Ben McJunkin – A Peek Behind the Curtain: The Gathering of Friends New Releases

Howdy, loyal readers!  It was a busy week for me, so I wasn’t able to get around to writing this, the third post in my series of recaps of my first-ever trip to the Gathering of Friends in Niagara Falls.  My first two recaps covered the prototypes that I loved (Part I) and those that I merely liked (Part II).  There were inevitably some that I couldn’t talk about, but this year’s prototypes already have me looking forward to Essen’s new releases in October.

I thought this joke was getting played out, but my wife insisted it continue.

Speaking of new releases, today’s post covers a large number of newly released games.  Because 2013 is so last year, I’m dealing strictly with the 2014 releases here.  Since that time period basically comprises the Nuremburg International Toy Fair, and not much else, these are a lot of games that have only just (if at all) reached game stores stateside.  hopefully this post will help you to parse through thi newest wave of games.


On the one hand, I am inclined to name Abluxxen the game of the Gathering.  I suspect I saw no single game being played as often or by as many different groups.  For my own part, I played this game seven times in seven days.  On the other hand, some large part of the game’s popularity was a direct result of W. Eric Martin running around with a copy, insisting that this was the greatest game of all time.  If I later learn that Abluxxen was the only game Eric played at the Gathering, I would not be particularly surprised.

Credit: W. Eric Martin

That said, this was probably my favorite of the newly released batches. So thank you, Eric.  A bit of a throwback card game, Abluxxen involves playing sets of numbered cards from your hand in an effort to maximize your personal ratio of cards played to cards held (that is, you want to have lots of cards in your tableau and few cards in your hand).  Cards played by one player can force other players to lose cards from their tableau and also to take more cards into their hands, so the game has a bit of a take-that element.  The last few rounds also require a fair bit of bash-the-leader play (at least at competitive tables), so this is not for folks who get squeamish about conflict.  It’s a super-clever game that vaguely reminds me of games like Uwe Rosenberg‘s classic Bargain Hunter.  When I later learned that this was in fact a Kramer & Kiesling design, my affinity for it made perfect sense.  It’s a game that several of us in my DC group will be looking to own as soon as possible.


Splendor may have been the other contender for the most-played game of the Gathering.  I did not notice it being played as often early in the week, but by the end it seemed the only way to snag a copy was to hover over someone else’s game.  Thankfully, this super-filler is short enough that such lingering was not nearly as awkward as it could have been.  Once again, hats off to the folks at Space Cowboys for excellent production values.  While nothing is everyone’s cup of tea, I heard a number of compliments ranging from the box insert to the card art to the hefty poker chips (as a poker player, let me say that the later is very noticeable and very impressive).  Of course, good production is meaningless without a good underlying game and Marc André somehow found the sweet spot, paring dead simple rules and thoughtful, engaging game play.  After narrowly losing my first game, I won both of my next two, so naturally this must be a game of great skill, suitable only for the brightest of gamers.

Camel Up

I get the sense that I enjoyed this one more than Dale.

I’m still not entirely sure whether I sincerely enjoyed Camel Up (frequently mispronounced “Camel Cup,” a name that actually makes more sense in my opinion), or whether I just enjoyed the amusement that came with so many serious gamers playing this light wagering game ironically.  Essentially, players are betting on the outcome of a camel race in which the camels largely move randomly (and thus the bets are, at best, probabilistic).  Pegasus Spiele overproduced this game in a number of ways, most prominently with the large, cardboard dice pyramid (which could easily have been replaced with a small cloth bag).  But that’s part of the charm, honestly.  This isn’t a heavy, thinky game.  It’s about silly fun.  While the underlying math is much simpler, I would put this in the same category as something like Can’t Stop, Sid Sackson‘s classic dice-driven filler.  I believe I played it three times during the Gathering.


Istanbul is a perfectly pleasant middle-weight game by Rüdiger Dorn and Pegasus Spiele. The game involves another variation of the walking mechanic that Dorn seems to have made his signature.  While most of the game is of the generic “collect resources, then spend them for points” variety, this particular mechanic creates a number of challenging action-efficiency decisions.  Broadly speaking, the idea is that players are incentivized to revisit the same actions that they have recently used, or else waste the occasional turn resetting for the next series of actions.


I hope no one minds me cutting this one a little short, but Han is basically China, which was basically Web of Power.  If you don’t already own a copy of Michael Schacht’s classic, you might as well start with this recent update, which also provides a second board for a little additional variety.  But there is not much new or different here.  Good, solid game.


Helios was a game that I had relatively high hopes for, mostly because I trust and enjoy a high percentage of the games Hans im Gluck releases.  This one, from designers Martin Kallenborn and Matthias Prinz, is a little on the shorter and lighter side than I usually enjoy.  The basic idea is a neat one: players draft actions, each of which can be implemented in a variety of ways, but which mostly involve building a personal planet and moving the sun around it in an orbit.  It’s certainly a strategic, rather than tactical game — one of those games where players pick one or two synergistic special powers and then relentless crank out points as efficiently as possible — which may be its downfall for many, since replay value seems low.  Once you’ve really perfected the handful of possible strategies, there’s not a lot to discover.

Yeah, I’m not much of a photographer.

This one was also marred for me by concerns over a dominant strategy.  I’ve only played twice, but my first game was won by a player who noticed that one particular approach did not have the built-in limitations of nearly all other paths.  Success seemed a little too mindless, but we were new.  I put the approach to the test in a subsequent game, and while I didn’t score as highly as I expected to (160 points), I still won handily.  If this issue turns out to be a non-issue, or if it is corrected, then I consider this a pleasant, well-made game, though not one I have any burning desire to play.

Piña Pirata

Piña Pirata was a bit of a pleasant surprise to me.  This IELLO small-box game is Donald X. Vaccarino‘s take on Crazy Eights.  The gameplay is mostly what you expect, but with one simple twist: at the end of each hand, the round’s winner selects a tile that adds a new rule to the game.  As the rounds add up, the tiles accumulate, making the final round considerably more complicated and chaotic than the first.  This is another that I’m inclined to chalk up as “silly fun,” since skill seems substantially less predictive of outcome than sheer dumb luck.  That said, I did win in a landslide, so perhaps there is more than meets the eye.

North Wind

A beautiful game.  But how does it play?

North Wind is the newest game from Klaus Teuber (of Settlers of Catan fame), and is being produced by KOSMOS (abroad) and Z-Man Games (domestically).  It is a truly beautiful game, as you can see in the above picture.  Though, sadly, little of that beauty is truly functional.  The gameplay itself involves drawing tiles randomly from one of three stacks in order to collect resources that can be traded in for points.  The boat mostly just holds the resources.  It was pleasant enough at first, but there wasn’t enough variety in the tiles to make different approaches truly feel like distinct strategies.  And the game outstayed its welcome, quickly feeling repetitive as it closed in on the one-hour mark.  In truth, this felt like a game that is already desperately in need of an expansion.  I will be curious to see if one is on the horizon.

Scharfe Schoten

Scharfe Schoten is another game in the recent trend of “trick-takers with a twist,” a group that includes some pretty good games, such as ebbes and UGO!  In this one, players predict in advance which color of cards that they’ll get the most or least tricks of.  To help with this, the game’s cards show their color on the back, but I still found it to be a bit too thinky and too hard for me to predict.  If you’re a particularly cerebral gamer, and you like trick takers, this might be up your alley. And that’s it for part 3!  I had originally planned for a fourth installment providing some overall thoughts on the event and on being a first-timer.  That may still come, though it feels a little silly as we get further away from the event itself.  Nevertheless, I hope you all have enjoyed this look behind the curtain at the latest and greatest from the Gathering of Friends.

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8 Responses to Ben McJunkin – A Peek Behind the Curtain: The Gathering of Friends New Releases

  1. W. Eric Martin says:

    AbluXXen!!! While Time Stories took up the most time of a single game during the Gathering — six hours for four playings — I played AbluXXen the most over 1.5 days, teaching it to five different groups and playing at least twice with each group. Such a great little game, but one that many people have played surprisingly wrong. I heard many instances of people drawing cards during play (instead of playing something) or placing restrictions on what they could play (based on their previous play) or scoring something other than one point per card. Strange. AbluXXen was the only game that I brought with me (and it’s visible in the Camel Up pic) as I wanted to play it as much as possible.

    Camel Up is indeed silly fun, and Dale indeed did not enjoy his time at the table playing it. I had a blast playing with seven players at midnight, then we had our solemn game with five in the late morning. Late-night chanting adds a lot of fun to the game as you celebrate the downfall of others and curse your own dread luck.

  2. Lucas Hedgren says:

    I declare the Helios dominant strategy concerns unfounded. Dale tried it and I whooped him. Now, it may just come down to a battle over which extreme strategy the players can exploit the best, and that might not be good, but I am having fun trying them out.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Do you happen to recall the scores? Helios doesn’t seem like a game that should vary too much from table to table, so it would be reassuring to know that your score was also in the 150s or 160s. The scores of the other players at my table were all 130 or less, if I recall correctly.

      • Lucas Hedgren says:

        I played the fast Sun strategy (very few lands, 2 temples, “10vp per sun rotation” building, “+3 per temple scoring” building, at least 6 on the sun track, then just go round and round) and scored north of 160. Could only afford 1 person, but it ended up being the “2x sun level” deal, for 16-ish points. Nothing big from the end game scoring, but I was alternately scoring 18 and 13 each sun move.

        Next, I want to try the big land strategy, with lots of special lands. Many of the people score synergistically with that, so pairing something up shouldn’t be too hard.

        • Dale Yu says:

          IIRC, Luke was around 170ish with his fast sun, I was 155 with the collect the mana strategy.

          FWIW, in my first game where I stumbled on the mana strategy completely by accident, my score was 231. That was a 3p game.

          And, I did not hate Camel Up. I just did not have as much fun as you.

  3. Lucas Hedgren says:

    Also, Abluxxen is great, Istanbul is great, Splendor is good, and Han is China.

  4. gschloesser says:

    We need to play more games together, Ben, as our tastes seem very similar.

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