Hot Games

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Seven Wonders

An impression, not a detailed review

I joined a small, but friendly, gaming group in Swindon in Autumn 2006. On night #1 we played Age of Steam – my initiation into the age of modern gaming had begun. The group members have pretty similar tastes in the main, and I can never recall any serious falling out over choice of game. We all have our preferences – they can generally be accommodated and, if not, they find table time elsewhere when everyone around the table will enjoy them.

We are definitely followers of the Cult of the New. With the exception of fillers, we tend to play new games each week. Or at least that was the case until a few weeks ago. In the last four years very few games have made it to the table three weeks in a row: I can only recall Agricola, Le Havre and Automobile doing so. Of course there are other ‘staples’ that we regularly return to, most notably Ra, Power Grid and Steam. The latter two being highly variable because of the range of different maps available for each.

Since Christmas we have held nine Tuesday game sessions. Seven Wonders has been played no less than 13 times and at seven of these sessions. So what has made this game buck the trend? Why do we continue to play it?

Firstly a little history. Seven Wonders was definitely the ‘hit’ of Essen 2010 – maybe not to the same extent as say Agricola or Dominion in previous years, but definitely had the ‘buzz’ coming out of the show.

Since its release last October it has risen to 15th place on Boardgamegeek, easily the highest of the latest Essen crop. I first played it at Midcon in November 2010, playing it 4 times with up to 7 players. I then ‘helped’ Father Christmas procure a copy and it duly arrived, as if by magic, under the Christmas Tree.

The game in a nutshell

  • - Civ-building game, based on one of the Seven Wonders
  • - Plays 3-7 players
  • - Takes around 30 minutes, slightly quicker with experience
  • - The playing time is constant irrespective of the number of players
  • - Simultaneous card drafting
  • - 18 decisions per game
  • - Generally plays differently each time

The good

  • - Scales well
  • - Quick playing time, you generally play at least twice
  • - You feel that each game is different
  • - Elements of strategic and tactical play
  • - It is fun!

The bad

  • - Maybe a bit lightweight for some (not for me, I love lightweight!)
  • - Nothing else

It helps that we all enjoy playing the game; there is no dissent on that score. There are many paths to victory and each game feels fresh and new. As the playing time is so short, even if you finish with a low score, your first thought is to re-shuffle the cards and have another go. Still a great game – destined for my Top 10 methinks.

It is also somewhat ironic that we have recently discovered Glory to Rome, a more involved game (that we also enjoy) that has some similarities to Seven Wonders. We have now played it two weeks in a row, but will it last?

Any pictures above are copyright Boardgamegeek.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

John Cooper Clarke (live)

Sub 89, Reading, 13th Feb 2011 (rescheduled from Dec 2010)

My favourite poem is not by Keats or Shelley or even Edward Lear but is (I Married A) Monster From Outer Space by John Cooper Clarke. It includes the classic verse:

We walked out - tentacle in hand

You could sense that the earthlings would not understand

They'd go ... nudge nudge ... when we got off the bus

Saying it's extra-terrestial - not like us

And it's bad enough with another race

But f*ck me... a monster ...from outer space!

I have a copy of the Bard of Salford’s esteemed collection of poems entitled ten years in an open necked shirt, published in 1983. That was a couple of years after the last time I saw JCC live. This was a time when a paperback cost around £3, a LP (as they were called back then) cost about £3 and a ticket to a gig also cost about £3. How the world has changed – a paperback now costs c.£5/6 (thanks to Amazon and the demise of the NBA), an album is essentially free* (thanks to Napster/the internet) and it can cost you up to £50 to see your favourite band (thanks to a multitude of greedy b*st*rds lining their pockets). Why do you think so many washed-up third-rate bands from the 1970s and 1980s are now reforming?

This was the first time I’ve been to Sub 89 – a decent little club, holding about 600, smack in the middle of Reading, not far from the station. Usual hard-looking, but friendly enough, bouncers and beer sold in plastic glasses. We stuck with the Newcastle Brown as there was nothing reasonable on tap. The crowd was perhaps 250-strong ranging from students to pensioners, average age c. 50-ish. Seats were provided for the elderly audience, but we stood at the back – poetry being best appreciated standing.

It was somewhat reassuring that the Support Act was embarrassingly bad. That’s the way it traditionally was, and the way it should be. We took the opportunity to slip away to the Wetherspoons-type pub down the road – decent reasonably-priced real ale (London Pride I think from memory) and haggis, neeps and tatties on special at £1.99. Champion.

Back to Sub 89. The couple of times I’d seen JCC live before he simply stood up and rattled through his poems in about 30 minutes or so. This time he had 90 minutes to fill – good value at £15/ticket.

Enter JCC. Not looking too dissimilar to the character we all remembered. You may think I’ve put on weight … it’s only since I stopped taking drugs”. However the accent and mannerisms hadn’t changed one iota. It’s somehow as reassuring as the crap support band – it’s like 1977 all over again.

The set consisted of about 30 minutes of poems (at most), the rest of the time being anecdotes, jokes or explanations of the poems. A typical joke: Condoms were very hard to get hold of in Ireland 15 years ago … they had to smuggle them in inside bags of heroin. One anecdote was about his first paid gigs which just happened to be at Bernard Manning’s infamous Embassy Club, and being introduced to the audience with ‘Well he’s not my cup of tea, but you may like him …

The crowd would probably have been happy enough if he merely repeated his set from 1980. He only did 3 old poems – Beasley Street, Chickentown and one more that

I’ve forgotten. However there is a spattering of new work including an update of Beasley Street about the gentrification of the area – Beasley Boulevard. Another standout was Belgium is the Watford of the World – the title says it all.

All in all, an excellent evening. We can no longer witness the Clash or the Ramones, but the poetry of punk lives on. I definitely won’t leave it 30 years until I see him live again.

* Not me Officer, I pay for all of my downloads

Friday, 11 February 2011

Book review - The Joy of Geocaching

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First the good news: this book has no line drawings of dodgy looking bearded men. You can also leave it on the bookshelf when your parents come round for tea.

Unfortunately the strap line on the cover of the book is How to Find Health, Happiness and Creative Energy Through a Worldwide Treasure Hunt. If there is anything that will stop a Brit, and probably most Europeans, opening a book it is twaddle of this ilk. However I realise that Americans seem to need this schmaltz – here we are the Chicken Soup for the Geocacher’s Soul!

But wait, it gets worse … the introduction actually contains a story of how Geocaching saves someone’s life. I kid you not! At this stage most readers will surely be reaching for the sick-bucket.

But wait, stay with it. The book that follows this very questionable opening is actually quite good. That was my initial reaction after a couple of chapters. Half-way through I was beginning to revise my opinion and thought the book rather good. By the time I’d finished it, my conclusion was that the book is very good indeed. So what does it contain?

Well just about everything that the budding geocacher needs really. It covers all of the basics – buying a GPSr, navigating, planning a trip, the different types of hides and geocaches, navigation and etiquette. It also covers the social side of the sport, plus specialist branches such as power trails and extreme caching.

One aspect that is commendable is the coverage of technology and the features of However both move on at a pace and will necessitate future revisions of the book. The extensive coverage of GSAK is a bit galling for Mac owners though.

The true strength of the book is the way that the hobby is brought to life by Waypoints and Cacher Profiles in the book. The authors use real life examples and anecdotes from enthusiasts to illustrate why this is such a fun hobby. The authors have made some excellent choices to represent geocaching and deserve a lot of credit for this. I read the book over several months – its layout facilitates this and I enjoyed dipping in and out and reading short sections. This is a well thought-through book that is extremely well written.

So what are my criticisms of the book? There are some minor sections that are disappointing – for example the sections on letterboxing and orienteering. However my biggest criticism would be that the book is too US-centric. It would definitely be improving by widening its coverage, and probably sell more copies too. Of course this is a general sin of American media, but the Podcacher podcast is a great example of how an international perspective can be a strength.

I love geocaching, but view it as a fun hobby rather than a source of health, happiness and creative energy. Although in reality all three probably do apply, just I wouldn’t articulate such things. So after reading the book what are my thoughts? Firstly this is a well researched and excellently written book. Secondly it captures the hobby perfectly. Thirdly it illustrates why so many geocachers enjoy the hobby and get so much out of it. Finally it handles the basics perfectly, yet is equally enjoyable for the experienced geocacher.

I enjoyed reading the book and learnt from it. I also laughed at some of the anecdotes, recognizing some of them from my own experiences. I am not a beginner – I have over 1000 finds and 40 hides. That the book caters for the absolute beginner and also for me is quite an achievement. As I read the book, I thought ‘I should write a book about geocaching’. However if I dedicated a year of my life full-time to writing a book it would not be a patch on this one, so why bother?

I bought this book last summer in Cape Cod, mainly because I wanted to read about geocaching. The only other books I’d seen at the time were The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching and Geocaching for Dummies. Quite frankly if you buy one of those books in preference to this one, you’d be both an idiot and a dummy.