26th July 2016

To celebrate Codenames winning the Spiel des Jahres Award, this week it was our “Feature Game”.   Although the game seems to be very, very popular, it definitely has the “Marmite Factor” amongst our group.  It also really needs a group of a reasonable size.  Since it is relatively quick, even the most reluctant agreed to give it a go, especially as Cerise had made it for the first time in ages and it was a game she had really enjoyed last time we played it.  It was also Turquoise’s first visit, so a team game seemed a good way of starting.  The idea of the game is that there are two rival teams of Spies, each with a leader or Spymaster.  The Spies are trying to locate their Agents, but these are only known by their Codenames, and only the Spymasters have the key to who is on which team.  The Codenames are laid out on the table in a five by five array where everyone can see them together with some innocent bystanders and an Assassin.  The Spymasters then take it in turns to give clues to their team so that the Spies can identify their own team’s Agents by pointing at them.

Codenames
– Image by boardGOATS

Clues are of the form “word; number”, where “word” is a clue that connects several cards and “Number” is the number of connected cards.  For example, the clue “bird; three” might connect “sparrow”, “beak” and “Naomi Campbell”.  The team then discuss the clue and point to code cards, one at a time.  If they get it wrong, their turn ends straight away, so ideally they should start with the answers they think are most obvious.  If the Codename corresponds to one of their agents, then the team can guess again, and keep trying until they have exhausted their theoretical maximum number cards that match the clue (three in the example).  Importantly, the only measure of “correct” is whether the Codename is one of the Agents, the agent chosen does not actually have to match the current clue.  So, a team who can’t make sense of a clue or identify all the Codenames may decide point to a Codename that matches a clue given earlier in the game.  For this reason, when a team get all their theoretical maximum number of Codenames for that turn right, they also get one extra chance.

Codenames
– Image by boardGOATS

So, the trick is for the leader to come up with clues that cover multiple correct answers so that the rest of the team can identify the complete set before the opposition identify all theirs. Unfortunately, we had a particularly unconnected set of words and two Spymasters, Blue and Burgundy, who were particularly useless at this sort of thing.  Consequently there were lots of clues like “continent; one”, and when Blue got adventurous and went for “music; two” she totally confused her team and was perilously close to a hint that could lead to the Assassin (Codename “Snowman”) and bring the game to an abrupt end.  “Zooloretto; two” also fell on stony ground since nobody on Blue’s team had actually played it (where everyone in Burgundy’s team had).  The game remained finely balanced as Blue continued to try to give slightly more adventurous clues which her team didn’t always get, while Burgundy played safe with smaller clues that his team understood.

Codenames
– Image by boardGOATS

It all came to a head when, with only two Agents left to find, Burgundy decided to be adventurous and gave the clue “film; two”.  His team quickly got one of them, “Alien”, but the second was more tricky.  Green thought it was probably “forest” (as in “The Forest Moon of Endor”), but could also be several other things.  Cerise, on the opposite team leant a hand and suggested that it could be “wind” as in “Gone with the…”  or maybe “snowman”.  Meanwhile, Burgundy remained stony-faced, in what were very trying circumstances.  Eventually the team ignored Cerise (who had managed to suggest both the correct answer and the Assassin), which gave Blue and her team one last chance.  With only one Agent left to guess, there was only a short pause before they finished the game.  There was a big sigh of relief all round as everyone was put out of their misery, particularly Blue and Burgundy who had found the whole clue-giving experience very stressful indeed.  Unquestionably, with the right crowd Codenames could be great fun, but sadly, we just aren’t it, so it is unlikely to get another outing in the near future – definitely not our group’s Spiel des Jahres this year.

Codenames
– Image by boardGOATS

With that over, we decided to split into two groups.  Black and Purple were keen to give Imhotep a try (one of the other Spiel des Jahres Award nominees), as they had wanted to play it at the UK Games Expo, but it had been constantly booked out of the games library.  Burgundy had played it (also at Expo, with Blue and Pink), had enjoyed it and was happy to give it another go, so Green made up a group of four.  As well as being the key protagonist in the film, “The Mummy”, Imhotep was also a priest and a great architect.  So in this game, players take the role of builders in Egypt who are trying to emulate Imhotep.  The premise of the game is very simple.  On their turn, the active player chooses one of four actions:  procure new stones; load stones on a boat; sail a boat to a monument; or play an action card.  Players can only store a maximum of five stones and when they procure stones they can collect a maximum of three.  Stones are loaded onto ships one at a time, but which of the five possible destinations the boats end up at and the order they are unloaded in is vital, so timing and planning is everything.

Imhotep
– Image by boardGOATS

Admittedly the lovely big wooden blocks make this game feel like a “junior” board game, but Imhotep is anything but.  It is one of those games that is easy to learn but difficult to master. Although players have a range of options, trying to decide which one is best depends on what has already transpired, what opponents do and how the game will develop.  What makes it particularly tricky is that the best plans in the world can be crushed by opponents with one small action: when they take a boat to the “wrong place”.  It turns out the cubes are large for a good reason:  stacking cubes is a key part of the game and anything smaller would make a very wobbly obelisk.  There are four ships and five building locations, so one doesn’t get visited and the round ends when all four boats have sailed.  There are six rounds in total with points scored in different ways for the different buildings; the player with the most points at the end is declared the best builder in Egypt.

Imhotep
– Image by boardGOATS

Once everything was set up, the game got under way, but then almost stalled. Nobody had any idea what should be a good opening gambit.  Placing a cube on a ship was the easy choice, but which ship and in which position?  After some head scratching, everyone began placing cubes on boats, making plans where wanted the ships should go, waiting for them to be full, when suddenly, Purple jumped the gun and sent the first boat on its way.  She chose a boat with one cube of each of her competitors and sent it build an Obelisk, catching everyone by surprise.  It wasn’t a particularly bad place to go, but the obelisk doesn’t score until the end and since the highest scores are for the tallest towers, it might not actually be the most efficient use of a cube, especially so early in the game.

Imhotep
– Image by boardGOATS

The rest of the first round continued to be a lesson in frustration as each of the other boats ended up somewhere other than where players had planned. The next boat went to the Burial Chambers (another scoring at the end of the game), the third to the Wall (scored at the end of the round, but only one point per cube) and the last went to the Market to get cards. As Green was first on the boat he had the first choice of the cards available and based on that first boat he chose the card that gave him an extra point for every 3 cubes in the Obelisk (any three cubes, not just his own).  Now no-one other than Green wanted a boat to go to the Obelisk.

Imhotep
– Image by boardGOATS

The second round began a little more cautiously.  Everyone had a better idea of how the round would go and began placing their cubes in particular positions on the ships.  The game continued to frustrate everyone as the ships just wouldn’t go where players wanted them to go.  This is frustration is similar to that in Zooloretto where players place animals on trucks, but have to wait until the next turn to collect them, if someone else hasn’t got there first, of course.  In Imhotep, it was usually pretty obvious where players wanted the boat to go, so someone else almost always got there first to send it somewhere else!

Imhotep
– Image by boardGOATS

The unusual scoring of the Pyramid (not steadily increasing or decreasing points) meant that everyone tried to position themselves carefully for that optimum high scoring space, but no-one ever managed to get the boat set up quite how they wanted.  As a result, again no boat went to the pyramid.  The obelisks grew, and the pattern of the Burial Chamber was going in Black and Burgundy’s favour and the Wall scored a few more points, mostly for Purple. The Wall was beginning to show its strength as a cube placed there can score round after round until it is covered – potentially scoring well.  The market cards were dolled out, with Burgundy and Black both taking a blue extra action cards for later use. Green wasn’t sure what to take and ended up with a purple end game scoring card which would only come into it’s own if he could collect a few more.  In the third round the pyramid finally got started, in Black’s favour. The game continued in much the same way, individual plans were more and more obvious and as a result became harder and harder to fulfil.  The trouble was, in taking an action to scupper someone else it often helped a different player or upset their own plans.

Imhotep
– Image by boardGOATS

By the end of the game nobody was sure who the winner was going to be.   Before adding all the end-game scores, Burgundy was ahead of Black and Purple, with Green trailing behind.  Everyone had managed a couple of areas in the Burial Chamber, but despite best efforts to scupper him, Burgundy still had the largest area.  The Obelisks had become a fraught battle field at the end.  Black had thrown down the gauntlet to take a boat there which only had two of his cubes and pushed him into the lead, but in the penultimate round Green had sailed a sneaky little single cube boat which made his tower equal.  By making sure that he placed a cube in any boat that Black had used, Green then ensuring that he would at least share the Obelisk spoils. The presence of a single cube boat in that last round, was interesting, but no-one wanted to use it as it was guaranteed that the cube would get taken to the least useful dock, so in the end the Obelisk scores for first and second place were shared between Black and Green with Purple and Burgundy sharing the scores for third and fourth place.

Imhotep
– Image by boardGOATS

With Black now several points ahead, Burgundy and Green were vying for second with only the the green and purple end-game scoring cards left, though only Black and Green had any.  Black scored points for every three cubes in the burial chamber, which extended his lead and now looked unassailable.  Green got his Obelisk cubes score, which proved to be the same as Black took for the burial chamber, but with three purple cards giving him another six points he leap-frogged over Black to win by one point.  It was an incredibly close game which suggests that where cubes go may not matter as much as it feels like it should.  On one hand, this seems like a good thing as it relieves the pressure of all those boats going to the “wrong place”, but on the other hand it may suggest the game is a little too balanced making strategy play is less important, which would be a great shame.  Everyone really enjoyed it, however, and would definitely play it again especially as it plays quickly and the alternative tile options look as though they would add variety and new challenges to the game keeping it fresh.  For our group, from the nominations list, this would definitely have been our choice of Spiel des Jahres.

Colt Express
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

Meanwhile, everyone else was engaged in a brutal game of Colt Express, the worthy winner of last year’s Spiel des Jahres.  This is a programming game, where players take it in turns to choose the cards to they will play, but only action them after everyone has chosen.  Since everyone then takes it in turns to carry out their actions, the game is full of unforeseen consequences.  The game has a Western theme and is played on a fabulous three-dimensional train.  The idea is that each player is a bandit attacking the train trying to move about to pick up cash and jewels while avoiding the Marshall and shooting each other.  Although we’ve played this a few times, we had a couple of people who hadn’t played it before so we had a quick run-down of the rules first.  Each player starts with the same deck of action cards and six bullet cards.  A round card dictates how many cards will be played and how (face up or down; in pairs or singly) and players each shuffle their action deck and draw six cards.

Colt Express
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

Players then take it in turns to play the action cards.  At the beginning of a round everyone can see where everyone else is and it is easy to choose which card to play and predict its outcome.  Before long, however, things begin to become unpredictable and by the time players have to choose a second card it is highly likely that plans will have gone awry, though of course, nobody know this yet.  Once the cards have all been played, the pile of cards is turned over and the cards are actioned in the order that they were played.  It is only at this point that people realise the mistakes they’ve unwittingly made, shooting nobody or the wrong person, trying to pick up jewels that aren’t there or finding they’ve got nowhere to go because the Marshal is in the way and has screwed up their plans.  As the game progresses, things get worse too since shooting someone involves passing them a bullet card.  This is added to their action deck, but is a dead card and gives no possible actions.  Multiple bullet cards means the chance of drawing them increases making the action cards drawn all the more precious and adding pressure to make the maximum use of them.

Colt Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Colt Express is a light, fun game and inevitably, someone gets picked on.  This time Blue was the victim (playing the character Django).  Magenta (playing the innocent looking Belle) started using Blue for target practice, but Cerise (Doc) was very quick to join in the fun.  Blue did her best to escape and briefly managed to grab the $1,000 strongbox (gold bar in our version of the game) before Magenta biffed her soundly on the nose and nabbed it.  Meanwhile, Cerise and Turquoise were doing an excellent job of gathering up the loot and robbing the passengers blind, before they decided to try to empty their revolvers.  Obviously, this was mostly at Blue’s expense and with so many bullet cards she struggled to do anything, but that didn’t put people off of course.  Before long even the Marshall was getting in on the act and, much to her disgust, Blue finished the game with more bullets than action cards and no money or gems at all.

Colt Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

For everyone else, however, the game was quite close.  Magenta had managed to hang onto the gold bar (aka strongbox) and one gem, but it wasn’t enough to compete with Turquoise and Cerise.  Turquoise had picked up a massive five money purses while Cerise added the Sharp Shooter bonus to her one gem and single purse.  Much to our surprise, both totalled $1,850 which meant we had to check the rules for a tie-breaker.  It turned out this was the number of bullets received, which meant that even though she was a long way from competing, Blue had an influence on the result.  As well as being a bullet-magnet, Blue had just about managed to fire a couple of shots in return.  Cerise had been one of the main attackers, so she had caught a few of Blue’s bullets as well as a couple of Magenta’s.  Since Turquoise had rarely fired at anyone, she had picked up just two bullets and with it, her second win of the evening, with Cerise getting her comeuppance.

Colt Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor lacxox

With it nearing “pumpkin time” for Magenta and Turquoise, there was just time for one last quick game and, almost inevitably, that was 6 Nimmt!.  How this game is still interesting for our group, is a bit of a mystery.  It is short, everyone is always happy to play it and, since it has such a small footprint, it gets brought every week which means it is there when the occasion is right, the mystery though is why people haven’t got bored when other games have long since fallen off the radar.  This time Purple started badly picking up twenty Nimmts in the first round while Turquoise began with a clean sheet.  Burgundy started well with just two Nimmts, but since he always has one good round and one bad, everyone was just waiting for him to start collecting cards in the second round.  Magenta and Blue both had consistently low scores, but they weren’t low enough, and while Purple also made a virtue of consistency, that’s not so good when the scores are both high.  Sadly, Turquoise was forced to pick up a couple of high-scoring of cards while Burgundy, very unusually managed to string two good rounds together.  With a clear round for his second, Burgundy took the game with a total of just two Nimmts, beating Turquoise into second place.

6 Nimmt!
– Image by boardGOATS

With Cerise, Magenta and Turquoise heading off, that left a short hour for something else.  Black was keen to play Isle of Skye, the winner of this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres, but Green somehow hadn’t played it and we debated whether it would overrun.  Before long we’d prevaricated enough to definitely rule it out due to lack of time and we started hunting round for something else.  In the end we settled on The Game, a nice little cooperative card game that was nominated for last year’s Spiel des Jahres.  We played this quite a bit for a while, but somehow it has fallen out of favour a little of late, but for no very good reason.  The rules are simple: on their turn, the active player lays a minimum of two cards on any of the four piles following the appropriate trend – two piles must always increase, two decrease; the exception to this is if you can play a card where the interval is exactly ten in the wrong direction (known as “The Backwards Rule”).  Players can talk about anything so long as there is no specific number information given and the aim is to cooperatively get rid of all ninety-eight cards by playing them on to the four piles.

The Game
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

The Game started badly and then it got worse.  Before long we were wondering whether we were even going to get through the deck.  Our excuse was that the game is harder with five, but that may or may not actually be the case.  Eventually, we finally managed to exhaust the draw deck, leaving just the cards in hand, but it was inevitable that we weren’t going to be able to place every card as several players had lots of very low cards in a run.  In the end we finished with eight unplayable cards.  We felt we might have been able to place a couple more with a bit more planning, discussion and thought at the end, but everyone was tired and it was home time, so our collective competitive streak had deserted us.  Maybe it will come back for next time…

The Game
– Image by boardGOATS

Learning Outcome:  Prize-winning games can be a little bit hit and miss and depend strongly on the group too.

2 thoughts on “26th July 2016

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