You might have deduced my habitual body clock from my postings; I'm running on something not too far from US EST (which would be Evil Standard Time). I got up on Saturday at 9:30am, several hours earlier than usual, in order to get myself to the local games shop for 11am. There I met a non-LJ-ing local board gaming friend who I have known for about four years. For about three years, he had been travelling to play in an occasional Saturday games group. Normally it has four or five players, which is a good sort of number for a games session, but this time there would have been two people stuck in Leeds. Three or four is a marginal number, so I got an invite this time, and the group member who would be our lift turned up at about twenty past to give us a ride Northbound.
I mentioned on Friday that the event would take place in Durham Castle, which was mistaken. It took place in Brancepeth Castle in the village of Brancepeth, about five miles out of Durham. Yes, it really is a castle. When you travel there by car, you don't get to see this impressive view, but what you get is still pretty neat. I haven't found a picture online of the view I got, but Stephen Gordon's aerial photo is pretty good. The car-park is to the NW of the castle, as it appears on that photo; you go through the gatehouse to access the main buildings. On that photo, part of the roof at the SE of the castle looks like a white capital C - the part I was in was possibly 10 degrees further anti-clockwise around the grounds.
The best resource I've found about Brancepeth Castle is care of Brancepeth Church next door. Unfortunately the site is now down, but - as usual - thank goodness for the Wayback Machine archive. In short, the church and the castle have been there for over a thousand years, the castle being mostly owned by the Neville family. However, most of what we see was rebuilt in 1837. From 1914 to 1962, the castle was associated with the Durham Light Infantry, being used as a war hospital in WWI and regimental headquarters afterwards. In 1965, it was sold on to a Pyrex glass firm, who were apparently responsible for a lot of internal damage, and in the '70s it was bought by Dennis and Margaret Dobson, who are apparently connected with some publishing house. Parts of it were let out for student accommodation, which is how our host became associated with the castle. He was doing part-time study for a PhD in archaeology at the time (indeed, he was seven years through a nine-year self-funded course - Durham would employ him from time to time, his pay going to fund the PhD). The castle is not generally open to the public, though formal tours are organised a couple of times per year and the church sometimes holds events in some of the castle rooms.
Living in a castle strikes me as extremely cool, but restrictively impractical. Our host, Mark, has a single room, which is about twenty feet by twenty feet and fifteen feet high. He also pays a remarkably cheap rent for it. However, the room has no private sink; to get water, he needs to walk about fifty feet around an internal balcony to a tiny shared kitchen. The hot tap at that shared kitchen doesn't work. Next to the small shared kitchen is a small shared bathroom, with another non-working hot tap. It does have an installed electric shower with hot water, though - but all other warm water must come from a kettle. The bathroom has a "Research" sign on the door, presumably a relic from the Pyrex days. (Though I don't imagine that the toilet really was used as a research lab at the time!)
The main problem in my view is that there is no form of central heating in the rooms and no plans to install one. While Mark has an electric heater and an old-fashioned coal grate in his room, I found the room far too cold for my tastes even yesterday, when the outside world's air temperature would have been maybe 12 to 14 Celsius (middle to upper 50s Farenheit). During the winter, the building gets extremely cold, and Mark's bedroom is so large that it's very hard to heat; the effect of a fire spreads possibly three feet but the rest of the room remains freezing. Much of the internal paintwork has crumbled, too. But, damn, the rooms are just really impressive shapes and sizes for a private residence and have fantastic acoustics. (Too good for convenience, really, especially as the walls are thin and there is a noisy internal cat.)
Accordingly, the castle seems to have attracted a crowd of arty types and mild eccentrics, many of whom tend only to spend the summers and a few weekends there. (The rent is so low that it's not too hard to rent a room in the castle and live somewhere more practical when the weather gets too cold.) Furthermore, Brancepeth village doesn't have its own shop, only one bus calls each hour and even the next village along is pretty restricted for shopping. All the same, Mark has spent four years in the castle and knows that it's very difficult for a new person to be able to move there - the address is so cool that you effectively need to have inside information and a personal recommendation from a current resident in the rare occasions that a room becomes available.
Our carload from Middlesbrough stopped for fish and chips on the way. (Chilton Chippy, GBP 3.20, not recommended. I shall agitate for Ferryhill Mickey D's next time.) We arrived through the driving rain at about half past twelve and rang Mark on a mobile for entrance. (Who needs doorbells, anyway?) I had brought my Looney Labs Big Bag O' Games (which contains Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, Titan: the Arena, Citadels, Democrazy, Chrononauts, Fluxx, Zirkus Flohkati, Button Men, Pico, dice, a records book, a pencil and a little pack of cards) plus another bag containing Take It Easy, Bluff and Pass The Pigs. Other people had also brought games, so we didn't end up playing any of mine.
Instead, we thought of starting with a light card game or two. We looked at "High Bohn", a Western-themed Bohnanza expansion, but decided that it looked complicated enough that it was probably best learned from someone familiar with the game already rather than from the English translation of the rules. We looked at "Njet!", a trick-taking game where you work out the parameters of the game on a hand-by-hand basis. Unfortunately, our rules translation completely neglected to explain how the rule-changing sections of the game worked (literally, there was a whole chunk missing from the translation) and we passed on that too. We settled on "Rasant", a twenty-minute trick-taking game weakly themed about a car race with an interesting mechanism to determine how many points each trick would be worth, then "Reibach and Company", a forty-minute set-collection game by Alan Moon which I had played previously once about five years ago before proceeding to confuse with "Heimlich and Company". Both were actively entertaining and pleasant but unexceptional. Reibach was a shade more exciting and inspired better banter, making putting it on the high side of the six-or-seven-out-of-ten boundary, compared to Rasant's low side.
The main game of the afternoon was "British Rails", a 1984 game by Mayfair Games of the crayon-rail variety. Specifically, you have a map of Great Britain (or, rather, the British mainland from Dundee southwards plus Anglesey) which is dotted in a hex-pattern, some dots being triangular to represent mountainous terrain. On the map are marked four major cities (London, Birmingham, Mancheter, Glasgow) as large hexagons, plus about twenty or thirty middle and small cities as one-dot circles and squares. Most cities produce one or more of about twenty or so commodities. Each player has, at all times, three cards, each of which state three cities' demands and what sum of money you can make by fulfilling each one. For instance, if you take coal to Berwick (which you can most conveniently get, naturally enough, from Newcastle) then it might be worth GBP 9 million, whereas if you take chemicals - which are only produced in Ayr - to Plymouth then it might be worth GBP 50 million. The game is set in the steam era, when cities were then famous for producing different things to what they are famous for producing now.
You build track around the map by drawing it onto the map with a crayon. (The supplied crayons wipe off easily, but not too easily.) Each dot-to-dot of track built costs GBP 1 million, or GBP 2 million if it's to a mountain. Building over a river or an ocean inlet costs more, as does building into a city. You build up to GBP 60 million of track at the start of the game, move your train around the tracks to collect your first commodities, deliver them to the appropriate places to make more money, pick up more commodities, spend your money on more tracks, make more deliveries and so on and so forth. Sometimes random events will cause players to miss turns or similar other minor misfortunes. (I know, I know, it's hardly sophisticated, but it is a twenty-year-old game.) Repeat untl one player reaches GBP 250 million and wins.
My initial set of cards gave me a convenient start. First I built from Birmingham via Stoke to Manchester and from Manchester to York via Leeds. I also quickly built spurs from Manchester to Liverpool and York to Hull. I made a decent starting sum by taking tourists from Liverpool (trippers from Ireland, presumably) to that well known tourist destination, Hull, and then picked up fish from Hull which was wanted in Stoke. Later on I extended my track from Birmingham to Liverpool and built north from York via Newcastle and Berwick to Edinburgh. From there I had one spur which went to Dundee and a second which went to Glasgow, Ayr and Stranraer. Effectively, it was Virgin's CrossCountry network with a few minor tweaks. After about two and a half hours I was happy with my network and made big money from long-distance runs delivering pairs of commodities from England to Scotland and vice versa.
It worked very well. We started play at 2:30. One player said that he wanted to stop play at 6:30, to watch England's football team face Slovakia. At that point, I had accumulated about GBP 220 million and was six turns from completing my final run which would give me enough to win; second place had about GBP 130 million, the rest had GBP 60 million or less. The first two places were very clear.
The game is absorbing and gentle fun, but hardly hugely taxing. It all feels a little bit noddy, a bit comfort-foody. At first I had worries that there would be problematic downtime (long, dull pauses between turns). It actually moves fairly quickly when people are moving their trains and building their track, but really slows down when people are stopping and thinking about what track to build or how to change their plans in response to the new set of money-making opportunities.
I would happily play again, but I'm not sure whether I would do things very differently. (Perhaps I would sit in the "SW England" corner of the board rather than the "NE England" corner to get a different perspective, and I'm sure that a different starting hand would inspire me to start my tracks elsewhere around the country.) A few general guidelines remain valid in all railroad games, though: real railway track, though seldom perfect, survives for a reason. If real railway track has existed along a route for a long period of time then there's strong evidence that it's wisely positioned. Other key points which apply in most railway games are that straight track saves everyone a lot of time compared to wiggly track and that it's generally more important to grab strategically important routes through passes between hills rather than to grab particular cities. Oh, and building track in the shape of a letter Y (or, better still, two letter Ys attached to each other) is inherently far more efficient in game terms than building track in - for instance - the shape of a circle. It would seem to be a weak point in the game if a first-time player's informed but naive strategies turned out to be near optimal.
It's also not clear that there is as much as four hours of fun in the game. Admittedly most or all of us were new to the play and the pace was chatty and jokey, but there was relatively little interaction between the players except for a few sporadic occasions when people wanted to use each other's track, which requires a token payment. It would be an excellent game to play online, where such play could be done much more quickly and where there certainly wouldn't be concerns about marking the map.
Definitely a fine seven out of ten game for making you feel useful and productive, but initial (one game!) judgement suggests that the quicker, more exciting, more interactive Railway Rivals has more to offer. I'd happily play British Rails or any of the other games in the series again, though, in good company. (Incidentally, this was the first four-hour board game I had played for a long time. Normally I tend to get fidgety after an hour and a half or two hours of most things, but this didn't outstay its welcome. Weakly recommended.
After 6:30, one of us went to watch the football and the other four went out in the car to the next village along with its one takeaway pizza shop. It had apparently performed very poorly the last time it was tried, but there were different staff that day on Saturday who apparently did a better job. However, it was expensive; nine-inch pizzas started at about GBP 4.20 and it would have been more like GBP 5 or GBP 6 to have a well-topped one. They also sold kebabs and the like, so at first I asked for a "chicken fajita wrap", which would have been a baked flatbread stuffed with chicken, veg and miscellaneous good stuff, but apparently they were off the menu. I went for a wafer-thin crust (pretty literally!) pizza topped with bolognese sauce and found it disappointingly small for GBP 3.50. Even taking a good share of the free large garlic bread (very little garlic, lots of cheese) only added up to a barely satisfactory meal. Perhaps I shall agitate for two visits to Ferryhill Mickey D's next time.
As a sidenote, I have been restricting myself to one burger'n'chips meal per month this year and sticking to it with considerable success. (Indeed, I haven't even had October's Extra Value Meal yet.) This isn't really a dietary measure - after all, fish'n'chips isn't restricted in any way, neither is a BLT with a gratuitously large bag of crisps and a can of something fizzy - but more an initiative to try to ensure variety and retain a touch of novelty. So far, McDonalds is winning 4-3 with one trip to Pepper's (Peppers'?) of Oxford and one visit to the Outback steakhouse which probably counts. I would pick the Whopper over a Big Mac any day, but the King Fries in Burger King in the UK taste too much of potato for my liking. Happily, US Burger King have proper fries and so they're my first choice over there.
We returned to games at about eight o'clock, thinking of playing games for one or two more hours. We brought out "Orcz" by Fantasy Flight, a tile-driven game of combat between Orc tribes which plays like a slightly more sophisticated version of rock-scissors-paper with some hidden information. The four of us played one round, but I felt the early start and the cheese mountain from the meal catch up with me very quickly. In the end, rather embarrassingly, I dropped out of the game after the first round and fell asleep in our host's armchair. (The other three decided to treat the round we had played as practice, because the game was new to them all, and started again.) I might have kipped for 10 or 20 minutes, but woke up in time just to see the "Wonderwall" endgame of "Winning Lines", which remains the most exciting four-and-a-bit minutes on television once you take into account the pit stops, spinning chairs and associated palaver.
The players were just finishing Orcz at that point, but had decided to call it a night. I did feel a little bit guilty - if I had stayed awake, we might have finished Orcz fifteen minutes earlier and gone on to play something else for another hour or so. We drove back slowly through the darkness, driving rain and fairly heavy fog. I was dropped off in the centre of Middlesbrough and caught a late bus home.
An excellent day in good company and fascinating surroundings, all told. Fingers crossed, we might repeat the exercise in a couple of months or so - but probably not in the castle in the depths of winter. We might go to someone's centrally heated house instead!