Larry Levy: My Gathering Impressions (Published Games)

I spent nine days at the 2014 Gathering of Friends and as usual, I had a fabulous time.  Most of that was due to the great people and time spent catching up with old friends because, to be perfectly honest, the new games I played weren’t up to their usual standard.  This was a sentiment I heard from quite a few of the people I spoke to there.  It wasn’t that there were no good or interesting games available, just that there are usually a lot more really notable ones.  Much of this may be based on my preference for heavier designs–in the latest issue of Spielbox magazine, they mentioned that almost all of the Nuremberg games were of the lighter variety and my limited sampling certainly supports that.  Oh well, they can’t all be amazing years and even with substandard titles, this remains the best week of the year for me.

I thought I’d give my impressions of the new things I got to try in a couple of articles.  This one will focus on the published games I played; the next article will deal with the prototypes that appear to be well on their way toward getting published.  I’ll give each game an OG-style rating and the number in parentheses after the name of the game is the number of times I played it.  Here’s the list, from most to least favorite:

Helios (2) – Hans im Gluck’s latest was easily my favorite published game I played all week.  It’s a standard action selection game, in which you produce resources that you use to buy things that give you abilities and VPs, just like a million other games.  What makes it different is that each player has a sun token on their personal board and one type of action allows you to rotate your sun on the perimeter of your lands.  When the sun lands next to tiles, it can produce resources or generate VPs.  This, together with some powerful special abilities, gives the game a different and interesting feel.  Best of all, it plays very fast, so that you have a meaty game that only takes 75 minutes (and with a little experience, 60 minute games will probably be the norm).

However, even with my gaming highlight, there were a couple of issues.  My first concern is replayability.  There are definitely multiple paths to victory (probably at least 4 or 5 of them), but they all stem from which buildings are constructed and which characters are acquired.  The problem is that buildings are obtained from a personal board, so that they’re always available, and there are only 8 characters.  There’s only a small amount of variability in the game and, specifically, the same set of characters is used every game.  So my fear is that once you figure out the best way of carrying out each strategy, the game will basically be solved.  This might take a little while and I’m sure I’d have fun while working things out, but I can certainly see my fellow gamers who analyze games more deeply than I do figuring this one out in a hurry.  I can’t be sure this will be the case, but it’s definitely a potential problem.

The other issue is that there may be a dominant strategy.  For those who have played the game, it requires grabbing the character that gives bonus points for cubes and mana stones and then trying to acquire as much of both of those as you can.  It’s a pretty simple-minded strategy, so it’s hard for me to believe that a first-class publisher like HiG didn’t test it, but I heard some reports that it couldn’t be beaten.  I hope that neither of these issues turns out to be a problem, but even though I enjoyed my games quite a bit, I’ll probably wait for some more reviews before deciding if I want to pick this one up.
My rating:  I love it (provisionally)!

Istanbul (3) – During the first half of the 00’s, Rüdiger Dorn was on a real hot streak, with great games like Goa, Traders of Genoa, Jambo, and Louis XIV.  Either he ran out of ideas or he figured there was more money to be made with lighter titles, because just about everything from him since then has been aimed at families.  Istanbul is only a middleweight, but it still represents at least a partial return to his glory days.

It’s also a return to Dorn’s beloved walking mechanic, which he uses (always slightly differently) in so many of his great games.  This time, your main piece is a merchant, a disk which is stacked on top of four assistant disks.  You move through a 4×4 grid of tiles and at the end of every move, you poop out an assistant by leaving the bottom disk on the destination tile.  If you move to a tile where you’ve previously dropped an assistant, instead of pooping one out, you add that disk to your stack.  Eventually, you’ll run out of assistants and you’ll have to return to the start space, where you can reform your stack.  You can do various things on the tiles, including acquiring gems and money.  The object of the game is to be the first to earn 5 rubies, which can be gained on certain tiles by spending money, turning in certain combinations of gems, and buying pairs of items.  Three different tile arrangements are provided in the rules and I’m sure players will be able to figure out other good ones to use as well.

The movement mechanic means that you have to plan things out and figuring out how to best acquire rubies makes for a nice challenge.  But it’s more pleasurably thinky than hugely brain-burning.  That, combined with its speed of play (my last 4-player game only took about 45 minutes), makes it a very welcome experience.  I can see this game being popular with a wide variety of gamers.
My rating:  I like it.

Kashgar (2) – This is a merchant-themed quasi-deckbuilder released last Essen by Kosmos.  It’s a text-heavy game that is currently only available in German.  I was lucky enough to play my first game with Kris Gould’s beautifully pasted-up English version.

Each player has three “caravans”, which consist of a line of face-up cards.  At the start of the game, each caravan has only 2 cards in it.  On your turn, you activate a card from the head of one of your caravans and then place the card at the end of that caravan.  Different cards allow you to acquire resources or to fulfill contracts by spending resources (there is always a common display of four contract cards available).  Quite a few cards require you to add new cards to your caravan, which give you additional abilities, but also clog things up and increase the time it takes to get your best cards back to the head of the line.  Fortunately, there are also a few cards that allow you to discard other cards.  The first player to reach 25 VPs (which come mostly from fulfilling contracts) wins.

Getting the balance right between adding new abilities and acquiring too many cards requires good planning.  This is good, because outside of the competition for contracts, the game is mostly multi-player solitaire.  I still found it quite interesting, though, and will think seriously about picking up a copy of an English version, whenever one becomes available.  For some reason, there’s often quite a delay for English versions of Kosmos games to appear–let’s hope this will be an exception!
My rating:  I like it.

Abluxxen (3) – There’s a bit of a fall-off to the next group of games, but they still fall into the “I like it” category.  Abluxxen is a tricky little Kramer/Kiesling card game that had to be one of the most played games at the Gathering; just about every time I walked through the ballroom, I saw at least one game of it being played.  The rules are simple, although a bit non-intuitive; playing the game is just as easy, but there’s more to the strategy than is initially apparent (particularly when you should stop collecting cards and focus on going out).  One nice aspect is that the game can play very differently depending on what cards are in the display.  If there are pairs or high values available, many players will play cards which are easy to “abluxx”, in the hopes of grabbing some upgrades; if the pickings are poor, more cautious play is the order of the day.

Abluxxen is a very nice filler that should appeal to both casual and serious gamers and could easily wind up being a hit.  I think it has an excellent chance of making the Spiel des Jahre shortlist and, given the recent trend towards card game winners, might even give Kramer his sixth SdJ award.  Wouldn’t that be something!
My rating:  I like it.

Basari: Das Kartenspiel (1) – This is the third version of Reinhard Staupe’s venerable Basari.  The original came out in 1998 and Alea alea-ed it up as Edel, Stein & Reich in 2003.  All three games have the same central concept:  each player selects one of three Action cards simultaneously each turn.  If a player is the only one selecting an Action, she gets to carry it out.  If three or more players choose the same action, none of them do it.  And if two players select the same action, they take turns offering gems to the other player, with each offer being higher than the previous one, until one of them accepts the offer and takes the gems, while the player giving the gems carries out the action.  In this latest version 0f Basari, the dice rolling and event cards from previous editions are dispensed with, so that the game is boiled down to its most basic form.  This is done by giving each player, at the start of every turn, a card with different possibilities for gaining VPs and gems, if they choose those actions.  This works well and the game skims along very quickly.

There are two reasons why Basari keeps coming back in various formats:  1) anticipating what your opponents will do is somewhat predictable and quite enjoyable; and 2) the gem negotiating when two players select the same action is really interesting.  A small advantage in gem holdings by one player can really make a difference if he makes the proper offer and recognizing this affects all aspects of the game (particularly, which Action card you choose originally).  I like this part of the game so much that it makes up for the necessarily chaotic gameplay and the luck factor from what cards the players receive.

With the rules in the box, there’s something I view as a flaw, but this can be easily dealt with by using a variant.  Since I rate games based on their optimal conditions, this is enough to convert this into a game I’d like to play.  I plan on writing up a full review of the game for OG as soon as I finish up my Gathering impressions, including a couple of variants that I think might improve the title.
My rating:  I like it.

Sail to India (1.25) – The one and a quarter plays is because my first exposure came when I replaced a player at the end of a game.  I then got a chance to play a full game later on.  This is one of the many minimalistic games coming out of Japan and I like it better than just about all of the others because it plays like a boardgame, rather than a psychological guessing game.  The players are discovering new lands, selling trade goods, buying buildings, and inventing new technologies, all accomplished with two dozen cards and a handful of cubes.  It’s quite clever and there appears to be several viable strategies, whose success will depend on what actions your opponents take.  Appropriately for a game themed around exploration, there’s quite a bit to explore here and I continue to be impressed by the designer, Hisashi (“Trains”) Hayashi.
My rating:  I like it.

Citrus (1) – I finally got a chance to meet my long-time penpal, Jeff Allers, a month ago, and I was delighted to find him just as friendly and fun to be with in person as he is in print.  I try to play as many of Jeff’s games as possible, but I hadn’t managed to check out Citrus yet.  This was my chance.  It’s basically an abstract, a genre I’m usually not too fond of, but I much prefer things if there’s an economic element (Kramer’s Hacienda is an excellent example).  Citrus includes that aspect and it made for a challenging game.  Getting the timing of when the different fincas will score (which affects when you want to cash in on them) will take some experience, as will accepting the fact that many of your plantations are, by necessity, short-lived.  I don’t think this is up to the level of Jeff’s New Amsterdam, which remains my favorite of his designs, but it’s still a game I’ll be very happy to play.
My rating:  I like it.

Lewis & Clark (1) – Man, I don’t know what I think about this game!  The beginning was very frustrating, with lots of mountain cards in the display (and late in the game, a ton of river cards came out!).  My base camp moved steadily backward until I realized the necessity of adding boats to my board.  Things went more smoothly after that and I managed to win the game, beating my opponents by a single turn.

Still, I’m not sure.  The mechanic where you get to add matching icons of your neighboring opponents to the impact of your action annoyed me more than anything else.  Taking advantage of it seemed more like a coincidence than real planning and I soon got tired of asking how many icons were showing in my opponents’ displays (as I had trouble distinguishing them, even in a three-player game).  Additionally, we all seemed to latch onto a basic strategy, based on one or two cards, and then pushed it for all it was worth.  That probably comes from lack of experience, but it certainly gave the game an odd feel, particularly given all the cards provided.

So while I certainly wouldn’t rule out trying Lewis & Clark again, I’m not going to seek it out.  And it won’t bother me if my first play turns out to be my last, which is kind of a shame as it seemed promising and I love the theme.
My rating:  Neutral

Splendor (2) – My first game of this took way too much time, with my opponents taking long, pondering turns.  I hated it.  Not only was the downtime crushing, but the overall concept seemed very stripped down and basic.  I much prefer games that are at least a little less straightforward.  I avoided it for the rest of the con, until the last day, when I grudgingly agreed to play it with a couple of friends.  I’m glad I did, because they played much faster (which is clearly the way the game is intended to be played) and as a result, the game was much more palatable to me.  Ironically, I won the game I hated and finished far behind in the game I liked better!  I still feel the game has too few moving parts for my tastes, but at least I won’t be ruling it out in the future.  I have no complaints about the components, however; they are top-notch, which it appears will be a feature of Space Cowboys titles, based on this and some prototypes I tried during the week.
My rating:  Neutral

New Haven (1) – Brian Leet’s first published game is an abstract with economic elements, just like Citrus.  This one didn’t work as well for me, though.  The luck factor seemed to play a greater role, although it’s possible I had an unusual amount of misfortune.  My opening tiles were all high valued (all 5’s and 6’s, except for one 4), which made it difficult to build things at full value early on.  Throughout the game, the availability of crucial tiles seemed to have a big effect on one’s success and it felt as if that pretty much came down to luck.  It’s very possible, though, that this can be mitigated with more experience.  I wouldn’t mind playing this again to see if my concerns are unwarrented, but I’m not really in a great hurry to do so.  Sorry, Brian!
My rating:  Neutral

Camel Up (1) – This looks like some silliness wrapped in a betting game (including having the camels pile on top of each other as they run the race), but there’s actually a little bit of judgment that can be brought to bear.  In the end, though, you will profit far more if you are fortunate than if you are skillful.  It’s a harmless piece of fluff and the game was entertaining enough, but I really don’t need to play it again.
My rating:  Neutral

North Wind (1) – The main draw of the game is the ingeniously designed three-dimensional ships.  They’re really nothing more than an elaborate player board, but they certainly add to the playing experience.  Unfortunately, the game overstays its welcome by quite a bit.  There are some clever ideas and it’s by no means a bad game, but it takes a while for things to get moving and that’s more time than this title is worth.  I tend to admire Teuber’s designs more than I like them and sadly, that is again the case here.
My rating:  Neutral

A Study in Emerald (1) – Even though I’m a big fan of Wallace, I honestly didn’t think I’d like this game.  I’m not a fan of hidden identities, I dislike chaos, and the theme does nothing for me.  Still, I figured I should try it out, so when two buddies asked to play it, I readily agreed.  Unfortunately, I liked it even less than I thought I would.  The opening, when you have no idea who anyone is, felt haphazard and the deckbuilding didn’t feel focused (I did a lot of churning via discarding).  For the most part, I didn’t find the things I was doing all that enjoyable.

My real issues with the game, however, came later on.  I guess the point is to keep your identity hidden for as long as you can (not my idea of a good time), but for better or worse (and in the interest of scoring points that actually count for you), we all knew everyone’s role about halfway through the game.  At that point, things became rather unstable.  We had three Restorationists and one Loyalist, so in order for us Restorationists to have a chance, we had to make sure the lone Loyalist was in last place.  But there couldn’t be complete cooperation to achieve this goal, since two of the allies (the ones not in first place) would only be swapping one opponent from winning in favor of another one.  And without coordinated teamwork, the battles often turned into tit-for-tat affairs (I place 2 units, the owner of the city responds with 2 of her own, and so on).  So there was a good deal of thrashing about with very little being accomplished.  It didn’t help that the game ended via a chance event (one of the Restorationists went insane, due to an unfortunate pick from the deck), although by that point I’m pretty sure we were all happy it was over.

I’m not surprised that the game is popular, because Wallace knows his stuff, so if this kind of thing appeals to you, it’s probably a lot of fun.  But it is absolutely not the game for me.  I’m really looking forward to Martin’s 2014 games (Ships, in particular), but it would probably take threats from Cthulhu himself to make me play this again.
My rating:  Not for me.

So that’s my quickie impressions of the published games I played at the Gathering.  It was an off year, but I still had a terrific time.  Because even when the games aren’t as good as usual, you’re still playing games!

Next, I’ll give my take on the prototypes I got to play.  They also weren’t quite up to snuff, although one of them provided my favorite gaming experience at the Gathering.  If you want a hint which one it was, just remember:  if you design it, they will come (but only if you bring the 3-in-One oil as well)!

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