Sorry it’s taken me so long to get the next segment in this series posted. I hate it when real life gets in the way!
Anyway, as I mentioned in my first Gathering article, one of my goals during the week was to play as many “new to me” 2014 games as I could. If you check out the number of games discussed in this article, you’ll see that I was pretty successful with that! All told, I played 18 games from last year for the first time. I also added two other games I had played before, in which my experience this time around caused me to re-evaluate them.
Since these games aren’t particularly new, I’ll focus on my feelings about the games and not deal much with their mechanics. They’re listed in order, from the ones I liked the most to my least favorites. I’ve grouped them by the standard OG ratings of Love It, Like It, Neutral, and Not for me.
One of the reasons I was so anxious to play all these titles was that coming in to the Gathering, 2014 was stacking up to be my worst year for games since I entered the hobby 15 years ago. I was hoping this exposure to these games would change that opinion. Overall, that’s exactly what happened, as I found a bunch of new games I would happily play again or even suggest. However, you’ll notice that none of these designs reached the status of I Love It!. Right now, 2014 is very much a case of quantity over quality for me. There’s a lot of games that I like, but almost none that I’m truly excited about. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but I’m hoping for better things in 2015 (and the year’s already off to a great start, with Marco Polo, Baseball Highlights, and Think Str8! solidly in the “Love” category).
So here are the new 2014 games I got to play in Niagara Falls.I Like It
La Granja: This is one of the games I had played before, but I felt like I understood it much better during my second play. With that greater knowledge comes a greater appreciation for this complex, multifaceted game. In fact, I now consider it my second favorite game from last year, behind only Orleans. This particular session was definitely one of my better game experiences from the Gathering.
The Staufer Dynasty: I usually make a point of playing the meatier Hans im Glück designs, but I didn’t know anyone who owned this one from Andreas (Hansa Teutonica) Steding. The reviews for it were sufficiently mixed that I wanted to try it before committing to it myself. But it was quite good and, remarkably, the estimate on the box of 20 minutes per player was accurate. Some have complained about the hidden goal cards, but in my game, at least, there wasn’t the kind of random overlap that can lead to problems. Lots of interesting decisions, moves fast, feels like a winner. Once again, HiG does not disappoint!
Quartermaster General: I am not a wargamer. I’ll take a stab at the occasional Weuro, but for the most part, anything involving the conduct of war is a big turnoff. But something about this new game attracted me, so I agreed to participate in a 6-player game. And I really enjoyed it. It’s a low density, area-based version of all of WW II, with the players arranged in two teams of 3 (representing the six major Axis and Allies powers). Actions are carried out using cards and each country has its own deck. Conceptually, it’s quite simple, but there’s plenty of decisions to be made. Best of all, it moves very quickly and there isn’t a ZOC or die roll in sight. Our game had an amazing finish (the Allies turning a certain defeat into a victory on the very last move of the game, in an almost accidental fashion), but I was sold on the game even before that. It’s probably something I’d only want to play a couple of times a year, but I’m already looking forward to a rematch at next year’s Gathering.
Patchwork: I rarely get the chance to play 2-player games and I’m not that fond of abstracts. So even though I’m a big fan of Uwe Rosenberg, this isn’t a game that I’ve sought out. But the opportunity to play it arose and I was really surprised by how good it is. Managing your buttons is a nice challenge and there are multiple strategies of how to best fill out your quilt. The game was close and was just a lot of fun. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked—this Uwe fellow has been doing it for a while now.
Scharfe Schoten: This is the other game in the list I’ve played once before. My second play of this trick-taking game reinforces that this is one of the better new ones from this overcrowded genre that I’ve played recently. Prior to the hand, you have to guess which suit you’ll take the most and least cards in, but the card backs are color-coded to match the suit colors, so you know the distribution of all of your opponents’ hands. This can lead to some real brain-burning analysis! Good stuff.
Royals: I played Peter Hawes’ original prototype for Heads of State at the Gathering seven or so years ago and enjoyed it. Eggert reduced some of the complexity in the published version and I thought it was to the game’s detriment. So I was a little leery of this even more stripped down version of the game from Abacus. But Peter assured me that I would like the changes and he was right. Now, the company may have helped a bit (if you can’t have raucous fun in a game with Christine Simundson and Toni Alspach, you just ain’t trying), but it really seemed as if the game had been boiled down to its essence. I liked the 3-player game, as we seemed to have good control, while still having a reasonable amount of player interaction. I think it would also work well with 4, but I wonder about the potential for chaos and downtime with 5. However, my fellow OGer Ben McJunkin thinks the game is best with 5 and the Geek agrees with him, so I may have to give it a try with that number. But if you’re looking for a straightforward majorities game that plays fast with plenty of choices, I can recommend this one.
Mangrovia: I hadn’t heard of this area control game from Zoch before the con and only wormed my way into the game so that I could get a chance to play something with Rick Thornquist before he departed, but I found the game quite nice. There’s an interesting action selection mechanic and the rest of the game is also well designed. Rick pounded us at the end with his amulet strategy, but that just means that I’ll have to pay more attention to it next game. Zoch has released a number of gamer’s games recently and this one should work well with both families and more serious gamers.
Age of Craft: Even though much of the gaming world has fallen in love with Japanese games, I’m not really jumping on the bandwagon. The minimalistic designs just don’t do it for me. However, there are some meatier games produced in Nippon that do have the potential to interest me and my buddy, Japanophile, and fellow OGer, Joe Huber, has an unerring sense of which of those will work for me. He suggested this dice game and sure enough, he maintained his track record. It’s somewhat reminiscent of To Court the King, because you’re using your dice to buy additional dice and dice altering abilities. It differs, though, in that the players draft their dice from a common pool and can retain rolled values from turn to turn, so there’s a lot more control than you’d often find in a dice game. There’s also a negotiation aspect, although that obviously didn’t surface during our 2-player game. The different abilities are interesting and you only use a small portion of them in each game, so there’s plenty to explore. I like dice games and this one is well worth playing again. Thanks, Joe!
Murano: An action-selection game from Lookout and the Brands, with the gimmick being that you need to move a gondola onto the action space you want and there may be traffic jams. It’s a solid game, but there’s a little more luck than you’d expect and the potential for accidental screwage. I’d be happy to play it again, but probably won’t be requesting it.
Abyss: This is the underwater themed game with the five different box covers. It’s gotten some mixed reviews, but we had a blast in my 2-player game. It’s a multi-faceted set collection game with a little bit of push-your-luck. It seems like a nice middleweight with a good deal of variety. I don’t know if the fun factor will be as high as it was with my first game, but I’d like to give it another shot to see if it can happen again.
Nations – The Dice Game: If you’ve played Nations, you have a pretty good idea of how to play the Nations Dice Game. Similar concepts, identical iconography, and a somewhat similar feel. However, it’s much lighter and much shorter, which is no surprise for a dice game. Even though there are reroll tokens, luck plays a pretty prominent role. I need to play this again, now that I have a better idea of what things are valuable in the later rounds, but I think the game has promise. A 40 minute game—now that’s Civ-lite!
Deep Sea Adventure: This is a short, minimalistic, push-your-luck Japanese game, which doesn’t really fit my ideal profile. But as a late night game at the Gathering, it’s an absolute hoot. On my first dive, I drowned without even getting close to getting back on board ship, so I resolved to be more cautious the next time. In fact, I turned around and headed back without even picking up any treasure, figuring it would be safer to grab stuff on my return trip. Naturally, thanks to high rolls and bad luck, I didn’t land on a single treasure and made it back to the ship, empty-handed, well before the oxygen ran out, to the considerable hilarity of my fellow players. I’m sure a bigger company will pick this game up and pimp it out with better components, which can only add to its appeal.
La Isla: Has anyone ever done a better job of employing unusually shaped polygons in games than Stefan Feld? Anyway, this is the lighter side of Herr Stefan. It’s reasonably interesting and a game I wouldn’t mind playing if it’s requested. But the luck factor is fairly high and it can be frustrating if you can’t manage to draw the kinds of cards you need. Since Castles of Burgundy came out over 4 years ago, Alea has released only one game (Bora Bora) that really suits my tastes (and which feels like a classic Alea). I haven’t given up on what is one of my all-time favorite publishers, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever see Alea truly return to its former days of glory.
Spike: Stephen Glenn has turned out to be quite the prolific designer; this was one of three recent games of his that was getting a good deal of play at the con (Lumis and Rattlebones are the other ones). Stephen is a buddy of mine and it’s been a huge kick seeing him grow as a designer. Spike is his most ambitious design and it combines lots of elements that usually exist individually in rail games. I can’t really judge this one properly yet because we had a weird groupthink in our game, focusing almost exclusively on building track early on and not on moving our trains. The strange thing about that is that train movement can be free (via an innovative rule) and yet we ignored it until later on. We also got another rule wrong. But the game intrigues me, mostly because there seems to be more to it than I thought there would be. Hopefully, I can play this with the right rules and the right mindset relatively soon.
Spellcaster: I never got into Magic and games which play (and are themed) similarly to Magic don’t have much appeal for me. But Dan DiLorenzo had us sit down for a quick play of this and I have to say, it’s pretty good. The game plays quickly and there’s scope for some nice tactical play. But there’s no deckbuilding required and it doesn’t seem as if knowledge of the deck is completely necessary in order to win. Both the 2-player and 3-player versions worked well for us. Nice little game from veteran designer Aaron Weissblum and newcomer Norman Woods.
Abraca…what?: This was my first play of this, since my home group hated their initial attempt so much, the owner sold it before I could try it. As a deduction game, there’s really not much to it. Fortunately, the questions you can ask of your opponents are all themed as magic spells, so you can ham things up a lot. And that’s exactly what we did when we played it, which actually made it quite enjoyable. So the players have to provide the fun, but that’s better than being no fun at all. On the other hand, after playing this a few times in succession, I was ready to move on.
El Gaucho: Dice selection game in which the dice are used to select (hopefully) high scoring collections of tiles. There’s enough variety in the options to make this reasonably interesting. There’s still a luck factor, but much of it can be mitigated. There’s also a Take That element which can be bothersome. I don’t think I played very well and there appears to be some meat here, so I need to try this again. But I’m not sure it will ever rise much above “decent”.
Tiny Epic Defenders: Pretty good cooperative game. I don’t think it’s going to rock anyone’s world, but it’s engaging enough, and that’s from someone who isn’t much of a co-op fan. Still, I’d be perfectly happy if this turns out to be my only play of it.
Rattlebones: The basic concept (the players can change the faces of their dice during the game) is excellent and the physical way in which it’s implemented is quite impressive. And you’re certainly given plenty of options, which makes the game seem promising. It did get kind of repetitious, though, and ran a bit long. Constantly changing dice faces also got kind of old. There may be balance issues as well, although I’m not sure if there’s a consensus on that. I think the game has novelty value and could easily do well with a more casual audience, but it didn’t really draw me in. Hell of an attempt, though, and it makes you wonder if the same concept could be used better in another design.
Not for me
Lost Legacy: If you’re one of the many people who adore Love Letter, feel free to ignore this paragraph. So I’m chatting with Aldie and Matthew Monin late one night and Scott suggests we try this new game, which is more or less a “sequel” to Love Letter. Matthew and I protest that we both hate Love Letter, but Aldie insists we’ll like the new game. Well, we tried it and if anything, it seems even dumber and more pointless than the original. Scott then says we might prefer the included variant, since it’s more complex. That was even worse (at least the first game was over sooner). Aldie, I love you bro (and you did make up for it later in the week, when you introduced me to Deep Sea Adventure), but that’s 20 minutes of my life I’m never getting back. I continue to be completely bewildered by the Love Letter phenomenon, and it turns out that a change of subject matter and a slight tweak in mechanics isn’t enough to change my mind. Obviously, I’m in the minority, but all of these games decidedly qualify as “not for me”.
So that was my 2014 Gathering experience and it was a pretty good one, even though I’m not sure if many of these games will wind up making the rotation. Next time, I’ll finish up the series with my impressions of the prototypes I got to play. Hopefully, the delay won’t be as great as it was with this article!