I had the good fortune of traveling to a week-long convention last month at which I tried many new games and new-to-me games, so I’m here to report back on my experience… and opinions of course.
Day 1 – Discovering La Boca and Panic Lab
The first day was abbreviated because I didn’t arrive at the convention until after a full day in the car. I mostly played shorter and lighter games, but that didn’t keep me discovering some very nice gems. I started with a couple quick games of AttrAction, a game of flicking, throwing, and sliding magnets to try to attract as many other magnets on the table as possible to your piece. Eric Martin demonstrates the game in this video, which should tell you all you need to know about whether this is an activity for you or not.
Afterwards I had the pleasure of discovering two new games that I thought were great. La Boca is a speed puzzle game designed by Inka and Markus Brand that is very much in the mold of Ubongo and other games along those lines. It takes a bit too long with the full complement of 6 players, but excels with 4 players. Each player partners with every other player twice over the course of the game, but there is one individual winner. In a given round you and your partner try to arrange various colored blocks as quickly as possible so you each see only what colors and shapes are depicted on your card. The game saw a lot of play over the week and seemed to be highly enjoyed by almost everyone that I saw trying it out. The second great new game was called Panic Lab and was another speed puzzle game, somewhat along the lines of Geistesblitz. Everyone simultaneously tries to identify the correct amoeba tile in a ring after a set of dice is rolled that shows the characteristics of the right amoeba for that round (e.g., color, pattern, shape). It’s fast and great fun, although not for everyone as some folks have found they end up essentially sitting out watching faster players play, like in Ricochet Robots or Set.
Next up were two plays of a semi-abstract prototype followed by a play of the trick-taking game Black Spy. I always enjoy trying a trick-taking game that is not Tichu since that too often seems to be the go-to game for people. I like to mix things up with other trick-taking games like Was Sticht or Njet if the opportunity arises, and Black Spy was another interesting twist on the genre, although it did seem particularly hard in my first game to try to lose the lead in the latter part of a round. I ended the night with a second play of La Boca, along with five consecutive games of Coup and one play of Skull & Roses. Coup is fast and fun, and always preferable to Love Letter, even if I’m eliminated even quicker in the former than the latter. Skull & Roses was silly fun at 3 a.m. but I’m not sure how I’d feel during normal waking hours. It felt remarkably like Liar’s Dice without dice, which I realize makes no sense when I say it.
Day 2 – War of the Ring and The New Felds
I started off the second day with two plays of new favorite Panic Lab. It’s a ten-minute game in a small tin that takes 30 seconds to teach so it was easy to get in games of this fun little title. Most people also seem enamored with it as they raced around the ring of amoebas to find the one that the dice were identifying and got mixed up over the attributes of the right tile on any given round. Everyone’s playing all the time in this simultaneous game, unless of course if you always find yourself slower than the others at the table, in which case you’re mostly just watching. I then jumped into the first of two new Stefan Feld games for the day, Rialto.
After being disappointed with Bora Bora (and Trajan and Die Burgen), I was pleasantly surprised by Rialto. The best thing it had going for it was that it was much more focused and less sprawling than Feld’s last three kitchen-sink games. Rialto was far simpler without actually being a simple game. It’s an area control game that revolves around action cards. In each of 6 rounds, players draft a face up hand of action cards based on their position in Feld’s now familiar turn order / tie breaking track (see, e.g., Macao, In the Year of the Dragon, Luna, Die Burgen). The action cards let you add influence to the map, shape the victory point value of regions, build buildings that provide special abilities, earn money to activate said buildings, and advance on the turn order track. It’s nothing remarkably innovative, but the idea of openly selecting a hand and then playing it out to perform actions is entertaining as long as people keep things moving. My biggest concern is that in both games I played and every game I’ve heard about, the winner has focused on a particular building that seems to provide an outsized benefit, so I’m eager to hear about someone winning without following that path.
My goal was to play War of the Ring once per day for the entire week, but that was ambitious and I’m reasonably happy having played it three times over the course of the week. My first play for the week came next, which was my 27th play of War of the Ring, but only my second time using the new Lords of Middle-Earth expansion. Since I started playing the second edition in January 2012, War of the Ring has quickly been rocketing up my list of favorite games of all time. This play was tense as ever with the Fellowship two steps from destroying the ring when I was able to achieve a military victory as the Shadow player. I was only able to do so by using an Elven ring, without which I would’ve needed an extra round and would have likely lost to the Fellowship. I love teaching this game back home to anyone willing to learn, but it was a nice change of pace to play at a convention with people already familiar with the game. I followed it up with two more games of the fast and fun go-to game that is Panic Lab.
As the day wore on, I found an opportunity to pounce on the only translated copy of Stefan Feld’s Brugge in the entire hotel, perhaps the entire country. This was another simpler Feld game that I enjoyed much more than Bora Bora, Trajan, and Die Burgen, but I don’t think quite as much as Rialto. It was a bit less focused than Rialto given that there were lots of little ways to score and given that each of the cards could be used in many different ways. Brugge is a tough game to describe as there are a number of different elements. The game revolves around a large deck of character cards that come in five different colors and that each have different text abilities (like in Macao). Much of the game is focused on adding these cards to your tableau so you can take advantage of their abilities, but like in San Juan or Race for the Galaxy, you can also use these cards as currency to earn workers, money, canals, or other things. I heard several folks complaining about the luck of the draw with these character cards, but that didn’t particularly bother me since it seemed like there were plenty of different ways to use the cards and different avenues for scoring points. If anything, I was bothered by the disconnectedness of the various pieces of the game, although it wasn’t as extreme a problem as in Trajan. Brugge is ultimately one that I’d like to play again to further explore if the opportunity arises, although I don’t think I’ll be hunting down a copy.
The rest of the day was mostly filled with simpler fare, including another game of the engaging Spiel des Jahres contender La Boca, followed by an exceedingly close game of Tichu (1010 to 990) and yet another great game of Panic Lab and an even better game of Geistesblitz. Afterwards, I finally learned the 2006 game Santy Anno, which is yet another speed puzzle game, but this time with a running around the table element that proved dangerous for innocent bystanders. I needed some quiet relaxation after that exertion so sat down for a “calm” game of iOS instant-classic Spaceteam. Lastly, I learned Touko Tahkokallio’s Enigma. I thought I was going to love Enigma because I like Eclipse and Walnut Grove and have a strong affinity for speed puzzle games, but it turned out Enigma was not my cup of tea at all. I found the types of puzzles it includes far too mundane and the scoring system as absurd as Ubongo, if not more so.
Day 3 – Prototype Party and More War of the Ring
I started off Day 3 with a second game of Rialto, in which the winner again focused on the level four green building that increases your hand size, so while it’s the most promising Feld game I’ve tried in several years, I still need to see someone win without focusing on getting multiple copies of that particular building. I followed this up with my second game of War of the Ring in the week. This was a wonderful game because it started by seeing the Fellowship corrupted almost to the point of losing, but then deciding to camp out in Osgiliath and stop moving altogether. The Free People then launched a surprise military assault against Orthanc and Moria, capturing the former quickly. As Moria held out under siege, the Free People turned their attention to Minas Morgul, which they ultimately captured to achieve a Free People military victory – the rarest of all end game conditions in my experience. I’d been hoping to finish corrupting Frodo, but came up just short in the end.
After dinner I came back for a game of Cinque Terre, which is a new pickup-and-deliver game by Chris Handy and Rio Grande. The rest of the folks at the table didn’t seem to like it, but I thought it was perfectly fine as an introductory family game in the genre. It had nice components, except for the fact that the goods couldn’t quite fit on the trucks. The biggest issue I had was constantly having to check your previously delivered goods against the face-up display of available order cards, and the randomness of the order card draw that may or may not align with what you’ve already done in the game. But nonetheless, as a light, quick, family game for trying out the pickup-and-deliver genre, it seemed like a solid and visually appealing entry.
I followed this up by learning the “ancient” Portobello Market, which has been languishing on my want-to-learn list since it’s release in 2007. It was a fine enough game, but very abstract, more so than I typically enjoy in my games. It’s a game of claiming portions of routes that have preset values and then adding pawns to the endpoints of those routes to provide point multipliers. That’s fine, although would probably work better with two players, whereas we played with the full four players. I ended the night by trying three different prototypes, a silly dexterity game, a bluffing card game, and a heavy stock market game.
Day 4 – Rare Games and Rarer Games
This was a day to try grail games, but those were toward the end of the day, so first I played a few more readily available titles. I started the day with one of Corne van Moorsel’s best, Factory Fun. Some in my game group call it Factory Unfun, but for me this is a great, quick game that I was happy to teach to someone that had never tried it before. After ending the previous day on lots of prototypes, it was nice to return to an old favorite on the following morning. I followed it up with a two-player game of Clash of Cultures. I’ve written about Clash of Cultures at some length previously, so will just say that it continues to work surprisingly well as a two-player game. After two hours, we actually tied and I technically won on the third tiebreaker, but that is about as close as it can get, especially because I had lost a decent size lead heading into the final round. What I particularly enjoyed was that we built very different civilizations, with mine being a theocracy focused on temples and my opponent’s being a maritime sea-faring civilization.
After lunch I returned to play the silly dexterity prototype from the previous night again, followed by two more games of Coup, and then two more different prototypes for heavier games that are hopefully coming out later this year. Then I finally got to try the rare games that Joe Huber had kindly brought to the convention. First up was the ever-elusive Jati, the 1965 3M game that is so rare that its copies are tracked assiduously. It turns out to be a fairly basic abstract game of alternating placement of pieces in a grid to try to form five in a row (or four in a diagonal), but the inclusion of neutral multiplier pieces makes for somewhat more interesting possibilities. Second was a game that Joe has written about before called Auf Fotosafari in Ombagassa, which I played twice back-to-back. It’s a cute game of arranging your truck and various animal pieces into configurations that match the cards in your hand, although could certainly benefit from colored cards and some house rules to mitigate the die roll. Third and finally was a game that is even more rare than Jati – Don Q. und der Dreh mit den Windmuhlen, which I also played twice in a row. It’s an asymmetric abstract game with wonderful components and intriguingly indirect gameplay. Based on the rules in the box, my opponent and I seemed to get into a position that broke the game by devolving into a repetitive loop, but it’s certainly possible we were misunderstanding some aspect of the game.
Back to the world of games you might actually be able to find, I finally got to try the first Fragor game, Leapfrog, which I’d been wanting to try ever since falling in love with Antics a few years back. Leapfrog was a light game of bluffing and card play that had a clever element that seemed like a clear antecedent to Shear Panic by flipping the player goals between rounds in a similar manner. Unfortunately, with fewer than 6 players you automate the remaining frogs and the automated frogs with randomly generated moves ended up beating most of the human players. Next I learned yet another new Inka and Markus Brand game called Star Wars: Angriff der Klonkrieger, which is remarkably a real cooperative board game even though it has a big name license attached to it. The ascendancy of the Brand’s is really impressive and this is another solid design to their credit. It was a tense cooperative game of fending off the hordes of droids, although we did win on the first game with a variant to make the game more difficult, so repeated play would require the game to remain challenging in some way.
I closed out the night by learning the new speed pattern recognition game Pick-a-Dog / Pick-a-Pig. This is a lot like the older game Set but with adorable animal illustrations. You lay out a face up grid of animal cards that have varying features (e.g., big or small, two arms or one arm, light or dark), and then give each player a random card from the deck. When the round starts, everyone simultaneously tries to grab a card that either matches their card exactly or differs in one and only one attribute, and then continue following that chain of thought to grab as many cards as possible. Like Panic Lab, it’s a game where some people end up mostly watching because they don’t have the speed pattern recognition gene, but for those of us who do, it’s a blast! I got ready to sleep by playing two more games of Spaceteam, including an epic game that went all the way to round 32 with the symbol-only variant enabled!
Day 5 – Pick-a-Pig, Tournament Style
The fifth day started with a rousing game of Galaxy Trucker with some folks from Czech Games Edition that play the game for a living. I proudly held my own but was ultimately defeated because I refuse to use the rule that allows a player to bow out of a race in the middle, which it would seem others have no trouble ignobly employing. It was a great game of this gem and one that confirms my decision last year to bump my rating up to a 10 out of 10 on BoardGameGeek. Afterwards I was drafted into a game of Kakerlaken Poker Royal by Ted Alspach, who taught the game and then kindly proceeded to lose horribly in spectacular fashion. It’s a fun game of bluffing that friends and family would crush me at because they can read me like an open book, in the same way my Resistance and Avalon skills are sorely lacking.
Next up were two different card game prototypes, one a racing game and the other a light 4X space game. Before heading out for a dinner break, I got in a second game of Cinque Terre. The first play earlier in the week was with five players and this second play was with three players. I actually don’t think it makes a big difference since you’re mostly doing your own thing, although there’s less chance of having order cards swiped out from under you with fewer players. After dinner, I played in the Pick-a-Dog / Pick-a-Pig tournament, which was great fun and hilariously silly. Christian Leonhard won the tournament, so apparently he can do more than design historical card-driven games.
As the evening wore on, I learned two games, starting with Hisashi Hayashi’s Trains. The reports of this being Dominion with a board are dead on. Many of the cards are identical to Dominion. On the other hand, the addition of a board adds an interesting tactical element that I enjoyed. As I’ve said with Mage Knight and A Few Acres of Snow, it’s great to see when deck-building is used as a means rather than an end because it’s tiresome to see it repeatedly used as the entirety of a game when it can serve well as a piece of a larger whole. Second, I learned a new Matagot game called Kemet, which was introduced to me as being like Nexus Ops and that’s actually a good way to describe it. Kemet is a relatively fast combat game of marching armies around a map and winning battles to earn victory points. First to 8 points wins. The best thing about Kemet is that you don’t just want to see your opponents slug it out against each other while you sit in a corner, unlike most combat games, because in Kemet that would mean they’re earning victory points relative to you. On the other hand, Kemet had a fairly convoluted mass of techs available to purchase that modified player combat abilities and had to be remembered, so that could bog it down a bit. I’m tempted to pick up a copy of Kemet, but would like to play it again first if possible.
In the early a.m. I played three games of Sentinels of the Multiverse in a row, which is a game I want to like more than I do. I enjoy lots of cooperative games, like Pandemic, Red November, and Ghost Stories most of all. I like the theme and the artwork on Sentinels. I love the vast number of possible combinations of possible heroes, villains, and locations. But there’s something about the gameplay that doesn’t quite engage me in the way that favorite cooperative games in the past have managed to do. It may have something to do with the numerical emphasis of doing damage and slowly whittling away the villain. The excitement of doing two, three, or four damage doesn’t quite measure up to the all or nothing results throughout a game of Ghost Stories. I’ve played Sentinels 12 times now and expect to keep trying, but don’t expect it’ll ever quite become a favorite cooperative game.
I ended the day with a game of Riff Raff, which is like a more wobbly version of Tier auf Tier, followed by a game of Inspeaquence, which is one of the best party games ever in my experience. It’s best with 8 people divided into two teams of 4 each. On a team’s turn, one person is the guesser and the rest of the team gives clues. They have a list of words that they’re trying to get the guesser to guess in the time allotted. For each word, they give a clue in the form of a question, but need to alternate saying words in a sentence. So Person A says a first word, followed by Person B, followed by Person C, followed by Person A, etc. It’s hilariously fun when the other people on your team try to take the sentence in a different direction from what you expect and you each try to steer the question in a way that you think will work best.
Day 6 – Tales of the Arabian Nights Gets a Makeover and Qin Tournament
I had never heard of Morisi, but I was wandering around the stacks of available games with fellow OGer Jonathan Franklin and Morisi was on his list of games to try. I’m always open to trying a Corne van Moorsel game and also open to trying a rare and obscure game, so this was a good choice to take for a spin. We played with two other people and I enjoyed this abstract game reasonably well, although I think I’d like it better with fewer players. It’s essentially a game of moving your pawn around a hex map to collect resources that enable you to build routes across the terrain in order to connect as many cities as possible. I hope to try it (or its predecessor Isi) with two players some time.
Afterwards we played a new game called Agents of SMERSH that I’d never heard of because I don’t really follow what’s happening with Kickstarter. It turns out that it’s a reimagining of the classic storytelling game Tales of the Arabian Nights, but this time in a Cold War /James Bond spy setting. I really enjoyed Agents of SMERSH and am tempted to pick up a copy. I liked the theme and I particularly appreciated that the game layered real game mechanisms on top of the Tales of the Arabian Nights concept. I’ve played Tales a couple times but not with the rules as written because they don’t actually make a game and it’s preferable to just wander around the desert reading choose-your-own-adventure stories to each other. In contrast, the cooperative game mechanisms in SMERSH function as a real board game with actual rules that make sense to follow. And yet at the same time it incorporates just as a rich a storytelling element as Tales (and much more so than something like Mice & Mystics which has misleadingly been called a storytelling game when it’s more like a hack-and-slash Descent-like dungeon crawl). I would say though that the rich storytelling of SMERSH is best enjoyed like a B movie for its ridiculousness. I should add that I was flabbergasted to learn that you can buy the game without the Book of Encounters to save money, but that would seem to rip the heart and soul out of the game so I would urge anyone considering the game to make sure they only consider a version with the Book of Encounters.
While Jonathan was setting up the next game, I took the time to lose three games of Win, Lose, or Banana, which I’m terrible at but thoroughly enjoy. By that time he’d finished setting up eggertspiele’s reboot of Space Dealer, Time ‘n’ Space. We just played the basic version of Time ‘n’ Space, which I found fairly mundane, but I’d be happy to try the advanced version of the game sometime to see if it adds enough to make the game interesting. But no time for that now, it was time for the Qin tournament in which 32 people competed for a signed copy of the game and an exclusive prototype too. The tournament started with 8 four-player games using variant rules in which everyone had an equal stack of 18 tiles (3 of each tile in the game), which is a variant I liked. However, before each game, players could arrange their stack of tiles in any order of their choosing and draw from the stack in that order during the game (including pre-selecting their opening hand), which is a variant I did not like. It turned the game from a light 20-minute abstract into a more plodding affair. I won the first game and proceeded to the semifinals round of 8 people for another four-player game. At that stage I had the pleasure of knocking out fellow OGer Ted Alspach and coming in second to advance to the finals round of 4 people. The finals was coincidentally an impromptu world championship with someone from Canada, Australia, Holland, and myself from the U.S. Sadly I did not represent the U.S. well and ultimately fell to the victorious Canadian. I did come away with a regular, unsigned copy of the game for my trouble at least, although I think I might prefer a copy of the iOS version.
Next up I finally had the chance to try Michael Menzel’s Legends of Andor, which is one that has been on my radar for some time now. The game components were gorgeous as you would expect from a Michael Menzel game since he did his own artwork, and the gameplay was definitely better than some other notable games for which he’s done the artwork (like Pillars of the Earth, Stone Age, and Cuba). Menzel’s signature style of illustrating entire boards certainly fit well here with a map that the players wander around over the course of the game. The most surprising thing about the game was that for an adventure game where players are wizards and dwarves slaying troll-like monsters, it has a much more German feel and less American feel than you’d expect. There is some dice rolling, but at least in the scenario we played, you didn’t actually want to kill many monsters because it would advance the clock too quickly and cause you to lose the game. As a result, it was more a puzzle game of figuring out which monsters needed to be eliminated and how to most efficiently do so in the turns available. I enjoyed the experience, but am not sure if it’s a game I want to keep playing. Afterwards we played a quick game of Nicht die Bohne, which is another game that uses the same great trade mechanism as Mundus Novus, but is yet another game that didn’t click for me despite the inclusion of that promising mechanism. Maybe it was just too unintuitive to appreciate on a first play.
Despite the fact that it was now around midnight, I decided it was the perfect time to learn Peter Hawes’ new heavy game Francis Drake. It was actually a very enjoyable game and one I’d like to play again when it’s released. It reminded me a little of Egizia and Age of Empires III. The central mechanism is like Egizia because you claim resources/abilities with your workers by advancing down a track but not being permitted to backtrack to an earlier spot on the track. The board play is vaguely like Age of Empires III because you do a lot of planning and then send out your units to take advantage of scoring opportunities on a map that has mostly irrelevant geography and adjacencies (but looks pretty). The worker placement and resource management aspects of the game were not new, but the experience as a whole was tense and seemed to offer a variety of avenues to victory. However, like Power Grid, it seemed to reward players for being behind during the game to the point where it would impact decisions and make players jockey for “last place” until the very end. I’m not sure I like that particular gamey aspect of it, but I’m not sure I see a way around it unless turn order either rotated in a fixed manner or were decided instead with something akin to the stables in Caylus.
It was late and time for some light games, so I ended the day with a game of Cheeky Monkey using the great new packaging, yet another game of Coup, and two more games of Inspeaquence. I will note that an actual copy of Inspeaquence is too hard to track down so we just played using word cards from other games like Pass-Ackwords and Train of Thought. I think Taboo cards would also work fine if you want to try out Inspeaquence and, like me, can’t find an actual copy.
Day 7 – Even More War of the Ring
The last day started with my third and final game of War of the Ring for the week. This was the closest and most tense game of all. It came down to the final turn when Frodo was one step away from destroying the ring, the Shadow had captured enough cities and strongholds for a military victory, and managed to draw a tile that prevented Frodo from advancing that final step. I was happy to play the Free People and recapture Lorien with an elite force from Edoras, but came up just short as the Shadow’s lone regular unit held out under siege in Rivendell. It was an epic game and great fun!
After traversing Middle Earth, I decided to test my memory with Spiel des Jahres nominee Eselsbrucke, which Kathrin Nos had predicted ahead of time on this very site. Eselsbrucke was a wonderful twist on a memory game, although it was mentally exhausting to play. On your turn you draw several random tiles from a bag that show objects like a tree, a clown, and a duck. After showing everyone the tiles, you tell a brief story involving those three items and stack the tiles face down on your board. After several rounds of this, you hand the tiles out separately to the other players, who will then have to try to remember the other items in the same tile group, generally by recalling your story. I actually found it slightly easier than I expected because the wacky stories can stick in your head, connecting random items to each other, although it is tough given the sheer number of stories being told and number of tile stacks that abound. Unfortunately Eselsbrucke is currently only available in German, but fellow attendee Adam had kindly written all over his copy to translate it for us English speakers. I enjoyed the different game experience that Eselsbrucke offered and would be happy to play it again sometime.
As the day and my time at the convention began drawing to a close, I moved on to a couple of party game prototypes, followed by a second play of Agents of SMERSH, which was still very entertaining. The end result of the cooperative game is ultimately rather random, but the story along the way is amusing, especially with the right crowd of people that get into the humor. I followed that with yet another different party game prototype, and then ended the convention with a great game of King of Tokyo. I continue to think that King of Tokyo is the Platonic ideal of a dice game. My monster was killed during the game, but I had the sidekick card so came back as my killer’s sidekick and ended up “winning” when he did. I outscored everyone else by a lot if you add together my scores from before and after resurrecting. I tend to often score a lot in King of Tokyo and generally die shortly before reaching the 20 point target, so apparently need to focus more on healing.
There were many highlights of the week for me:
New thematic games – Agents of SMERSH and Kemet were both fun, thematic games that took some time (90-120 minutes) but felt fresh and didn’t overstay their welcome, plus were surprisingly easy to learn and teach.
New Feld games – Rialto and Brugge were both much better than the last few Feld games that have all been disappointments to me. They were more streamlined than Trajan, Bora Bora, and Die Burgen (all of which felt too much like a kitchen-sink approach to game design). Rialto and Brugge both seemed more focused and that was a good thing in my mind.
New speed puzzle games – Panic Lab, Pick-a-Pig, and La Boca were all great fun as new takes on the flourishing speed puzzle genre. I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite among them, but would highly recommend them all to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Ubongo, Geistesblitz, Jungle Speed, Jungle Smart, and/or Uluru in the past.
Rare games – Jati, Auf Fotosafari, and Don Q. were all exceedingly rare games that I was happy to have a chance to try. I’m always on the hunt for something obscure, although unfortunately did not end up having time to try Keywood, which was another rare game that Joe had brought along.
Old favorites – War of the Ring, Galaxy Trucker, and Inspeaquence were a few of the old favorites that I was thrilled to have the chance to play more. I’ve played them plenty but they never seem to get old and actually get better with experience.
I went with the goals of playing War of the Ring, trying the new Feld games, and trying Joe’s rare games. It looks like I managed to do all of that and so much more.