Our most recent game night was the pinnacle of a perfect day. Earlier that day we had gone to Market Square, where we ate veggie dogs at Franktuary, played a game of giant Jenga, and returned with two bags of coffee from Nicholas Coffee Company. We brought one of the bags–Cinnamon Pecan Praline—with us to our friends’ house, where it paired well with the home-made peach pie they baked. We didn’t start playing games until late, but we were still able to squeeze in three games due to selecting the fastest official Catan variation, the eighteen round game 7 Wonders, and the eight round game Sheriff of Nottingham.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably seen that our sweet spot seems to be three games, as that is usually what we end up playing no matter how much time we have. This is a curious phenomenon which I believe to be an ultimately explicable attribute of game size, as measured by Scope, Scale, and Span. Just hold that thought, though, because this is a Game Night recap, and I won’t be going into depth on that subject here. We’ll call it fodder for later installments.
To complete the setting of the stage–the bright, sunny, day pierced the windows, and we had salads, roasted potatoes, and tofu marinated in cayenne pepper, garlic, and cracked pepper (the vegans), and various seafood including shark (the non-vegans). (Actually, the tofu was so good that everyone was eating it, so my overly simplistic demarcation is a bald-faced lie.) My youngest watched DVDs we brought of Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and The Superfriends, so classic animation would crackle and flash in the background.
Catan: Traders and Barbarians: “The Fishermen of Catan”
First, we played “The Fishermen of Catan” scenerio from Catan: Traders and Barbarians. With so many variations of Catan between us—I have Seafarers, Cities and Knights, and Explorers and Pirates, and my friends have Traders and Barbarians and Star Trek Catan—it isn’t long before this demands expression in wooden empires on hexagon-ological islands. In an informal survey of our gaming group, only one of us had a clearly stated favorite tabletop game, and that was Catan. As for myself, Catan is the game that I hate to love and love to hate, and I acknowledge that there is a sixth element in Catan, aside from wool, wheat, ore, lumber, and brick, and this sixth element never leaves your hand and pulls you back to the game. It isn’t that we possess Catan, it’s that Catan possesses us.
I’d like to say that we selected Catan: Traders and Barbarians, the Catan box that we open least frequently, because we wanted to give the included scenarios another play, but it was because we had brought Catan: Cities and Knights and found that we had left the Cities and Knights progress and commodity cards in my 5-6 player C&K expansion box. So my friend took T&B down from his shelf, and we set up “The Fishermen of Catan.” It is the fastest scenario in Catan: Traders and Barbarians, and possibly all of Catan, as it is not only a ten point game like standard Catan, but the accumulation of resources is accelerated by the introduction of fishing to the game.
The fishing mechanic in “The Fishermen of Catan” is completely unlike the fishing in Catan: Explorers and Pirates scenarios. While in E&P, the player retrieves a wooden fish token with a wooden ship token, the simulation in T&B involves no movement of tokens. In fact, the game board is similar to standard 10 point Catan, with the exception that the desert is replaced by a fishing hole, and fishing shoals are placed between harbors. Fishing shoals and the fishing hole produce fish when their numbers are rolled, and you have a settlement or city bordering them.
Fans of standard ten point Catan should see immediately how this scenario will speed up play. Instead of a desert hex, which is a dead, non-producing, hex, that limits the value of settlements and cities bordering it, “The Fishermen of Catan” has the fishing hole, which produces a fish token on a 2, 3, 11, or 12, which combined is as good as having a 6 or an 8, circa 16% likely on a given roll. Additionally, if at the beginning of the game, there aren’t any good three hex spots left when it’s your turn to place your second settlemtn, the coastal region is much more attractive as there are also regions there that produce fish when a number is rolled. In Fishermen of Catan, it is much more likely that all four players will have both a six and an eight, if they would like to have both, due to there being many more spots on which to border a six or an eight. In fact, sometimes the coastal regions are much better than the island interior in “The Fishermen of Catan.”
Each player can only have seven fish tokens at once, but in both of the times that we have played this scenario, no player ever reached this limit as the fish tokens are so useful. You see, each fishing token has from one to three fish on it, and you can exchange a total of two fish—not tokens, but the fish on them—-to remove the robber from the board; three fish allows you to steal a resource from another player; four fish allows you to take a resource from the bank; five fish gives you a free road; and, seven fish gives you a free development card. Game statisticians will no doubt point out that resource producing numbers will be more efficient than fish-producing numbers at building roads or buying development cards, but fish can’t be stolen by other players or by the robber either, so they give each player a secondary, 100% secure, production bank. Well, not each player—just the players that were wise enough to focus on gathering fish.
So, with resources entering “The Fishermen of Catan” normally, and fish production being exchanged for resources, roads, and development cards on top of that, you can see that this scenario enabled its winner to hit ten victory points quickly. This is probably why there is an “Old Boot” concealed in the fish tokens that any player can give to another player with more victory points, and that player stuck with the Old Boot needs 11 victory points to win instead of 10. In this game, however, no one ever found it, so the winner won with three cities, the Largest Army, and the Longest Road.
In games with score cards, our game night group dates them for posterity, and this meant that when I opened our 7 Wonders box that it was a black and white fact that we hadn’t played this marvelous game since May 28th. There’s really no excuse for this, as 7 Wonders is not only currently in a three way tie with Puerto Rico and Broom Service to be my favorite game, but it is fast and epic. Not only can you always find room for 7 Wonders in a game night, it is such an excellent game with so many different winning strategies that you should strive to do this at all costs. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a sin against the god of game night, but yes I would.)
I’ve discussed 7 Wonders in some detail on Board of Life, and each time we play I have a different takeaway. It seemed that both players to either side of me didn’t need the resources that I was saving either to build their Wonder or to supplement their strategy, so I learned how to win at 7 Wonders when I wasn’t getting any income. This was a marked difference from my previous win at 7 Wonders, when both of my flanking players were trading with me constantly.
We were using the B side of the cards, and selected our wonders randomly. Mine was Halikarnassos, and while I was initially disappointed with this one due to it only rewarding the building of its wonder with only three victory points, the Halikarnassos B side also has an outstanding special ability.
It enables you to look through the discards once per age, in the round during which the wonder stage is built, even selecting from cards discarded that round. As I would have the greatest selection of discards at the end of each age, I decided that whatever happened, my sixth card every turn would build a stage of my structure so that I would be able to pick from the four discards in the sixth round for a free build. I was only getting three points from completing my wonder, so it was paramount that I grab the discard that was worth the most points to me. In the third age, the other players realized what I was doing, and the only discard at the end of the third age that was worth any points was the Arena. Which I grabbed anyway, as three victory points is nonetheless three victory points.
One strategy that I considered, but did not use this game due to rejecting its shadiness, involves abusing the rule that allows a player, instead of playing a card or building a stage of their wonder, to discard any card they want on their turn for 3 coins. I thought of discarding a card that I was unable to purchase so that I could then grab it for free immediately after by building a stage in my structure. I would be one card short at the end of the game, but I was already being rewarded for building my wonder by getting additional cards in my play area.
The strategy that I decided on was much simpler. After a heavy investment in brown, grey, and yellow cards in the first age, from that point on I simply picked the card from my hand that was both 1) a free build for me, and 2) worth the most victory points. Then, in the final, sixth round of each age, I would build a stage of my structure so that I could grab a free card from the discards. (It was very important that I not build it prior to that sixth round so that I have the largest selection of discards, as our group doesn’t cash in cards for coins very much.) By the end of the game, I had a set of green cards, several blue cards, and three of the purple guild cards.
One general consensus in our group is that it is a mistake to over-invest in the green Science cards. The possibility of scoring twice with your investment in them is appealing to the math minded, but in practice it never works out. The player with the least amount of victory points had 26 points for six science cards, which sounds great until you consider that’s only 4.4 points a card, and there are many more valuable cards in the third age that are passing by while you’re completing your second science set; the three purple guild cards I grabbed were a total of 22 points, or about 7.3 points a card. If you can get a set of science cards before the end of the second age, that’s a good thing to grab, but go for the blue and purple cards in the third age. Even in the second age, the three blue cards (12 victory points) are worth more than a set of three green cards (10 points).
Sheriff of Nottingham
Next up was Sheriff of Nottingham, a game which has won my admiration after only two games despite the cold hard fact that I am horrible at playing it. This is partly due to the fact that I cannot keep from smiling when I am passing contraband, and my strategy to be always smiling like a fool, so as to conceal when I am actually doing it, simply means that my bag is always checked for contraband.
Some of you are saying, “contraband? bag? what?” Let me backtrack. As this is the first time I’ve discussed Sheriff of Nottingham in any length on my blog, for the uninitiated I’ll delve into the facts of the game, but as I may end up reviewing it on Board of Life, this will be a capsule summary.
Sheriff of Nottingham is best played with four players over a total of eight rounds. Each player is the Sheriff in two of those rounds, and a Merchant in the other six rounds. In every round, the other three players are Merchants that declare from their hand of cards—Chicken, Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Contraband—one type of good in any quantity to be in their bag. In addition to playing cards, Sheriff of Nottingham actually has enclosed not just cardboard coins, but also five “merchant bags” that are large enough to enclose them.
When the Merchant makes a declaration, he must correctly state the number of cards in his bag, and he also must pick just one type of good to declare from the four honest goods in the game, either Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Chicken. If a Merchant makes the declaration “Six Cheese,” the bag might actually have six cheese in it, or four cheese and two bread, or one cheese and five contraband, or six contraband and no honest goods, or any other combination of six cards. If the Merchant actually has six cheese, that’s awesome luck, beause not only will the Merchant earn huge points from that haul, but the Sheriff will undoubtedly inspect and end up paying a penalty on that lucky haul. More than likely, however, the Merchant will make smaller declarations, whether for honest or dishonest reasons.
After all three Merchants have made their declarations, The Sheriff must decide whether each Merchant is telling the truth. He or she can inspect any bag they want, and if they find an incorrect declaration, the Merchant must pay him a penalty. However, if they inspect an honest declaration, the Sheriff must pay the Merchant a penalty.
Merchants can bribe The Sheriff if they want to do so—sometimes this is because they are trying to get contraband through, sometimes this is because they want the Sheriff to check another Merchant’s bag, and sometimes this is because the Merchant is trying to entice the Sheriff to inspect an honest declaration, so the Sheriff has to pay the Merchant a penalty. So bribery can be massively strategic in Sheriff of Nottingham.
In this game, I had a huge setback when I decided that I would try to be clever. In my first round, I played it safe and declared three cheese honestly. In the next round, after my draw, I again had three cheese as well as a bread and two contraband. I thought, why not declare the two contraband and a bread as three cheese? It will probably be passed through, and then when I declare three cheese—this time honestly—for a third time, it will undoubtedly be inspected so that I would be paid a penalty. Nope. The bread and two contraband were inspected because of my irrepressibly goofy smile, and my game never recovered from that.
Despite the fact that I was never able to catch back up after that initial loss, I still had a lot of fun playing Sheriff of Nottingham, just as I did the first time that I played. It’s fun to watch the Merchants try to get one over on the Sheriff, and it’s amusing to watch players try to rat each other out by bribing the Sheriff to check others’ dishonest declarations. And at eight turns, the game is of a perfect length, so that if you’re losing, you’re not losing for long, and if you’re winning, you get to savor your triumph quickly.
This was such a satisfying set of short strategy games that I recommend this exact combination for any game night in which you only have a few hours ahead of you. All three games took less than an hour while engaging our mental muscles in the strategic way that we usually expect much longer games to satisfy.
My curiosity is still piqued as to why three games seems to be the magic number for our gaming group, and once I have a large enough sample of Game Night recaps for analysis, I might speculate further on this mystery.
Catan: Traders & Barbarians Expansion 5th Edition
Sheriff of Nottingham
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