Larry’s 2016 Gathering Adventure

Once again, the Gathering proved to be a week-long extravaganza of gaming and great fellowship.  It’s always the highlight of my year and I can’t thank Alan Moon and all the other folks who work hard to make it happen enough.

I feel fairly confident in saying that there weren’t any breakout games this year, either published ones or prototypes.  I asked a couple of dozen people if they had played anything that knocked their socks off and I didn’t get a single positive response.  Some years are just like that.  That didn’t mean there wasn’t lots of good games played, just that there wasn’t anything new that was incredible.

As I have in years past, I made a point of trying to play games from the previous year that I hadn’t had the chance to try yet.  Once again, I had success with this and I added a lot of titles to my list of 2015 designs I enjoy.

Here’s a list of some notable games I played during the Gathering.  Obviously, I can’t report on all of the prototypes I got to play, but I’ll talk about the ones I can.  Let me start with the designs I liked the best.

Grand Austria Hotel – So many of my gamer friends were recommending this one that I had to try it out and they didn’t steer me wrong.  There’s a lot going on, with a lot of interconnected parts and it comes this close to being too much.  Instead, it’s just on the right side of complexity for me and I loved it.  The dice selection mechanic works well and I really like that between passing for a reroll or spending dollars to sweeten a result, there are ways to mitigate against a bad roll.  This winds up in my top 5 for 2015, enhancing what was already a strong year.

Dynasties – The latest from Matthias Cramer, one of my favorite new designers of the past 5 years.  This HiG design includes everything but the kitchen sink:  card-driven action selection, majorities, some worker placement, a bit of dice rolling, and then in the middle of things, a game of San Marco suddenly breaks out.  But remarkably, it all hangs together and is a lot of fun.  There’s definitely some luck, but not enough to bother me.  This was the only 2016 published game that really worked for me during the week.

Concordia: Salsa – I’m not usually a fan of expansions and Mac Gerdts’ Concordia is already a very good game.  But I really thought the Salsa expansion added some spice to the original.  The addition of salt (salsa, for you Latin fans) as a wild commodity is a nice addition.  But what I really like are the Forum cards, which can be obtained when you Tribune (and the more cards you’ve played, the greater your selection is).  Some of these are permanent abilities and some are one-shot deals.  All of them seem quite significant, without being overpowering.  I loved how this influenced the strategy and differentiated the playing styles.  Based on this one play, my preference for future games of Concordia will be with the expansion and that’s pretty unusual for me.

The Prodigals Club – This is the spinoff of Last Will (by the same designer, Vladimir Suchy) that expands the game by letting you play two or three modules at a time (the modules require you to lose votes and popularity, in addition to all your dough).  I played the game with all three modules and I thought it was a significant improvement on Last Will.  I’ve always found the original to be too straightforward and have had considerable success with what I considered to be simplistic strategies.  But Prodigals, particularly with 3 modules, was much more of a brain-burner and represents the enhancement I felt Last Will always needed.  Your final score is equal to the worst score of the 3 modules, making things even tougher.  Definitely a game I want to play again.

Yamatai – This is a Bruno Cathala prototype for Days of Wonder that is scheduled to be released in 2017.  It follows somewhat in the footsteps of Bruno’s Five Tribes, in that it’s fairly abstract, very thinky, and very good.  In fact, I liked this better than Five Tribes.  Obviously, it’s still at an early stage of development, but I found there was an awful lot to consider and enjoyed the process.  I’ll be following the progress of this one (and it’s possible they change the name by the time it gets published).

Mare Nostrum: Empires – A reboot of Serge Laget’s 2003 Civ-style game, Mare Nostrum, by Academy Games.  Their goal is to streamline the game to greatly reduce the playing time (to 1.5-2 hours).  I love the original, but it usually lasted 4-5 hours.  The reboot played very much like the original, but they’ve added multiple ways of winning, which seems to be their main attempt to shorten things.  It was hard to tell if this was successful, because our game ended early (after only 80 minutes) with someone fulfilling the original victory condition by building the Great Pyramid!  We thought we had the big Culture guy blocked, but he managed to trade for 12 different resources for the win.  Still, it was a lot of fun and if they can truly turn this excellent game into a 2 hour design, I’m all for it!

Ticket to Ride: UK – What?  Another expansion???  Actually, I’ve always put the TtR expansions into another category, since they feel more like standalone games to me.  And I like almost all of them, but this could wind up being my favorite.  This is part of the Volume 5 Map Collection (the other part is Pennsylvania).  The technology cards not only add a good deal of strategy and variety to the game, they seem organic to the design, not bolted on.  For example, I had a strategy in place, but when I was blocked, I was able to grab a new technology to help me get around it.  I found that to be a very attractive feature.  Our game also featured a terrific finish:  I ended things early, with what I thought was a comfortable lead, only to see an opponent claim the monster 10 train(!) route to New York for 40 points on his last turn!  He won by half a dozen points.  Great game!

I will give one warning.  UK comes with some “advanced tech” cards and Moon has suggested that they didn’t get as much playtesting as the rest of the design.  We played with them, including one type of card, Water Tenders, that allows the player to draw 3 cards, not 2, when exclusively drawing “mystery meat” from the face down stock.  The thing is, there are only two of these cards provided.  The two players in my game who bought this tech finished significantly ahead of the other two players.  That’s obviously a small sample size, but there are numerous other reports of this tech possibly being unbalanced, so I’m a bit uneasy about this card.  I think I’ll take the advanced techs out of the game for now (which is more or less Alan’s recommendation) and just enjoy the basic game.

7 Wonders: Duel – Finally got to play this 2-player version of 7 Wonders and was very impressed with it.  I was surprised how different it felt from the original game.  My one possible concern is that the progress tokens you claim by playing a pair of matching Science cards seem quite strong and might imbalance the game.  I was blinded by science in my first game and it looked like it might happen in my second one as well, but I was able to sneak through a Military victory on the last turn.  Still, this is a superior 2-player game and I look forward to exploring it more in the future.

Council of Four – A title from the design team of Luciani and Tascini (Tzolk’in, Marco Polo) that’s been getting a little less attention than their more renowned efforts.  The reviews have been mixed, but I enjoyed it.  Of course, it helped that I ran away with the game.  All I did was follow the seemingly obvious strategy of building a string of connected Emporiums, thus getting the bonuses for each of them with every build.  The fact that I was able to pull this off and my opponents weren’t might show brilliant strategic insight, but it might also indicate that I was luckier than my fellow players, a criticism that has been aimed at the game.  This bears watching in the future, but for now, I count this as a good and interesting game.

Qwinto – Elevator pitch:  if you liked Qwixx, you’ll love Qwinto.  It’s a similar dice game, with different colored dice and non-active players having the option to add a number to their displays during other players’ turns.  The difference is the scoring is more refined and there are more interesting decisions to be made.  A gamer’s version of Qwixx, if you will.  We even played it once with 7 players (one more than the listed player limit) and it worked fine.  It’s not available for purchase right now, but this is a no-brainer pick-up once it is, as it would make a very nice filler for my group.

Pi Mal Pflaumen – A set collection game masquerading as a trick-taker from Matthias Cramer.  The cards you play to each trick determine the order in which you can draft them for your display (highest first, and so on).  Cards show different types of fruit or “contracts”, which give points for certain combinations of fruits.  The pairing of trick-taking and set collecting seems wonky at first, but it actually works very well and provides a good deal of thought and tension.  Cramer scores again!

Colony – This is the Bezier re-imagining of Age of Craft, a fine dice game that appeared in Japan last year.  There’s some dice drafting as well as dice rolling, which nicely reduces the luck aspect without totally eliminating the probability management.  Players use their dice to grab cards, which give them abilities (a la To Court the King) as well as earn them VPs.  Just as Ted Alspach did with Favor of the Pharaoh, there’s a lot more bling and a lot more options than the original game had.  I would have liked to see more dice modifiers in the abilities, but perhaps they just didn’t come out in my games.  This is due out by Essen, but the prototype we played seemed fairly polished to me.

Other items of interest:

2016 may turn out to be the Year of the Card Game Versions of Established Boardgames.  Yeah, we’ve always had those, but it still felt like an explosion of these games, as many of the best prototypes I played fit that description.  Unfortunately, I can’t talk about any of them, but you’ll no doubt be hearing about these soon enough.

The first game of the Gathering I played was Codenames Pictures.  That wasn’t much of a surprise, as it seemed to be in constant play during the first few days of the con.  I liked it well enough, but thought the standard game with words was much better.  For a while, though, I was living in fear that everyone would fall in love with the Pictures version and my beloved word version of Codenames would become impossible to get played.  Fortunately (from my point of view, if not CGE’s), after those first few days, plays of the game dropped off dramatically and I hardly saw any Pictures games played at the end.  I’m pretty sure CGE will still produce it, but I’m not longer fearful that the new version of the game will wind up killing the original.

Probably the biggest surprise I got during the week came from Ponzi Scheme.  It was certainly one of the hits of the Gathering, since it got played so often and many folks were effusive in their praise.  I wasn’t sure I’d like it, since I thought it might rely on bluffing and “playing the players”, aspects that don’t usually appeal to me.  But I thought it was quite good.  The idea of trying to survive an unsustainable economy is nicely executed.  As the old joke goes, you don’t have to be faster than the bear (market), you just have to be faster than one of the other fellows the bear is chasing.  It feels completely unique and fits its theme marvelously and those qualities alone are enough to get me to play a game.

Finally, my least favorite game of the week was West of Africa.  This is based on simultaneous selection of actions and features many of the issues you often find with that mechanism.  The problem is, if you guess wrong and duplicate what other players selected, they might take all the available actions before your turn comes around.  That happened to me twice during the game, resulting in turns in which I could accomplish nothing.  Not a whole lot of fun.  I also heard that there might be a dominant strategy, but by then, I had already put the title in my rearview mirror, never to be played again.

But that downer aside, it was a fabulous week as always.  I got to try loads of new-to-me games, some of which I liked so much that I’ve already purchased them, and was able to pal around with some of my favorite people in the world.  And in another 11 months, it’ll be time to do it all over again!  I can’t wait!!!

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5 Responses to Larry’s 2016 Gathering Adventure

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    I can’t figure out why people still try to implement the standard blind simultaneous bidding mechanic in new games.

    And it’s a little shocking that Moon admitted an expansion to his and Days of Wonder’s breadwinner wasn’t play tested enough.

    I always wanted to try Mare Nostrum. A 2 hour version would sure increase the chances of that happening!

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Jeff, it wasn’t so much that the Advanced Tech cards to TtR: UK was a less playtested expansion as much as they had some room for the additional cards, so they decided to include them, even though they hadn’t received as much playtesting as the basic cards. I think the worst you could say is that DoW was guilty of some naivete–if you give gamers an option, and particularly if you call it “advanced”, then dammit, they’ll use them! That’s why I mentioned the potential issue with the Water Tenders, to warn players of a possible inbalance, since the game plays so well with just the basic cards. As I mentioned, there’s plenty of other players who also feel it might be best to ignore these cards.

    As for simultaneous selection, hey, there’s plenty of players who like the mind games and reading of opponents that entails and don’t mind the ramifications if they guess wrong, so I’m not completely surprised it continues to be used in games. Just keep those titles far away from me, as it’s one of my least favorite mechanisms.

  3. Jeff, have you played Magnates: Games of Power? It has blind bidding (in fact, that’s the majority of the game) but it works if you treat it as a beer-and-pretzels game. I’ve played with my kids and we laughed so much that we got yelled at because we were making too much noise. I think that’s where the blind bidding works (and where it was originally targeted) — not in gamer’s games, but in family games where people are more interested in interaction and having fun.

    It’s funny because I’m not usually a fan of blind bidding or action selection, but the past year has given me two games that I like. The second is Volt: Robot Battle Arena and it’s another hit with the kids. That one in particular is my favorite simultaneous action selection/programming game (and one of the only ones I like).

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Thanks, Jimmy, for the suggestions. No, I haven’t tried the new games you mentioned. I do have a couple of games with this mechanism, but I prefer the quick, streamlined ones:

      Raj/Hols der Geier because you can’t get more streamlined than that,
      Die Mauer because it’s so beautiful and eye-catching with it’s 3-D wooden castle pieces, Get Bit! because it’s great with kids and fun to pull apart the robots, and
      Fish Eat Fish because it’s also visually appealing to kids and easy to teach.

      Most of the newer games try to add too much “game” to this concept, which not only makes them fiddly, but also very frustrating because of all the effort you have to put into that aspect, only to see your best efforts amount to nothing when someone just happens to play the same card as you do (even worse, when it happens multiple rounds!).

      So I’m not against the mechanic 100% like Larry is (I play more with children and non-gamers then he probably does), but I’m pretty much set with my “classic” games in this genre.

  4. Phil Bauer says:

    Thanks for the excellent report Larry! Maybe now we’ll see you on Saturdays for gaming. One point: Qwinto is available on Amazon, though it’s a bit salty at $10.73 + $3.99 shipping (not eligible for Amazon Prime). I did pay the premium to get it last month and I enjoy it a lot.

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