Arriving in Columbus, Ohio at three o'clock in the morning on Thursday, June 24 after a long drive was not a particularly auspicious start to my first time attending a large convention (i.e., not BGG.CON), but it turned out great in the end. The 35th Annual Origins Game Fair just wrapped up and Iím here to report back on the new and not-so-new games that I tried as well as the convention experience generally. Despite heading to Ohio with a list of 108 games that I wanted to try and only actually playing 8 of them, I managed to play a surprisingly large number of games (almost 40) with a lot of great people. I suppose the other 100 will just have to wait until I head down to Dallas in November.
First Things First
Origins started in miserable fashion with over 2 hours of waiting in line to register on Thursday morning. I would have registered online to avoid the lines as recommended on the Geek, but I only decided to go at the last minute because I could hitch a ride with Jason & Christian who are also Virginians and were going for the launch of their new game Founding Fathers. The registration line was an amazing melting pot of different types of gamers, including board gamers, collectible card gamers, live action role-playing gamers, and miniatures gamers - more so than the convention itself because the activities were segregated into different rooms. After the intolerably slow-moving registration line, and a quick tour of the Vendor Hall to scope out the Rio Grande, Queen, Mayfair, and Z-Man booths, we went to lunch at Max & Ermaís. I might as well pause here for a moment to remark on the great food on offer near the convention center in Columbus, even though my praise for the North Market will come a bit later chronologically. BGG.CON in Dallas is a wonderful convention in almost every way, but the biggest issue has always been with the lack of decent food options within walking distance (i.e., Dennyís). So it was an incredibly welcome relief to have good food within a couple blocks of the game tables. In contrast to the proximity of the food though, I will say that the proximity of the hotel left a lot to be desired. The convention center is so large that the internal Hyatt hotel was actually further from the board game room than the separate Hampton Inn. It was certainly nice to have the room so close to the game tables at BGG.CON and a pain to not be able to pop back up to the room quickly at Origins. Before I get to the games played and while Iím comparing the conventions, Iíll say that people on the Geek were right, Origins is freezing. Iím so glad I was warned to bring pants and a sweater because I would have been miserable without them. Next time I plan on bringing even heavier winter clothing because the convention center is unbelievably over air-conditioned. BGG.CON may be somewhat cold, but Origins is arctic.
After lunch I made my first visit to the Board Room, which is a small part of the convention as a whole and which resembles BGG.CON remarkably closely, both in terms of approximate size and because both have a large board game library that you can check games out of, although the BGG.CON library wins on all fronts in this respect. The Board Room library was ďonlyĒ about 1,000 games, whereas the BGG.CON library holds around 2,500 games. More importantly, you can freely browse the BGG.CON library, whereas you can only see the Board Room library from afar with the people working it having to get any game that you happen to catch a glimpse of or that you name off the top of your head. Third, the Board Room library takes and keeps your driverís license rather than simply scanning a bar code on your badge like BGG.CON. Finally, the Board Room library closed at midnight, whereas the BGG.CON library was not only open until 1:00 a.m., but also there were plenty of games still available to play after 1:00 a.m. at BGG.CON, while the pickings became very slim at Origins. In fact, the Board Room was surprisingly empty by around 3:00 a.m. each night. Despite all of that, I should say that both libraries are great and make for enjoyable conventions, but that the BGG.CON library easily wins in a head-to-head comparison.
My first two games of the convention were actually not from the library but rather in the Queen demo area within the Board Room. I sat down to learn and play both of the new Queen Games being demoed -- Samarkand and Fresco. First came Samarkand, the newest offering from ďHarry Wu,Ē which is a reworking of the controversial Age of Scheme. Samarkand is a train game disguised as a game about camel caravans. It is remarkably like Queenís previous train game Chicago Express. The principal differences are that: (a) Samarkand only takes about 30 minutes to play rather than 60 minutes; (b) there are no auctions because instead players buy ďsharesĒ in the train companies (i.e., families) for a set price; and (c) there is a significant amount of luck in the game due to the card draw whereas Chicago Express involved no luck. While the playing time is impressively short and the game remarkably dense in terms of packing decision-making into a small amount of time, the level of luck made this one unsatisfying to me. I played a four-player game of this on Thursday and a second four-player game of this two days later on Saturday, and came in first in one and second in the other, but didnít feel like Iíd done anything to deserve those results. Players draw resource cards corresponding to locations on the map when they purchase a share and if you happen to draw cards that are geographically close together then your actions can be much more efficient and effective. There are some interesting decisions to be made along the way and the game is short enough to make the luck tolerable, but I canít really see ever choosing to play Samarkand over Chicago Express unless playing with people who really despise auctions.
The Spiel des Jahres had yet to be awarded to Dixit at the time, so I jumped at the opportunity to next try one of the top contenders for the award - Fresco. Unfortunately, the Queen demo team wanted to stick to the basic game rather than include any of the ďadvancedĒ rules. I had a feeling from reading on the Geek that this was going to make the game too simple to be interesting and that turned out to be exactly right. Iím still interested in trying Fresco again, but with the basic rules the game is simply bland and insipid. The much vaunted choose-when-you-wake-up mechanic, which controls turn order and prices, was not nearly as inspired as had been touted. The game was simply entailed spending coins to purchase cubes and using actions to convert cubes into victory points. I had thought at the time that this might win the Spiel des Jahres since it was time to give the award to Queen, but now Iím glad that something else took the prize. I was personally pulling for A La Carte since Karl-Heinz deserves a ďlifetime achievementĒ award like Knizia, but Dixit isnít a bad choice and certainly has the expandable element theyíre looking for. I had the chance to play both Samarkand and Fresco with Brad Keen of the Dice Tower who is great to game with, and it was nice to be taught both games by Queen staff, but in the end both were a letdown.
Next up I decided to test out the Board Room library and checked out their copy of Founding Fathers, the newest game by the duo that brought us 1960 and Campaign Manager. I had read the rules a few weeks back and figured I could struggle through explaining the game to Brad and his friend, but when Tom Lehmann sat down to learn the game with us, I decided to call over Christian to explain the game instead. Itís actually been a while since heíd played and heís been working on other games in interim, but together we got through the rules and were off to the races. Jolly Roger did a fine job with the components, although the cards are a bit flimsy, and Josh Cappel did a fantastic job with the artwork as always, and Scott Anderson with the development. I played two games of Founding Fathers over the weekend, once on Thursday and then again on Friday, both with five players. I really enjoyed the game, much more so than either 1960 or Campaign Manager, although certainly not as much as Twilight Struggle. Itís comparable to Matthews and Co.ís previous games in terms of the central card-driven mechanic and in that you can use any given card for a variety of purposes. The principal difference of course is that the game is multiplayer, supporting from three to five players. Iíd really like to try the game with fewer players because I think it would be easier to keep track of everything thatís going on and a bit less chaotic. Thereís a good deal of information on the back of the cards unlike in most card games, so itís sometimes important to be able to track the back of each card in your opponentsí hands and in the draw pool. I also sometimes felt a bit hamstrung in terms of what I could do on my turns so I might consider expanding the draw pool by a couple cards in the future, which I gather the designers considered but reduced to trim game length, although if I play with fewer players then perhaps the two things would offset. I did certainly appreciate that there is a significant consolation prize for being on the losing side of any given vote because luck of the draw and the whims of your fellow players could conspire against you so a consolation prize seems only fitting. The game was in almost constant play at the convention and seemed to be garnering generally favorable reactions with most people bound to try to place it somewhere in their personal hierarchy of the previous Matthews, Leonhard, and Gupta offerings. I find itís very tough for a designer to develop successive good games especially when expectations climb steadily higher (see, e.g., Martin Wallace and also Splotter with their Duck Dealer debacle), but Founding Fathers proves to be a very intriguing game that was enjoyable to play and will certainly warrant further exploration.
I asked Tom to show me the second expansion for Pandemic that him and Matt Leacock are currently working on and thankfully he obliged. Mr. Lehmann taught myself and four other interested people the prototype for the next Pandemic expansion. I forgot to inquire about to what extent I could discuss the details of the game so Iíll have to keep my comments fairly general. As youíd expect the expansion looks like it will contain another batch of new roles and new special event cards to provide even greater variety. More significantly, it completely changes the way cures are discovered, making the process of discovering cures much more involved and difficult. There are some counter-balancing mechanics to help the players, but the net result is that having the draw pile run out looks like it may significantly increase as a method of losing, in contrast to outbreaks or running out of cubes. We also tested the game out as a five-player experience and just barely managed to win with a turn to spare, so it was a very interesting experience. Iím a big fan of On the Brink and am now looking forward to more in the way of Pandemic expansions.
After starting the afternoon with that string of four brand new games, I finished the evening with a number of slightly older games -- Sticheln, Win Lose Banana, Traders of Carthage, Jaipur, Mosaix, and Telestrations. Sticheln is a 1993 trick-taking game by Klaus Palesch and published by Amigo. Being a big fan of many trick-taking games such as Njet and Was Sticht, Iíve been eager to try out others such as Sticheln and Flaschenteufel. Learning most of these German trick-taking games is easier if you have some familiarity with standard trick-taking games such as Hearts, but it turns out thatís not the case with Sticheln. For instance when I tried to teach Was Sticht to someone whoíd never played a trick-taking game before it was a disaster -- reverse trick-taking and secret trumps is not a good way to learn the basic mechanic. Sticheln is such a twist on the genre that it actually seemed to be a hindrance to grasping the game to be familiar with trick-taking games. The simple fact that you donít have to follow suit is enough to make me have to pause briefly before playing every card, but on top of that the scoring mechanism of losing the face value of cards in one suit and gaining one point for cards in every other suit was also perplexing. I enjoyed the game, but not nearly as much as some other trick-taking games, and I didnít like the fact that a single bad hand could knock players out of the game. In our six-player game, the two players ultimately contending for the top spot were the two that didnít get forced into losing one particularly bad trick. The next card game up took about 3 seconds to play, was called Win Lose Banana, and seemed to be the mock hit of the convention with people breaking it out all too frequently. Three people simply draw one card each from a three-card deck to determine whether they are the winner, the loser, or the banana. Itís amusing the first time, particularly when wedged between a number of heavier games.
Next up a nice fellow from St. Louis named Carlos kindly taught me three games in a row -- Traders of Carthage, Jaipur, and Mosaix. The first was on my want-to-try list and the latter two are the only games that got added to my wishlist because of the convention (since Founding Fathers pre-dated the trip). Traders of Carthage is a 2006 game designed by Susumu Kawasaki, who also did R-Eco, Gra Gra Company (i.e., Stack Market), and Master of Rules, all of which have been published domestically by Z-Man. Iíve always enjoyed trying the German-style games that Japanese designers have to offer and am especially a fan of Satoshi Nakamuraís Fairy Tale. However, I was particularly impressed with how solid Traders of Carthage felt. It seemed highly play-tested for a Japanese game, which are notoriously rough around the edges and quirky. The cards were nicely balanced like in Kniziaís Blue Moon City with the lower value cards having a benefit to offset their value and the card drafting mechanic was clever and clearly fine-tuned and developed to make it function smoothly. Iím tempted to pick up a copy of the game, but am just not sure if I see it getting much play given how crowded the market is with games of this duration and complexity level. Second came Jaipur, the recently Spiel des Jahres Recommended game by Sťbastien Pauchon who brought us Yspahan, Metropolys, and Jamaica. Iíve lately been on the lookout for 20 to 30 minute two-player games that have no spatial element (i.e., not Project GIPF, Fjords, or Hey Thatís My Fish) and this one fits the bill perfectly (in a way that only Queen has pulled off lately with Roma and Aton). Itís essentially a card game where youíre racing to draft cards of various colors in order to cash them in for chits worth varying numbers of points, but the diverse ways to gather cards and score points made it very engaging, particularly for such a quick game. I hadnít heard much about this game before Origins, which is why it wasnít on my list of 108 games to try, but nonetheless Iím glad I did because it was second only to the next game in terms of surprise hits of the convention (a title previously reserved for Planet Steam and Hansa Teutonica). Finally, I learned Mosaix, a fantastic little 2009 Schmidt Spiele game by Christof Tisch. This one shot right to the top of my wish list, perched just behind the perpetually impending reprint of Scripts & Scribes. Mosaix is a dice game where players take turns rolling and arranging four dice with triangle, circle, and X symbols, and then writing the resulting configuration on their white board in any orientation. The goal is to form groups of five or more like symbols together in order to form as many such groups as possible in your 7 by 7 grid because players score by multiplying the number of like symbols by the number of groups formed. Thereís really not much to it, but itís 20 minutes of fun in a tin. I really just need to get a copy now and I pretty much think everyone else ought to do likewise.
The final game of Thursday night was Telestrations, the published version of Telephone Pictionary produced by USAopoly. Telestrations is fine and all, but infinitely inferior to just playing Telephone Pictionary with pen and paper. I explain Telephone Pictionary in my In With the New column from BGG.CON, but basically players alternate writing a word or phrase, passing clockwise, drawing the text, passing clockwise, writing text that interprets the drawing, etc. Instead of using pen & paper and coming up with your own initial words or phrases, Telestrations provides Wits & Wagers-style white boards and markers, and cards with specified words to draw. Not only is it easier to draw with pen & paper, but itís also much more interesting to come up with your own initial words or phrases than to use the ones provided by the publisher. The game is much more interesting if the starting clue is a full sentence rather than a single word. Telestrations was still fun, but I do wish we were closing out the night with Telephone Pictionary instead, just as the public domain game Celebrities is preferable to Timeís Up and Dictionary is preferable to Balderdash, it seems like the mass produced versions of these games miss out on the chance to explore the groupís idiosyncratic creativity.
Half Way Point
Friday was the half way point of the convention and my first trip to the fantastic North Market for a meal. I started off the day by checking out the Rio Grande booth in the Vendor Hall in an attempt to try to learn either Egizia or Assyria, but both were constantly in use throughout the convention, so I settled for learning Cardcassonne. Iím notoriously vehement in my dislike of card and dice game versions of board games, such as Ra: The Dice Game, Samurai: The Card Game, Settlers of Catan Card Game, San Juan, Ticket to Ride Card Game, Caylus Magna Carta, Alhambra Dice Game, and Tigris & Euphrates Card Game, etc. As Iíve said before, I want to play board games, not the stripped down, overly streamlined, neutered versions of those board games. I completely appreciate the fact that designers and publishers want to make money off of known entities with spin-offs, rather than risking an investment in an unknown entity, just as we see happening with movies, books, and television. That is a perfectly rational approach for the designers and publishers to take, but it doesnít mean we have to purchase the products that result. I do try to go into these ďgamesĒ with as open a mind as possible, but in the end you tend to find a product that really would not exist in a world where games were designed to be played rather than simply purchased. Cardcassonne it turns out does not quite suffer this same fate because it tracks the trajectory of Power Grid: Factory Manager instead, that being that it really has nothing whatsoever to do with its namesake. Instead it is a reworking of the basic Coloretto mechanic into a game with a light veneer of Carcassonne ďthemeĒ and the major difference being that players add cards to the available pools by choosing from their hand rather than drawing from the top of the deck. The scoring is also slightly more complex with three different types of cards (people, animals, buildings) each scoring somewhat differently. It was a fine game, but just as I prefer the purer Coloretto to its offspring Zooloretto, I still prefer Coloretto to Cardcassonne seeing as Schachtís clever mechanic of adding a card to a pile or taking a pile of cards works best in its original form not mired in extraneous add-ons.
I checked Egizia and Assyria again after Cardcassonne and of course they were still in use, so I head back over to the Board Room where the middle chunk of Friday was taken up by three games that I already knew how to play (although all three are still relatively new if not brand new), which was a nice change of pace from learning lots of new games in a row. This included Hansa Teutonica, Macao, and a second play of Founding Fathers. First, I enjoyed my thirteenth play of Hansa Teutonica in a game where Valerie Putman was teaching Jay Tummelson, her husband, and a wargamer (i.e., three different people in case the commas were confusing in an Eats, Shoots & Leaves sort of way). Hansa Teutonica was one of my favorite games of 2009 and from the number of times I saw Valerie playing it at the convention I gather it was definitely one of hers. Itís always difficult for me to keep my mouth shut while someone else is explaining the rules to a game I know, but I tried my best and hopefully wasnít too bothersome. I was surprised to discover that Valerie didnít use El Grande terminology to refer to the available supply as the Court and the unavailable supply as the Provinces, which is a mechanic you see in many games of course, such as Maharaja, Louis XIV, and now Founding Fathers too, and couldnít help but interject there especially since I figured it might resonate with Jay. The presence of the wargamer actually turned out to affect the tenor of the game more than anything else. I love that Iíve played this game so many times now and it still feels remarkably different each time. It was a vicious game of displacement and the board was incredibly clogged up by the halfway point, but fortunately my strategy of upgrading every technology one level rather than specializing landed me at the top of the heap in the end. It was a very tight game though and reminded me why this is one of the best games of 2009, so much so that I played it again later that same evening with a different group. Iím glad I picked up a copy from Valley Games at BGG.CON last year, but am also glad Z-Man is going to reprint the game so that it can be available to a wider audience. Itís here where I might as well mention the incredibly generous food provided by Rio Grande to everyone in the Board Room, because we paused Hansa Teutonica in the middle to grab a quick, free lunch at the stand right there in the Board Room. Not only did Rio Grande and other publishers pony up a free game for every attendee, but apparently there is also such a thing as a free lunch (assuming you had the $16 ribbon to get in the door).
While Iíd already played it 7 times previously, I sat down to a game of Stefan Feldís Macao next because Janna Nelson is just that much fun to game with. Iím still lukewarm on Macao itself, preferring it over Feldís In the Year of the Dragon, but not nearly as much as Notre Dame or quite as much as Roma, although of course far more than Rum & Pirates. I do hope that Alea manages to mix it up by offering a different designer for its next big box game since four Felds in a row is quite enough, particularly compared to the early run of diverse designers including such luminaries as Knizia, Kramer, Teuber, Dorn, and Seyfarth. Iíve previously discussed Macao in my Non-German Three-Peat article on the 2009 Game of the Year Stronghold, in which I placed Macao toward the bottom of my top 10 for 2009, but I think it has since been displaced by the Hammer of the Scots follow-up Richard III actually. I do like the unique dice mechanic in Macao that has you torn between fewer action points sooner or more action points later, but that just leaves me looking forward to that mechanic being lifted and incorporated into a different game ideally.
Before heading out for dinner, I got in a second game of Founding Fathers with the Pizza Box brothers - Erik and Scott Smith - and with the St. Louis organizers of the Geekway to the West convention - Chris Darden and Jay Moore (who introduced me to Steve Zamborsky, designer of the upcoming Cleopatraís Caboose, which Iím looking forward to trying out but unfortunately Steve didnít have a copy on him). This was a great group to game with and I ended up playing a number of subsequent games with them, including a demo of the aforementioned Pizza Box Football. This was another five-player game of Founding Fathers though unfortunately and Iím still seeking that three-player, or even four-player, game of it to see how it differs. I managed yet another second place finish through a strategy of nickel and dimeing my way with a few points here and a few points there. It seems that playing the event cards for points is a solid way to do well without actually winning and Iíll need to alter my approach next time. I was happy to see the game move along at a brisk pace and finish in time for all of us to grab dinner at the North Market while it was still light out, which is basically a giant farmersí market but with a greater emphasis on prepared food. The Indian food there was very good and the Vietnamese, Deli, Thai, Crepes, and BBQ all looked great too.
After dinner I settled in for the long haul with 9 games played between then and 5:00 a.m. including: Finca, Tinnersí Trail, Pizza Box Football, Telestrations, No Thanks, Catacombs, Master of Rules, Hansa Teutonica, and Age of Steam. By the time the Age of Steam game wrapped up shortly after five in the morning I was certainly ready for a break. The first three were all on my list of 108 games to try although Iím certainly not planning on purchasing the first two now and am on the fence about the third. Finca was a 2009 Spiel des Jahres nominee that tried to rework a Mac Gerdts-style rondel into a more family friendly game. The result is a fairly mundane affair of collecting wooden bits of various colors and converting them into chits worth victory points. I managed to win but didnít feel as if Iíd actually done anything to deserve the victory, which always leaves a strangely sour taste. Your turns are very simple with you either moving a figure around the rondel the number of spaces as there are units on the space youíre on and collecting an amount of fruit tokens equal to the number of units on the new space where you land, or exchanging previously collected fruit tokens for victory point chits. Clever moves were at least possible with a few one-time use special ability tokens, but all in all the game was fairly ho hum.
I had higher expectations for the next game up so was even more disappointed when it fell short. Tinnersí Trail was the first game in Wallaceís Treefrog line, of which Iíve now tried 5 out of 8 games and find Wensleydale to easily be the reigning Treefrog champ. Tinnersí Trail was simpler than most Wallace games certainly with fairly straightforward mechanics for winning control of regions in auction, upgrading those regions with various improvements to make them more efficient or productive, spending money to mine cubes from those regions, selling those cubes for more money, and finally spending money to purchase victory points. There did not appear to be much subtlety to the rinse and repeat process of this cycle. The general idea of the game was appealing, but I took issue with two specific points. First, the rolling of dice to determine the contents and value of a region after it is auctioned. Why not roll the dice before the auction? One player in our game was completely eliminated because all of his auctions resulted in poor rolling and worthless territories. The regions should at least have some minimum value like the starting regions. Second, the rolling of dice to determine the resale value of the cubes. Why not come up with something a little more predictable and stable? Perhaps the white cubes could slowly decrease in value and the orange cubes could slowly increase in value, each moving one step on the value track each turn in opposite directions. Anything but the current method would seem preferable, in which players who happen to be mining one color cubes can randomly and significantly benefit over players who happen to be mining the other color cubes just because of one die roll. I have no problem with dice in many contexts (e.g., Queenís Gambit, Descent, Byzantium, Age of Steam, Die Macher), but in Tinnersí Trail they felt like a lazy solution to the problem of determining region and resource values.
Speaking of dice, Pizza Box Football used enough dice to make your head spin, but perhaps in a good way. The designers, Erik and Scott Smith, were nice enough to offer to demo the game to myself and one of the Geekway organizers Chris. We didnít play a full game, but got the gist of the basic and advanced rules. I am a fan of football and of many sports board games so Iíd been meaning to try Pizza Box Football for a while now. Iím now considering buying a copy but havenít quite made up my mind since Iím unsure whether my regular opponents would take to it or not. The game uses a rock-paper-scissors mechanic at its heart, like Adel Verpflichtet or Piranha Pedro in a way, where your goal is to outguess your opponent. These types of games always make you feel like youíre in the Princess Bride convincing yourself that you surely cannot take the wine in front of yourself or the wine in front of your opponent. On defense your aim is to guess whether the opponent is going to try a run play, a short pass, or a long pass. You must secretly commit to a certain type of defense and then find out what the offense decided. Then the players roll dice to determine the result with modifiers applied for correct and incorrect guesses. The one thing I was most struck by was that the modifiers for guessing correctly or incorrectly as defense did not seem particularly large, meaning that it was usually just a plus one or minus one to the offensive playerís roll to determine whether their pass was completed and the yards they gained. I definitely need more experience with the game and the Pizza Box system generally, but upon first blush, I would have thought that the modifiers would be larger so that the decision-making element of the game had a bigger impact. I hope to play it again sometime soon to further explore the game.
Before diving in to Catacombs, we paused for another quick game of Telestrations and a game of No Thanks, which I always always always finish in last at. I canít quite put my finger on why Iím so utterly terrible at No Thanks, but for some reason I still enjoy it at least. The Geekway organizers Jay and Chris checked out Catacombs from the library and Jay quickly read the rules so that he could teach the game to myself and the Pizza Box brothers. Catacombs is the lovechild of two great games - Crokinole and Descent. Sadly the lovechild of two great games can turn out to be a fairly poor result. Catacombs is a game where one player is the overseer controlling all of the monsters on the dungeon board and the rest of the players are a team controlling heroes traveling through the dungeon to defeat an ultimate boss creature. All of the units are Crokinole discs of various sizes that the players flick around to attack each other. The game is very interesting in theory, but in practice the experience is compromised by the component quality, which is not overtly terrible by any means, but rather simply fair to poor. If youíre accustomed at all to a quality Crokinole board then flicking discs on these flimsy boards with spaces for pillars that are frequently popping out wonít be nearly as satisfying. The game rules are also more simplistic than Iíd like, losing a lot of the depth of Descent, by removing all of the nuance from movement, combat, and special abilities. Iíd still like to try Taktika some day, another combat-oriented flicking game, but for now Iím still searching for the game that expertly blends Crokinole and combat.
The a.m. hours of the evening were filled out by Master of Rules, Hansa Teutonica, and finally Age of Steam. I jumped from the Pizza and St. Louis group to another group including the very fun to game with Erin OíMalley. Master of Rules was remarkably the second Susumu Kawasaki game that I learned at Origins following upon Traders of Carthage. I quickly skimmed the rules to this card game that Erinís friend had just purchased so that we could play it while another friend went to grab Hansa Teutonica from his room. Master of Rules was yet another quirky, odd Japanese card game, in the same vein as Parade, Festival, R-Eco, Origin of Failing Water, and Magic Athlete, among many others by Grimpeur and Japon Brand. It was not as good as Fairy Tale, but what is? Nothing can measure up to that gold standard of Japanese card games in my book. Master of Rules seemed like a nearly completely random game, but seeing as Erin destroyed the rest of us, perhaps there was some decision-making hidden in there. Youíd play a number card and a rule card, and if your number card satisfied your rule card then youíd score a point. This went on for ten turns until you tallied it up and we determined that one person had scored as many points as everyone else combined. The rules were things like having a unique number card, having all the numbers add up to 23 or less, or having the numbers form a trio of like colors or numbers. At least it was quick, but Iíd opt for Fairy Tale, Parade, or R-Eco in the future. Hansa Teutonica was next and unlike my earlier game in the day where Iíd managed a victory, this time my strategy crashed and burned spectacularly. What a great game! Everyone played fairly quickly and the game moved along at a nice pace, so we decided to squeeze one more game into the evening, that being Age of Steam, one of my top five games of all-time. By the time the game finished and I emerged victorious as the king of the railroad after 5 a.m., we were the last people remaining in the Board Room and decided to finally call it a night.
End of the Line
Saturday began much like Friday with me checking the Rio Grande booth for a demo of Egizia or Assyria but both games being in use. I decided to wander over to the Board Room where I listened in on Summoner Wars being explained and then jumped into a quick game. I enjoyed the game and am now on the fence about purchasing it. Iím somewhat wary because of the number of already released expansions and surely impending expansions, all of which Iíd feel compelled to buy as well (and Iíve only recently weaned myself off Carcassonne expansions). The game is a cross between Magic: The Gathering, Stratego, and Hammer of the Scots. Magic because each player uses a separate deck of cards including creatures and spells with various abilities and health. Stratego because you place these cards on a grid and move them around in an attempt to kill the opponentís leader (i.e., capture the opponentís flag, except this time the flag can fight back). Hammer because itís like Stratego but combat is resolved through a simple dice rolling mechanic when combatants meet on the battle field. There is no fog of war unlike similar games such as Stratego, Hammer, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, but otherwise the game is definitely in that same camp. The expansions add a variety of other decks to the game, each with a different theme, such as goblins, orcs, elves, and dwarves. It was interesting to see the interplay of various special abilities combined with tactical movement around the board (which I should mention is just a paper mat). The cards are nice quality though. One nice mechanic of the game is that you can discard as many cards from your hand as youíd like at the end of each turn into your magic pool. You spend cards from your magic pool (a la San Juan or Race for the Galaxy except youíve already designated them and theyíre no longer in your hand) to purchase other cards. While you always draw back up to a full hand at the beginning of each turn, you lose if your deck runs out so you have to be careful about discarding too many cards. Itís clear that the designer has played many other good board games and has brought together a number of solid mechanics from those games to create this interesting result. In fact, from his profile on the Geek you can see that the designerís favorite games include Battlestar Galactica, HeroScape, Descent, Citadels, and War of the Ring, great taste all around (the comment accompanying his HeroScape rating is particularly amusing).
After a quick visit to the North Market for a savory crepe, it was time for my one pre-scheduled game of the convention - Die Macher. I never like to schedule too many events for a convention so that I can remain as flexible as possible, but I always like to schedule one game of Die Macher because it is amazing and difficult to play otherwise. This was my eleventh game of Die Macher and as great as always. We actually left the convention space and played in the Hampton Inn lobby across the street so we could have the U.S. v. Ghana World Cup game on in the background. Despite it being only the second game of Die Macher for all of my opponents and despite distractions from the soccer game, we managed to finish in under 3.5 hours. They also put up an impressive fight in their second trip to the polls with me barely squeaking out an eight point victory in the end. The game featured some very interesting and sneaky coalitions as well as lots of vying for media control. While it was a bummer to see the U.S. lose in overtime, it was a blast to get to play Karl-Heinzís masterpiece and itís a game that I plan to schedule for every convention I attend.
I wandered back over to the convention center and with the convention beginning to wind down managed to squeeze in only 10 more games before 4 a.m. of my final day in attendance rolled around -- Kingsburg, Jerusalem, Primordial Soup, Nay Jay, Win Lose Banana, Samarkand, Roll Through the Ages, Ubongo 3D, At Full Throttle, and Carrousel. First, I jumped into a game of Kingsburg, which one Pizza man was teaching to another. This was my second game of Kingsburg, which Iíd first tried back in November 2009 and served to further confirm my feeling that itís a lower tier worker placement game. Iím pretty harsh with any worker placement game that isnít Caylus or Age of Empires though, so take my views here with even more grains of salt than you usually do. The idea of Kingsburg sounds neat in theory (i.e., rolling three dice and using those dice as workers together or separately to claim spots with the corresponding value), but the act of playing the game leaves me cold, perhaps since youíre really just collecting resource cubes to buy buildings worth points and special abilities, and ultimately preparing for a ďbattleĒ at the end of each round with a foe of unknown strength that could cripple you if the communal die roll is low. After I crawled across the finish line in Kingsburg, I decided to accompany Jason and Christian to the Spaghetti Warehouse, or was it the Spaghetti Factory, maybe it was the Spaghetti Mansion, possibly Spaghetti Land. Either way it was a restaurant devoted utterly and exclusively to pasta products and I proceeded to be quizzed about obscure Depression-era trivia. A few bottomless salads later it was time to return for the final Origins hurrah.
With no time to lose I jumped into the first game with an opening that I spotted, which happened to be Valerie doing a rules read of a new game that Iíd actually never heard of: Jerusalem. I usually try to avoid learning a game through a rules read at the table, but fortunately Jerusalem was simple and familiar enough for everyone pick it up very quickly. Itís basically El Grande lite, with a bit of Kreta in there (i.e., the Abbot unit, which is a Bishop in Jerusalem), and a few other area majority mechanics mixed into the blender. Of course it even has the Province/Court distinction as discussed earlier in reference to El Grande, Louis XIV, Hansa Teutonica, and Founding Fathers. Jerusalem was fine, but far from Earth shattering, and reminded me of Wallaceís Toledo in that respect, meaning that it worked but there was absolutely nothing to set it apart from the masses. I also did not appreciate that the game inevitably ended with all of the players just about tied and I managed to squeak out a victory for no particular reason. Like Power Grid (upon which Iíve expounded here and also here), the players are bound to end up tied more often than not with a tie breaker deciding the result, which is fine if it happens occasionally, but unsatisfying when itís the norm. Jerusalem was a game of putting cubes into regions to win pluralities so that you could earn more cubes, victory points, or money which was used shockingly to buy more cubes (and to be fair money was also used in an auction for turn order, which included special abilities on the turn order cards). I like plenty of area majority games, particularly El Grande, San Marco, Kreta, and Louis XIV, but at this point a game really needs to stand out to get a foothold in the genre, and Jerusalem did a wonderful job of blending in.
With the convention winding down, I decided I wanted to try to cross another game off my list of 108 (from which Iíd only managed to cross off seven so far: Fresco, Founding Fathers, Finca, Pizza Box Football, Tinnersí Trail, Sticheln, and Traders of Carthage). I showed my list to Valerieís husband and he kindly offered to teach me Primordial Soup, which is a Doris & Frank game that Iíd been wanting to learn for a while. I know that the Geek suggests the game is best with 4 players, but Iím glad we played with only 3 because it moved along very quickly and Iíve heard that the game can often drag and take too long for what it is. I enjoyed the game at the pace it went and am now tempted to pick up a copy, but itís a bit quirky and am unsure how much table time it would see, particularly given the crowded field of 90 minute three-player games (e.g., La Citta, Java, Reef Encounter, Extrablatt, Le Havre, Tikal, Goa, Age of Steam, Age of Empires, Tigris & Euphrates). Iím glad I learned the game though and would be more than happy to play it again. Primordial Soup is reminiscent of Evo in that itís a game where youíre buying amusing upgrades for your units to give them special abilities and then moving them around the map in an effort to survive and prosper. You score points for having a large number of units on the map at any given time and a large number of special ability cards, and the game is simply a race to score points and reach the end of the VP track. The clever mechanic of the game is that each space starts with two cubes of every color and that on your turn your units need to eat two cubes of one opponent color and one cube of the other opponent color, and then they produce two of your own color as waste, so the distribution of colored cubes on the map is slowly but distinctly shifting. The trick is trying to move to where your units can eat in order to avoid taking damage and ultimately dying. The game is somewhat slowed down by the fact that there are numerous special ability cards available for purchase and all of them are available to the players on their turn to choose from which can paralyze you with vast options, as in a number of Wallace games, such as Struggle of Empires and Rise of Empires.
I then jumped into a quick and silly game of Nay Jay with the Pizza and St. Louis guys, followed by an even quicker and sillier game of Win Lose Banana. Nay Jay was a card game that Jay Moore had somehow managed to get for free, Iím assuming because of the name overlap, and which he was eager to force on an unsuspecting audience. To be fair, we expected something from the cover. The game wasnít actually as bad as it looks. Itís a real-time card game where players are racing to match their cards to the central piles in terms of color and number in an effort to be the first to run out of cards. Itís actually a lot like Beep! Beep! published by Valley Games and designed by Reinhard Staupe of Plumpsack ďfame.Ē With that group departing for the evening, I decided to roam the Board Room for the final few hours to join any pick-up games that were available. The first one I happened upon was a group setting up Samarkand and I gladly joined to give the game another shot. Twice was probably enough. Next came a different group setting up Roll Through the Ages, which I had played once before as well, and similarly twice was definitely enough. While I love Matt Leacockís Pandemic, Roll Through the Ages is just yet another boring pure dice game to me, like To Court the King, Airships, and Ra: The Dice Game. Third timeís a charm, right? Nope. Ubongo 3D was next and unlike the wonderful Ubongo and Ubongo: Das Duell, Ubongo 3D was no fun at all, at least for my weak brain. The players seemed fairly well split between being amazingly fast at completing these three-dimensional puzzles and being totally inept at them. I try to tell myself that I didnít just dislike the game because I fell into the latter category, but who am I fooling? Iíll stick to two-dimensional Ubongo and Ubongo: Das Duell, which are perfect for those of us who canít operate at that higher plane. Finally the night ended with an abbreviated playing of Habaís At Full Throttle due to a color blindness issue and a speedy play of Asmodeeís Carrousel, which is a spatial speed game like Ricochet Robots or Jungle Smart. It was a nice way to close out the night with this new-to-me yet simple and easy to learn game where everyone was crowded around the tiny circular board racing to find a way to reconfigure the pieces to match their cards. By the time 4 a.m. rolled around it was high time to say goodbye to the deserted Board Room and make the long trek back to the distant Hyatt.
Adding It All Up
After spending 78 hours in Columbus, playing 36 board games, and sleeping for roughly 15 hours, it was time to go home. So what are the results after you tally it all up? Here is the breakdown of how all the games played shake out (with all five lists sorted in approximate order):
The top new-to-me games of the convention that Iím now planning to purchase were definitely:
The great games played at Origins that I already knew and owned were:
The new-to-me games that Iím on the fence about purchasing but enjoyed and am leaning slightly towards eventually picking up are:
The games that Iím also on the fence about but am leaning against are:
The disappointments were (in approximate order of dislike from most to least):
(See Boardgame News for this column plus additional comments on it)