Matey! Aaaarrrr!

Soylents: a comparative review of future foods

Check out my currently recommended review: Huel.
Skip straight to specific reviews for Joylent, Queal, Ambronite & Jake.

An introduction to “future food”

soylent_2-0A few years ago, a man called Rob Rhinehart got annoyed with the state of food. He was fed up with spending time and money on just staying alive.

Sure, food can be super enjoyable. Nothing is going to tear me away from the many pizzas in my life. But his point holds firm: much of the time, food is just nutrition, just fuel to keep us alive. Why have we not made it cheaper and simpler?

His answer to that question was Soylent. It’s powdered food that contains 100% of the vitamins, the minerals, the calories, the carbs, the proteins; every tiny thing we need to survive and flourish. Not only that, but its super convenient – simply add powder to water.

Soylents in my life

In my work day, lunchtime is not a time for sitting down to a tasty home cooked meal. Midday is a time when I want the absolute minimum hassle, and soylents, or “future foods” are a great solution to that. I’ve found them to be very helpful from many perspectives:

  • low cost: much cheaper than grabbing a sandwich every day
  • fast: much simpler than defrosting or buying and eating a meal
  • low hassle: I can drink it at my desk as I work, no down time needed. If I want some down time, I go outside for a walk, trading time on eating for time on exercise and fresh air!
  • a weight management technique: future foods have a very known calorie portion, and I find them satisfying to the degree I’m not tempted to snack – and not needing to shop reduces temptation.
  • more stable energy release: I start drinking one around 11:30, and finish it around 2:30. Drinking it so slowly keeps me satiated, and avoids the desire to nap I often hit an hour after I wolf down a medium sized meal at lunch.

Soylent is not available in the UK, so I’ve been experimenting with some of the available options, and thought I would review them for others interested in the concept.

Disclaimer: I was sent free samples of many of these products. Several of them have had changes to their recipe over the year I’ve been testing, so your mileage may vary. I’ve tested all of them for at least a week, usually several weeks.

A “meal” is ~700kcal, I’ve noted if the supplied sizes vary from this. The price per meal is for a starter pack, and then the cheapest bulk price available is in brackets. Cost of postage, if applicable, is included. 

Joylent

joylentPrice per meal: £1.79 (£1.49 bulk)
Website: http://joylent.eu

Joylent was the first future food I tried. I was attracted by its pretty packaging, range of flavours and cheap pricing; all of which stood them apart from Soylent.

Unlike many of their competitors, I found all the flavours enjoyable, none of them too sweet or too artificial. The texture was a little gritty – which I actually came to enjoy, after a little adjustment. It did mean the mix was prone to seperating out over time, so you’d need to shake it up fairly regularly. Not a big problem for me, it’s in a shaker already for a reason.

The effect on my body of switching to Joylent was entirely amicable. No exciting flatulence, and stable energy levels throughout. Replacing regular work meals with it was painless and enjoyable.

The pretty packaging is an interesting plus point as well: I genuinely looked forwards to each meal more than with some of the blandly bagged futurefoods. Eating is not purely about nourishment, and there’s something to be said for taking steps to replicate the aesthetic enjoyment of food…

All in, I’d definitely give Joylent another go!

Positive: range of flavours, good prices, vegan option, pretty packaging.

Negative: slightly gritty.

Queal

QuealPrice per meal: £2.10 (£1.88 bulk)
Website: https://queal.com/

After Joylent, the next inviting range of packages I opened was Queal . I say “inviting”; what I mean is “a little bit amateurish”.

Whilst the Joylent branding might be a bit colourful for some, the Queal logo was in underlined Ariel. My immediate impression of the packaging was that my mum could have designed it in Word.

Also, “Queal”? I know they are getting at Quick-Meal, but the first thing that jumped to mind for the three people I asked? “Queasy”. To be fair to them, over the last 6 months they have a new logo that is both prettier, and includes a “Quick Meal” tagline. I imagine their packaging will update in time.

The strength of Queal is twofold: texture and range of flavours.

It has a finer powder mixture than Joylent, resulting in a smoother, creamier mix that separates less. The downside of this is the mixture can clump together on mixing – imagine adding flour to water compared to adding sand to water. The sand will be gritty, but the flour might form lumps. That said though, the lumps are rare, and when well mixed or even blended, not a problem at all. I quite enjoyed chewing the odd bit of tasty Queal lump anyway – if textures are a deal breaker for you, something to be aware of.

Queal is available in 10 flavours currently, including such treats as “Crazy Chocolate Peanut” and “Banana Mania”. I found the flavours a bit hit and miss. Whereas every Joylent was nice enough, but not distractingly so, Queal had some overly sweet flavours – especially Berry – and some tasted overly artificial at points. Still, the benefit of 10 options is you are bound to find some that suit you, and the entire range is available in Lite, Standard, Plus and Athletic, allowing a varied mix of calories and macros.

Overall, I enjoyed Queal, but I found it a slightly less good product that Joylent, at a slightly higher price.

Plus sides: Smooth texture, range of flavours, decent price, 4 different calorie mixes available.

Downsides: basic packaging, inadvisable name, flavours a little more sickly/artificial, can form lumps.

Ambronite

Price per meal: £12.10 (£8.05 bulk, but that would cost you £322 for 40). Plus the meals are only 500kcal. For a comparable 700kcal portion, the numbers are £16.94 and £11.27 bulk!
Website: https://ambronite.com/

Wow. That was my first thought on seeing the price on this bad boy. One of my significant motivating factors for using future foods is the cost savings, compared to buying lunch. At the rate I use future foods, I could feed myself on Joylent for a month of workdays for the same price as a single meal of Ambronite.

Or indeed, for the cost of a Ambronite meal, could head to Subway and buy a 2 footlong Veggie Patty subs, 2 large side salads, 2 drinks and 3 cookies, for a total of 2,200 calories.

Or indeed, head to Aldi, and buy 10.8 kilos of butter, for a total of 73,800 calories.

If you can get past the price, Ambronite is clearly a quality product. None of the other foods on this list feel, look or taste so clearly like natural ingredients. Here is the full list: Oat protein, almond, oats, apple, agave syrup, oat fiber, nettle leaf, spinach, flaxseed, chlorella, spirulina, cranberry, bilberry, black currant, sea buckthorn, nutritional yeast, mineral salt, natural aromas, guar gum, vanilla. 20 items, all of which have grown and lived. If trees-are-our-family values are dear to you, Ambronite may be your – very expensive – friend.

As long as you don’t mind the flavour. Because, no doubt about it, Ambronite tastes… healthy. Healthy like a good walk up a mountain. In October. In pouring rain. In Scotland.

The finished mix is a textured greenish colour – much as one would imagine true Soylent Green, I suddenly realise. It tastes very earthy; a little bitter, a little bland; with a soft but slightly gritty texture. It definitely has a sour aftertaste – when I first tasted it, my immediate thought was that the packet must be past its sell by date.

After a few more sips though, I started not to notice the negatives, and became aware of just how satiating it felt. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to decide that its probably my favourite flavour of futurefood. I like to barely notice I’m drinking the stuff, and Ambronite quickly fades into the background, leaving you feel surprisingly refreshed. That said, I can imagine 60-70% of people just deciding its disgusting.

Plus sides: Organic. Fruits and nuts and berries and seeds. Wildly satiating. Flavour doesn’t linger.

Downsides: Crazily, ludicrously, never-gonna-buy-it expensive. Tastes “healthy” ie. possibly a little bit horrible.

Jake

Price per meal: £2.69 (£2.08 bulk subscription).

Jake has solid branding, and they know what message they want to get across. Futurefoods have a battle on their hands regarding who they are for, and why. Jake make it clear that this is a product for people who value quick, healthy and cheap nutrition.

I like their claim “Jake is made from real food”. I was regularly finding little pieces of slightly gooey texture, which were quite tasty. At first I assumed they were some kind of processed ingredient to supply healthy fats, but on closer examination I realised they were whole flax seeds. Tasty regardless, but somehow more appetising than artificially generated components.

Satiation is good with Jake, and I feel that it gives me a nice even energy flow throughout the day. That said, every future food has impressed me with its stable energy release: my habit of slowly drinking a shake over 3 hours is likely a key contributor, but that’s still valid, as there’s no way I would be that self controlled with a sandwich.

The vanilla flavour is a little strong for me, possibly slightly sickly. It certainly sticks around in my mouth many minutes after I’ve last sipped it. That said, its fairly unassuming, and it hasn’t stopped me being satisfied with the product; I just prefer milder flavours in my soylents. I also miss the opportunity to try other flavours; whilst Jake offer a Light and a Sports mix, they seem oddly proud of being available in “Only Vanilla”.

On eating Jake for a week, I feel like I’m in the ideal “natural” territory that Ambronite want to inhabit. Whilst I don’t believe in the “non-organic food is poison” mantra, its undeniable that oats, pea protein and flaxseed have a certain appeal over emulsifying agent Z3004 and flavouring E382-AB. And I may even be willing to pay for that appeal, to an extent. That extent is where a premium of £1-per-meal is reasonable… and £11-per-meal is not.

Plus sides: Has real life seeds! Good branding, nice energy release, mostly whole foods.

Downsides: If you don’t like texture, you might not like tasty lumps, only one flavour, vanilla a bit strong.

Huel

Price per meal: £1.61 (£1.33 bulk subscription).

Huel have been advertising a fair amount in the UK, probably to the point that they have more brand recognition than Soylent. With a solid (if unimaginative) logo, and a bold proclamation to be “the future of food”, they have made a great product, and at a fantastic price.

Part of the reason for the price is likely their large container sizes. Compared to single use or 3 meal bags used by all the other groups, Huel supply you with a 14 meal bag. It’s a little daunting at points, and if I was travelling I would probably pop a few servings into a smaller packet, but the fact they use around 8% of the packaging of some of their rivals is to be applauded. It’s also 100% vegan!

One thing I particularly enjoy about Huel is that it is somehow more dense than most futurefoods. Most of them need 120g per shaker (around 3 scoops) to provide a full tasting shake, whereas Huel manages this with 80g (around 2 small scoops). This hugely helps me to feel satiated at lunchtime, whilst helping me to calorie restrict for weight management.

Texture is similar to Queal: fine mixture, with a tendency to form (tasty) lumps. The sieve style shaker provided by Huel is somewhat less effective than the metal ball mixer provided by most other companies: its also more hassle to clean.

Vanilla is your option, flavour-wise, although Huel also offer an interesting “unflavoured” option, as well as gluten free. I found the vanilla to be fairly appetising and uncontroversial. If, however, you don’t like vanilla, Huel also offer a range of flavours supplied seperately. I’ve not tried these, but I very much like the option, if not the extra preparation.

A month with Huel left me very satisfied. It tastes fine, I get to have more than one shaker of futurefood at lunch, for the same calories a single shaker of other brands, and its more ecological than many of its competitors, thanks to the hugely reduced packaging. If you are looking for my currently recommended futurefood, Huel is my go to.

Plus sides: Great price! Good taste, extra shake for same calories, large range of optional flavours, 100% vegan, eco friendly packaging decision, unflavoured option.

Downsides: Flavours cost extra, forms lumps, bulky packaging, less good quality shaker.

 

Half Marathon Chris

imag0171I’ve been steadily getting more interested in fitness, running, and healthy living. Over the last couple of years, I’ve lost a decent chunk of weight, and started running and cycling a lot more. I still sweat like a geriatric horse, unfortunately.

In the last 18 months I’ve completed my first Triathlon, my first 10K road race, and this weekend, my first Half Marathon…

Location

ehm-course-mapI pretty much got pushed by circumstance into doing the race. A newly fit, running enthusiast friend told me I had to sign up around 6 weeks ago, but it wasn’t until I discovered another friend was travelling over from Sheffield that I decided to give it a go.

Warrington’s slightly pompously titled “English Half Marathon” is a mildly hilly course with total rise and descent of 110m. Click the course map on the left for more details. Its 21km, obviously.

Training

I did better than with my 10K. Not hard, because my training for that was close to non-existent. Sure, I didn’t run quite as much as I’d have liked, but I have been running at least 5km twice a week for the last couple of months, and I even did a training run of 16km!

As usual, 10 days before the race I rang my sports performance specialist friend Jon, asking “How do I train for an event that I should have already trained for”. He remained unimpressed with me.

I settled on trying to run 6km most days for a week, including one longer 16km route. Then, in the week running up to the race I ran 3 times:

Monday 4K
Tuesday 3K (limited by children)
Wednesday 6K before work, 8K after
Thursday Long walk
Friday 8K (up a Welsh hill)
Saturday 5K (personal best 22:50 mins)
Sunday Rest
Monday Rest (planned to run, failed)
Tuesday Rest
Wednesday 5K (slow pace with child)
Thursday 7K before work, 9K after
Friday Rest
Saturday Rest and carb load

Regarding nutrition, I planned to carb load on the two days before, and managed to suck down quite a lot of pizza. Unfortunately, my family caught a nasty virus that gave them nausea and abdominal pain. That hit me a little late on Saturday evening, but thankfully only hit me full force the day after the race.

On the morning of the race, I had two crumpets with loads of jam on them, approximately 80g of carbs, two hours before start time. That’s a bit less than the Runner’s World recommendation, but I was feeling a little queasy already. I also drank around 400ml of decaf coffee, keen to avoid dehydration, but also avoid weeing too much. I find that caffeine can make me feel nauseous on an empty stomach, so I felt it best to give it a miss…

Experience

It was a lot of fun. As has become my habit before parkruns, I started with the group behind where I hoped to finish, joining the 2 hour timing group at the start line. I did this for two reasons: firstly, I hoped their early pacing would be a little slower, and encourage me not to wear myself out in the first 3km, drained prematurely.

The second reason I like to start further back, is that I find gradually overtaking people throughout a race is a huge emotional boom.

Being fairly run fit, and concentrating early on my pacing was key to having a good time.

I kicked off at around a 4:45min/km, consciously slowing myself down, checking my phone for my pace fairly frequently over the first few kilometres. After that, I relaxed into the pace, and didn’t worry too much about going too fast, just used my muscle memory to keep me on track.

Just after 2km I needed a wee, and you can see my detour into Black Bear Park for a desperate pitstop on the GPS route (check the graphs and map further down the page). Immediately following it I sprinted to catch up, so probably made up most of the lost time, although the adrenaline hit was a bit draining. This coupled with my slightly upset stomach to give me some tummy cramps, but luckily a few sips of water settled this before it affected my pace.

The main uphill was between 3 and 8km, so things became a little harder work there, but I actually maintained my pace fairly easily. I got out the other side feeling pretty great – mostly because lots of people around me seemed to be struggling a bit, which helped competitive Chris feel like a winner. From 11km onwards, I felt very energetic, and clocked up 3 sub-5-minute-kilometres in a row. My legs started to cramp up a little from 17km onwards, but, by then, the end was in sight, and my brain forced me through (see me running the final 100m in the video).

Frustratingly, some little niggly plantar ligament in the sole of my foot decided to randomly go on the spritz around 19km. Like a lot of these things, it hurt a bit at the time, but didn’t properly flare up until the next day. 4 days later, its still hurting enough to limit me walking, which is also rather annoying.

Nutrition wise, I’m sure carb loading was the reason my legs retained plenty of bounce past the halfway mark. My glycogen stores only noticeably ran low towards the end. This was not helped by the placement of the carb gel stands on the run – I got one gel at around 7km, and didn’t get another one until I hit 18km – waay too late, although I managed to grab some powerade (off the floor) at around 14km which probably helped a bit…

Results

imag0172I had no particular expectations, nor any frame of reference for this run. One of my sponsors refused to pay up unless I beat 2 hours, so that was my key motivation. Using the Runner’s World Race Time predictor from my 10K result, I was given an estimation of around 1 hour 43 mins. (Although this does assume appropriate training for the distance…)

What did I manage? A respectable 1 hour 47 minutes and 47 seconds (according to my timing chip)I came 619th out of 2,204 (28th centile).

All in all, I had a good time. My thoughts on the event are marred by the fact I still can’t walk due to the foot pain, and I’ve been in bed for nearly two straight days with a stomach bug. That said, I think I’m a long way away from ready for a full marathon. My next plan is to do a bit more trail running, perhaps another 10K race, and see where to go from there.

As ever, most importantly, I got to eat 5 mini pizzas following the race. Win.

Board gaming in July

I love spending time with people, and I love being decimated by them in games of strategy, humour and imagination. Hence why I’m a proud member of…

boardgamesgroupfacebookBoston Board Games Group

Meeting on sporadic nights in and around Boston, we get to try out various exciting new games. All games are fully explained by nerds experienced board gamers, and beginners are welcome.

Go on… join the group on Facebook!

We’ve play games like Settlers of CatanLords of War, 6nimmt!, Carcassone, Coup, 7 Wonders, Dead of Winter, Android: Netrunner, Between Two Cities, and Discworld: Ankh Morpork. In other words: no Monopoly, just fun new table based explosions of co-operation and competition.

Last night…

With 50% of our regular members leaving Boston – forever – over the next 2 weeks, we decided it was important to meet and be mean to each other whilst the opportunity remained…

gameoftrainscoverGame of Trains

Game of Trains is a pretty simple card game from Brain Games. I picked it up at the UK Board Games Expo last month, where it actually won “Best General Card Game”.

It benefits from quick to learn mechanics, a streamlined gameplay style with fast rounds, and mild player interraction. Definitely not my favourite game ever, but its simplicity, and beautiful artwork gets it to the table more than I’d expect.

There’s something very satisfying in getting the carriages in ascending number order, and its light enough to be great for playing whilst chatting. And seriously, look how pretty!

gameoftrains

Jon and I played a few rounds whilst we waited for everyone else to arrive, and it fulfilled its purpose, wetting our whistles for an evening of good natured cardboard aggression…

camelupCamel Up!

Camel Up is a recent classic in the small, slightly inbred world of tabletop fun. It won the coveted 2014 Speil Des Jahres Award in Germany. In board gaming circles, that’s like winning the World Cup, Wimbledon and, I dunno, the Conservative Party Leadership Race.

In simple terms, there’s a camel race afoot. The field is represented by funky wooden stackable camels, you spend your time betting against each other, trying to a) guess who is going to win the current leg, or b) the entire race.

The reason its great fun? Because Jon will decide to make your exact guess about the red camel’s inexorable victory… 4 seconds before you do, meaning that your prize of 8 Egypt Pounds drops to a disappointing 5 Egypt Pounds. And then, in the last second, the yellow camel gaily leaps over your pathetic rouge dromedary, transforming your hoped-for earnings into a penalty charge of one pound, and gaining Robbie an unstoppable lead.

I’d never played it before, but I can tell its going to be a family favourite. It’s short, its simple, very interactive, and wonderfully silly. Just a shame that Craig broke my cardboard dice pyramid!

projecteliteProject: ELITE

We were only at the UK Board Games Expo for a day, so there wasn’t much time for playing games as much as childishly running around in excitement. One stall did catch my attention though, and we managed a quick-but-intense play through of their offering – Project:ELITE.

As it turned out, it was awesome; so awesome in fact, that Robbie bought it there and then, with both expansions. That’s a big chunk of money to throw down on a game we’d never heard of, and had only played for 15 minutes. What was it that drew us in?

The sheer pace of each round – and the degree to which fighting for useful dice rolls can delay you – lends itself to moments like this, moments of “Oh right, my plan was to go in there and then retreat…

The premise: You are space heroes, or soldiers, or whatever. Basically, you = generic good guys. You work as a team to complete a mission, generally along the lines of capture all objectives, or maybe collect things and take them to your base, or simply “survive”.

Up against you is a never ending swarm of different monsters/aliens/demons/generic bad guys. Thanks to Robbie picking up the expansions, there’s also Boss monsters, and around 20 other different types of scary things to attack you in a variety of intriguing ways.

So far, so blah. It’s fun, but futuristic combat themes are ten-a-penny. Where this little gem shines is in its the core mechanic: each scenario consists of 8 two minute long rounds, which progress in real time…

  1. You start with a quick team strategy talk, then someone presses “Start” on the two minute timer.
  2. Each of you has 4 dice. They are custom dice with symbols that let you walk, shoot, open things, use equipment, etc.
  3. You will be frantically rolling and re-rolling to get the outcomes you need.
  4. If you roll a red alien symbol, you have to immediately stop and move an alien.
DSC_1223
Craig making bedroom eyes at me

How does this work out? For two very focused minutes, each of you is obsessively picking up dice, groaning, moving aliens, rolling again, groaning *again*, moving more aliens, then finally getting the symbols you actually need, giving a yelp of joy, before grabbing the dice again at a corybantic pace, wincing as someone shouts out “Ten seconds left!”

The round finishes as abruptly as it began, at which point you step back and look at what actually happened to the rest of the players during your entirely introspective 120 seconds. Its a fun moment – you’d think it would be frustrating to miss the action on the rest of the board – but in fact it invites story telling: everyone gets to boast/commiserate about their own activities during the frenetic dice storm.

DSC_1231Our match left me with plenty of memorable moments. After the first round, where I had quite easily kept the right flank at bay, we debriefed, and it turned out that Craig’s sole achievement had been to open a box, and we were close to being completely overrun by aliens on our left flank. Despite a well thought out plan, the dice had defeated us, and it took concerted effort to stop us losing the next turn.

The buzzer blew on a later round, and everyone realised I had managed to leave myself wounded and stranded in the middle of the alien base. The sheer pace of each round – and the degree to which fighting for useful dice rolls can delay you – lends itself to moments like this, moments of “Oh right, my plan was to go in there and then retreat…

Our final turn involved me limping across to Craig, where he tossed me one of two jetpacks he’d somehow stolen from somewhere. I eventually equipped it with one of my two remaining dice, allowing me to boost across the board to Jon, who, thanks to my injuries, had to give me his medkit and help me use it. Meanwhile, Craig had turned back to the final objective, effortlessly completing it and, using his own jetjack, nimbly launched himself back to the safe zone. Robbie was probably doing something cool too, but he was the other side of the board from me, which might as well have been the other side of the world given my ultra-focused (read “selfish“) approach to the game.

I definitely recommend Project: ELITE. It scales well, has a solo mode, and there’s plenty of variability, even with just the base set. Setup is a little fiddly, but the rules are surprisingly simple and quick for new players to pick up.

chrononautsChrononauts

Next to the table was the time travelling card game Chrononauts. From the creator of Fluxx, its a set collection game with a very thematic twist.

Setup involves laying out a grid of cards in chronological order, representing the last 150 years of world history. You are then given a hand of cards, which give you the power to mess with your opponents, or flip over key “linchpins” in the timeline.

There are three ways to win. Be the first to:

  1. Get the timeline to match up with your ID card: this will have some real historical events, such as “Assassination of JFK”, and some alternate timelines, such as “World War 3”, or “Titanic Avoids Iceberg”.
  2. Collect the three artifacts on your Mission card: ranging from “The Mona Lisa (an obvious fake)” to “Live Triceratops”.
  3. Play 7 patch cards: these sit on top of flipped “Paradox” timeline cards, repairing worrying holes in time and space.

chrononautsThe rules take a few minutes to sink in, but once you have them it makes sense. Flipping over cards in the past affects events in the future – if Hitler is assassinated, how can he open the 1936 Olympics? – so small changes to one card can ripple down the timeline, affecting multiple events in the future.

I enjoyed myself, but you can tell that it came from the same mind as Fluxx: player progression is not respected. At one point, I accidentally played a card that took Robbie’s hand, swelled by the 5 patch cards he’d played, and gave it to Craig, putting him into the lead. Whilst its a satisfying way to mess with people, there’s something that puts me off about any rules that let you play tactically for 25 minutes only to have your entire role swapped so easily. In the end, I actually won, but only because the timeline almost randomly ended up matching my ID card. Too luck based for my blood.

coupcoverCoup

We started the evening with a lightweight game; rounding things off with Coup seemed equally appropriate.

DSC_1239An early Kickstarter success, Coup is practically a micro game, with rounds lasting perhaps 2 minutes, and being entirely based on straight-faced lying to your friends, being challenged on that bluffing, and throwing your cards to the table in frustration as they beat you. I covered it in my December round-up, so check it out there…

And there we were, five different games under our belts, and only 10:30pm, meaning I could avoid my usual played-game-until-midnight sleep deprivation hangover the next day. Good stuff!

Feel free to drop a comment below, or check out the posts from November, December and FebruaryDon’t forget to visit the facebook group!

EAT IT! EP by My Pizza My World Review

EAT IT Cover ArtPunk rock and folk music have a common heart. They share a singalong-round-a-campfire mentality. Things are a bit rough round the edges. There’s an understanding that its time to talk about real issues with honesty. And both are a bit niche; you aren’t going to be hearing either on Radio 1 any time soon.

My Pizza My World embody this heart. They are the proud sole proponents of the laughing, self-deprecating genre of pizzacore; and the message is clear – music is awesome, but let’s not take ourselves too seriously, right? They are currently in the middle of a shambolic tour across the US, playing in squats, tattoo parlours and bars, spreading a message of hope, grounded in reality.

A passing moment,
A missed connection
Something gone before you ever knew you could grasp it.

I’m not totally sure what random combination of searches led to me stumbling upon their EP on bandcamp, but I do know that I love it. The plaintive pitunkerings (yes, yes, not a ‘real’ word) of a banjo, accompany a delightfully homemade-looking upright bass and a tenor ukelele, as their joint female/male vocals ring out and “refuse to waste away”.

The second track “Forgotten” stands out, and has led to me wandering around the house humming the vocal line. It reminds me a little bit of “Restless”, by the shortlived Hot Water Music side project, Rumbleseat. Less of the thudding momentum of Rumbleseat, but similarities none-the-less. The friendly parp of a trumpet on “No Time for Cryin’” also sticks in your head rather enjoyably.

A fragile mindset
Teetering on a hilltop,
Built of stones of regret over a sea of broken glass.

My thoughts on Eat It? Pick it up. Its not the best recorded EP ever, but the lo-fi works in its favour, reminds me of listening to old blues records from the 20s. The lyrics might be pretty far from Blind Willie Johnson’s material 90 years ago, but the discontented souls sound smack-bang the same. Don’t get me wrong, they know how to play, and they can sing too, but that kinda misses the point. With music like this, its not about how well you can play, all that matters is that you are.

…but darlin’ you know me too well – cause I’d rather be lost here then forgotten.

Check out My Pizza My World on Bandcamp or on Facebook.
Buy some pizza and share it with someone you love too.

Starguild: Space Opera Noir review

This is a preview of Starguild: Space Opera Noir, raising funds on Kickstarter as I type

I’ve spent the last week reading this RPG, and concurrently listening to the new Dream Theatre album, “The Astonishing“. It’s a great fit since its an operatic concept album about a oppressive dystopia in the future!
Press play on the left to share my soundtrack whilst you read! 

What’s it all about?

starguild-coverStarguild is an tabletop RPG – a role play game. To those of you unfamiliar with the concept, RPGs are games where you meet with friends, create characters and play through stories that are derived mostly from your imagination.

An RPG consists of two basic components: the setting, and the rules.

The setting is the context in which you play the game. A Star Wars RPG is based in a galaxy far, far away, a Hobbits RPG is based in Middle Earth, an RPG about being a doctor seeing patients is based in a hospital, etc.

The rules are the framework that help you to play the game. Some have very intense, detailed rules for every tiny possible occurrence, others give the merest hint of a structure, allowing you to mould the gaming system to flow and adapt to whatever you feel it needs.

Welcome to Omega Centauris!

Before I get into the theme presented in this game, two admissions.

Firstly, I’m a relative newby to RPG, having only really become interested in it over the last 6 months. In that time, I’ve read a fair few rule books, and listened to around 150 hours of roleplay podcasts – Drunks and Dragons shout out! – and even played a little Hero Kids with my 5 year old son.

Secondly, I’m partial to a nice bit of space opera. I’ve always loved Red Dwarf and Hitchhiker’s Guide, always been more of a fan of Space Marines than Lizardmen. I’ll always pick up a book about plucky intergalactic ruffians, but am unlikely to wade all the way through Lord of the Rings again. Thus, Starguild is already pretty much up my alley.

You could literally set anything in this game: multi-ship, high-tech space battles; highly social political wrestling, emotions on tenderhooks; even a fantasy style rags-to-riches story on one of the less developed worlds.

In the last week I have read all 238 pages of the prerelease copy that Alex, the creator, kindly sent my way.  The galaxy presented in Starguild is one of opportunity, inequality, and flexibility.

Starguild StarshipThere is an overarching storyline of human existence in Omega Centauris, with a very readable backstory – the 10 pages of Campaign history are perfect for bringing the galaxy to light, and pretty great prose in their own right.

What I love is how they aren’t prescriptive at all – you could literally set anything in this game: multi-ship, high-tech space battles; highly social political wrestling, emotions on tenderhooks; even a fantasy style rags-to-riches story on one of the less developed worlds.

There’s a detailed explanation of tens of planets, providing you with plenty of room to set your story literally anywhere you fancy, and loads of features in the rules that allow your characters to be shaped by their environment. For example:

Planet Erith
The Lord here runs a semi-feudal style of government. There are strictly defined lines of communication and citizens are expected to show loyalty to their immediate overlords and through them up to the Lord. Technically anyone can be called upon to do any service, although this is used sparingly except in times of emergency.

Alongside these patches of flavour text are nearly 100 “adventure seeds” – ideas to help you kick start a new plot twist or campaign. Here’s a sample from Erith:

The annual pageant of flowers takes place – street parties and dancing and fun. But which is, unbenownst to non-residents, actually a form of wedding ceremony for those who get involved…

Overall, the flavour I get from Starguild is a universe I’m keen to visit. I think there’s plenty of hand-holding, if you want it – just use one of the detailed, multi-scene sample adventure to get you started.  Yet, for those of us keen to run before we can walk, there’s enough ammunition to let you start imagining a story with a very helpful backdrop to orientate yourself.

How does it play…

Simple answer: no idea! I’ve not played it yet.

Starguild is based on the d20 Open Game license that Wizards of the Coast released back in 2000. So, if you’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, or many similar games, you’ll have at least a foothold into the basic structure of play.

What appeals to me is the adaptation of the engine to fit the theme. From the kickstarter page:

“The game treats social conflict – the ability to alter someones emotions and thinking – just as importantly as the more traditional kinds of conflict of fist and gun.”

This appeals to me. I’ve enjoyed listening to D&D podcasts, but I find the battles a bit unfulfilling.

  • In a fight in D&D, two characters fight over about 50 turns, with magic spells, and special moves. They have a number of hit points, and slowly wear down the other player’s hitpoints until someone dies.
  • In real life, when two people fight, they each have a knife, it lasts about 2 minutes, and someone gets rather injured.

Starguild SpacestationI’m sure you could try to play Spaceguild the D&D way, but it seems much more focused on the social dramatics, and the intensity of choice in high pressure situations. That rather appeals. I know I’m roleplaying as a fictional personal, in a made-up situation, in a fake galaxy, in my imagination – but I want to feel like disturbing a guard and getting shot is as weighty as it would be in real life.

As a new player, the various sections on guilds, weapons, vehicles, etc… all seem well put together, but I don’t think I’ll have a real handle on it until I put a game together. I definitely feel these rules explain the system enough that I wouldn’t have any big problems running a game. There is also an excellent set of reference table appendices and a comprehensive index – too often lacking in rule books.

From giving it a read, and comments from others, it seems like the addition of “Conviction” is an interesting feature, where you gain conviction points for doing actions that fit with your character’s personality. For example:

Vargon, (a noteably strong character) nonchalantly crushes cans in one hand, whilst waiting for the action to start”.

You keep tokens to represent your conviction in front of you as a visual reminder, and you can spend it to help you out, such as adding a D6 to the score of a D20 role. I feel like conviction could be gamed quite easily – “Vargon quickly crushes 4 cans, gaining 4 points” – but if you use it in the spirit of the game, it rewards you for roleplaying, and even the advantages it gives can be RPed to cohese the theme even better…

Vargon tries to kick the door down. The DC is 20, and he rolls 12. This, plus his physique (1) + his characteristic of being “burly” (+2) = 15. He spends a conviction point, bunching up his huge arms to increase his effort to the extreme, and rolls a D6, which gives him a +5, just making the DC… and the door tears off its hinges, leaving the gang free to run into the corridor.

Go on, support it.

All in all, I’m excited about Spaceguild, I’m keen to play it with some friends and I think it will look fantastic with more artwork, once the kickstarter is finished.

Speaking of that, why not support it now…

Board Games in February!

I love spending time with people, and I love being decimated by them in games of strategy, humour and imagination. Hence why I’m a proud member of…

boardgamesgroupfacebookBoston Board Games Group

Meeting on sporadic nights in and around Boston, we get to try out various exciting new games. All games are fully explained by nerds experienced board gamers, and beginners are welcome.

Go on… join the group on Facebook!

We’ve play games like Settlers of CatanLords of War, 6nimmt!, Carcassone, Coup, 7 Wonders, Dead of Winter, Android: Netrunner, Between Two Cities, and Discworld: Ankh Morpork. In other words: no Monopoly, just fun new table based explosions of co-operation and competition.

Last night…

After missing a month revising for my big scary GP exam final, I was keen to make up for it with an evening of calculated victory…

Pairs

pairsPairs is a great little card game, perfect to pick up in about 2 minutes, and immediately leads to countless moments of groaning, and fraught decisions.

It has a simple premise: avoid getting a pair. The deck is made of numbered cards – there is one card labelled 1, two cards labelled 2, three labelled 3… all the way up to ten cards labelled 10.

You are both dealt one card to start, and then take it in turns next, either deciding to take another card, or wimping out and folding. If you draw a pair, the number of that pair is added to your score. If you fold, your lowest number card is added to your score. First person to a certain number, depending on player numbers, loses.

As an example, let’s watch some Hobbits playing…

Bilbo gets a 3 to start. He takes another card, he now has 3 and 8.

Frodo gets a 10 to start. He takes another card, he now has 6 and 10.

Bilbo feels fairly confident – another 3 isn’t likely to come up, although 8 is fairly common. He takes another card, he now has 3, 7 and 8.

Frodo is a little more concerned, as 6 is moderately common, and 10 is very much so. However, folding would give him a score of 6, so he takes another card. He now has 6, 9 and 10.

Bilbo takes another card, after deliberating whether or not to fold and keep the 3 for his score. He now has 3, 7, 7 and 8. He got a pair of 7s, so the round is over, and his score is now 7.

Frodo is relieved, since he would have probably chosen to fold next turn. As he didn’t fold, his score remains 0, and he is in the lead. The next round begins…

Nick and myself played a few rounds of Pairs whilst we waited for the more temporally retarded members of the group. It became immediately clear that Nick secretly moonlights as a Vegas card shark, since he started counting cards on our very first run through. However, there’s enough luck that you can never be sure of any decision, and it certainly passed 20 minutes quite happily…

Fleet Wharfside

FleetWharfside

Fleet Wharfside is a game of trading seafood, and gaining victory points. Sounds dull, right?

You are a fish trader with two options: visit the wharf (docks) and pick up some fish/crustacean cards, or visit the market and pick up contracts to sell the fish.

Three nice mechanics:

  • You buy new contracts with fish. The cost of those contracts steadily increases, and you can trade down nice fish for cheaper fish, but not the other way.
  • Many of the contracts have bonuses, such as letting you pick up extra fish each turn. This is great, but has the effect that you also don’t want to finish the contract, because then the bonus ends. This is a problem because…
  • there are victory point awards for being the first to finish each size of contract. The quicker you finish, more points you get. You can also win points for having the most King Crabs (think longest road award in Settlers of Catan).
Nick mulling over a particularly tasty looking contract in the market...
Nick mulling over a particularly tasty looking contract in the market…

There are no negative scores for unfinished contracts or fish in your hand – its a simple thing, but it definitely takes the pressure off a bit.

A recent Kickstarter purchase by Craig, it was a nice moderate intensity game to kick off the evening. They played it last week, and felt the King Crabs didn’t add much. However, my royal shellfish earned me around 10 points on their own. When the final scores were tallied up, I won with 55 points, closely followed by Craig at 50, then Nick and Simon trailing somewhat behind. KC For The Win! (tshirts pending…)

Not a game I’ll rush out to buy, and a little light on player interaction, but I’d be happy to play it a few more times, for sure.

Agricola

agricolaPlaying Coup last month was a moment where I finally got my hands on a game I’ve heard loads about but never played. That crown has been thoroughly stolen with the legendary “King of Eurogames“: Agricola.

There’s too much detail to cover here, but I’m going to try to do it in 10 steps:

  1. You are all farmers. Presumably in Europe. Somewhere
  2. You have to develop your farms. To do this, you can plough fields, build up your house, or fence pastures.
  3. Each thing you build can make more stuff. Fields = crops, house = family members, pastures = animals.
  4. You only get to do one action per turn, per family member. So, for most of the game, that’s two actions per turn.
  5. Everyone else is fighting you for the same actions. By the time 4 people have taken half their actions, everything really good on the board will be taken, and you’ll have to wait until the next round.
  6. When harvest comes, you have to feed your family. Food is a challenge, and the more family members you have, the worse that challenge is. Fail to feed your family and suffer a heavy penalty…
  7. As the game progresses, more action cards will be revealed. This allows you to do more exciting actions. Unfortunately, harvest gets more frequent too, so you are constantly trying to rustle up enough food.
  8. Each player has a stack of possible occupations and minor improvements. You can activate these, sometimes for a cost, for specific advantages – say you collect more stone, or you get some fences later in the game.
  9. There is a central pool of major improvements anyone can build. They give you bonus victory points, and allow some more powerful specific actions.
  10. Its simple enough to grasp quickly, and complex enough to be really masterful. None of your plans will quite work, and you will have a half empty farm with no crops, hardly any sheep, and then run out of food and get punished with a begging card. It’s perfectly possible to end a game in negative points.
Craig: fundamentally a bad person.
Craig: fundamentally a bad person. And possibly a secret farmer.

I can see why gamers love this game. Chance plays just enough of a part to keep things fresh, but not enough to hold back great strategy. Interaction isn’t very direct, but when you only have two actions, and the player to your right takes ALL THE WOOD JUST BEFORE YOU WERE ABOUT TO… its fair to say there is a reasonable amount of competition present throughout gameplay.

Who won our game? Obviously Craig did. Craig with his vegetables, and 6 stone houses, and his pigs and his cow and his army of little Craigs somehow feeding themselves despite the sheer impossibility of that task.

really enjoyed Agricola. I spent quite a lot of today thinking about how I’d play differently, if it would be possible just to focus on one task, on having thousands of fences, and hundreds of sheep, or having a huge field brimming over with corn.

So, in conclusion: Craig got more points than everyone else added together, but it probably doesn’t count because he smells faintly of cabbages. Agricola is awesome. Spending time with friends and playing board games is, as ever, brilliant. And that, at nearly midnight, was that.

Feel free to drop a comment below, or check out the posts from November and DecemberDon’t forget to visit the facebook group!