Larry’s Gathering Report: Prototypes

This is the last segment of my impressions of the games I played at the Gathering.  It’s always fun to try prototypes and I was quite favorably impressed this time around.  I will only discuss games that are expected to be published sometime this year (most likely during the Essen timeframe).  Since these are prototypes, in some cases I’m limited in how much I can talk about, so I’ll do my best to give you what information I can.  Here they are, in order of most to least liked.  The number in parentheses after the game title is the number of times I played the game.

Mombasa (2):  This is a meaty gamer’s game (and a Hippodice competition winner), just the sort of thing we’ve grown to expect from eggertspiele.  The designer is Alexander Pfister, and I may have to start paying attention to his games.  His previous releases include The Mines of Zavandor and Port Royal, both of which are well regarded lighter games.  2015 will be a big year for him:  besides Mombasa, he’ll be bringing us Alea’s Broom Service (which just snagged a Kennerspiel nomination) and Lookout’s Isle of Skye.  Don’t look now, but we may have a rising star on our hands.

Mombasa combines card selection and worker placement, set during the colonization of Africa.  Four trading companies do their best to rape the Dark Continent of its natural resources and the players can buy shares in (and help to expand) any and all of them.  One of the game’s central mechanisms is a simple, but clever way of playing cards.  On each turn, you play 3 cards from your hand, one to each pile in front of you.  Each pile has its own discard pile, made up of the previously played cards.  At the beginning of your turn, you claim one of those discard piles and add it to your hand.  So you slowly recycle your cards, but you have some control in how you do it.

The game is multi-faceted and there’s a lot to think about, with several interesting sub-systems.  I enjoyed my two plays a lot and see this as a must buy when Eggert publishes it (the current release date is September).  If you like involved, heavy, but not super-complex designs, I can definitely recommend Mombasa to you.  OG rating:  I love it!

“Codenames” (8):  This is the Chvátil word game that was probably the hit of the convention.  I was just as enthusiastic about it as everyone else was.  I can’t say too much about the game, but the best elevator pitch description of it is “Multiple Passwords on Steroids”.  My eight plays actually represent four sessions, since the usual way of playing this partnership game is to give clues to your partner in the first game, then to switch roles and be the guesser in the next game.  I love games which let clever people be clever and that’s just how this game plays.  Petr Murmak of CGE was indicating this could very well be available at Essen, but if it is, it’ll probably be called something different than Codenames.  OG rating:  I love it!

Porta Nigra (2):  If I showed you this game and didn’t tell you who designed it, odds are you wouldn’t have any trouble guessing it was by Kramer and Kiesling.  It’s all there:  a game about constructing buildings, a majorities aspect, action points, tight and interesting gameplay, just unmistakably K&K.  And another thing you’ll probably recognize—it’s really good.  In fact, this might be the most promising title from the timeless duo in the last ten years or so (right up there with Palaces of Carrara).  If you’re a fan of Kramer and Kiesling games (and who isn’t?), you should definitely check this out when it gets released.  OG rating:  I like it (and might well become “I love it”).

My Village (1):  This is a “sequel” to Inka and Markus Brand’s KdJ winner Village—it has a similar setting and theme to the original, but plays quite differently.  It’s another dice placement game, using a clever mechanic that is somewhat reminiscent of the one used in last year’s El Gaucho.  There were a lot of interesting decisions in my game and there’s a nice strategic aspect.  And yes, character death once again plays a central role.  My session did run a bit long, but that’s the sort of thing that can be dealt with during development.  But definitely a promising design and it could well wind up being better than the original game.  OG rating:  I like it.

Favor of the Pharaoh (1):  This is the expanded version of Tom Lehmann’s To Court the King, one of the games that was really responsible for the renewal of popularity of dice games that happened over the last decade.  I like TCtK, but I have to say that this is the game it’s always wanted to be.  Very attractive, almost over-the-top production, tons of variety, lots more interesting powers, and a more refined feel.  No longer do you feel as if you have to focus on numbers of dice, rather than on abilities, in order to win (although in our game, the guy who won did indeed go with a dice-heavy strategy).  This is only the second game from Bezier that isn’t designed or co-designed by head honcho Ted Alspach (Luke Hedgren’s Subdivision is the other one).  Pretty much an essential purchase for lovers of dice games; the only thing that might give you pause is deciding if you have room to store the enormous box!  OG rating:  I like it.

“Castaway Club” (1):  The latest from Vladimír Suchý, the Czech designer responsible for Last Will, Shipyard, and 20th Century, among other games.  I’m not sure if CGE has decided if they’ll be releasing this at Essen, but the version I played seemed fairly well along in the development process.  Just as with Codenames, “Castaway Club” will probably not be its final name.  The game uses the basic mechanics from Last Will, but instead of only having to divest yourself of all your money, you now have two or three “currencies” you have to rid yourself of in order to win.  (For example, in my game, the other currency was popularity, so you were encouraged to act like a dick, at least by Victorian England’s standards).  It’s a modular game, so you can use any two of the three currencies, each of which has its own boards (and its own actions), or all three of them.  I’ve always felt that Last Will needed an additional element in order to really click with me and this might well be the way to do it.  Let’s hope this sees the light of day later this year.  OG rating:  I like it.

Food Chain Magnate (1):  It’s been three years since the last Splotter game (The Great Zimbabwe), but here’s a new one scheduled for Essen.  I don’t think their fans will be disappointed.  It definitely feels like a Splotter:  heavy, detailed, intense, and pretty long.  The game is themed around constructing fast food restaurants, planning a menu, and then marketing your products.  But the main focus of the game is in building and maintaining your employee structure.  There’s a large number of potential workers to hire (arranged in a structure which vaguely resembles a tech tree), properly training them is vital, and sacking people at the appropriate time is also important.  Some of my opponents built up their staff to several dozen workers, so planning and executing all this is quite a challenge.  As is often the case with Splotter, I love the ideas, but find myself struggling to keep up with the deep gameplay.  Gamers who do a better job of dealing with these challenges should certainly keep an eye on this one.  OG rating:  I like it.

504 (1):  I think I may be a jinx for this game.  I played the prototype last year, had a hard time following the rules for the specific instantiation (I may have been tired), and didn’t really enjoy it that much.  I had promised Friedemann I’d give it another chance this year, so when I came across Chad Krizan and Matthew Monin getting ready to set up for a game late one night, the time seemed opportune.  However, what I didn’t find out until I’d agreed to play was that the two of them had asked to play an unusual and unplaytested combination (598, to be exact), even though Friedemann had warned them it might be a little rough.  The game turned out to be pretty interesting, but ran long.  If this had been a standard game with a fixed set of rules, I probably wouldn’t have thought it worth a second play.  Matthew and Chad, though, quite enjoyed it.

I continue to be a bit skeptical about the game system.  It’s a remarkable achievement by Friese and I give him a huge amount of credit for even attempting such an audacious project.  But I feel that when you’re designing a game, its main mechanics represent only about 80% of the effort required, with the other 20% being setting starting conditions, making the money and resources be tight, getting the VPs to be fair and competitive, and other such tuning.  And in my experience, it’s that last 20% that makes the difference between a good game and a great one.  It’s just hard for me to believe that the majority of the games you can generate from this system will be so finely tuned.  If I was starting my game collection from scratch, 504 sounds like a fabulous first purchase, giving me all kinds of variety for my money.  But I own hundreds of games, so I don’t need a few hundred good new games; I need a handful of great ones.  Maybe 504 will deliver on its promise—if anyone can pull this off, it’s Friese—and the Geek will be full of particularly good combinations for folks to check out once it’s released.  But as of now, I remain in “you’ll have to show me” mode.  OG rating:  Unknown (and possibly unknowable).

Bau! (1):  Speaking of Friese, here’s something completely different from the Man in Green—a dexterity game with a high hilarity factor.  You roll a die and have to stack the indicated wooden piece onto the pile without it toppling.  Good silly fun for people with greater manual dexterity than me, although I found myself cheering along with the rest of the table.  This is slated to be one of the many eggertspiele games to be released at this year’s Essen.  OG rating:  Neutral.

That’s the report, in all its glory.  As always, I had a fabulous time.  I hope I was able to provide some useful information and look forward to doing it again next year!

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4 Responses to Larry’s Gathering Report: Prototypes

  1. Gil Hova says:

    Hi Larry, thanks for the roundups!

    Not to sound too plaintive, but didn’t you get to try my game Bad Medicine too? You seemed to enjoy it, but in case you didn’t, I’m fine with a poor or mediocre review. I’m not as concerned about you possibly not liking the game as I am about a Larry-like dopplegänger throwing the Gathering into total chaos. Just imagine!

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Yes, multiple Larrys would not be a good thing. Although it might make it easier to find a partner who can actually understand my Time’s Up clues!

    I did play Bad Medicine with you, Gil, and I did enjoy it. But I wanted to restrict my report to games from established publishers that are scheduled to be released this year. I played quite a few prototypes other than the ones I mentioned here and some of them are being looked at by publishers. But since most of those are still uncertain to get published (and even the ones who do make it will probably be changed quite a bit during development), I figured there wouldn’t be much usefulness in reporting on them.

    Now I admit that I’m not at all in tune with the world of Kickstarter. Looking at the game’s entry on the Geek, I see that it’s scheduled to be self-published via Kickstarter. I honestly don’t know if that makes it likely to be released this year or not. But it was that lack of awareness of the game’s status that led to my omitting it from my report, not any concerns about its quality. Hope you understand.

  3. Gil Hova says:

    No problem, Larry! The game is actually at the printer now, and will be out by September of this year.

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