Larry’s Gathering Impressions

The 2013 Gathering was a blast as always, the highlight of my gaming year.  Thanks, as always, to Alan Moon for organizing such an amazing shindig!

There were plenty of good games on hand to sample, but nothing that really qualified as great.  That’s not really that unusual, given that so many game companies are now focusing their best efforts on Essen and not the early part of the year.  Still, there’s usually some game that has everyone talking, but that didn’t really happen this time around.  The closest thing to it was a couple of prototypes that I’ll be discussing in a bit.

Here are my impressions on the new games I got to play, organized by their OG rating categories.  Within each category, the games are presented roughly in the order of most to least liked.  But I need to emphasize that most of these games only got played once or twice, so I reserve the right to completely change my mind on them during future plays.  How’s that for weasel-wording?

Love it!

The only two games that qualified as I Love It’s were prototypes.  Again, this isn’t unusual:  the only game that truly blew me away last year was the prototype for Tzolk’in (they were calling it Mayan Ages back then).  Neither of these titles had quite the effect on me that the CGE proto did, but they were easily my favorite games of the con.  What’s more, they seemed to be the only designs that truly got a buzz during the week of gaming.  Consequently, I won’t be the only person looking forward to them being released at Essen.

There’s one more Spring release that would qualify as an I Love It and that would be Bora Bora.  But I already gave you my first impression of that one before the Gathering, so just mentally add that game to the tally.

Spyrium (prototype) (2 plays):  As you’ve probably heard, this is William Attia’s first major release in 6 years, so it’s not surprising that there’s quite a bit of pent-up interest in it.  And while this may not quite be another Caylus, my initial impression is very favorable.  What we played seemed pretty far along the design process and it was definitely one of the hits of the con.  I love the fact that mechanically, it’s not complex at all, but still feels very deep.  The bidding system is quite straightforward, but there’s real angst in deciding when to activate your meeples.  Plus, the way that meeples can be used both for buying and collecting money is elegant and clever.  This is a must-buy when Ystari releases it and it’s great to see William back with a meaty design.

Russian Railroads (prototype) ( 2 plays):  This Hans im Glück design pays homage to 18xx, but is actually a very challenging worker placement game.  Most of the actions you place workers at allow you to build different colored track on up to three lines, but you need to build the least valuable track before you can build the next valuable one, and so on.  You also need to get trains to run on those tracks and the greater the range of the train, the more track counts for you.  Finally, advancing sufficiently far on some tracks can unlock all sorts of nice goodies that give you more abilities.  It’s a heavy game, but once you get a game under your belt, it all flows together quite well.  This is probably the heaviest game that HiG will have released in many years and the best part was that the HiG representative said that this was a type of design they’d like to return to on a regular basis.  Another must-buy once it comes out.

Like it

These are all games that I’ll happily play, but probably won’t bother to buy.  They’re sufficiently good, though, that I bet I’ll have the chance to play quite a few of them, as others in my group will likely pick some of them up.

Rialto (4 plays):  This was probably the new release that got the most play at the Gathering this year.  This may not be a prototypical Feld design, as it’s less detailed and less of a point salad than his recent efforts, but I still found it very enjoyable.  Figuring out which stack of cards to take, how to play your jokers, and which building strategies to employ are all nice challenges.  The placement mechanics mean that this avoids the usual tit-for-tat plays found in many area majority games, which is nice.  I am a little concerned that the buildings that give you lots of cards each turn may be overpowered, but it’s too early to tell at this point in time.  If it’s true, though, it’ll definitely knock my rating down.

Palaces of Carrara (1 play):  This actually isn’t a new game; it’s a stowaway from last Essen.  However, there’s been remarkably little buzz about it, considering it’s a Hans im Glück Kramer/Kiesling design (there are barely 400 ratings of it on the Geek), so I thought I’d include it here.

I’ve only played this once, but I liked it.  There’s nothing hugely innovative, but the discounting of building blocks is clever and the different objectives included should provide lots of replayability.  The central cube-pricing wheel works well and keeps things moving quickly.  We were crazy insane and started out with the advanced game despite the huge word “STOP!” on the envelope that contained the new rules and components–needless to say, we were able to cope.  But this is one I’d like to play some more.  Kramer and Kiesling just keep cranking them out, don’t they?

Francis Drake (2 plays):  I list this as two plays because I played it last year as a prototype and this year in its near-final form.  It’s a very enjoyable middleweight worker placement game from Peter Hawes that has plenty of angst.  In the first half of each round, you use your workers to select crew, guns, supplies, etc. to outfit your expeditions.  The buildings where these are available are arranged in a row (with a different order each round) and you can never backtrack to a building you’ve passed.  This makes the decisions of where to go particularly interesting.  The second half sees you secretly place player order tiles to make your attacks and trade your goods.  There’s a limited number of successful actions that can be taken at each location, so judging how your opponents will act is crucial.  Peter’s designs always play smoothly and, not surprisingly, it’s drop-dead gorgeous.  This will be available soon from his own company (Kayal Games, based in Australia) and as a Kickstarter title from Eagle.  My play this year was definitely one of my more enjoyable games at the Gathering.

Brügge (1 play):  I only got in one play of this because the only English pasted-up copy left in the middle of the week; this was disappointing, but at least I got to try it out.  This is the third Feld game released in the last couple of months and once again, he hasn’t disappointed.  With 165 unique cards and six different ways of playing each card, there’s plenty of variety.  I can’t really say after just one play, but where the game may be lacking a bit is that you have very little control over the cards you draw, so there’s really no way to implement a strategy.  Future plays may reveal something I’ve missed, of course, and at the very least this is a fun tactical exercise, as deciding how to play your hand each turn is definitely enjoyable.  However, a strategic aspect would almost certainly have made this a better game.

Treasure Hunters (prototype) (1 play):  This is a cooperative game prototype by Brian Yu of Mattel themed around swiping gems in a house haunted by ghosts.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not a fan of co-op games, so Brian had to talk me into trying this.  At 3 AM, no less.  My fellow players were Brian, Anthony Rubbo, and Kory Heath, game designers all.  It may have been the company, or the late hour, or maybe this is just a terrific game, but I had a blast.  I definitely laughed harder than at any other time during the Gathering, particularly at the antics of my teammates trying to kill those damn ghosts.  The plan is for this game to be distributed by Mattel Germany first and then to be released in the States if it does well over there.  Based on my experience, Brian should have a hit on his hands, but I won’t jinx him by making any extravagant predictions.  However, Mattel, if you’re looking for a slogan, how about, “If you can get Levy to like a cooperative game, then it must be great!”.

La Boca (4 plays):  People are calling this the early favorite for the SdJ and it’s not hard to see why.  This real-time block building/visualization game played in pairs is a lot of fun and for those that master the basic game, there’s a very challenging advanced set of cards to keep them happy.  In fact, the first time I played this, we used the harder cards and I was failing miserably.  So we switched to the baby cards and those allowed me to compete right up to the end.  After teaching the beginning version to another couple, I figured what the hell and we tried the advanced game.  Weirdly enough, now I was able to play quite well with the big-boy cards.  That made me admire the game even more, since it showed the basic game could serve as training for the advanced one.  All this serves as further evidence that the Brands are on a huge hot streak and it’ll be interesting to see if the SdJ Jury gives them one of their awards for the second straight year.

Augustus (2 plays):  I had read the rules for this a while ago and it sounded just like Bingo.  So I avoided it for most of the con.  But I kept hearing good things about it (including a glowing review from none other than William Attia), so I finally decided to give it a shot.  And you know what, it’s actually pretty good.  It’s not Gamer Bingo, but Bingo with special powers, and that’s a whole lot more interesting.  Sure it’s light and luck-filled, but there are also quite a few decisions to be made, it’s fast, and the game has an addictive quality to it.  It’s an ideal family game that should keep the adults, as well as the kids, interested.  So listen when your gaming buddies recommend things, kids.  I can easily see this fighting it out with La Boca for the SdJ award.

The Little Prince (1 play):  This is a charming, evil little game, and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the combination of those two elements.  For example, in a family setting, how will Mom feel when she has to decide whether little Bobby or sister Sue goes next, thereby dooming the other child to being stuck with a damaging planet section?  For gamers, it also seems as if this choice could be an arbitrary one, giving the game a kingmaker element.  In addition, the luck factor is pretty high.  Nevertheless, there’s definitely some meat here and the game is well designed, just as you’d expect from Bauza and Cathala.  The delightful theme should make this a solid filler, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be somewhat fragile.

Enigma (1 play):  This is a puzzle game with four completely different types of puzzles:  one based on Tangrams, one using number manipulation, and so on.  The players have some choice of what type of puzzle they want to solve each turn, but they must also consider how well the specific puzzle will help them to score.  The variety of the puzzles should help with the replayability and their difficulty seems to be pitched just right—not too easy, not too hard.  And it has an unusual scoring system that makes it feel more like a game than just a series of challenges.  Those who like puzzles should enjoy this; those that don’t should be able to find at least one of the puzzle types that amuses them for a while.  All in all, this is a solid addition to this genre.

Qwixx (2 plays):  This is a pretty good dice game with a unique mechanic that allows everyone to participate each turn.  There’s a reasonable number of choices for the active player and a decent amount of probability management.  Turns are fast, which is always a good thing for a dice game.  And groaning over your opponents’ rolls is always fun.  It’s pretty light, but those who like dice games should enjoy this as a fast-playing filler.

Neutral

The difference between the last few games of the “Like It” list and the first few games of this list is pretty small.  Basically, I had to draw the line somewhere.  But after due consideration, I’m a little less likely to agree to play the games listed below than the ones I’ve already mentioned.

Ladies & Gentlemen (1 play):  The game’s theme is a good-natured spoof of gender roles during Victorian times.  This lends itself to rampant role-playing, which is a whole lot of fun.  Unfortunately, that’s most of the title’s enjoyment, as the game mechanics themselves are pretty slight.  Players play as two person teams, with one teammate playing as the man and one as the woman of the couple.  The women compete using one set of rules to pick out stylish clothing and jewelry, while the men use a different set of rules to earn money to buy these fashion items.  The two sub-games feature a little bit of skill, but this is really more of an elaborate party game than anything else.  I did enjoy my one game of it, but replayability could be an issue, as the roleplaying could get old.  I will give Libellud credit for releasing something different, though, and the fact that this plays well with up to 10 players may make it attractive to some groups.

Siberia: The Card Game (1 play):  Siberia is a board game that I wanted to play last year, but didn’t manage to.  It has some interesting mechanics, so it intrigued me.  This year, though, I got to play a card game based on Siberia.  It worked pretty well, but our game seemed to lack a spark.  I need to play this again before I render final judgment, but right now, I’m just so-so on the title.

Clubs (2 plays):  This is a noble effort by Dominic Crapuchettes to come up with a simpler version of a Climbing game (you know, games like Tichu).  But with no wild cards, special cards, or bombs to counter high cards, it seems as if success is determined more by being dealt good cards than by how well you play them.  I’m also a little bothered that all of the cards aren’t dealt out, making card counting of limited use.  I can see this being popular with casual gamers and it could well serve as a good introduction to established Climbing games, but I fear it may not appeal to gamers who take their card games seriously.

Not for me

Now we get down to the bottom of the barrel.  None of these games are bad, but they contain elements that I just don’t find enjoyable.  In each instance, I met people who were singing their praises, so take that into account when you read my less than glowing summaries.

Skyline (1 play):  A dice game about constructing multi-story buildings.  It suffered from a considerable lack of excitement, giving it little to counteract the expected high luck factor.  Not bad, but just kind of forgettable.

Pax Porifiani (1 play):  Phil Eklund’s card game spinoff of his Lords of the Sierra Madre, which is based on historical events in pre-World War I Mexico.  The 220 cards include a remarkable amount of historical information, but the gameplay is “take that!” on steroids.  Cardplay leads to opponents’ cards being stripped from their displays practically every round, which gives the game a very chaotic feel.  Worst of all, the level of detail and poor card organization means that all those lovingly chronicled events don’t translate into game terms; it essentially becomes an abstract game with wildly colorful cards, or at least it did for me.  Yeah, not my kind of game at all.  However, my opponents and most of the people I’ve spoken to about it are much more enthusiastic about the game than I am.

Panic Lab/Pick a Pig (2 plays/1 play):  Two completely different games by different designers, linked only by a) they’re based on pattern recognition and b) I totally suck at them.  I played these within hours of each other and in each case, I found myself to be so inept at them that after one round, I politely excused myself and urged the other players to continue without me (which isn’t the slightest problem in either game).  If you are good at these sort of games, you should check them out (Panic Lab, in particular, is quite clever).  But if your pattern recognition abilities are like mine, you should stay far, far away.  You have been warned!

Karesansui (1 play):  My one game was with the Weeds expansion.  The ideas here are good and the concept of trying to avoid penalty points for having combinations in your hand (and deciding if it might be better to suffer early small penalties rather than risk later big ones) is solid.  The issue is the auctions.  Evo-style auctions (that is, simultaneous auctions for multiple items) can drag unless steps are taken to accelerate them.  When the bids decrease rather than increase and when the makeup of the items being bid matters so much (as is the case here), then the auctions can last far longer than you’d like.  I suspect the game would work fine with casual players, who would either make a bid that helps them or would pass.  But experienced gamers will be more aggressive and force their opponents to lower their bids bit by bit.  This really made our game drag and by the time we were halfway through, we were all praying for it to end.  The essentially negative nature of the game (trying to avoid things, rather than accomplish them) doesn’t help either.  To improve my Zen outlook, I’ll be avoiding this title in the future.

So those were the new games I got to try out two weeks ago.  Even though the number of games that really grabbed me were limited, overall the gaming was excellent and the company even better.  I can’t wait to travel north and do it again next year and you can be sure I’ll be letting you all know how it all went!

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8 Responses to Larry’s Gathering Impressions

  1. > …there’s been remarkably little buzz about [Palaces of Carrara], considering it’s a Hans im Glück Kramer/Kiesling design (there are barely 400 ratings of it on the Geek),

    Not that remarkable, given that the game still isn’t available in the US.

  2. Ben (chally) says:

    Always great to hear your thoughts, Larry. Given that I will be going to Essen this year, it is a little sad not to see more buzzworthy games coming out of the Gathering. I am looking forward to Russian Railways and Spyrium, but it doesn’t sound like a “can’t miss” year, particularly for someone like me who is not a Feld fan.

    I am hoping we can get together soon for more Bora Bora and perhaps some Terra Mystica.

  3. huzonfirst says:

    Congratulations for finally scheduling an Essen trip, Ben! I wouldn’t base too much on what we saw at the Gathering, as it’s not a particularly accurate harbinger of what will be at Essen or not. Whether this will be a “can’t miss” year won’t be obvious for quite some time. Either way, I’m sure you’ll have a blast in Essen.

    I’m particularly looking forward to playing some Terra Mystica since, despite my best efforts, I didn’t manage to play it during my week in Niagara Falls. And Bora Bora is also a must, as none of the games I’ve played without you feature such rampant playing of 1’s on the actions! Hope to see you soon.

  4. Tom Rosen says:

    I’d say that La Boca had the most buzz of any game there in my impression. The Feld games (Rialto, Brugge, and Bora Bora) were also all getting a TON of play. Like there was hardly, if ever, a time when at least one or more of those wasn’t in play. And I think Spyrium was drawing a lot of attention, along with people lining up to get at the prototype. I think those were the five games that most had everyone talking.

    Oh, and I saw a ton of Coup being played, but I think mostly because it’s so small and quick, so was easy to fit in at various times throughout the week.

    • Joe Huber says:

      I’d agree on Brügge (while there was an English copy available, at least), Bora Bora, and La Boca. Rialto, maybe – it received a fair amount of play, but I’m not sure I saw it played more often than Kings of Air and Steam or 1846, for instance.

      And Spyrium – I was there from Thursday evening, I was looking for prototypes, and it took until Tuesday until I heard about it. Contrast that with the (mostly) two-player prototype from CGE, which I saw multiple copies of in play nearly continuously…

  5. NuMystic says:

    How many players does Russian Railroads handle?

  6. huzonfirst says:

    Both of my games had 4 players. I suspect the range will wind up being 2-4 players, although I’m not certain that it won’t handle 5 (and I’m also not sure that it will support 2 players).

    • Joe Huber says:

      I obviously can’t answer as to whether the final game will handle 2 players, but the version we played in Niagara Falls had rules for 2.

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