Ben McJunkin – A Peek Behind the Curtain: The Gathering of Friends Prototypes (Part 1)

Welcome loyal readers!  I just returned home from my first-ever trip to The Gathering of Friends, an invite-only gaming convention held annually in scenic Niagara Falls, NY.  I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts and experiences as a first-time attendee, but, unlike our fearless leader Dale Yu, I do not have the skill to simultaneously live-blog and play games.  Instead, this will be the first a series of posts recapping some of my gaming experiences over the past week.  (Don’t worry: also unlike our fearless leader, I promise not to inundate you with pictures of my food while taunting you with oblique references to prototypes I can’t talk about.)

However, I may inundate you with pictures of my dog.

Today’s post will focus on a couple of my very favorite prototypes.  Perhaps in part because this was my first time attending the Gathering of Friends, I was very pleasantly surprised by the number and the quality of playable prototypes.  The three games detailed below are all on my “must-buy” list as soon as they are released (provided that they are not subject to radical changes between now and the date of publication). Given that I tend to only keep about 45 games on my shelf at any one time – and after my disappointment with last year’s crop of Essen releases – I consider a stable of three  shelf-worthy games to be a very positive development.  In truth, nearly all of the forthcoming games shown at the Gathering were very polished and rather enjoyable in their current state. In subsequent posts, I intend to cover a number of other promising designs I tried, as well as to provide my impressions of several newly released games (many that are not yet widely available here in the United States).

Without further ado, let’s get to the games!  (As always, please keep in mind that these are prototypes, so the names, mechanics, and graphics are all subject to change.)



Alchemists will be the newest big-box release from Czech Games Edition.  It was the longest and meatiest game I played during the week, and (not surprisingly) my personal favorite.  In terms of length and complexity, I think the game falls right in line with one of CGE’s previous offerings, Dungeon Lords (though I should note that Alchemists is not a Vlaada Chvátil design).  It was also by far the most interesting and innovative thing I encountered.  Despite plays that clocked in at around 3 hours – teaching included – I made three different trips to the table to play this splendidly refreshing title.

In a bit of a twist, Alchemists employs deduction as a central mechanic.  But it is no mere “deduction game.”  Rather, the CGE folks have built up a full and engrossing worker placement game (or action-point allowance, depending on your perspective) around the deduction centerpiece.

In Alchemists, the players are young wizards studying alchemy at a magical university, seeking to unravel the mysteries of the universe by deducing the elemental properties of common magical ingredients.  Players use actions to gather ingredients, test those ingredients to make potions, sell your potions to traveling adventurers, most importantly, publish your theories (this is academia, after all!).

Publish or perish!

The conceit is that the players’ deduction is mediated not by other players, but by a smartphone app.  Want to know whether combining a raven’s feather with mandrake root makes a potion of health or a potion of paralysis?  Just scan the ingredient cards behind your screen and let the app do the rest of the work.  Theoretically, it not only prevents cheating but precludes the kind of innocent mistakes that ruin other deduction games.  CGE has been on the cutting edge when it comes to incorporating technology and board games, and Alchemists appears poised to continue the trend.  (NB: Every game I played featured at least one player making a mistake of some sort, but, because of the app, the mistake only affected that player.).

Alchemists was also one of the most divisive games at the Gathering, at least when it came to my circle of close friends.  This is because the game strongly incentivizes players to act on imperfect information as they continue to suss out the deduction elements at the heart of the game.  Need one or two more experiments to really figure out what nightshade is composed of?  Too bad: there is a conference fast approaching and you are desperately in need of grant money.  Better to simply publish something and hope you are not debunked down the road!  For players who like a pure deduction game, this kind of probabilistic risk-taking is likely unpalatable (in two of my three games, including one where I was the run-away victor, I still lacked some crucial information by game’s end).  And, of course, for players who don’t like deduction at all, a lengthy, meaty deduction game just exacerbates the unpleasantness.   But, for me (a long-time poker player, I might add), Alchemists was a near-perfect blend of information-gathering and risk-taking, a simply superb design accompanied by some really thorough and responsive development work.

For those who want a little more info, check out this video from Spielwarenmesse.

Five Tribes

Five Tribes is the newest Days of Wonder prototype from designer Bruno Cathala. Unfortunately, the details of this game are still under wraps, so I am limited in what I can say (though you can get a sense of the gameplay from this designer walkthrough video on YouTube).  What I can say: Five Tribes is a meaty, interactive, throwback Eurogame that I largely adored.  It pairs moderately brain-burning decisionmaking with tons of interplay variety, which kept me coming back again and again (I played the game four times overall).  It’s a bit of a pleasant surprise to see this one coming out of DOW, but I can’t wait to see what the finished product looks like on the table – and I suspect it will be there frequently.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Castles of Mad King Ludwig is the latest effort from designer Ted Alspach and publisher Bezier Games. Here, players compete to build the single castle most admired by the titular mad king, purchasing and then arranging variously shaped rooms and corridors to create a synergetic whole.

Alspach is perhaps best known to board game geeks for his 2012 hit Suburbia (though I am personally fond of last year’s One Night Ultimate Werewolf). As a design, Castles appears to be very much in the same vein as Suburbia, and I suspect both will appeal to a similar audience. However, the gamers I played with uniformly considered Castles to be the better design, and I must admit that I fell in love with this game despite my actively avoiding Suburbia just a few years earlier.

I had a VERY noisy castle (as evidenced by the red-brick rooms).

For a prototype, the gameplay of Castles was amazingly polished, and it would not surprise me if very little changes between now and its publication (which I believe is scheduled for Essen). Each round begins with an auction-like mechanic, in which the round’s “master builder” sets the prices of the available rooms. Players then purchase these rooms from the master builder (paying him/her directly), meaning that careful attention to the needs and capabilities of other players is crucial to good play during the price-setting phase. Players then add those rooms to their existing castles, attempting (and usually failing) to configure the Tetris-like shapes in a logical and beneficial manner. The rooms each provide individual benefits, as well as synergy bonuses or penalties based on adjacency to other room types. Although all players share a number of common goals each game, players can also accumulate individual goal cards, so players’ incentives tend to quickly and dramatically diverge. It was a personal treat to watch each castle unfold, and Ted has invested considerable work into making each tile unique and frequently playful.

The playing time ran just about 90 minutes with four players, and the combination of some healthy (read: non-destructive) interaction with Euro-friendly individual player-board optimization leads me to expect big things for the finished game. Having not played Suburbia, the comparison that initially came to my mind was Princes of Florence (though Castles is almost certainly less cutthroat, even with experienced players), a classic design that strikes a very similar balance. All-in-all, Castles of Mad King Ludwig should be yet another instant purchase for me upon release, and, due to its accessibility and smooth play, will likely see more table time in 2015 than either of the other two games mentioned above.

Well, that’s it for this time.  Stay tuned for GOF Prototypes (Part 2) in the coming days!

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9 Responses to Ben McJunkin – A Peek Behind the Curtain: The Gathering of Friends Prototypes (Part 1)

  1. Garry says:

    Out of curiousity, can Alchemists be played without the app for those who don’t own them? If so, does it then possibly introduce player error that would affect the other players?

    Thanks for the overview of these games…always interested in hearing more about the incoming crop!

    • Ben (chally) says:

      At the moment, no. Given the nature of the deduction puzzle at the heart of the game, I am not sure this could be done without a non-player moderator. Basically, the game asks players to determine the correct pairings of nine molecules with nine ingredients. Players discover this by mixing two ingredients and learning what kind of potion results. The type of potion indicates some particular commonality between the ingredients.

      Thus, the app is needed to reference the answers throughout the game in order to determine the correct output to player activities. This also allows the process to be different from common deduction games, since players do not need to depend on each other for information. (In fact, the mixing of ingredients is done in secret, so even though I may know that my opponent just made a potion of oblivion, for example, I do not know what ingredients he/she used to create it.)

  2. gschloesser says:

    I did not play Alchemist, mainly because I tend not to enjoy deduction games and I am still in the dark ages in terms of technology. Thus, a game that requires the use of an app will be un-playable for me.

    Of the other two, I thoroughly enjoyed both titles. I do think Castles would develop better if players were able to purchase room in lots of three as this would make the castle grow and develop faster.

  3. Valerio says:

    Ben, will Alchemists support 2-player?

  4. Dale Yu says:

    Ben – Castles is just about in finished form. We were using the GoF as a final set of playtesting. From my end (the developer’s) – I don’t think that the gamers there identified any significant issues in rules or gameplay, so the game that you saw will likely be very close to the production version at Essen 14

    • Ben (chally) says:

      I figured as much. Initially, I had a sentence in there referencing “evidence of extensive development,” but I cut it for fear that it would go to your head. ;)

  5. Paul Grogan says:

    Alchemists can be played without the app, but one player will have to act as GM. I’m about do attend a convention in the UK where I will be demoing this and I don’t have an Android phone, so I will be acting as GM for each game. When released, it will be available for iOS too. 3 hours sounds a lot. Even with teaching, I’m getting games done in about 2 to 2.5. And yes, there should be a 2-player version.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      The three-hour timeframe was perfectly acceptable, in my opinion. Rules usually took about 30 minutes, and then the gameplay would often be punctuated by questions from the players about some aspect or mechanic. I heard reports of other groups taking longer (there is certainly some AP potential here), but I was pleased with the pace in my games. I anticipate two-hour games with my group once I own it and everyone knows the rules – that’s roughly comparable to our pace in Tzolkin and possibly faster than my last few games of Dungeon Lords.

  6. Garry R says:

    Good to hear the app for Alchemist will be available for iOS as well. Will it work with iPads as well (and perhaps more specifically, will it work with the ipad 2? :)

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