This is my second report on the games I played at this year’s Gathering of Friends. Today I’ll talk about the 2015 titles I tried.
Even though the vast majority of new Euros appear at Essen, there’s always some that are released during the first few months of the year. Some years, there’s a lot of good new games to check out at the Gathering and some years, the cubbard is kind of bare. There was a pretty good selection to choose from this year, including the game I was most anticipating and another one which was an enormous surprise. In all, I played eight 2015 designs during the con; here’s a brief look at each of them, together with my OG ratings.
The Voyages of Marco Polo: A Hans im Glück game from the Tzolk’in designers? Yes, please! I played this three times and it was my favorite game from the week. Actually, I didn’t play by the proper rules until my third attempt, which kind of makes it the quintessential Gathering game. But once we finally figured it out, I really enjoyed it. The central mechanic is dice-activated worker placement, but unlike a lot of WP games, you can still use an area if an opponent has used it earlier, by paying money to the bank. That reduces the frustration and adds to the strategy, IMO. The game’s most notable feature is that every player is assigned a character with special abilities and these are all really strong and greatly affect how you play the game. As someone said, “All the characters are equally unbalanced”. HiG has been on a huge winning streak with me lately and this only adds to it. I fully expect this to be one of my highlights for 2015. OG rating: I love it!
Think Str8!: Many of you may know that I’m a big deduction game fan and those who have played Deduce or Die must realize that I like them to be challenging. There’s been a ton of deduction games released lately, but many of them have been either too easy for my tastes or don’t seem to feature true deduction. So I wasn’t necessarily expecting great things from this latest entry. However, I really enjoyed it. It’s in the Code 777 family, since each players’ cards are facing outwards, so everyone but you gets to see what you have. It’s a more accessible and shorter title than many deduction heavyweights, but there’s still plenty of brainburning goodness in trying to figure out what your cards are. In fact, mechanically, it reminded me more than a little bit of my own Deduce or Die.
However, the real shocker for me came when I checked out the designer. It’s by Leo Colovini! Now Colovini is an accomplished designer who’s been creating games for almost 30 years. But his typical design style is games that are lighter and either very abstract or highly chaotic and that just doesn’t match my tastes at all. So for him to come up with what appears to be a first-class deduction game is hugely surprising. Good for you, Leo!
Now there are a few provisos here. I was only able to play the game once, so I can’t be sure how this will hold up to repeated plays. I also enjoyed the game considerably more than everyone else in my session, so it’s conceivable that I just wound up with an unusually nice set of deductive problems to solve. But the game is innovative and challenging, without requiring that you be a Rhodes scholar to figure it out, so I have hopes my future games will be just as fun as my first one.
I thought this was a published game when I played it, but it turns out we were only using a preproduction copy. According to the Geek, this will be coming out during the second or third quarter of this year. However, the rules are posted at the game’s entry, so it appears that the version of the game I played is the final one. Consequently, I’m classifying this as a finished game and not a prototype. This also means I should be able to write a full review of the game, which I plan to post here once I finish up with my Gathering articles, in the hopes of spreading the word about this very promising, and most surprising new title. OG rating: I love it!
Elysium: This set collecting game from Space Cowboys was one of the more played games at the Gathering. The most interesting thing about it to me is that each player has four flavors of drafting ability and they have to discard one each turn, so planning ahead (and taking contingencies into account) is important. You also have to decide when to keep your drafted cards (so that you can use their abilities) or turn them in for VPs. Not a huge personal favorite, but reasonably interesting and a game I’d be happy to play again. I certainly like it more than Splendor, which it was frequently compared to. OG rating: I like it
Cacao: A tile-placement game from Abacus/Z-Man and Australia’s Phil Walker-Harding. Each player has a deck of tiles which show a variety of workers on each side (each tile always has a total of 4 workers). You place these in the playing area, next to jungle tiles (and add jungle tiles from a common display to fill gaps). Placing workers next to jungle tiles lets you activate them equal to the number of workers adjacent to them. If workers are placed next to multiple jungle tiles, you get to activate all of them. It’s relatively simple and plays fast, but there’s some meat here. I think this would make an ideal title if you’re looking for a “next game” for a newbie who used Carcassonne as their gateway. I also heard a few people speculate that this might make the SdJ short list and that sounds like a perfectly plausible possibility. OG rating: I like it
The Game: This is a cooperative game from Steffen “Qwixx” Benndorf. The players have to play out all of their numbered cards onto four common stacks, two of which are ascending and two of which are descending. It’s more of an exercise in communication than tactics, but it’s still relatively fun. Since I’m not really a fan of co-ops, that’s pretty high praise from me. OG rating: I like it
Tschakka Lakka: Yahtzee-ish dice/set collecting game from Rüdiger Dorn. There is a central 8×8 display randomly filled with pieces in four colors and three heights. On your turn, you roll 4 dice that have the piece colors on some of their sides and spend them to move through the display, taking pieces that match the colors (more dice are needed to take taller pieces). You can reroll your dice, but you must use/lock in at least one die a turn. There’s also a push-your-luck element. Centrally located pieces are worth VPs, plus there’s end-game bonuses for getting majorities in each color. It’s pleasant and requires a little judgment, but it’s also quite forgettable. If you go in expecting a decent family game, you won’t be disappointed. OG rating: Neutral
Loony Quest: My problems with dexterity games usually extend to drawing games as well. I am neither artistic, nor the most coordinated bloke on the block. But even I can understand the appeal of this title, which is a reimagining of last year’s Doodle Quest. In each round of the game, the players are presented with a diagram that indicates which locations should be joined by paths, which items should be circled, or something similar. Each player is then given a transparent sheet in which they must draw the necessary lines, circles, dots, or whatever, completely free form, and only by looking at the separate diagram for reference. Oh, and you only have about 30 seconds to complete all this. When the time runs out, each player places his transparency on top of the diagram to see how well he did. Each player scores points based on how well he met that round’s quest. It isn’t as easy as it looks and it doesn’t really look that easy!
I started out pretty badly, but by the end, I was at least halfway decent. Because of my substandard drawing skills, this isn’t really a game I’m that attracted to, but my more coordinated opponents enjoyed it quite a bit. If the idea of this sounds appealing, I can certainly recommend the game. OG rating: Neutral
Kniffel Master: Yet another Yahtzee-type game. You may wonder why I even bother? Well, one reason is that I usually like dice games, but the bigger one is that this one is by Kramer and Kiesling and if they did a game about dog poop I’d probably figure it was worth a try. The ideas behind this are pretty good, in that K&K attempt to add player interaction to this genre by making this a race game of sorts. After each set of rolls, a player can either apply the result to a “coin” track or to one of the numbers rolled. The former can be completed multiple times and yields a VP each time you finish it; finishing number tracks also gives VPs, but each player can only work on three number tracks at a time. You can also get VPs for making certain combinations, like 5-of-a-kind or dice totalling 25 or more. In most cases, the first player to complete a task gets more VPs than succeeding ones. It’s pleasant to play, requires some thought, and has some nice variety. But it suffers from two of the principal bugaboos of dice games: the luck factor is pretty high and the downtime can get wearing. Overall, it seemed to overstay its welcome a bit. But families who want something a bit more complex than Yahtzee (or Kniffel, as it’s called in Germany) might well enjoy this. OG rating: Neutral
In my next article, I’ll look at the “new to me” 2014 games I got to play at the Gathering. There were quite a few!
As a fan of deduction games: There is a series from Gmeiner Krimiverlag which consists of a lot of games set in the crime-genre. Most (if not all) of them feature deduction in one way or another.