Into town by eleven and met up with a local friend at an agreed point outside a supermarket. Our host at Brancepeth Castle last time, where it is currently frequently far too cold for people to want to get out of bed, picks local friend and I up and takes us about five or six miles to the house of local friend #2, who has nominally been co-ordinating the whole exercise. Then all four of us get into LF#2's larger car and set off down to Leeds.
Leeds is a large place about sixty miles south of here; the Leeds-Bradford-Huddersfield-etc. conurbation, including all the surrounding towns, is often estimated at about a million and a half people. Accordingly finding a particular town (Bramley) 3/8 of the way around the Outer Ring Road is pretty daunting for a first-time traveller; our host sent e-mail containing three maps at various levels of scale, but one of them managed to lose itself inside a box (1825 set 2, I think - pretty hoary stuff) and so we had to navigate on fumes and instinct. One particular late wrong turning directed us to a fish'n'chip shop where people picked up lunch and got guidance as to what turned out to be another route to the same road. Not too tricky or stressful, really - just interesting enough to be interesting, really.
Our host's house is rather large and extremely pleasant, in considerable grounds - the second privately owned house I've been to in about eight weeks to still have clear evidence of being originally designed for a wealthy family who kept household servants and had an internal bell system for communication. All told there were six players today, a slightly awkward number considering most games are typically designed for "up to five" due to the quirks of German demography. We had enough games to keep us playing, but were starting to struggle a little towards the end.
Ave Caesar: a fast chariot-racing game that's about ten years old, out of print and in high demand. The owner said he had picked it up in Germany for the equivalent of £ 50, which I tend to believe. The gameplay is easy: each player starts with an identical deck of cards and maintains a hand of three cards from the deck at all points. Play a card to move your chariot around the track - but you can only play a card if you can use all its movement (no playing a five and only moving four, for instance). The track is tight enough so that there is generally room for two abreast, but some choke points provide scope for creative blocking. (If you want to move exactly one square but don't have a "1" card then you're missing a go, pal.) On top of that, you must stop at the end of one of the first two laps to hail Caesar and pay tribute. Silly fun, but always goes down very well. There's a Formula One themed version of the game, Ausgebremst, which may be technically better but isn't as aesthetically pleasing or as much fun to play.
The Settlers of Catan: an extended variant permits six players to expand their civilizations across the board in an hour or two. A remarkably competitive game compared to most six-player games with four players strongly contending for the lead and the others at least within striking distance. (I finished third.) The victory raised some questions about the 5-6 player expansion set's rule that "if any one player builds then all players may build" and timing about when a player may claim a win, with two players able to reach 10 VPs in the same building phase.
Fruchtchen: strange dice game new to me. Essentially each player has nine standard dice (six players - six sets of nine dice, each set a different colour!) and a hand of cards bearing fruit logos. You play a collection of cards of the same type in order to try to reap a harvest of fruit. You then contribute some of your dice to other players' harvesting efforts. For every fruit you try to reap, you get to roll all the dice in front of you once, setting inside the rolls corresponding to your fruit and re-rolling the remainder, Yahtzee-style. (So playing six cherries means that you get six rolls to produce six 4s on however many dice you have, and so on.) Very luck-ridden - not so much with the dice rolling parts, which are palatable and fun, but with the card draw aspect. I managed to reap six of something on the first turn, but hardly ever managed to get even to try to reap more than two afterwards. Unusual and fun, but not one I'll be in a desperate rush to repeat.
Kuhhandel: unusual auction game new to me. Each player has a hand of effectively banknotes with which he bids for animals which the players in turn put up for auction - only collecting all four animals of the same type means that they are worth points. However, instead of putting an animal up for auction you can stake one of your animals against an identical animal from another player's hand; both players bid secretly, higher bid buys the lower bidder's animal for the price stipulated. This quirky valuation mechanic means that different animals will be worth different amounts to different players at different times. Normally the sort of thing I like and some very unusual decisions but this first play was very much about getting used to the mechanics. I thought that my 800-point set of cows and 650-point set of pigs (the second and third highest scoring sets in the game) would be enough to win whoever ended up with the 160-point set of dogs, but my arithmetic was faulty and I ended up a little over a hundred points short. Distinctive to the point where I couldn't assess how entertaining the decisions were.
(At this point we took a break to have pizza-shop burger and chips delivered. Inexpensive, adequate and they threw in a free garlic bread among the six of us.)
Unexploded Cow: jovial cardplay game new to me. The game is set, tastefully enough, in 1997 when England was suffering from a surfeit of mad cows and France a surfeit of unexploded bombs. Purchase cows from England, explode them in France and collect compensation from the farmers. Successfully blowing up one of your own cows - easier said than arranged - earns you the gratitude of a city; the player with the best-scoring cities at the end of the game scoops the pot. Lots of good-natured hosing your buddies, playing frail negative-value cows, spy cows and the like upon each other, but not a great deal of thought to be had here. (Yes, it's a Cheapass Games game. Could you tell?) I managed to claim the gratitude of two high-scoring cities and was set to claim a game-imbalancingly-large pot when the two players before me managed to explode their Mad Bomber Cows which took the rest of the fields with them and more or less emptied the pot. (It went down from what would have been a game-winning $2300 to about $150 in half a round.) The game looks completely trivial, but actually has a little more to it than at first glance. A few good laughs, too. Not bad for £4.90.
Medici: old favourite auction game and probably the game of the genre where my opinion is in strongest disagreement to that of my peers. Auction off goods of various values in various categories to other players; earn points for having the most valuable cargo and for having the best collections of particular types of cargo. In general I like trying to work out what things are going to be worth to different people, but the decisions in this game are a little too hard, quite repetitive and not sufficiently entertaining for my taste. Generally I tended not to pay enough in the auctions and so took what was left at the end cheaply, which worked very well in the first round and rather less well in later rounds when there wasn't actually anything left to bid on. This game is generally very well regarded (currently 12th in the Top 100 out of, effectively, almost four thousand - you'll see Settlers mentioned above at third and Ave Caesar poking out at ninetieth) but every time I play it I am reminded more and more strongly that I don't enjoy it very much. I now declare that I have convinced myself that I definitely don't enjoy this game.
One of the reasons why I have given Medici so many chances is that it's by Reiner Knizia, who I identify as my favourite board game designer. The odd thing is that he has been famous for having a beard for (I suspect) about ten years, except recently he has shaved it off. Does he, or does he not, now look like a younger Roy Walker? I now have a desperate desire to playtest a game of his and comment that some feature "is good, but it's not right". (Incidentally, game show geeks may be as disappointed as I was by the results on Google Images for walker brandreth.) If you've ever wondered what board game fans gossip about, now you know.
All told, an excellent day. I only know one of the people involved particularly well, so I'm still a little uncomfortable in the company, but it's definitely getting better. Another nice part was the chatting after the last game of the evening - it was a pleasure to be able to make references to play-by-mail games from ten years or more ago and have the others understand them, also to have the others make these fairly obscure references and for me to understand what they were. It's a large part of the fun of spending the day with friends. I did still feel rather distracted at times with troubling questions on my mind, but hopefully I'm sorting things out in my mind - what my attitudes are, what I want to say about things and so on.
The journey home in the evening was easy - we left at probably 10:40 or thereabouts, took maybe 20 or 25 minutes to get into Leeds and then out again, an hour to get back to home base in Teesside and another 20 minutes for the gentleman from Brancepeth Castle to get me back home at about half past midnight. Still, a few good conversations along the way. One which resonated strongly was that of which board game I am looking forward to most strongly - I realised at this point that, well, there aren't any new board games at the moment that I'm looking forward to particularly strongly. I do enjoy playing new board games when they become available, but haven't caught the buzz particularly strongly for any of those coming soon. I mentioned a few classics that I'd like to see reprinted some day, but I'm starting to wonder whether I'm less strongly interested in board games than I used to be. Tastes change and that's OK; for instance, I know I'm far less interested in postal games than I used to be and don't actively participate in them any more, which is a big jump. It's just a shock to the system, though - and it's also sad to leave an interest behind, in some sense, now that I feel that "I'm getting somewhere in it".
Lots of little pieces of good news today. The first - which came just 24 hours too late to be convenient - is that the board game Kohle, Kies and Knete is set to be reprinted this year under the title I'm The Boss. The w00tp0t overfloweth at this good news, for 'tis one of only four games that I rate 10/10 and the one of the four where I had the most doubts that I would ever get to play it again. I quote the reprinters' description of it below, which is probably as good an explanation as possible without going into the mechanics. Admittedly this rating is only based on four plays to date; when I buy it (this is a when, not an if!) then a few more plays may convince me that it's a game with very little subtlety and where bullying is the only effective tactic. I remember it being a lot of fun along the way, though.
'I'm the Boss' is a game of deal making and negotiation, where you are an investor just trying to make a deal. Through intelligent negotiations, temporary alliances, and cutthroat bargaining you will rake in millions. But watch out for the other investors at your bargaining table who meddle in your affairs and try to take over your deals. As the boss, you stand to gain the most, but you can find yourself quickly cut out of a deal. In the end, the winner is the investor with the most money.
Other good things which happened today: Dad showed me a map of the bicycle routes through Stockton (the next town along, about four or five miles away) which he picked up yesterday. Should be a lot of fun to explore, though I think I've actually covered most of the routes illustrated and remember a few illustrated routes being impossible in real life. Maybe things have improved since the last time I was in that neck of the woods. Another handy discovery is now that Asda supply microwave cooking instructions for their takeaway Indian dishes, so I can get to my Bombay Potato (slightly "nut", I am told, probably because mushiness would be a major disappointment when potato is the signature ingredient) in a little over five minutes rather than half an hour. Thumbs up.
The first episode of series two of 24 was broadcast in the UK today - lots of fun, but it will take some time to get used to the new characters. Decided against watching episode two of it on BBC 3 immediately afterwards, though I imagine that at some point I'll get sucked into the habit again. Either that or I'll watch all the episodes to date on someone's laptop at some point. No spoilers, please, but how do those Americans who have stuck with 24 2 rate the series as compared to the first?
bmibaby have announced the location of their third base - it's Manchester! Have to say I wasn't expecting that; I always thought that the low-cost airlines relied on inexpensive airports. Manchester is large, very nice and Ryanair have long moaned about it being expensive. bmibaby have announced Belfast as one of their routes and will be announcing the rest at 10am later today. They also say that they will be announcing a fourth UK base soon, so we continue to live in (admittedly rather desperate) hope.
Saturday also saw the first athletics European Indoor Cup. Sing along, everyone - it's an indoor version of the European Cup. It's only one day long and a strange selection of events, as necessitated by the indoor format. An interesting twist is that they hold an eight-person 400m race as two four-person 400m races where you're not just competing against the other three runners on-track but the four runners in the other heat as well. Anyway, Britain fielded a team which seemed to be about half first-choice and half those who were having an indoor season anyhow; the ladies' team came third of eight and the men's team came seventh of eight. This is about the other way round compared to how it would be in the main outdoor competition, but it does raise the question of whether Britain's men's team will be relegated out of the top flight of next year's European Indoor Cup. (Assuming that there is one and also assuming that there's the same sort of relegation system as in the major outdoor competition. Neither of these have been established as far as I'm aware - I'm not sure that any of the nations took this year's event particularly seriously.)
Anyway, the reason I mentioned this was an amusing Steve Cram quote on the BBC web site. Concerning 1500m runner Michael East, Steve wrote (para 8) "Michael's big weapon is his speed".
Kind of handy for a 1500m runner, that...