Monday night gaming:
Age of Steam - England map
Games played with Kristine:
Mystery Rummy - Jack the Ripper
"Bob Day" (Bob Scherer-Hoock's monthly gaming day in Peabody):
Great Western Railway Game
10 Days in Europe
While I do have some comments on Age of Steam, they're more along the lines of thoughts on Martin Wallace's Early Railway series (of which Age of Steam is part, or an offshoot, depending on how you count it), and these deserve a post of their own, or at least a large chunk of the long-delayed post on "other" train games.
Toscana is a decent two-player tile-laying game. Not bad, but nothing spectacular.
Head-to-Head Poker is more interesting. It's one of Hasbro's attempts to cash in on the poker craze. Some of the others are rather lame (one is clearly a repaint job of Last Chance, a 12-year old dice game which I was not impressed with), but this one was designed by Reiner Knizia (one of the more prominent German designers), and it shows.
As might be expected from the title, it's a two-player game. In each of three rounds players take turns playing a card to (usually) their side of one of 3-5 open hands on the board. Each player will end up playing four cards to their side, the fifth being a common card dealt at the start.
So far this is fairly pedestrian - there have been lots of games in which players put cards in a grid to make poker hands and such. What makes this interesting is the betting and the different ways of playing. The betting is fairly straightforward (or would be if the rules for it were written clearly) - each hand can be bet on separately, each hand can be bet on only once (I think), and if a player declines to bet his or her opponent automatically gets half the bank's payout for the hand but the declining player could still win the other half.
In addition to this, each round can be played a different way - there are 5 basic methods, and before each round, a die is rolled to determine which one to use. Which method is used can have a significant effect on how you play - for example, if a 3 is rolled you have 3 cards and draw one after playing one, but if a 4 is rolled you get 4 cards, play them all out, and then get 4 more. These sound similar, but in practice they're not at all. If a 4 is rolled, you will end up playing every card you get, so you need to find a spot for each one. If a 3 is rolled, you can keep cards you don't want in your hand indefinitely, which is nice, but this flexibility may tempt you into shooting for high hands you won't make.
All in all, I rather like it. It does have the drawback, fairly typical of this sort of game, that if you have a deck of cards and poker chips (or any kind of play money, really), you don't need to own the game to play it, once you know the rules. If it was expensive this would annoy me a bit, but right now it's available for $5 at any Toys 'R Us store (or less at the stores that are closing), and I'm certainly willing to pay that price for the rules - and to be fair, the plastic chips (recycled from Last Chance) are nice (the board is OK but can only be used with undersize cards, and the undersize deck included is not of great quality).
Shear Panic is the second game from two Scottish brothers, Frasier and Gordon Lamont. Last year (well, at Essen 2004) they had Leapfrog, this Essen they switched from frogs to sheep. Both games were produced in limited quantities (500 or so copies) - Leapfrog was available for a while after Essen, but Shear Panic was sold out by the time the show officially opened. I got my copy from a friend who decided he didn't want it.
One of the chief draws of the game is the bits, specifically the sheep. They weren't made from the game - they are sheep figurines of some sort the Lamonts purchased, and as knick-knacks they're twee, but as game pieces they are rather cute:
The game itself is heavier than the appearance would imply. The sheep start out in a 3x3 grid, there is some semi-random alteration of this, and then the game starts. Each player has 12 actions which can be taken over the course of the game, not all of which will be used. Each action alters the arrangement of sheep in some way - moving one sheep, moving a whole row of sheep, turning all the sheep 90 degrees, etc., and each one takes a certain amount of time, recorded on a time track. When the time marker reaches certain points scoring takes place. At the start the sheep are playing Tig (the same as Tag, as far as I can tell) and you get points if your two sheep are next to each other. Then Roger the Ram shows up and you get points for being as close to the front of the flock (where he is) as possible. When he leaves another game of Tig is played with the object being to get next to the black sheep. Finally, the shearer shows up, and you now want to be at the back of the flock so he doesn't notice you.
The game is decent, but does have some issues. One is that it is almost purely tactical - you can't do much planning (we played with three - with four players it would have been even worse). Another is that nine sheep seems too few - the movement possibilities did not seem that interesting, and too often several of your actions were completely equivalent. Having three sheep per player might make things more interesting. There is supposed to be a second edition coming out from a larger publisher, so perhaps they will make some changes to improve the gameplay (no word yet on what the pieces will look like).