Howdy all! Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and I’m sure it’s a mighty comfy rock), you know that the annual Gathering of Friends convention, organized by one Alan R. Moon, Esquire, took place over the past week. I am hugely fortunate in that I have been able to attend the past 5 years, and this year I once again took my leave from family and financial obligations and jetted off to beautiful Cancun, Mexico, where Alan likes to host open gaming on the beach.
Okay, one thing in the above sentence was untrue. Can you guess which it was? Good for you! No, we did not go to Cancun. We went to Niagara Falls, NY, and it was pretty freaking cold, even for a hardy Canadian like me. Of course, when you’re there to game you don’t care too much about the weather – or being outside, or non-gaming things at all, really. Even so, I figured it would be awfully peculiar to go to Niagara Falls and not actually see, you know, the falls. So, one crisp spring day, William Attia and I headed outside to see what we could see. And hey, the falls are actually pretty cool. So that’s nice. Okay, tourist obligation completed, on to what you really want to know about: the games.
This list is not in chronological order, it’s alphabetical. This is because my notes are spotty, my sleep levels are heavily depressed, and it’s easier to me to write this way. It also makes it easier to get angry at me when I don’t cover the one game you really wanted to hear about, so consider that a public service. You’re welcome! Anyways, here’s the list of games I played and/or want to mention for other reasons:
An older party game that I had a chance to play for the first time. Quite good, actually. You have two teams of players, each of which is trying to guess the same person, place or thing. Each team has an ‘answerer’ who has to answer the questions their teammates ask. The catch: the questions come on cards included with the game and are things like “If you were a sound, what sound would you be?”. So if the answer is “July”, just how do you answer that? After getting an answer, the team has to try and guess what the person or whatever is. Good fun.
A Few Acres of Snow
I got to try this out against Jasen Robillard and enjoyed the game very much. Asymmetric decks and actions mean very different strategies for the British vs. the French, although the basic actions you can take in the game are mostly the same. This is Martin Wallace’s attempt at adding an actual game to the shuffle-fest that is Dominion (sorry to all the Dominion fanbois out there, I just never quite drank the kool-aid), and he has taken the French and Indian Wars that eventually shaped modern-day Canada as a setting. Gameplay is simple: you get a hand of cards, some of which are location cards (representing the locations on the map that you’ve settled), others of which are empire cards (representing all sorts of special things, ranging from infantry units to a governor and beyond). You get 2 actions on your turn, and one of the things you can do is draft another card into your deck, thus tuning your deck towards supporting certain actions more than others. Add cash actions, raids, ambushes and sieges and you have a very accessible light wargame that is far more of a Euro than a traditional conflict simulation. This is going on the insta-buy list.
Hey, this was designed by that Alan R. Moon guy. And whaddaya know, the rules were translated by some guy named Patrick Korner, that’s kinda weird. Actually, what’s a little odd is that this game will feature not one but two (hopefully content-identical) rulesets – one by me in the Abacus edition, one by Jay Tummelson in the Rio Grande Games edition. Why is this? Not fully sure, but I think it had at least something to do with conflicting production schedules. I didn’t get to play this at the Gathering, but I do have a shiny new copy of it to play at home. I already know it’s a good game – I played the prototype last year.
I’d wanted to check this bizarro racing game out for a while, so when I had a chance to play early on during my time in Niagara Falls, I jumped at it. It’s basically Pitchcar/Carabande, except that the Z-Ball you flick instead of your own car/puck is less predictable in its movements (at least for those who haven’t mastered its secrets yet). So there are lots of times where you think it’s going to go one way and it ends up going another, usually to great comedic (if not great strategic) effect. It’s a cute game, but I don’t think I’ll be picking it up since I don’t see it getting much play.
The latest Reiner Knizia Light Abstract Because I Don’t Release Heavy Games Any More game, Bits is a successor to Fits, released last year. Bits gives each player the same sort of ‘Tetris’ ramp and a bunch of tiles to place onto it as with Fits, but that’s where the similarities end. Here, you get a bunch of rectangular tiles with a colour on each half. Some blocks have the same colour on both halves, the rest have two different colours. One player draws from a deck of cardboard tiles that indicate which tile is to be added to their ramps by the players. Eventually, the players run out of room and then scoring occurs. In the first round, one scoring tile is flipped up that indicates which types of shapes (made up of the colours over the various blocks) are worth points (note this is flipped before starting the round so players know what to aim for). In the second round, another tile is added, another in the third, and finally in the fourth round there are four scoring cards in effect. Some of them involve negative points, too, so it’s tricky to optimize your board in the later rounds. Quite good and seemed to be a hit with most who tried it.
Burgen von Burgund
I already knew a fair bit about this one as I did the English rules for alea, but I’d never actually held a copy in my hands, let alone played it. So Jeremiah Lee and I sat down for a game in which he proceeded to show me just how important replay experience is by crushing me. But I still found the game to be very good – one of the very, very few ‘pure’ Euro games I’ve played this year that I am happy to add to my collection. Some complain that it’s a bit too long / repetitive, but I didn’t get that vibe at all, mostly because your turns are over so quickly. It’s a fairly deep strategic game where your strategy gets played out in little dice-driven bite-size chunks, and I look forward to exploring it further.
Astonishingly enough, I found three people who’d never played this clever little Knizia filler. Obviously, the only cure was to play this with Jonathan, Mark and Nate, although I got the sense that all three weren’t as enamored with it as I was. I think some truly awful tile-drawing luck (certainly in Nate’s case, who struck out several times on draws of only 3 and even 2 tiles!) might have had something to do with that, though.
Everyone knows this is a great game, but this was my first time playing on the massive Z-Man edition. Impressive bits, but I confess that I like the sparse and minimalist nature of my original Cwali edition, not least thanks to its smaller shelf presence. I’d thought I had the victory in our 4-player game all sewn up, but then Dan Blum announced that, in addition to his 8 regular points, he had a whopping 70 bonus points, giving him 78 total, 2 better than my 76. Well played, Dan, well played.
This is a little Tom Lehmann card game from a while back (released by the now-defunct Uberplay). It involves building walls of various colours and using trumpets to bring down parts of your opponents walls, hopefully to claim victory yourself. A four player game was won handily by Nate of the Massive Purple Pile, although the best fun actually game from being corrected during rules explanation by not one but two pedantic Jews who informed me that, really, the thing on the cards was a Shofar, not a trumpet. Point taken, Jonathan. Point taken, Mark. Poor Mark, this was a prize table bonus and I think he was a little disappointed at how ‘meh’ the game was. At least it was a toss-in, Mark!
This was only available in prototype form from the fine folks at Czech Games. Thankfully, they are fine with us talking about it, so I can say a few things. Last Will is the latest game by Vladimir Suchy (League of Six, Shipyard) and involves you trying to be the first to run out of money. You had a rich eccentric old uncle, you see, and he wants you to spend spend spend before you get the rest of his inheritance. Or something. In any case, it lets you spend money on such awesome things as boat cruises and wild parties, castles, farms, and various functionaries and flunkies who let you do things a little more efficiently. There are three key ‘resources’ in the game – cards, actions and workers (who let you choose from a variety of face-up cards and other options) – all of which you need to use in order to drain your coffers the fastest. I loved this one, as did everyone else I played with (Rick Thornquist, Greg Schloesser and Tom Rosen). Easily Suchy’s best and one I’m very much looking forward to picking up upon release.
I don’t think I need to elaborate a ton on my love for this game. I played a 3p game on Sunday morning before catching my shuttle back to Toronto for my eventual flight home, and I was lucky enough to win thanks to a few nice high-value contracts. I just love the planning and interplay in this one, I’m close to 10 games in and still not tired of it.
A very odd Matthias Cramer game about trying to steadily build up karma, dying and being reincarnated as gradually more and more highly developed creatures. The game ends when one person manages to die as a human being, which can probably means something deep to someone. Played a three player game and lost by one point. This was a reasonably cute game (nice lil’ plastic buddhas!), although I think the gameplay is a little lacking. Fairly impressive luck of the draw effects, as the less developed creatures have smaller hand limits, which make it harder to get ahead. I suspect it’s nearly impossible to rein in a leader, which is a bad thing, but remember the Gathering Caveat ™: Rules used may or may not be actual game rules. Made even more true in this case, as the game’s rules are only available in German, forcing me to translate on the fly while reading / teaching the rules. I’m sure I missed at least one thing!
I played this new Michael Schacht game, published by Pegasus, with Valerie Putman and Dale Yu. We played several rounds, upping the complexity factor each time in search of a game that would provide some tension and challenge. Sadly, we didn’t find it. Gameplay is vaguely reminiscent of Galaxy Trucker, with players grabbing tiles and building a new world on their board, complete with animals and volcanoes. When the death-star shaped timer (admittedly very cool) goes off, players compare what they’ve built and score points based on how many animals they included, how many borders were wrong, and how many empty spaces they have left. For more challenge, you can add other tiles that provide more assignments (like putting more animals on, or having 3 elephants), flip the board over to one that has more variety around its edges, or cut down the timer length. None of it delivers the same spark as Galaxy Trucker, though, so I’ll be giving this one a miss.
The latest effort from Michael Tummelhofer (aka Bernd Brunnhofer of Hans im Gluck), Pantheon is about gods and the efforts people have to go through to gain their favour. Actually, it’s about collecting cards and playing them out to gain god tiles (which get you points as well as some benefits – some one-time, others for the rest of the game) and also spending your ‘feetples’ to walk around the board, claiming bonus tiles and placing pillars on certain board locations, since pillars are also worth points. Pantheon is unlikely to get another play from me as the luck element is quite severe. A little luck isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but the luck here is compounded and that makes it intolerable. To explain: When you claim a bonus tile, you’re claiming a tile that has been randomly drawn out of a bag. Some rounds will have great bonus tiles, some won’t. Better hope you’ve collected feet cards (yup, cards with feet on them) for the right round when the bonus tiles are good! But when you get that bonus, it again has luck attached to it. You might get one that lets you draw 6 cards, only to draw cards that you don’t think help you all that much. Or they might be awesome. Or you might get to claim a free god tile, which might be awesome or again might be useless to you. The fact that there are two levels of luck going on make the luck element far too high for me, so while the board is pretty and the feetples are pretty cool, I have lots of other games that do what Pantheon does and do it better. A big miss in my opinion.
Pergamon, on the other hand, was much better. A relatively quick little game from Stefan Dorra and Ralf zur Linde, this one has you placing your worker meeple on a clever little track that both defines how much cash you will get and how deep your can dig as well as turn order for the round. Place earlier and you’ll dig sooner (but maybe not as deeply), at the potential cost of getting less cash. As Ward Batty put it in the game we played: you know the game is doing something right when people keep choosing the spots you were eying. Digging up artifacts lets you eventually put them in shows, Showmanager-style, for victory points. Other mechanisms gradually reduce a show’s value, while a ‘rent’ aspect forces you to actually put the shows on rather than keep a larger and larger stable of artifacts for a single huge show. I think I’ll be looking to pick a copy of this up as it’s clever and engaging.
This is Vlaada Chvatil’s take on the Telestrations / Win, Lose or Draw-style party game genre where people draw stuff while others guess it. Here each player gets a secret combination of number and symbol that defines what they are to draw from a whole suite of options. Each symbol gets a card, and each card has 7 related words or phrases. So you might have to draw a shed, for example, instead of a lean-to or a barn. As you’re drawing, you have to watch what the others are drawing too and hopefully guess it before the others. When you think you know what number another player’s item corresponds to, you can play the matching-numbered card from your supply on them – earlier is better as you’ll get more points that way. Once all players have made their guesses, points are awarded. Any points you’re left over with are minus points against you, since obviously you made your drawing too complex. I liked this one, but I worry about gamesmanship a little. I didn’t do it, but it might be too easy to gain an advantage by drawing really slowly and concentrating on guessing the other players’ items first as you’ll score better by guessing first. I’m guessing the ruleset wasn’t finalized, though, so there is still time for the CGE guys to fine-tune things.
Ranking is a mostly party game from Hans im Gluck released last Essen. Each player gets a set of cardboard tiles with pictures of items on them. Each round, a tile with a phrase (like “What would help you win a race more”) is flipped up and each player picks which one of their tiles they think matches the phrase the most. Once all players have picked a tile, some random ones are added from the overall supply, so that a total of seven tiles are used each round. Those tiles are shuffled up so that nobody knows whose tile is whose, and then revealed in a line in the middle of the combination tower / score track. Then, the fun begins. In turn, each player picks a pair of tiles on the same level and picks one to bump up a level and one to bump down a level. While doing so, some sort of explanation of why this makes sense is required. Why does a washing machine help you win a race? Um, well… Eventually, one tile reaches the topmost tower level and one reaches the bottommost level. At that point the round is over and scoring takes place. What is scoring? Well, during the round each player has score tokens that they can place onto any tiles at any time. Doing so means you think that the tiles you pick are those of your opponents. At the end of the round, each tile is worth points equal to its level, minus any scoring tokens on it that match your colour. First to 12 points (up and down the tower again) wins.
I’d heard this getting some good reviews, and four of us tried the game, but we ended up aborting after one round. I don’t know if we just didn’t get into the game’s spirit, or what, but it felt random and just not that fun. I won’t be picking a copy up unless I try it again and somehow have a much different (and better) experience.
Roads & Boats
Huge, huge thanks to Erin O’Malley and Jeremiah Lee for being a) willing to teach this to me at 9:30 AM, even if it did turn into 10 AM thanks to my inability to get up on time, and b) deliberately not crushing me like the noob worm I was. I had a great time playing this and look forward to picking up my own copy sometime, although I’m not sure I’d have felt that way had Jeremiah done to me what he did to Erin – which mostly involved rafting over to her island, building fences all over the place and then stealing all her geese (which makes it impossible to research new techs and pretty much means game over). Major props to Erin for being a great sport about that crushing blow, too – I’d have strongly considered flipping the table or something, so clearly she’s a better gamer than I.
An insane Haba game from a few years back now, Schnapp features wooden discs in various colours along with a wooden lever/fulcrum thing to whip them up into the air with. No, you’re not misreading me. The discs are only coloured on one side and are of course hurled into the air face-down so you can’t tell whose colour has been launched until well after takeoff. Then, it’s a free-for-all among the team members to try and catch the disc. If you catch your team’s colour, it’s a point (four is a win). If you watch someone else’s, well, you have to give up a point. Schnapp is best played without overly aggressive and/or freakishly tall people, as it’s no fun to get elbowed in the head or have someone simply reach out and grab a disc two feet before you can even think about it. But with the right crowd, it’s a blast. Of course the Gathering features the right crowd, although sadly Mark Engelberg and I didn’t manage to grab many red discs…
A decidedly odd game where you stick cardboard tiles together with plastic ‘rivets’ and then score points depending on how many girders the tile you attached to the building connects to. You can’t attach a tile unless you have one of your little plastic workers present, but since they’re pretty easy to move around that part of the rules seems kind of silly. The game also features the single worst score track of all time, where the numbers are on cards apparently parked at random around the perimter of the board. I played this once as a 2p and am happy to not play it again – it might be fun with kids but as a serious game I will pass on this every time.
Who knew Rudiger Dorn could also design light flicking games? Snapshot is a little bit like Crokinole, only you have to flick your disc in order to hit a variety of targets, including various special spots on the board as well as your opponents’ discs. Plus you have to collect some gems and then be the first back to your starting spot. It’s silly fun and has yet to disappoint. I played twice at the Gathering and am happy to report that each game was very well received. I like to think of myself as Patient Zero for Snapshot on the West Coast, as both games I played at the Gathering were brought by people who bought the game after seeing / playing mine. Hey Herr Dorn, I should get a royalty cheque or something!
A thoroughly mediocre Eurogame, sadly. Strasbourg is a little like Norenberc – influence guilds, get goods, hopefully gain victory points. There are some differences, of course – Strasbourg includes a spatial element via a grid of spots that you can place your workers on, with the various spots being worth different number of victory points. There is also a hand management element – you get a deck of cards worth points, and it’s up to you how many cards you want to draw each round. The catch is that unless you lose a fight for an action (in which case you get to put one of the cards you used on it back beneath your draw deck), you never get to re-use your cards. So choose how many cards to use each round carefully. Had Strasbourg been released 10 years ago, it would have been considered an outstanding game. Sadly, many better games have been released since then, and so it gets only middling marks from me. It’s not awful, but it’s not great either.
Five days in Niagara Falls. ONE game of Tichu. Completely unacceptable but nevertheless the end result. Oh well, at least my one game was memorable. David Fair and I were down about -180 to 350 after the first few hands. We then went Grand Tichu, Grand Tichu, Tichu, Tichu 1-2 for the win. Essentially our hands were completely invincible, which happens in this game sometimes. It’s just more fun when it happens to you, not your opponents!
One of the rare joys of the Gathering is being able to sit down and jump into a game without having to teach anyone the rules. Tikal was one of those games for me this year, with four of us jumping into a full auction variant game. A far better game than I remember, and interestingly enough I felt that the auction variant actually reduced the downtime and analysis paralysis issues since everyone had a chance to think over the tiles at the same time, rather than each player getting a tile and then having to figure out how best to place it, and then figure out how best to make use of it. This way, given that players get a tile they actually want, they already have some idea of how to use it, reducing the time it takes to complete the turn. I managed to win the game, too, so obviously the auction variant is far superior.
Top & Down
A fairly odd racing game where half the track is at table level and half is elevated on little cardboard ‘bridges’. The race course is made up of alternating high and low segments, with little scoring ‘gates’ distributed along the course as well. Each player roll a die an then moves one of their pieces forward the number rolled. If they cross a gate, then scoring happens, with each piece on top of a stack on a bridge scoring, along with each piece on the bottom of a stack on the ground-level sections. Of course you can spend victory points to adjust your piece’s location within a stack to optimize your situation. Top & Down is a cute addition to Schmidt’s ‘Easyplay’ line, but overall I think I’ll give this one a miss from now on. I’ve played twice and I think I can find better games that fill this niche.
Another speed puzzle type game from Kosmos, Uluru was one of my hits of the Gathering. Each player gets a board showing Uluru (Ayers Rock in previous times) with 8 spaces around it. Each player also gets a set of 8 plastic birds, each a different colour. A central board shows each colour along with a space for cards (one card per colour in the basic version, two each in the insane crazy advanced version). A set of cards are laid out on the board and then players have about 45 seconds to correctly place the birds on their boards. Correctly means placed in accordance with the cards, which have rules ranging from the simple (“Red can go anywhere”) to the more challenging (“Blue wants to be 2 spaces away from Green”) to the insane (“White wants the opposite of whatever Black’s rule is”). Once the time runs out, each colour is audited and players get a penalty point for each bird that is incorrectly placed. After several rounds, the player with the fewest penalty points is the winner. I played this at least 4, maybe 5 times and had a hoot each time. This scratches a different itch from Ubongo, so there is room for both in the collection. Ubongo is a speed spatial puzzle game, Uluru is more a speed logic puzzle. Good stuff.
Web of Power
Web of Power was another “set up the game and just start playing” games, and it was a great game. Made greater by my victory, which was clearly all skill even though I managed on two occasions to redraw three cards and get the exact three card hand I needed to further my interests.
The new, very pretty reissue of Die Sieben Siegel, a game I am horrible at. My performance in this trick bidding game was no better this time around, where I think I had more negative points than the other three players combined. Oh well, I’ll always have Web of Power.
And that’s it for another year. Thanks again to Alan for putting on an amazing event, and big thanks to all the great gamers I had a chance to play games with this year. The games are fun but the chance to catch up with friends is even better. Already looking forward to next year!