Larry Levy: 2011 Gathering of Friends Recap

The Gathering was terrific as ever, maybe more so than usual for me, since last year I missed it for the first time since Alan was kind enough to invite me almost a decade ago.  I wanted to summarize my impressions of the new games I played and, like the sycophant that I am, I’ve decided to copy Dale’s idea of presenting them Opinionated Gamers style.  Here they are, where the asterisks show that the game is a prototype.

  • Love it:  Pantheon x 2; Die Burgen von Burgund x 2; Airlines Europe x 3; Cooperative deduction prototype*
  • Like it:  Dungeon Petz*; Asara; Freitag II*; Fragor prototype*; Mine! Mine! Mine!*; 7 Wonders Leaders Expansion; Rails of New England; Gold! x 3; Pictomania*; Last Will* x 2; Sobek x 3; Merkator; Mondo x 2; 11 Nimmt!; Hey Waiter!
  • Neutral:  Die Speicherstadt Münzspeicher Expansion; Pergamon; Artus x 2; String Railway; Letters from Whitechapel; Spring Fever; Snapshot; Olympos
  • Not for me:  Norenberc; Strasbourg

Greg, Dale, and Patrick have done a good job of summarizing the rules for many of these titles and I know that Tom Rosen will be describing the CGE prototypes in a future article.  So I’ll content myself with my impressions of the games and will only go into detail for the designs they didn’t cover.

Pantheon:  A real surprise, as this was one of the few games without posted English rules prior to the con.  There’s numerous possible objectives each turn and figuring out which is best is a lot of fun.  I agree that luck can play a role, but I think with experience, players will learn to avoid the worst pitfalls and maintain enough flexibility to deal with whatever arises.  At least, I hope that’s the case, because right now I’d rate this as one of my favorites from last week.

Die Burgen von Burgund:  Yet another clever dice mechanic from Herr Feld, but even though I enjoyed my two 4-player games, there was too much downtime in both of them.  I’m thinking this might be best with 3 and could be a really good 2-player game, with very little downtime and tremendous scope for defensive play.

Airlines Europe:  I’ve been in love with the Airlines system since the mid-nineties, and I think this is the best implementation of it.  The addition of a financial subsystem gives the game an extra dimension that I find very appealing.  The other differences are pretty much refinements, but I think they’re all improvements.  4 players may be the sweet spot, but I still enjoyed my 5-player game.  This is probably my favorite middleweight title from the last 12 months.

Cooperative Deduction Prototype:  I got to play a really cool prototype set in the world of Sherlock Holmes.  The players are cooperating to stop Moriarty’s fiendish plans.  I don’t care for cooperatives, but this was very challenging, insanely thematic, and really immersive.  The designer, Tom Paruda (a Gathering regular who I don’t think is published) is trying to get this placed with a publisher.  I hope he succeeds, because I think this could be a big hit with gamers and a simplified version could score well with more casual players.

Dungeon Petz:  This is set in the same world as Vlaada Chvatil’s Dungeon Lords, but plays differently and, while it’s similar in weight to the earlier game, the learning curve is a little bit easier.  I really liked it and plan to pick it up once it gets published (presumably at Essen).

Asara:  I was very pleased at how well this played.  The central mechanic (the card you play to initiate an action determines which suit must be played there) doesn’t dominate play, but instead provides the foundation on which the game is built.  A superior middleweight that should be attractive to both gamers and more casual players.

Freitag II:  Friedemann Friese once again comes up with something completely different:  a solitaire deckbuilding game!  My one play was a complete hoot and more experienced players were definitely doing better with each play, showing that it seems to have good replayability.  With any luck, we’ll be seeing this at Essen.  I’ll have more to say about this in a preview on OG within a week or so.

Fragor Prototype:  One of my favorite parts of this visit was getting together again with Gordon Lamont, one of the nicest guys in gaming.  Naturally, I played the prototype of what will be this year’s Fragor game.  It uses a modification of the anthill mechanic of Antics, but in a different and simpler setting.  Still, the game was challenging enough and a lot of fun.  There’s also a very cool dice-rolling device that should really attract the crowds at Essen.  The animal to be featured this time will be fish, so be prepared for lots of underwater puns!

Mine! Mine! Mine!:  Alan Ernstein is an old friend and he showed me his latest prototype.  It’s his take on the nineties classic Outpost, still set in space, but without any auctions.  I thought it played very well, and while it was a touch long, was definitely shorter than the older game.  I think he’s trying to get this placed with an established publisher, rather than producing it himself.  I think he has a good chance.

7 Wonders Leaders Expansion:  An ideal expansion that enhances and broadens the base game without severely altering it.  The leaders add strategy to what is essentially an opportunistic game, since the players know from the outset which four leaders they have the chance to play.  Thus, they can try to plan ahead.  All this comes with very little added complexity, allowing 7 Wonders to retain its light feel.  The one concern is that initially the game is slowed because players have to check on the meanings of the icons, but once everyone gets familiar with the expansion, this issue should go away.  I suspect this will be a must-buy for most 7 Wonders fans.

Rails of New England:  A different kind of rail game (you don’t actually build tracks, so it’s a little bit like Power Grid in that aspect) that’s absolutely dripping in theme (for anyone interested in 19th century New England, this is a must buy).  There’s a lot going on, so expect a one or two game learning curve.  My biggest concerns are with the physical production, as I spent a good deal of time searching for the towns on the board I wanted to expand to.  That aside, this is sufficiently different from what’s out there for rail game fans to give this serious consideration.

Gold!:  Very nice card game filler from Michael Schacht.  In each suit of cards, there are gold cards of various values and donkey cards worth -2.  There’s a display of cards and on your turn, you can either take the lowest valued card, exchange a gold card for a lower valued gold card, or exchange a donkey card for any gold card.  When you get 3 cards from the same suit, you put them in your score pile and steal a gold card from any player as long as it’s in a suit you don’t have in your own display.  This latter bit is the key rule.  Timing things to make the most of your thievery (and minimizing the effects of your opponents’ attempts at larceny) is a major focus.  Despite the simple rules, this features a surprising amount of thoughtful and tense gameplay.  I like it better with 3, but the two-player game is also quite good.

Pictomania:  Because Chvatil does so many heavy games (and does them really well), it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that that’s all he creates.  But a quick look at his ludography will show that he designs quite a few lighter games as well and his record with those is also excellent.  This is his version of Pictionary and like so many of his “games inspired by other games”, is a lot better than the source.  The idea behind this one is logical and almost obvious, but according to CGE publisher Petr Murmak, it took quite a few iterations before they settled on the current version.  I think this will be popular with a wide range of gamers (and, needless to say, drawing ability is not a prerequisite).

Last Will:  I liked this, but not as much as most of the other folks who tried it.  I felt the design that I played was a little loose, as there would be times when there were actions I was entitled to take that I didn’t care about and cards that I could draw that were of little interest to me.  However, the CGE folks at the Gathering were making daily changes, so clearly this will be further developed before it gets released.  I also have to say that mine was a minority opinion, as most people who played it really liked it.

Sobek:  This is a very likeable filler from Bruno Cathala.  There is a display of (mostly) face-up cards and the active player can take any one of them.  But the cards she skips over must be added to her “corruption” pile (Bruno seems to like that term) and at the end of each hand, the player with the most corruption gets hit with a significant scoring penalty.  The game plays fast, has good player interaction, and the corruption mechanic is elegant and works nicely.  It’s not going to set the gaming world on fire, but I can see this getting consistent play while we’re waiting for the other group to finish.

Merkator:  I finally got a chance to play Uwe Rosenberg’s latest.  The gameplay is interesting enough, but it felt very abstract and processional.  In theory, you could play defensively, but in practice it seems unlikely to occur often, so this truly felt like multi-player solitaire.  My game was reasonably enjoyable and I wouldn’t mind playing again, but I won’t seek it out.  I know it isn’t fair to judge something on a single playing, but right now I consider this the second consecutive mildly disappointing game from Rosenberg; at least it’s considerably faster than Loyang, but, on the whole, not as engaging.

Mondo:  Schacht’s real-time tile-laying game, which feels something like the first portion of Galaxy Trucker.  I liked it well enough, but it’s not the kind of game that’s likely to ever be a personal favorite.  There are several different variants included, of variable difficulty, making this an ideal game for families and mixed groups.

11 Nimmt!:  A nice spin-off of Kramer’s classic 6 Nimmt!, featuring turn order rather than simultaneous play.  There’s a good deal of luck, but there are still some decisions to be made and the game moves quickly.  I prefer it to its big brother, but it lacks the angst and laughs of the older game.  Still, it’s another nice addition to this family of games.

Hey Waiter!:  Nice filler from Anthony Rubio and R&R games.  It’s light, but the theme is implemented well and the splitting of the stacks of dishes is a clever idea.  Actually, my latest game started off fast, then had a very tense and strategic endgame as we all struggled for the win.  Recommended for those looking for something different that’s on the light side.

Die Speicherstadt Münzspeicher Expansion:  I’m a big fan of Die Speicherstadt and I was looking forward to this expansion.  The changes are interesting, but they also alter the game pretty dramatically.  I prefer the base game, as it’s considerably quicker and the economy is tighter.  Still this could well work for those who like the original game and want to see how the system can be stretched.

Pergamon:  This is a solid game, with an attractive theme.  But the luck factor is pretty high and it seems as if player order has an overly strong effect.  If others want to play it, I’ll be happy to join in, but I also won’t be crushed if I don’t get to play this again.

Artus:  The Advanced game features some interesting decisions, as you maneuver your pieces to take advantage of scoring cards you have to play eventually.  But the board changes so violently each turn that not only is it pointless to begin planning before your turn rolls around, you don’t even particularly care what happens on your opponents’ turns.  This lessens the appeal of the game for me considerably.  Others have reported that this effect is much less with 2, so if you want to try this out, I’d recommend going with the 2-player game.

String Railway:  My game was with 2, which I don’t think is the best way to play.  So I’ll hold off on rating this until I get the chance to play it with more, but at this point in time, I wasn’t all that impressed.

Letters from Whitechapel:  Interesting game in the Scotland Yard family where the killer strikes four times, but must return to the same hidden hideout each time.  The detectives use this information and their clue gathering skills to hunt him down.  It’s more cerebral than Scotland Yard, but also considerably slower; unless future games play faster, this is probably one I’ll avoid.  Still, this is an admirable and very thematic design.

Spring Fever:  A bluffing game from Friese.  Bluffing games bore me and this wasn’t really an exception, but we did have fun with it, mostly due to the players.  So any game you can have fun with can’t be all bad.

Snapshot:  A flicking game by none other than Rudiger Dorn, a fact that Ted Alspach seems to view as a sign of the apocalypse.  It’s nicely designed, but with my dexterity of 2 (D&D veterans will know what that means), my chances and my interest were both doomed to failure.  Fans of the genre who actually possess motor skills might well enjoy this.

Olympos:  This is Olym-pos, the Ystari game by Philippe Keyaerts, not Olym-pus, the FFG game by the Kingsburg dudes.  My problem was that in our 4-player game, the board quickly became crowded and there was a huge amount of accidental screwage, as players grabbed the territories you needed.  This made planning very difficult and gave the whole game a chaotic feel.  Some of my opponents said that they didn’t notice this effect in the 3-player game, so I’m withholding judgment until I can try this out with that number.  But I have little desire to play this with 4 again (and can’t imagine what it would be like with 5!).

Norenberc:  I’m convinced that there’s a game here, and possibly a good one.  But the scoring rules are abstruse and unintuitive and the mechanics seems to be designed to make the gameplay go as slow as possible.  Progress is painfully incremental and you usually only play a single action a turn, lest you miss some opportunity.  The end result is something that just isn’t fun to play.  I can see someone reveling in the game’s complexities and timings, but that person won’t be me.

Strasbourg:  I really dislike most blind bidding, but I thought that Stefan Feld had come up with a clever way of dealing with it in this game.  Sadly, I was wrong.  Even though it doesn’t use true blind bidding, the system used seems to feature the same kinds of issues that plague it.  I just found it to be very unappealing, and the other aspects of the game did little to make up for it.  Feld is one of my favorite current designers, but I guess he can’t hit a home run for me every time.

That’s a whole lot of new games, but that’s typical for the Gathering.  Overall, I was quite pleased with the games I played, even though none of them completely blew me away.  I can’t wait to add the best ones to my collection and give them more play.  Maybe this summary will help you decide if you want to add any of them to your stockpile of games.

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7 Responses to Larry Levy: 2011 Gathering of Friends Recap

  1. Walter Hunt says:

    Larry: Once the game is in players’ hands, I fully expect there to be some sort of playing aid for town locations on BGG. That way I don’t have to create one. :-) Glad you enjoyed Rails of New England.

  2. David Lund says:

    Thanks for sharing all your impressions.

    I’m curious about your comment about turn order affecting Pergamon. I don’t recall seeing that mentioned in other comments about the game. Can you say a little more about your thoughts on that?

  3. Larry Levy says:

    Sure, it has to do with the Research Funding track. Sometimes the players will have very different objectives, so they will go for different spaces on the track regardless of where they are in the turn order. More often, though, there are just better spots each turn and the players going first will grab them. Very often, the player picking last (and sometimes even next to last) is limited to either getting a small amount of guaranteed money and limited access or having virtually no chance of receiving any money and getting expanded access. I just thought that turn order was affecting things a little too strongly, particularly in a game of this weight. It’s not a major thing, but it’s something I would have liked to have seen handled with a bit more finesse.

    • David Lund says:

      Thanks for expanding on that. Do you think it would be the sort of issue that would be too frustrating for younger players? I was considering getting this to play with my nieces. They generally don’t mind (a lot of) chaos in games, but perceived unfairness can set off their sibling rivalry in a hurry.

  4. huzonfirst says:

    I don’t think so, David, although I don’t play games with kids that often, so I may not be the best judge of this. A larger issue may be that Pergamon is a little more involved than the average family game. If your nieces are smart or have good experience with games, they shouldn’t have any trouble with this.

    I should also mention that most people I spoke to liked Pergamon more than I did (and I thought it was pretty good).

  5. Joe Huber says:

    Mine! Mine! Mine! … I thought it played very well, and while it was a touch long, was definitely shorter than the older game.

    That all depends upon your perspective. While I agree that Alan’s game can play faster, as a practical matter the game of Outpost I played at the Gathering was shorter.

    Spring Fever: A bluffing game from Friese. Bluffing games bore me and this wasn’t really an exception, but we did have fun with it, mostly due to the players. So any game you can have fun with can’t be all bad.

    Not my thing either, but a bunch of folks was learning the game Saturday night, so I volunteered to teach, and it was once again a fun experience (twice again, actually).

    So Larry – how does it feel to be far and away the closest to matching my own reactions? B^)

  6. Larry Levy says:

    Kind of surreal, Joe. I will note, though, that there’s very little controversial about my ratings, so I guess that just shows the kinds of losers we’re forced to share this site with! :-)

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