It’s February 2017. For the seventeenth year running a group of geeks have rendezvoused by helicopter on a remote island off the UK coast. There are no televisions or cars, there’s no internet, scarce mobile reception and the electricity turns off at midnight. There’s one tavern.
As usual, the three orders of the day are: 1) drink the tavern dry (and perhaps the solitary shop too); 2) stumble about the island “exploring”; 3) sit in front of a toasty fire and play games. Lots of games.
The first time I went to The Island, in 2006, was also the first time I’d travelled in a helicopter. You know, because I’m not a squillionaire. If you’ve never done it either, you might expect the experience to be much as I did, sat in the Portakabin “heliport” awaiting my first flight.
I assumed we’d all jump aboard shouting “Go! Go! Go!” and sit with our legs dangling out of the open side door. The helicopter would then practically do a nose stand as it took off accompanied by Wagner or The Rolling Stones.
It looked like I was in luck too: the pilot was ex-military!
Sadly this also meant he was a professional, so we wafted from the ground and remained boringly horizontal for the seven minutes it took to cross twelve miles of dull, grey, freezing January ocean.
Since then I’ve returned to The Island a dozen times. I’ve stayed in a 13th century castle, a 19th century lighthouse and a converted barn. But mostly our motley gaming band has occupied a majestic, only slightly creepy, 12-bed Victorian mansion nestled in its own little valley.
Perfect for escaping the rat-race and getting down to some serious drinking and unbridled gaming.
Come 2017 and the heliport Portakabin had transformed into a rather swish timber structure, and this year’s ex-military pilot seemed to think he was transporting squaddies rather than civvies, so we were “treated” to an exhilarating backwards take-off, brisk crossing and exciting NOE landing approach as he chatted amiably about darker times in Afghanistan.
Fortunately there were no serious flashbacks and we found ourselves safely in the only tavern on the island, so we got the beers in (it was past midday after all) and settled down to play some games, surrounded by relics from ships wrecked on The Island’s unforgiving rocks over the centuries.
First out of the bag while we supped our pints and waited for our accommodation to be readied was something we’d also played at the B&B on the mainland the night before: Welcome to the Dungeon.
This is essentially a 2 to 4 player game of chicken, where players try to take one of four adventurers safely through a monster-infested dungeon… or laugh at whichever schmuck is left to guide the often woefully under-equipped pawn to glory or (more likely) ignominious death.
It’s a large amount of fun for such a basic premise in a small box. As with most push-your-luck games this one is made by the player interactions as you egg each other on and make disparaging statements about lack of courage.
After wallowing in equal amounts of death and hilarity, it was time to grab a fresh pint and settle down at a smaller table with a solitary mate to try out Mr Jack Pocket, a 2 player strategic whodunnit, where one player is trying to track down the titular villain, whilst the other tries to stay one step ahead of the law.
Both players use the same tools to both track and evade capture, and it’s a race against time to either discover the quarry or escape punishment for your dastardly crimes in the fog-shrouded London streets.
The game lives up to its name in the portability stakes with very little wasted space in the box. There’s no dice needed and the randomness of the game is limited so it’ll appeal to the more strategic-minded.
It’s a surprisingly heavy brain burner which means it goes down a treat until several pints have also gone down a treat, at which point you start wishing for something a little more random and more sociable, like Ninja Dice.
To be honest, by this stage of the afternoon we were just hugely entertained to rattle some dice in our sweaty mitts with one of our number chanting “Ninjas… Ready… ROLL!!!” as we let loose across the table (and occasionally the floor) with a dozen dice.
This is one of those games where it’s not just what you roll but where you roll it. However, there’s only a certain amount of influence you can have in this regard, even without the addition of beer.
Don’t pay too much attention to the relatively modest online ratings— this is a hoot. It won’t win any awards for strategy but it’s great to play down the pub (or in any potentially inebriated situation), and the components are good quality and easily pocketable. And everyone loves ninjas, right?
Before I had a chance to get another beer or pull another game out, a nice lady popped her head into the tavern to tell us that our grand abode had been prepared and awaited our arrival. So we set off to descend, rather unsteadily, into the small valley where it nestled, led, naturally, by a Great Old One…
Once inside it was time to commandeer a room and unpack. Now I should point out that luggage allowance on the helicopter is always limited to 10kg per person. You can combine with others but no single bag can be over 15kg, so you have to be fairly inventive with your packing when it comes to games… and my inventiveness in this regard would have impressed Benjamin Franklin.
The thing is, most games boxes are laughably large for the actual components they have to contain. They’re over-engineered in a way that would make the Germans blush. This means that you can reduce the size of most games by about 80% just by unboxing, like this:
There’s a total of nine games in there. Had they been left in their original boxes they would have required a small shipping container to transport. I used an identical one to fit all the components for Blood Rage into, barring the board and player sheets.These last items I placed into sturdy cardboard miniatures box, along with the rulebooks to all the games I’d brought plus another good selection of titles, and then everything went into a shoulder bag. It weighed in at exactly 15kg.
I then shoehorned a few more into my camera bag and my jacket pockets, making a grand total of twenty-two games that I’d managed to bring with me. Feeling suitably proud of myself, I decided to celebrate with another beer and another game, so wandered back downstairs and roped three others into joining me for a game of Elder Sign.
When you’re staying in such thematic surroundings, it would be a shame not to wallow in some Lovecraft. I’d desperately wanted to bring Mansions of Madness with me for this very reason, but due to the weight concerns mentioned above (Mansions weighs exactly three metric tons) I opted for the popular Arkham co-operative dice fest instead.Fortified by booze we chose the dread Outer God Azathoth as our foe and set about rolling dice, gathering Elder Signs and combating whatever horrors our nefarious foe threw our way.
And we won. Easily.
So easily in fact that nay-sayers drifting through the room as we basked in our smug victory assured us that we must have cheated/played it wrong etc. But the fact was that we just rolled uncannily well, and they were just jealous because they were rubbish when they’d played it, and we were awesome.
By now it was getting late and the sensible thing to do was get to bed, ready to energetically hike around the island the following say. So naturally we poured ourselves another round of drinks and pulled out a final game.
Last to the table then on our first day (although not its last appearance during the weekend) was Game of Thrones: Hand of the King.
You don’t have to know a thing about either the books or the TV series to enjoy this. It’s all about utilising the arch spymaster Varys to set-collect the family members of various Houses of Westeros, easily identified by their sigils, surnames and colour-coding, to garner support for your claim of Handship (if indeed such a term exists. Unlikely, but we were rather drunk by this time.)
It’s great fun and the cartoony graphical style of the cards is funky and “whimsical” (as the box describes the game) without detracting from the serious business of crushing your opponents. Fans of the TV series might think it would be better with images of the actors, but, well, they’re wrong.
Oblivion as well as bed now beckoned, so it was time to give in and crawl upstairs. With two full days left, there was plenty of time to get more games played. Providing our livers managed to hang in there.
Continued in Part 2…
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