GATHERING 2011 – RECAP
Attending Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends is always one of my favorite gaming and social experiences. Not only do I get to play dozens of games virtually non-stop over the course of five days, I also get to socialize with some of my favorite gaming buddies from around the world. Most of them I would never see in person were it not for the Gathering, so it is always a priority for me to attend.
I must admit, however, that I was on the fence about attending this year. The site moved from Columbus, Ohio to Niagara Falls, New York. Since moving to East Tennessee back in 2005, I have been able to drive to the Gathering each year as Columbus is only about a six-hour drive from my home. This made it very convenient, as I was able to bring a large suitcase of games, plus participate in the Saturday morning flea market. The latter was especially beneficial, as I usually made enough money from game sales to pay all of the costs associated with attending the convention (registration fee, hotel, food, etc.) Plus, I had a vehicle with me, which made going to restaurants and area attractions much more convenient and less intrusive on others.
So, when Alan announced it was being moved to Niagara Falls, I was concerned. While the prospect of seeing Niagara Falls was alluring, I realized my cost of attending had just increased substantially. I would now have to fly, and flight prices to Buffalo are not cheap. I would also not be able to recoup my costs from game sales at the flea market, as transporting the large suitcase of games would be cost prohibitive. Then there was the inconvenience of not having my own vehicle with me. Suddenly what had become a no-or-low cost gaming vacation was now going to cost me $750 – $1,000. Ouch.
Ultimately, the allure of spending five fun-filled days socializing and playing games with good friends prevailed. I’m happy I came to my senses. I have been having a grand time, and even spent three hours Tuesday walking around the Falls and into Canada. I understand Niagara Falls is now considered one of the wonders of the world, and I can see why. It is amazing.
On Tuesday morning, I hiked along the Niagara river, crossing the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. I followed the river all the way to the Horseshoe Falls, stopping to admire the views and browse the shops. I also took time to wander up Clifton Hill, which is a small version of the touristy strips in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I thoroughly enjoyed the walk and the views of the magnificent falls.
Enough of that. I’m sure most of you are reading this to find out about the games I’ve played. Here is a brief snapshot:
Pergamon — 1st & 2nd playings. As with Thebes, I dig the archaeological theme. I doesn’t hurt that my wife and I are planning a vacation to Turkey in 2012, and Pergamon is on our itinerary! While Pergamon shares a similar theme with Thebes, the mechanisms are quite different. Players have to estimate how much funding will be available, and plan their hoped-for acquisitions accordingly. The object is to collect complete artifacts and place them on exhibit.
The more valuable the exhibit, the more notoriety that is earned. A pleasant game that can play in under an hour. Of note is that this was the first and final game I played at this year’s Gathering! My rating is a 7.
Pastiche – 3rd & 4th playings. My initial concerns over a potentially game-breaking strategy has subsided. I find this game to be a nice adaptation of the trading mechanisms used in Sid Sackson’s Bazaar and in the more recent Fresko. The art theme is also still fairly fresh. I enjoy the game, even though I always seem to come up just one turn short of winning. The second edition will include nifty and handy easels on which to display the painting on which you are working. My rating is a solid 7.
Castles of Burgundy — First Playing. A new big-box Alea game is impossible for me to resist. As one should expect, Castles of Burgundy is a solid gamer’s strategy game, filled with tough choices and numerous options. My only concern is that it seems to last one-half or one full turn too long. By the final turn, all players seemed to have accomplished the goals they were pursuing, and the final choices seemed anti-climactic. Others have voiced the same concern. Still, it is well worth investigating further, and this fear may abate with future playings. The game is currently at the 7 level for me, but could rise if this concern does vanish.
Troyes — First Playing. This game has been getting fantastic buzz on the internet, and it was on the top of my “must try” list. Frankly, I was disappointed. There was more randomness and considerably more frustration than I anticipated. It was very frustrating to have good rolls, only to see your opponents scoop your dice before your turn arrived. After fighting the barbarians, many of the dice were gone, so players didn’t have a lot of options on their turns. I was disappointed. My initial rating would likely be a 5.5, but I will try to play again due to the favorable reception being given by many folks.
Pantheon –1st & 2nd playing. I was quite enthused after my first playing and it was at the top of my favorite games of the Gathering. However, my enthusiasm diminished quickly after my second playing. I am still intrigued, but luck plays a larger role than I originally experienced in my first playing. It is quite possible to pursue a strategy, only to have the cards you need fail to surface on your turn. This can be frustrating. It is difficult to switch strategies midway through the game and re-direct your efforts elsewhere. Still, the game has some neat features, so I hope to have the opportunity to play it again soon. It is being released by Rio Grande, but not until several months down the line. My rating is now a 6.
Firenze – 1st playing. Not to be confused with Florenze. This is the Steding design from Pegasus Games. Yes, it is another medieval Italy tower-building affair, a theme which has been over-utilized. Fortunately, the game plays quite differently from most, with players acquiring special characters / building and tower supplies in an interesting fashion. I enjoyed this more than I thought. It also helps that it is a game that can be played and enjoyed by family and friends. My initial rating would be a 7.
Antics – 2nd Playing. The latest offering from the jovial Fragor Brothers. This is a deeper game than their previous two offerings, as players must assemble their anthill and contemplate the best actions to optimize their moves and results. There is a puzzle-like feel to constructing your anthill, and the variety of choices gives players wide latitude in terms of creativity and strategy. It is prone to considerable downtime, and the board is overly busy and confusing. Still, I enjoy playing. My initial rating is in the 7 range.
Trollhalla – 1st play. Alf Seegert’s design. Alf wrote a nice article detailing the process from design to publication. I’m not usually a huge fan of fantasy-themed games, but was interested enough to give this one a try. The game is light and quite random, making it more suitable for families with children. I’ve seen a post or two claiming the game has quite a bit of strategy and depth to it, but none of us at the table — including a prominent gamer who has played several times — discerned this. The game was cute, but not my style. My initial rating would be around a “4″. Sorry, Alf.
20th Century – 1st play. I was warned and I should have listened. 20th Century has a lot of auction; a LOT of auctions. For numerous reasons, I am generally not a fan of the auction mechanism unless it is subordinate to other mechanisms and features of a game. Auctions can cause a variety of problems and often lead to a strong sense of frustration. Still, the game’s theme was enticing, and I usually enjoy the creativity of the game’s designer. Sadly, the auctions completely overpowered the other merits of the game, which are several. So, my assessment is poor, but that is certainly due to my dislike of auctions. If you enjoy auction in abundance, then 20th Century is worth playing. If not, then avoid it. My personal rating would be a “4″, but it has a strong bias.
Uluru – 1st play. Another game I should have avoided. This is a speed game wherein you have to arrange items to fit a prescribed pattern. I don’t mind puzzles, but I don’t want to be rushed in solving them. Ubongo is an exception, as the time pressure is really against the other players. You can still finish your puzzle and be rewarded even if others have finished before you. Here, you have about 15 – 30 seconds to fulfill the pattern requirements, and my brain simply doesn’t work that fast. It is the type of game where you either have what it takes or you don’t. I don’t. Michael Green, on the other hand, was born to play this. My rating would be a “2″, but could be higher if the timer were longer.
Vihnos – 1st play. I was dreading playing this game. Really. While I know the game has its fans — particularly Rick Thornquist — it also has its detractors. I tried reading the rules awhile back, and after fighting my way through about 3/4 of the rulebook, my head was spinning. This is a highly detailed simulation of the wine production business, with far more detail and intertwined mechanisms than the vast majority of European-style games. Plus, most people have said the game takes close to four hours to play. I had visions of my mind being completely overloaded while slogging through a four-hour ordeal. Still, I had to play, as I have an obligation to review it. Rick Thornquist graciously agreed to teach the game to us, and he did a masterful job. The explanation lasted about 30 minutes or so, and we completed the game in under three hours. I understood most of what was transpiring and actually enjoyed the experience quite a bit. Much of this is due to Rick’s expert knowledge of the rules and helpful advice and tips along the way. Yes, he won, but I finished a relatively close second. I enjoyed the game, but now face the challenge of teaching it to folks in our game group so I can play a few more times and write the review. My rating is initially a “7″, but it could rise, especially if I can consistently keep the playing time to under three hours.
Airlines Europe – 1st playing. Alan Moon’s re-tooling of Airlines and Union Pacific. This new version has some interesting changes that alter the dynamics of the play. If I had never played Airlines or Union Pacific, this would be a huge hit and a must buy. Being a big fan of Union Pacific, however, I’m not sure the changes are significant enough to warrant its replacement. Others disagree, stating that this is far superior. I’ll have to play it again a few more times to see which version I prefer. My initial rating is a 7.5.
For the past eight years or so I’ve been organizing a Gathering basketball outing on Thursdays. Basketball is my favorite sport to play, and the only sport in which I have a modicum of ability. The local Boys and Girls club donated the use of their gym, so thirteen of us enjoyed 2 1/2 hours of spirited basketball. Great exercise, competition and fellowship, and a much-needed break from the gaming table. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
I also finally made my way into the mammoth casino located directly across the street from the casino. I don’t like to gamble and I don’t enjoy the casino atmosphere, so the only lure was the numerous restaurants located in the facility. We ate at the buffet, which was decent, but over-priced and crowded.
Tikal II – 1st playing at Gathering, 4th play overall. While the game is not as deep as its father (Tikal), it is still an entertaining game that is suitable for both gamers and family. There are numerous decisions, but they are not as taxing or agonizing as Tikal. Further, it doesn’t use the action point mechanism, so the game plays in a faster time frame. I like it and rate it a 7.
Bits - 1st play. The sequel to the popular Fits. This time, you have to arrange the rectangular pieces into specified patterns in order to score points. Other than that, the game plays in a similar fashion as Fits. I enjoy Fits, and this was more of the same, and for me, not as good as the original. Others, however, are saying they like this version more. I see no reason to have both of them in my collection. My rating is a 6.5.
Fun Fair — 1st playing. Peter Eggert of Eggertspiele was urging me to play this light, silly game. It is actually a string of short games strung together under the theme of a visit to a theme park. The games are fast, light and sometimes silly fun. Nothing serious at all, and I don’t think it will have much staying power at all. One or two playings is enough. However, according to Terry Bailey, proceeds from the game will be donated to various charitable organizations, which is quite commendable. My rating is a 5.
7 Wonders – 1st playing at Gathering, probably two dozen plays overall. If this doesn’t win the Spiel des Jahre, it is a crime. I know some are saying the SdJ jury won’t give the award to a card game two years in a row. If that factors into their decision, shame on them. The game is very creative, fast and fun and is filled with lots of decisions. Some are taxing, while some are quick, and since most folks are familiar with the game, it usally plays in 30 minutes or so. We’ll be playing this one for years and years. My rating is an 8.
On Friday morning, I opted to enjoy the magnificence of Niagara Falls by enjoying a walk around Goat Island. This is the island that splits the falls, and there are some fantastic views. I descended the elevators to the Gorge walkways, which are not fully constructed for the season. This gets you close to the falls and a bit wet.
The Opinionated Gamers gathered for a nice lunch and discussed various matters pertaining to the website. Thanks to Dale Yu for all of the work he does on this project.
Bus Stop – 1st play. An Essen offering from the folks at Japon Brand. Light, fun game of selecting passengers and getting them on the various buses. Nice filler, as it plays in about 20 – 30 minutes. This would make for a pleasant family game that can be played by even fairly young children. Nothing I need to own, but still a pleasant affair. Rating: 6.
Last Will – 1st play. This is the latest design from Vlaada Suchy, the creative Czech designer who brought us numerous games, including League of Six. The theme is certainly original: your rich uncle has died, leaving a group of nephews his millions. He was a bit of a tight-wad during his life, so his instructions to his nephews was to have a wonderful time and spend all his money. The object is to lead a lavish lifestyle and be the first to spend the money you inherited. This is a nice engine-building game that has some interesting choices and plays fairly quickly (an hour or so). I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to its publication in October. Rating: 7.5.
Train of Thought – 1st play. Absolutely the worst game I played at the Gathering. String together three words — with one being mandatory based on a card draw and die roll — and try to get your fellow players to name the word listed on your card. Continue this until someone gets it. Repeat. Boring and not much fun. Rating: 2.
Secrets of Monte Christo – 1st play. We missed one critical rule on our first scoring round, so abandoned the game about midway through. I was enjoying the turn order mechanism, which uses marbles and is quite creative and unique. I think we’ll see this mechanism used again in numerous games in the future. Sadly, the rest of the game appeared to be a bit pedestrian and similar to many other games. I do hope to play a full game to make a better assessment.
Mansion of Madness – 1st play. This is not my style of game, but I am a sucker for haunted houses and horror-themed games. Plus, the theme borrows much from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos. So, I couldn’t resist. Frank Branham is enamored with the game, and did a great job of leading us through the horror-filled halls of the creepy old mansion. It was pretty much what I expected: move, explore, fight monsters, take damage and try to survive. There are some neat twists on the genre, and it was a fun experience. It wouldn’t be a game I play often, but would probably make an appearance once a year or so at Halloween. My rating: 6.
Sun and Sea – 1st play. The Essen offering from Cwali. This is one of the better games released by Cwali in the past few years. Lure tourists to your resort, expanding the resort in hopes of extending their visit. Interesting game that requires proper planning and some timing. I enjoyed it. Rating: 6.5.