Gathering Memories: New Games

Well, another Gathering of Friends has come and gone and, as usual, I had an amazing time. Thanks so much to Alan Moon and all the other folks who do such a terrific job of providing good gaming and good fellowship for a week and a half.

This year, the focus seemed to be on medium weight and lighter games, particularly those that play very quickly. I was able to find some heavier games among the prototypes I played and some of those will be appearing later this year. I do tend to prefer more meaty games as a rule, but quite a few of the lighter games played very well and I had a good time exploring them.

Since I played over 50 different games while in Niagara Falls, I’m going to divide my report into three parts. This segment will discuss the new games (that is, those published during 2017) I got to play. I will talk about the older, new-to-me games and the prototypes I got to sample in my other two articles. But here are my impressions on the new titles I played, beginning with the designs I enjoyed the most. The number in parentheses is how many times I played the game during the week.

Valletta (2) – This is a fast playing deckbuilder by Stefan Dorra and Hans im Glück. Players begin with an 8 card deck, have a 5 card hand size, and play 3 cards each turn. Cards allow you to acquire or trade for resources, buy victory points, or build or upgrade buildings. The buildings are shown on tiles laid out in a public display and each can only be built once. There is an associated card on each tile and when the building is built, the building player puts the card in their hand. These cards are all more powerful than the starting cards. The buildings also have icons, which increase the yield of some of the cards. When one player builds their eighth building, each player shuffles their deck and plays until it is exhausted, with the most VP’s winning.

I struggle with most deckbuilding games, so this is the ideal level of complexity for me. The game plays very quickly and the publisher’s estimate of 20 minutes per player seems accurate. The quick turns are a good feature, but I also like the fact that there appears to be multiple ways of approaching things. In my first game, we didn’t do much deck-thinning, so I made a point of doing so early in my next contest. However, one of my opponents rushed the game end by building a bunch of inexpensive buildings. He didn’t win, but he showed it was a viable strategy; unfortunately, it hurt me, since my aggressive deck-thinning meant I had fewer cards to play after the ending was triggered. So there seems to be more to this than first meets the eye and it’s important to pay attention to your opponents’ plans. Very entertaining stuff, just as you’d expect from a pair of pros like Dorra and HiG.

Century: Spice Road (2) – This was one of the most played games at the Gathering and just about everyone I spoke to liked it. It has a bit of the feel of Splendor, but I thought it was considerably better than that title, since you’re building an engine. Turns go super-fast, but there’s still thought involved: first, in deciding what engine to build and when to stop building; and second, in properly executing that engine. It ain’t rocket science, but it’s still engaging, and far more interesting than I ever found Splendor to be. It’s also a gorgeous looking game.

I don’t know if this has a serious chance at an SdJ nomination (the timing may be wrong or the publisher too small), but it’s the kind of game I want to be nominated: very easy to teach, playable by families, but still of interest to more experienced gamers. My fear is that the current Jury will consider it too complex; hopefully, they will prove me wrong.

Bärenpark (1) – Phil Walker-Harding has certainly been moving up the publisher food chain. He began by self-publishing, then placed releases with Abacus (Cacao) and then Kosmos (Imhotep), which were, respectively, recommended and nominated by the SdJ jury. His latest design, Bärenpark, was picked up by Lookout, quite possibly because it features polyominoes, but also because it plays very well.

This is another title that’s super-fast and dead easy to teach. Each player begins with their own park area divided into 16 squares, in a 4×4 array. Some of the squares have symbols on them, which are associated with collections of differently shaped polyomino tiles (which are all bear-themed). Each player begins with one such tile in their supply. On their turn, the player places one of the tiles from their supply on their board; if any symbols are covered up, they get to take one tile from that group of polyominoes. One of the symbols allows the player to take another 4×4 park area, which they add to whichever side of their existing displays that they want. When someone completes four of their park areas, the game ends.

That’s the whole game. Some of the tiles have VPs on them; players also receive VPs for completing their park areas—the earlier, the better. In the “expert” variant, there are also some achievements that the players can reach, with more VPs for the players who manage those first. But even the expert game plays very quickly.

Despite the simple rules and fast play, this is quite engaging and requires some thought. Plus, the self-replicating tile concept is clever and a lot of fun. Like Century: Spice Road, I can see this being a big hit with mixed groups, or as an opening or ending game for experienced gamers. And, like C:SR, it’s the kind of game I’d like the SdJ jury to consider. Given how straightforward it is and Walker-Harding’s previous track record, I’d say it has more than a fighting chance.

Jump Drive (3) – Race for the Galaxy is a game I admire, but am not very good at. I struggle with the icons, as well as deducing what actions my opponents will want to take in anything close to real time. Consequently, I play this like a MPS, which obviously misses the point of the game. So if you think that a stripped down, fast-playing version of Race makes sense for me, you’d be right.

With only two types of cards (planets and developments) and a limited number of other icons, this is all about quickly building up your income, then finding a point-scoring combo and milking it for all it’s worth. It only takes one game to figure things out and then it’s off to the races (pun intended). It’s the cotton candy version of Race, but sometimes that’s exactly what you want. It should be perfect as a palate cleanser or while you’re waiting for the last player to arrive on game night. More good stuff from the very racy Mr. Lehmann.

Sagrada (2) – Sagrada must have been one of the most-played games of the week. This made me very happy, as it’s co-designed by one of my favorite Gathering buddies, Daryl Andrews. When I met Daryl a few years ago, he was trying hard to get one of his designs published. Now, he has not only arrived, but has a ton of games that will be published this year or in the near future. It’s nice when good things happen to good people and particularly when it’s someone who works as hard at his craft as Daryl does.

Sagrada is a dice drafting/placement game. Players draft differently colored dice to fill their displays. Points are scored for certain placements and achieving certain patterns. There are also ways of manipulating your dice. Finally, there are restrictions on which dice are placed where (for example, you can’t have dice with the same value or the same color be adjacent). It only takes about 45 minutes, has an attractive theme (stained glass windows), and the physical production from Floodgate Games is superb. It’s a solid game that should appeal to a wide variety of gamers and one I’d be happy to play anytime.

Yamataï (2) – This had to be the heaviest newly published game I played at the Gathering. Since it’s really only a moderately heavy middleweight (after all, it’s a Days of Wonder title), that neatly summarizes the lack of complexity in the new designs that were available for play. I played the prototype for this last year and really enjoyed it. For some reason, when I played the published version this year, it fell a little flat. Still enjoyable, but it didn’t wow me quite as much. It’s still an interesting game, albeit a bit abstract, and one I want to explore some more. Hopefully, this last play will prove to be an aberration and my future plays will reflect the enthusiasm I felt when I tried it for the first time.

Twenty One (1) – It’s funny how things change. 15 years ago, dice in games were scorned by most experienced gamers; today, we can’t seem to get enough of them. In response to that love, we’ve seen a ton of pure dice games pop up lately. This is one of the most recent, in which you have to fill in your sheet based on the values rolled (by you and your opponents) on the six differently colored dice. It’s pretty good, but I’d much rather play Qwinto; even the simpler Qwixx might be slightly preferable. Still, I’d be willing to give this another try, to see if there’s more here than I first observed.

Pyramid Poker (1) – I had heard some good things about this 2-player game, so I gave it a try. It’s played with tiles which show playing cards from an ordinary deck. First, the players build a pyramid from the tiles they draw, then they draft the tiles, one at a time, in order to form highly ranked poker hands. Unfortunately, I really didn’t care for it. The luck factor seemed quite high and coming up with decent poker hands was difficult, which made it feel pretty boring. It’s simple enough, so it might be a decent entry into boardgames for a pair of poker lovers, but there are much better 2-player games which are equally easy to teach. So I can’t really recommend it.

Those were the newly published games I got to try. Most of these titles are already available or will be available soon. The English language version of Valetta should arrive by July. The English version of Century: Spice Road should hit the shelves by mid-June. Bärenpark should be available by the end of June. And the Kickstarter copies of Sagrada have already been delivered; the retail version should be available soon.

In my next column, I’ll discuss the new-to-me games that I got to try during the Gathering. Highlights? Lots of stuff from Japan and yet more dice games!

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