Eight days and 79 games later, I’ve survived another week of severe sleep deprivation, all in the name of trying as many new releases, old favorites, and upcoming games as possible. The Gathering gave me a chance to play a couple months’ worth of games in the span of just one week. I’m here to report back on the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Days 1 & 2 – Old Favorites, Dexterity, and Prototypes
I arrived very late on the first day so there was time for just one game – Tichu of course. A perennial favorite at the Gathering, although far from a favorite of mine. After a full day of traveling though, I didn’t have the energy for much more than this, which showed in the trouncing that my partner and I endured, ending on a flourish with a Grand Tichu even. Fortunately I managed to rebuff all subsequent Tichu overtures throughout the remainder of the week, so this inferior game that pales in comparison to Was Sticht and Njet will not make another appearance on the list. It’s so much fun teasing the many ardent Tichu fans that I just can’t resist.
Day two started off with Hawaii followed by Dominant Species. I taught Hawaii to a group of new players and just barely managed to edge some of them out by trying a strategy of focusing on the 45 bonus points available from making all five rows sufficiently long. It was interesting to try something new and this is definitely a solid game in the classic German mode, but I’m not sure there’s any hook there to keep me coming back more than a few times. Dominant Species, on the other hand, is one that I can’t get enough of. I’d say it’s easily the best game released in the past 5 years, since Galaxy Trucker in ‘07 and Imperial in ‘06. I taught Dominant Species to two new players and then hung on for the roller-coaster ride that this game always provides. Watching the landscape grow and morph over the course of the game, along with the shifting elements, and working to position your genus to thrive provides a thrill that never gets old. 13 plays later and I’m as eager to keep playing as ever (and thankfully did again a bit later in the week).
Next up was a pair of confidential prototypes, each of which I played twice, but sadly I had to sign away any right to discuss either of them. But never fear, after that I played three games of Summoner Wars, which I can talk about more than you could ever want. We started off with the Tundra Orcs facing off against the Deep Dwarves, followed this up with a Phoenix Elves vs. Cave Goblins match up, and ended with The Filfth squaring off opposite the Jungle Elves. My orcs narrowly lost despite getting Tundle down to one measly health, but roared back to win the series with the ever precise phoenix elves and the crafty mutations of the filth. Summoner Wars is a joy to play and with 16 different factions promises to have enormous staying power. I honestly would have been happy to play a fourth and fifth game straight, the game is different enough every time to keep it fresh from game to game to game…
Before moving along to the dexterity portion of the evening, another old favorite hit the table – Through the Ages. Unfortunately I forgot to make culture for almost the entire game and my dominant military did not come through for me despite several successful aggressions and wars. I came in dead last in this three-player game, but enjoyed stealing my opponents’ science and population nonetheless. This is a classic that I’ll say yes to any time the opportunity arises, even if surrounded by countless new releases and tantalizing prototypes. The night concluded with a string of lighter fare, including two games of Toc Toc Woodman, two of Ring-O Flamingo, King of Tokyo, and Wanzen Tanzen. My axe was deft, but my flamingo encircling skills could use some work. King of Tokyo continues to serve as the Platonic ideal of a dice game, whereas Wanzen Tanzen is a great example of how a dice game can crash and burn. With the sun soon to breach the horizon, it was time to retire and prepare for day three.
Days 3 & 4 – Party Success, Schacht Fail, and Prototypes
The morning came much too soon, but I had work to do, it was time to get back down to the game room. The day started off with a game of Farlander, the elusive Estonian game. I had received a shrink-wrapped copy many years back, but it was missing the board tiles and I never ended up trying it back then. So when I spotted the game, I knew I had to seize the opportunity to finally try it. The game itself was intriguing and felt as though it would take some experience to really play intelligently, but in the end was too abstract for my tastes. It’s a relatively simple game of moving units around on a map to conquer territory without a somewhat odd predetermined combat resolution method. If you ever spot a copy, give it a shot.
Next up were three straight prototypes – Goblins Inc. by Czech Games Edition, a prototype by the OG’s very own Luke Hedgren, and a prototype by the OG’s other very own Jonathan Franklin. Goblins Inc. was my favorite of all the CGE prototypes that I tried over the week, and I actually played it again later in the week. It was vaguely reminiscent of Galaxy Trucker in that you are using tiles that represent things like weapons and shields to build a contraption that will inevitably fall apart as components are knocked off. One key difference is that you team up with one other player in each round, but your teammate rotates and in the end there is just one winner. You and your teammate build a doomsday machine to fight against the other team’s machine, earning points if you win the match up as well as some individual points for satisfying secret goals. It’s still a work in progress, but a promising one indeed. I forgot to ask Luke and Jonathan whether I could discuss their prototypes, so for now I won’t and will wait to let them or others chime in.
Day three continued in full force with games of Pix, Einauge Sei Wachsam, Rapa Nui, and Africana. Pix is the fabulous French party game that everyone should track down even if a U.S. printing is never done. Using magnetic pixels to draw things and trying to use as few as possible to convey your drawing is genius. Einauge was a fairly mundane and random game with little to recommend it, but Rapa Nui on the other hand was a surprisingly quick and clever card game from the designer of Carcassonne. It felt like a game from the Kosmos two-player line but with a bit more meat and able to accommodate more players. It boils down to a stock market type of game, but with an interesting action triggering mechanism and engaging decisions in trying to manipulate the market. Lastly, Africana was Schacht’s reimplementation of Valdora, but still left me feeling cold, with the fairly dry pick-up-and-deliver gameplay, the unnecessarily obtuse board, and the fairly random availability of routes and goods to deliver. I’ve definitely enjoyed past Schacht games like Hansa and China, but I’ll leave this one to the fans of Valdora, whoever they may be.
The night ended, or should I say the early morning began, with plays of another CGE prototype tentatively called Mayan Ages and the third CGE prototype called Steamferno. I’m planning to discuss all of these Czech prototypes in a separate article, much like last year, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say, they were all interesting enough to make me want to play them multiple times and to write about them. Mayan Ages was many people’s favorite one and certainly was a fairly thinky worker placement game, whereas Steamferno was a fun pure cooperative game of fending off hordes of aggressive blobs, with an ability timing mechanism reminiscent of Space Hulk Death Angel.
Day four started off with a pair of new games – Santa Cruz and Edo. The former used the Old/New Kingdom concept from Amun-Re to nice effect with players wiping the board and playing back the same hands of action and scoring cards, although possibly someone else’s hand of cards the second time around. The second half of the game was interesting because there was more information available both on the board and in terms of the cards, but I’m not convinced that this overcomes the fairly random and lackluster first half of the game. Edo was not at all what I’d expected. It was a rather heavy and convoluted German-style game of limited resources, recurring feeding costs, agonizing choices among competing options, area majorities, and various indirect competition among players. It’s one that must be played again to really understand, but one of the new games that I’m most interested in playing again. These were followed by an Eggertpsiele prototype about mining and a new Schacht game called 5 vor 12 that was remarkably random, although slightly better than its predecessor in spirit – Finito.
The day wore on with an adorable children’s dexterity game called Kissenschlact and a wacky, zany Japanese game called Dungeon Star. Is there any other kind of Japanese game? It turns out the answer is yes, but they’re relatively few and far between. After dinner it was time to try the new game that everyone seemed to be talking about, Zoch’s Aquileia. Many of the people I’d asked over the previous few days what new game I should try suggested Aquileia. I’m not sure if they were trying to get back at me for something. Halfway through the game, I asked my fellow players when the game was going to be released. They said it was already released and we were playing on a published copy. That was certainly surprising. The game looked less polished than many of the prototypes there that week, which resulted in its nickname – “clip art: the game.”
The night ended with a second play of the CGE prototype Goblins Inc., which was definitely more polished than Aquileia, and way more fun too, followed by Wurfel Bohnanza and Time’s Up. Wurfel Bohnanza is another game that many at the convention had praised, but turned out to be essentially a retheme of Bingo. About this time I realized that sticking to the tried and true like Through the Ages and Antiquity was probably the way to go. Time’s Up was fun as always though, especially trying to get my partner to guess Mephistopheles through interesting circumlocution.
Days 5 & 6 – Tournament, Text Adventure, and Prototypes
The grogginess was really setting in by day five so it made sense to start the early afternoon with something light, so a second play of Rapa Nui was just the ticket. The first play had been with three players, whereas the second play was two players. Both worked well, but I think I prefer three players slightly more. I ordered a copy after returning home so I’ll investigate further. It was really the one new game tried at the convention that I knew I wanted to order.
This was followed by introducing two old favorites to new players – War of the Ring and Montage. Two fantastic games and thankfully appreciated by the people I was trying to indoctrinate. War of the Ring was close as always, with Frodo at the Black Gate when the Woodland Realms fell to give Sauron domination. Montage was hilarious and challenging as always, but a good chance to learn some interesting things about the way your partner and opponents think. Along with Through the Ages, Dominant Species, Antiquity, and Summoner Wars, these two were some of my favorite games of the week.
Shortly before the Loopin’ Louie tournament was getting ready to start, I got in a quick game of the completely silly Kalimambo, which incidentally is most fun if the players repeatedly shout out Kalimambo every time someone scores points. Correlating the loudness of such shouting with the number of points scored is encouraged. The Loopin’ Louie tournament was similarly silly business, with somewhere around 50 full grown adults squaring off in round robin matches to determine the Loopin’ Louie champion. Coming in fifth after seven grueling matches of Loopin’ Louie was one of the highlights for me, but I was so close to winning it at all, I could almost taste it. I did quickly learn that player order is remarkably important and that each set plays very differently.
The only way to settle down from such thrilling excitement was to give the CGE prototype Mayan Ages a second play. The gears that Dale photographed here were a bit dizzying after watching Louie go round and round, but it’s definitely a solid game. I really appreciate the game’s tension between a limited set of options in placing or removing workers on any given turn combined with the enormous universe of options in terms of where you place and how long you wait to trigger workers, with patience often being the key virtue to gaining more powerful actions.
The night ended with a pair of Parsely text adventures called Blackboard Jungle and Space Station, followed by my favorite party game of the convention – Inspeaquence. The text adventures reminded me of the computer games Monkey Island and King’s Quest. We played in a large group with everyone taking turns controlling the single character. I was in a cylon mood, so generally tried to push buttons and open doors without first examining them, which it turns out can get you into a bit of trouble on a space station. Inspeaquence was an awesome British party game from 1995, although I think it could be played with Taboo components. The game involved two teams taking turns giving clues for words to one member of the team who would be guessing. The trick was that the clues had to be a sentence in which each member of the team said one word in sequence, wrapping around through the team if necessary but still just one word at a time. Quite a frustrating experience when the person after you doesn’t continue your train of thought or the person before you sets you up in a strange or unexpected way, but definitely very fun for a group of 8-10.
The week was wearing on with day six and I managed to play the fewest games that day with a measly five games. The day started with possibly my favorite prototype of the event, which was Alspach’s Suburbia. This was game was a really pleasant surprise. Suburbia was an relatively involved game that reminded me vaguely of City Tycoon, but only vaguely. You’re buying tiles from a Showmanager or Through the Ages style display to build your own city, with tiles providing you per turn or one time gains in money and/or victory points, and the effects are nicely tied to theme. You’re also working to achieve both public and secret personal goals for end game bonus points by doing things like having the most or fewest of various tile types. It’s being published later this year in conjunction with Lookout and is one I’ll definitely keep an eye on.
I managed to introduce one of my favorite games to three new players next, which was Nexus Ops, with the two on two team variant. I think I managed to infuse the other players with my love for this gem. The team version is just the perfect way to play it with the random mine placement mattering less and the strategy of positioning your units and controlling the monolith magnified, along with the excellent element of passing secret mission and energize cards to your teammate. I can’t believe how many people have played Nexus Ops but never with the team version, so I’ll continue proselytizing for it as often as I can. This gem was followed by a Martin Wallace prototype and a Friedemann Friese prototype, one that was actually different from the one Dale previewed earlier and was in fact more crazy and ambitious. Lastly, the night ended with a long four-player game of Eclipse. This is a game I like and want to love but can’t quite do so. It’s got so many things going for it in terms of the exceedingly clever resource management and spaceship development, but the random reputation tiles continue to bug me, along with the tendency for it to come down to just several big battles. I love the alien races and the way controlling territory increases your maintenance costs. I love the technology tree and the ship upgrades. I wish the game played a bit quicker, but in the end I’m looking forward to continue exploring this borderline masterpiece. But at 4 a.m. it was time to call it a day.
Days 7 & 8 – Second Chances, New Purchases, and Prototypes
In the final two days I made an effort to play a number of games for a second time, and along the way I discovered a couple games besides Rapa Nui that I wanted to add to my collection. There were of course more prototypes as well shockingly.
Day seven began with Eggertpsiele’s Village and one of my all-time favorites Antiquity. Village was one that I’d been meaning to try for months now but had never gotten around to playing. I’m glad I finally did because it was one of the few games coming out of the convention that I thought was worth buying. I enjoyed how it turned things on their head by incentivizing you to have your workers die to earn points for their fame and reputation. It also turned worker placement on its head a bit by instead having you slowly remove the availability of actions by picking up cubes from action spaces to trigger them, with the nice addition of the cube color mattering as a resource used in various elements of the game. There seemed to be a nice variety of ways to score points and paths to follow, so I’m interested in trying those out when my copy shows up. Antiquity was fabulous as always and is clearly a top five game of all-time.
These were followed by a learning game of Octopus’ Garden and the silliness of Toc Toc Woodman. Octopus’ Garden strangely took about 15 minutes despite saying 45 minutes on the box. It was a fairly simple game of buying differently valued chits to configure on your player board, with points sometimes depending on adjacency or other factors. The hook was that you had to buy an entire row or column of three things from a three by three grid of available things to purchase, so weighing your options and sometimes picking the lesser of various evils was necessary. I understand that much of the complexity may have been removed and is slowly being reinserted through a series of mini-expansions, which may make this a game with a bit of staying power, but only time will tell. Toc Toc was followed by my first play of Friese’s Fremde Federn, which is a deck building game that I enjoyed more than I expected. It helped that Joe Huber facilitated the game in taking only 32 minutes. I heard about some people’s games of Fremde Federn taking well over an hour and possibly closer to 2 hours, which is a bit horrifying. It was an interesting enough mash up when played quickly, but I’m not sure there’s enough there to think about for hours on end. Then again, as with Dominion and 7 Wonders, if the primary virtue of a game is its speed then I’m not sure what the point really is. It does seem like the addition of the Showmanager or Through the Ages style sliding display is a natural and smart addition to the deck building world, and the addition of Agricola style worker placement was more seamless and a better fit than I expected.
As the evening continued it was time for a second play of Kissenschlact, a first and hopefully last try of Schlacht am Buffet, and finally getting to try the SDJ nominee Fauna. Kissenschlact really is an adorable children’s dexterity game of launching pillows into a box, while trying to knock opponents’ figures off pedestals to hinder their progress. Schlact am Buffet was a game that could be played almost as well on random autopilot. Fauna was Friese’s old trivia game all about animals. It felt like Wits & Wagers since you were supposed to guess the animal’s location, weight, and size, and got points for being close so didn’t need to know the answers. It was quick and somewhat entertaining, but not really my cup of tea.
Before ending the night with replays of Octopus’ Garden and Inspeaquence, I taught some folks Cramer’s Helvetia and learned Hey Waiter. Like all of Cramer’s games, I can’t quite make up my mind about Helvetia. It’s interesting how Cramer can reuse existing mechanisms in a combination that feels new and fresh, like in Lancaster. Yet I’m not sure his designs have much staying power or game to game variability. Helvetia gets better on the second play as things start to really click, but on the third play it starts to feel a bit too familiar. Hey Waiter was a fun team game, but obviously I’m a sucker for team games. The second play of Octopus’ Garden confirmed that it is extraordinarily fast and that there may be a game there worth continuing to play, although I may wait and see as more components and rules are rolled out. Lastly, Inspeaquence was as fantastic the second time as the first. I highly recommend this relatively obscure party game.
Day eight – the last day – started with a second play of Fremde Federn, a third play of Mayan Ages, and a first try of Power Grid: The First Sparks. Fremde Federn continued to impress as an interesting addition to the deck building universe, although it may be a universe that I’m personally happy to avoid for the most part so I’ll leave it to serious deck building fans to judge. Mayan Ages continued to intrigue with its diverse possible strategies, but I’ll discuss all that more in an upcoming article solely about the CGE prototypes coming up soon. First Sparks was one I hadn’t bothered with because I wasn’t a big fan of Power Grid and had sold my copy after five plays. First Sparks seems to fix many of my issues with Power Grid and is another game that I’m interested in picking up now. This streamlined implementation of Power Grid appeared to use the supply-and-demand market in an intuitive way and to replace the auctions with a fast and sensible turn order selection method. Definitely eager to give this one another go.
After dinner there was time to give Schacht’s 5 vor 12 a second shot, but it continued to disappoint. On the other hand, I followed it up with my second play of Dominant Species at the convention, which was one of the highlights of the week, even though I came in last. I thoroughly enjoyed introducing Dominant Species to a new player, while simultaneously vying against a wily veteran. It was a few hours that were most certainly worth the time invested. The convention came to a close with games of Ticket to Ride with the Team Asia map expansion followed by King of Tokyo. I thoroughly enjoyed both and am hoping to pick up copies of each. As noted and repeated previously, team games tend to be favorites of mine, and team Ticket to Ride was no exception. The way in which train cards and destination tickets are shared is a great addition to the core Ticket to Ride game. As noted at the beginning when I played King of Tokyo earlier in the week, it’s just about the perfect dice game in my mind, far surpassing the likes of Airships or To Court the King or Wurfel Bohnanza, although I recommend sticking to under five players. The shifting one against many dynamic of King of Tokyo is perfectly implemented, and the dual victory conditions of victory points and player elimination are nicely balanced.
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And thus ends a whirlwind week of eight days, seven nights, 79 games, and almost zero sleep. While I very often agree with Jeff Allers and find his Postcards from Berlin to be one of the best game series on the web, I find my personal experience somewhat removed from his latest postcard. I agree with the idea of taking your time to enjoy things most of the time and not rushing from site to site or from game to game just to see and try as many things as possible. Normally I’d adhere to that sensible approach of quality over quantity. However, there’s something enormously fun about ditching the sensible approach every once in a while and gorging yourself on game after game for day after day. It doesn’t have to be the Gathering either, you can easily go on the same game binge at BGG.CON or Origins or any number of other get togethers of like minded people. 79 games in a week gave me an unparalleled chance to enjoy old favorites, learn an assortment of new games, and lose a lot of sleep along the way.
Sweet mama, you make me feel like an old man reading your energetic report. I’m in the process of writing my own up – look for it this weekend maybe…
…if the primary virtue of a game is its speed then I’m not sure what the point really is.
Speed is an interesting element in games. If it’s the _only_ virtue of a game, I certainly agree that there’s no point. But when it’s just one element – as in Galaxy Trucker or Factory Fun or Ricochet Robot – it can be useful as a motivation to move the game forward, or (as with Ricochet Robot) to give some fixed amount of time for other players to catch up.
But the counter-example that immediately came to mind, when I read your statement, was Spacebeans. When Spacebeans came out, we played it a few times, and it was – boring. Acceptable, but not a game we’d be coming back to. Then, one time, we decided to try playing it as fast as possible. (“If you know whose turn it is, you’re not playing fast enough.”) With that simple change, we found the game became a _lot_ of fun. The primary virtue was clearly the speed – but that was enough to make the game really enjoyable. I’ve taught others Speedbeans, and their reaction has been similar – the game is not a keeper at the listed 45 minutes, but is a blast in 10.
I’ll have plenty to say about the games Tom mentioned in our reviews of them in future days. But here are some comments about the older ones he talks about.
I guess King of Tokyo is the “Platonic ideal of dice games” if you don’t mind a game that plays you. If you actually want a dice game with some control that involves real decision-making, there are many, many better choices. Curiously, in the one (and hopefully only) time I played, there weren’t even any laughs, possibly because the game can be so frustrating and capricious at times. So I think I’ll leave Tokyo to Godzilla and his buddies.
Inspeaquence was indeed a lot of fun. But I didn’t find it frustrating when a teammate wasn’t on the same wavelength as you, but rather an enjoyable challenge to recover and make the new suggestion work. It was great when the team achieved a perfect Vulcan mind-meld, but having to rely on quick thinking was just as much fun. Definitely a game I’d like to play again.
And in case you’re interested, Tom’s attempts to convey “Mephistopheles” in Time’s Up involved a demon-worshipping Methodone user with a lisp. It was truly hilarious!
Maybe that’s it, Tom–I’m just not physically up to the challenge anymore! I noticed that awhile back when I was invited to join a few Berlin youths at an all-night 3-on-3 basketball tournament. I guess the once-a-week all-nighters I used to pull in my architecture studio days are a thing of the past.
More power to you–and to everyone else who enjoys the week! I enjoyed reading your report.
BTW, I think Adlung’s “Teamwork” is very similar to “Inspeaquence.” The cards are also in multiple languages.
And Rapa Nui is my favorite game to come out of Essen so far, along with PAX (and both games have a similar feel, actually).
I also can’t get enough of Dominant Species, but I think that’s because I can rarely find three other people who want to get in on it :p
I don’t have the energy for that much gaming anymore either, unfortunately (which is probably one reason I’ve never bothered to try wrangling an invitation to the Gathering); a full weekend is about as much as I can handle!