Gathering Memories: Prototypes

This is the last of my articles summarizing the games I played during last month’s Gathering of Friends. This time I’ll talk about the prototypes I played, at least those that I have permission to discuss.

I always look forward to trying out prototypes of upcoming games from established publishers during the Gathering. Getting a sneak peak is great fun and since the designs are usually far along in the design process, the gaming is often top-notch as well. This year certainly didn’t disappoint, as my three favorite new-to-me games during the week were all prototypes, each of which earned an I Love It rating. Here are the ones that I liked the most, listed in order of how much I enjoyed them. The number in parentheses is how many times I played them.

Heaven and Ale (2) – Eggertspiele is on a huge roll and this game looks like it will be another highlight. It should be ready by Essen. It’s quite close to its final form, so I’ll be able to discuss it in some detail. Just keep in mind that some things may change in the published version.

The reason for the somewhat peculiar title is that the players are each running a monastery and have been tasked with brewing great ale. You need five ingredients to make ale and the quality of the booze is only as good as the worst of these. Each player also needs to train a brewmaster to assist with the process.

It takes several steps to increase the quality of your ingredients. First, you need to purchase tiles. These are randomly laid out on the spaces of a fairly long track at the beginning of each round. On a player’s turn, they can move their piece as far forward as they want, but they can never move backwards (just as in Egizia and some other games). You can purchase any tiles on the space you land on. Each ingredient tile shows one of the five ingredients, plus a number from 1 to 5. Larger numbers are more valuable, but are also more expensive. Purchased tiles are placed on your personal display. This is a hex grid divided into two halves. Tiles placed on the shady side will yield cash when they’re activated; tiles placed on the sunny side will increase that ingredient’s quality when activated. There are also four kinds of monk tiles that can be bought and placed on your display.

There are several ways in which tiles can be activated. The principal way is through scoring disks. There are spaces on the track where you can pick one up and when you do, you place it on one of your 10 activation spaces on your board. Each space can be used only once and they activate your tiles in different ways. For example, there’s one for each ingredient type and when a disk is placed here, all your tiles of that type are activated, giving you either money or a quality boost. There’s also one number space and this lets you specify a number from 1 to 5 and activate all the tiles showing that value. Finally, there is a space for each of the four kinds of monks. When one of those spaces are chosen, all the tiles in the spaces surrounding those monks in your display are activated. As you can see, clever placement of your tiles will let you activate the same tile multiple times and that’s one of the keys to winning.

There are also a bunch of achievements in the game (for example, for getting all of your ingredients to a specific level) and the first two players to qualify for these and claim the achievement will earn VPs. These can represent quite a few points, so they shouldn’t be ignored.

There’s also a whole set of rules for training your brewmaster. High training levels are useful, since this not only determines how much ale you can score for at the end of the game, but it allows you to better use ingredients of high quality to compensate for low quality ingredients.

The game lasts about 2 hours, maybe a little less with experience. There’s a lot to think about, but turns tend to move fairly quickly. It’s meaty and has a unique feel, which is always nice. It was my favorite game from the Gathering and one I’ll absolutely pick up once it appears later in the year. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the weird title. We came up with the alternative name of “Drunk Monks”, but for some reason, the publisher wasn’t too inclined to switch to it!

By the way, the designers are Michael Kiesling and Andreas Schmidt. Schmidt has a handful of lighter games to his credit, but nothing of this weight. The rules state that the two designers have been working together since 2015 and that Heaven and Ale will be their first published game together. I wonder if Kiesling might be looking to the future—after all, even the ageless Kramer won’t be active forever. If the pair does indeed intend to work together regularly, all I can say is they’re off to a good start!

The Keyflower Card Game (1) – I greatly admire Richard Breese’s and Sebastian Bleasdale’s game of Keyflower, but I often struggle with it, particularly with higher numbers of players. There’s often just too much going on for my brain to process. Consequently, the sequel, Key to the City, has worked better for me. But when Richard mentioned to me that he and Sebastian were working on a card game version of Keyflower, I was very interested. It’s not slated to be released until 2018, so there’s no point in giving too many details about the current state of the design, but I’ll paint some broad strokes.

The elevator pitch for the game is “Keyflower meets 7 Wonders”. The auction is gone, as are the tiles. Instead there are cards which are chosen via a 7 Wonders-style draft. Most of the other elements of Keyflower remain. There are the same resources and tools. Many of the cards represent buildings, which can be activated to produce or convert resources, or to provide VPs. Buildings are placed in a single row in your personal tableau. Some buildings allow you to move resources from card to card or upgrade other buildings, just as in Keyflower. There are also cards that let you activate your own buildings or those of your right-hand or left-hand neighbor (and basically use their building’s abilities). And there’s lots of ways of scoring end-game bonus points.

I thought it worked really well. Since the original game is a bit much for me, the slightly slimmed down version felt perfect. It also plays very quickly, but there is still plenty to think about and you need to pay attention to what your opponents are doing. I’ve always been a fan of Breese’s, but based on this one play, this has the potential to be my favorite of his games. I can’t wait for it to come out next year, to see what the final product looks like!

Codenames Duet (5) – The third prototype I played that I rate “I love it!” was this 2-player cooperative version of Codenames. It’s been adequately explained by other bloggers, so I won’t bother with a rules rundown. I’ll only add that in the version I played, there were different scenarios which allowed the players to modify the difficulty of the game. If that winds up being part of the published version it’ll be a nice touch, to keep the game challenging as the players gain experience.

I found the basic version plenty tough, though, as only one of the five games I played was a victory. The way this has been modified for two is very clever and keeps the challenge of the game in a 2-player setting, which will obviously be terrific for a bunch of players. And, just like the original design, I can see this working for more than the base number of players, as you could take any number of participants and divide them into two teams. That could easily make this cerebral game into a more rollicking affair—again, just like original Codenames.

I spoke to Petr Murmak of CGE about the genesis of the game. He said that they weren’t planning on releasing a new version of Codenames this year. The thought was that they would let USAopoly produce the themed versions of the game (which have already been announced) and CGE would concentrate their efforts on other titles. But then they got a note from a gamer named Scot Eaton. Eaton likes to create fan expansions of popular existing games (past efforts include Settlers and 7 Wonders) and then ask permission from the publisher to create a Print and Play version. Petr said that Eaton’s proposed variant for Codenames was so good that they felt they couldn’t not produce it. So later this year, Eaton will find his name on the box of a CGE production, next to the great Vlaada Chvatil, which has to be every amateur designer’s dream. Way to go, Scot!

Whistle Stop (1) – It isn’t easy to come up with something different in the world of train games, but this new entry from Bezier Games may have done it; at least, it feels different than any train game I’ve played. It’s kind of a pick-up-and-deliver design, but there’s also special abilities you can buy, a majorities aspect, blocking, a bit of a race to the West Coast, fuel considerations, and the placement of serpentine tracks through the hex grid. It sounds like a mad scientist’s approach, but it all hangs together quite well and is a lot of fun, with some nice planning involved. It’s also the rare Bezier game that doesn’t list head honcho Ted Alspach as one of the designers; instead, this is by Scott Caputo, whose previous efforts include the Viking-themed Voluspa, another tile-laying game. Whistle Stop is scheduled to be released in August of this year and I’m definitely looking forward to checking it out.

Keyper (1) – Keyper is scheduled to be the first completely new “Key” game from Richard Breese since 2012’s Keyflower. Like the earlier game, this one features differently colored worker “keyples”, only this time, each color represents a different specialty (a concept found in other recent worker placement games). The game’s defining feature is a sort of forced cooperation. Each player has their own mix of keyples and there’s a central display with action spaces that yield resources and other things when occupied. Let’s say you want to place one of your farmer keyples on a grain space. Because you’re using a farmer, the space gives you 2 grain, rather than the 1 grain other keyples will earn you there. But after placing the piece, you must ask your left-hand neighbor if he wants to join you there. If he also has a farmer keyple, he has the option of placing his piece there as well. If he does so, you both get 3 grain, so you have an incentive to plan your actions so that other players will join you. If your opponent can’t or doesn’t want to join you, the option to join continues to the left, until one player agrees or they all refuse. These temporary alliances give the game a unique feel and are a principal consideration when planning out your turn.

There’s another aspect to the game that really fascinated me. Like Keyflower, Keyper is played in four seasons. At the beginning of each season, the board is remade, with different kinds of spaces being available. The way this is handled is quite remarkable; it really has to be seen to be fully appreciated, but I’ll do my best to describe it in words. The board is made up of four individual quadrants of 16 squares, in a 4×4 array. Each quadrant can be folded in on itself to create new configurations of spaces (some of the hidden spaces are on the back, while others are hidden within the folds). Believe it or not, each board can be folded to create twelve configurations—three for each season! It’s quite magical to see. The player chooses the configuration that she feels will best suit her strategy. In game terms, this is an easy and very non-fiddly way of providing different board configurations; in practice, though, it’s an incredible toy! I may buy the game just to play with the boards!

Keyper, which is designed solely by Breese, is slated to be released in time for Essen. It’s an interesting and meaty game and I’m sure Richard’s many fans will be very happy to herald the arrival of a new Key game.

Reworld (1) –Michael Kiesling might conceivably be positioning himself with a new design partner, but that doesn’t mean that the old one is out of steam yet. By my reckoning, this will be the fortieth(!) title from Kramer & Kiesling; the publisher this time will be Eggertspiele. And it’s an unusual one, not only for the redoubtable pair, but for any German game. The theme is pure science fiction, the terraforming and colonization of another planet. The basic concept is equally unusual, as the game is divided into two very different halves. First, you use a card-driven system to claim, and then load tiles representing terrabots, supply vehicles, shuttles, and satellites into the five areas of your spaceship. After several rounds of that, comes the second half of the game: the unloading. Since mankind hasn’t quite perfected the ability to beam those items down to the planet, you have to do things the old fashioned way, which means Last In, First Out from each of the five areas. Naturally, the order in which things are deployed matters, so the main skill comes from loading the items in the proper order, as well as arranging for transport (shuttles are necessary for most items and they can only move the item that was loaded immediately before them and immediately after them). Of course, your opponents have similar goals, so their actions have to be taken into account during the claiming rounds.

As I said, it’s an unusual game, and I’m pretty sure we all made some fundamental errors when we played it. So I’m not certain what I think about the game, but it does have promise. There’s also a good chance that some things will change during development. It’s scheduled to appear sometime this year and the hope is that it will be ready by Essen.

Middle Ages (2) – Outside of Codenames Duet, probably the prototype that got the most buzz at the Gathering was this super-filler from Hans im Gluck, designed by Marc Andre, of Splendor fame. It definitely feels like an Andre design, with its tableau-building and short, simple turns. There are 7 different kinds of cards and you draft one a turn from a display, paying extra for the cards further back in the queue. Different card types score VPs differently, based on the status of your tableau. That’s pretty much it. I’ve never been much of a fan of Splendor and while I liked this more, the basic version didn’t really grab me. Fortunately, there’s an advanced side of the player boards, which changes the scoring rules for the cards, making them more intricate and interconnected. I liked that variant better. However, almost everyone I spoke to about Middle Ages enjoyed it more than I did, so I have to feel it will be a sizeable hit, particularly since you know that HiG will do a great job developing it. I doubt I’ll pick this up when it comes out, but I’ll be happy to play it if someone else in my group buys it, particularly since it plays so quickly.

Alien Artifacts (1) – Ignacy Trzewiczek was demoing an early version of this game and I got the chance to try it. It’s billed as a 4X-style card game and it quite literally is that, since it’s built around four decks of cards labelled Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate. It’s still being developed, so there’s not much I can say about it, but it did play very quickly, which is pretty unusual, given the theme. Definitely something worth tracking.

Pulsar Syndicate (1) – Not much I can say about this one, but I did want to pass on the word that CGE is developing a new Vladimir Suchy game. It’s set in space, it has some unusual mechanics, and I’m not at all sure that this will be its published name. Suchy is a popular designer, but he’s only released one game since 2011’s Last Will, so there may be something for all you Suchy fans to look forward to.

Rajas of the Ganges (1) – This is a worker placement game from the Brands with a couple of unusual touches. Most of the actions require dice to place your workers and some of the actions require certain die colors, while others require certain dice values. You turn in your dice when you use them, so you’ll need to take actions which give you dice or let you trade one die for two. The other distinctive aspect is the winning condition. You keep track of your cash on a circular track, so you move your token counter-clockwise when you earn money and move it back clockwise when you spend it. You can also acquire fame during the game and that’s shown on the same track, except that your fame token begins at the end of the track and it moves clockwise when you gain it. The first person to get their money and fame tokens to meet wins!

It’s a multi-faceted game, with lots of different things you can do. That makes it the sort of game I usually like. I don’t know, maybe I was tired when I played it, but my one play just felt okay. I probably didn’t play very well and that may be influencing my judgment as well. But several other gamers were much more enthused than I was; in fact, some of them declared this their favorite game from the Gathering. It’s scheduled to be released at Essen by Huch and R&R.

Fantasy Realms (1) – This is a 20 minute fantasy-themed card game that is scheduled to be released by WizKids in October. The designer is Bruce Glassco, who had a big hit with Betrayal at House on the Hill in 2004, but has produced almost nothing else since then. Fantasy Realms is nothing like Betrayal. Each player is dealt 10 or so cards (I don’t remember the exact number) and then draws and discards a card each turn. You can either make a blind draw from the deck or choose any of the discarded cards. Each card gives you ways of scoring points, but they all require that you have certain other cards in your hand to do so. There’s an enormous amount of variety in the way points can be scored (and a good deal of text on each card). The game ends when there are 10 cards in the discard area and the player whose hand gives them the greatest number of VPs wins.

Needless to say, there’s all kinds of combos that you can utilize. Without knowing the makeup of the deck, my first play felt pretty random. I can see that improving greatly with experience, but this just isn’t the kind of thing I’m interested in devoting time to, particularly since tracking all the cards in your hand and their requirements can seem a bit overwhelming. However, I can see it appealing to a wide variety of players who will get to know the deck, and who will also enjoy the theme and the very nice artwork on the cards. And even if the game isn’t your favorite, it’s easy enough to play and is over pretty quickly, so it’s a harmless way of passing the time until the other table finishes their game. I suspect the game will do well, even though it’s a pretty atypical release for WizKids.


So that wraps up my impressions of the games I got to play at the Gathering. As always, it was a fabulous time, spent with fabulous people, and I’m still basking in the afterglow of my ten days there. I also can’t wait for some of these great new prototypes to appear, so that I can see what their final version looks like and get to play them once again!

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6 Responses to Gathering Memories: Prototypes

  1. Chris Wray says:

    An awesome write up, as always!

  2. reixou says:

    Thank you for this, Larry.

  3. ScotEaton says:

    Thanks, Larry! I’m glad that CGE is spreading my name around a bit. To note, I AM a professional designer, not just a “gamer”. I just don’t have many games out there yet. Codenames: Duet is a huge break for me.

  4. huzonfirst says:

    It’s very well deserved, Scot. The ideas behind Duet are excellent!

  5. Gedu says:

    Impressuve review!

  6. Gedu says:

    Impressuve review!

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