I hadn’t been to a game convention in almost 4 years. That’s practically a lifetime in the world of board games. I used to go multiple times per year — but then along came baby and other life upheaval.
That all changed last month when I dipped my toe back into the water — or dove in head first, as the case may be — with a week at the Gathering of Friends in snowy, frigid Niagara Falls, New York.
Not only had I been absent from conventions, but I’d also taken an extended break from playing or learning about new games. As a result, the convention had me frequently out of the loop when people raved about the latest hotness under the assumption that such games were presumably common knowledge. This was a new and unfamiliar feeling given my obsession in a former life with knowing and trying every new game — but it also gave me a different perspective on all of the games and prototypes that I had the chance to try.
Cutting to the chase, the hits of the week for me were Decrypto, The Mind, Illusion, Penny Papers, and Spirit Island. This Wolfgang Warsch fellow is clearly someone to watch, with four new games in 2018 alone! Below I’ll work my way through the week chronologically, touching on all of these fascinating games and many far less fascinating ones while I’m at it.
Sunday: Once More unto the Breach
The convention started off inauspiciously enough with my flight from Washington, D.C. to Buffalo being canceled while I was sitting at the gate waiting to board, so I made the — some might say — rash decision to drive instead. After winding my way through the interminable Pennsylvania, I arrived and was promptly greeted by many friendly familiar faces. Board gamers are pretty great people!
I kicked off the reunion tour with a customized version of Oink Games’ Deep Sea Adventure, which looked something like this. Deep Sea Adventure is a cute push-your-luck Japanese game, not unlike Diamant / Incan Gold, but I don’t find it to be quite as clever or unique as Insider or A Fake Artist Goes to New York (also by Oink). I followed this up with a Richard Breese prototype before heading to a dinner consisting of far too many buffalo wings.
I returned for an evening of being introduced to some truly excellent games! The Mind, by Wolfgang Warsch, is a brilliant little card game (or activity, as some may derisively describe it). It’s so clever that it feels obvious and intuitive, and as if someone should’ve invented it long, long ago. It gave me the same feeling as learning Mysterium and thinking that it’s a game that makes so much sense that it should’ve already existed. Like Mysterium, The Mind is another game that my mathematician and computer scientist friends do not and will not like. Both are loose games of intuition, rather than reasoning. Both are games where you try to peer into the minds of your teammates and get a sense for their underlying feelings or intentions. Both can be maddeningly frustrating when they go poorly, and confounding even when they go well. I think that both The Mind and Mysterium are a blast, and if you like the latter then you owe it to yourself to check out the former.
Next up was Ganz Schon Clever, a dice game by Wolfgang Warsch that will appeal to many people, just not me. I was unimpressed with Kingsburg, uninspired by To Court the King, and unapologetic about my loathing of Ra: The Dice Game. But afterwards was the third Warsch game of the night — Illusion. This felt like a game that everyone could get behind. It’s like Timeline, but with percentages of colors in graphic images instead of dates. The photo here pretty much tells the whole story, except for how entertaining it is to try to estimate whether there is more yellow in a thin squiggly line or in a solid block, and then to challenge your opponents when you think they got it wrong. This seems like a can’t miss filler, even more so than Coloretto or No Thanks.
Sunday night was rounded out by the indomitable Decrypto and a CGE prototype. I ordered a copy of Decrypto online while I was half-way through playing my first game. I get the same feeling playing Decrypto that I imagine everyone else seems to get from playing Codenames. I teach Codenames to people and they seem to fall in love with it. I don’t personally like the feeling of trying to come up with clues in Codenames, but love the feeling of trying to come up with clues in Decrypto. The former feels like casting about in a sea of nothing for anything to hang onto, whereas the latter feels like choosing from an abundance of great options. I much prefer the latter feeling in my games.
Monday’s Mind Games
Monday started off with another game of The Mind. This is the perfect convention game because it’s small, quick, and straightforward. It was fascinating to see how differently it played with various groups of people, some doing much better than others. I played it throughout the week and consistently had a good time! Afterwards, I learned Carl Chudyk’s Mottainai because I’m a fan of Innovation, but Mottainai was way too much of a brain burner for me (and this from someone who loves Through the Ages and Antiquity). Every card in Mottainai had many different potential uses and I did not find it at all intuitive how to move cards between my craft bench, gallery, and gift shop. I have a feeling that this could be a blast for people willing to put in the time and energy, but I’m definitely not one of them (although I should never say never).
Most of Monday was taken up by giving feedback on seven different prototypes, including one by Matt Leacock, two by Tom Lehmann, two for North Star Games, one for Repos, and one for CGE. I can’t say anything about these, except that one of them was amazing! Keep your eyes peeled. I ended the day, unsurprisingly, much like the day began with my third wonderful game of The Mind.
I’ve never been one to pull my punches, so you knew this day would come. Tuesday was full of duds in my book. The day started off with Dragons by Bruno Faidutti, which was a boring and tedious memory-based, perfect information card game. Next up was belle-of-the-ball Azul, which has beautiful components belying its light abstract repetitive underbelly. Out of the frying pan and into Mordor, next up was The Lord of the Rings: Journey to Mordor, which was easily the worst game of the convention. This was a knock-off push-your-luck dice game that paled in comparison to Can’t Stop, among many others, and should never have been made (and this from a huge fan of War of the Ring and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation). Fourth, and thankfully last, in this slew of awful was Spaceteam, which made for a wonderful iOS app a few years ago and for a poor imitation as a physical card game. Save yourself the trouble and download the original app instead.
I broke out of the losing streak by learning the delightfully stressful Magic Maze. This is one of those games that I was thinking of with the introduction above about being out of the loop because everyone kept calling it “last year’s game.” I had missed a few years of conventions and games, so Magic Maze was brand new to me. I enjoy fast-paced games like Ghost Blitz, Panic Lab, and Pick-a-Pig, so Magic Maze was my cup of tea. It’s a cooperative game that has the look of Ricochet Robots, but each player can only move the pieces in a certain direction (up, down, left, or right) so you have to constantly pay attention and try not to get too antsy when your teammates won’t move the damn piece left. Move it left! Argh! I will seriously throw this giant red pawn at your face if you do not move that piece in the direction that only you can move it in — right now! The sand timer is going so fast and all of my hair will soon by torn out of my head! Seriously though, I enjoyed the hell out of this game experience, and I played it over 10 times at the convention, but I think I got my fill and didn’t include it in my Top 5 above because I don’t plan to actually buy a copy.
Afterwards, I unsurprisingly played The Mind yet again. Then it was time for two more Matt Leacock prototypes and a William Attia prototype before another game of William Warsch’s one-of-a-kind Illusion. Then it was back to the Tuesday Trough with a pair lackluster trick-taking games called Texas Showdown and Voodoo Prince. I’m a big fan of Was Sticht and Njet, but these card games were simply dull and derivative. I then tried an amusing prototype about goblins and gold, before suffering through Lost Cities: To Go. It would be wonderful if Knizia would return to designing classics like Stephensons Rocket rather than churning out assembly-line repeats. I closed out the day with a particularly raucous game of Time’s Up, which is great and all, but not as good as homemade Celebrities of course.
Wednesday: Mid-Week Exhaustion
I woke up late on Wednesday and was dragging throughout the day, but still managed to stumble upon two of my favorite games of the entire week — Spirit Island and Penny Papers (rounding out the top five listed above). The morning, or perhaps it was early afternoon, started off with Minerva by Okazu Brand, of String Railway fame. Whereas String Railway was unique and audacious, Minerva struck me as decidedly unremarkable. It was a tile-laying, engine-building, resource-conversion game that had a vague feeling of Glen More. Others seemed to greatly enjoy it, but I didn’t see Minerva as adding anything new to the landscape except for another math puzzle on how to most efficiently convert various resources into each other.
By comparison, I truly loved Spirit Island. This was a pure cooperative game in the vein of Ghost Stories, and similarly had a fantastic theme that was beautifully integrated with the game mechanisms and components. The players represent natural spirits that work with indigenous people to repel invading colonists and to prevent the pristine land from being blighted. Spirit Island can be a punishing game, but like Robinson Crusoe, it has an intuitive flow or rhythm to how the trouble progresses and builds from turn to turn. For anyone that enjoys a good cooperative game, Spirit Island is definitely one to make sure you check out. Afterwards, I got the chance to play Decrypto again, followed by one of my all-time favorites Through the Ages. I had never played with a physical copy of the new version (just online previously), so it was nice to try it out in person. The two-player game (best way to play it) was a nail-biter and ended up as a tie despite very different strategies. As you can see, I used some of my favorite leaders — Aristotle, Columbus, Napoleon, and Sid Meier — but was nonetheless unable to edge out the stiff competition.
The evening, or late night as the case may be, continued with a slew of hilarious dexterity games taught by Friedemann Friese. First came Dodgeball, which was a psychotic cousin of Loopin’ Louie in which the central motorized device moved in a seemingly random fashion and switched direction frequently. Next came Gravity’s Edge, which was an unbelievably precarious balancing game with death-defying feats of agility and daring. Last came Skatter, which was like Sorry Sliders, but with nicely solid components and fast-paced interaction.
After this dexterity madness, it was high time for a slightly calmer game, which led to a game of Penny Papers: The Temple of Apikhabou followed by Penny Papers: Valley of Wiraqocha, which proved to be delightful. These are roll-and-write games of increasing complexity (although all reasonably simple) in which you are competing to use a common pool of dice to the greatest effect on your individual paper (somewhat like Cities). I really enjoyed the experience and definitely plan to pick up a couple of these when they become available. I closed out the evening with an unremarkable game of Keys to the Castle, a great game of Fox in the Forest, and three more games of The Mind.
Thursday: Spirit Island Cubed
I started off the penultimate day with a prototype called Gizmos that Dale reported on here, but the rest of the day was taken up in large part by three successive games of Spirit Island (clocking in at a total of over 6 hours). It was a blast! This game is a pleasure to look at, a joy to play, and a blast to teach to new players. I also got to try my hand at a different spirit each time, which makes the game play very differently. Each spirit has access to different cards, different starting capabilities, and different special abilities. As a result, they tend to contribute very differently to the cause of aiding the indigenous people and fighting off the invading colonists. The way in which this game uses the concept of instilling “fear” to gradually change the victory conditions is ingenious, as is the way in which the game progresses terrain cards from Explore to Build to Ravage for a reasonably predictable — yet persistently challenging –– experience. The top-notch art and components are a nice compliment to the mechanisms and game play, as are the diversity of spirit powers and card possibilities. Why is this game not in stock anywhere?!
After my epic run at Spirit Island, I played The Legend of the Cherry Tree that Blossoms Every Ten Years, which is a new Iello game that has a gorgeous cover, but that felt like a thoughtless push-your-luck game of no consequence. I closed out the night with a CGE prototype, another game of Illusion, the fantastic party game Inspeaquence, the unspeakable party game Privacy, and the classic Time’s Up. I was having a great time, but my cat seemed less than pleased at my prolonged absence…
Friday: Winners’ Wrap Up
I closed out the week with some of the greatest hits. The last day started off with six straight games of Magic Maze and one game of Decrypto. The former continued to be fast-paced, stressful, and frenetic puzzle fun and the latter continued to be a new favorite partnership word game that I am very happy to now own. Then I was drafted into playing another Tom Lehmann prototype, which I think has the potential to be a big hit when it eventually comes out. A friend came by at this point and asked me what was good from the week, so I promptly taught him The Mind, Decrypto, and Magic Maze of course (happily playing them all yet again).
After dinner, I ran into Paul and Quinns (of Shut Up and Sit Down fame), so I jumped on the chance to play a few games with them. They were as entertaining and enjoyable in person as you’d expect. We started off with a classic 1997 Kramer & Kiesling party game called Haste Worte, in which every player secretly and simultaneously tries to write down as many entries in a given category as possible (e.g., brand names or sports), and then bid how many you can reveal — with the lowest bids going first and the higher bidders not being able to repeat answers from earlier bidders (and points equal to your bid, if successful at fulfilling it). It was clever (in an opposite-of-Family-Feud sort of way), but a bit clunky and dated, so we didn’t quite finish and all agreed to call it before the end. Then we played Privacy, and we closed out the evening with The Mind. As seen here, Paul and Quinns are looking very skeptical about our collective chances at this late night endeavor, and they’re not quite as good as reading each other’s minds as you might have hoped. A total blast nevertheless!
All in all, this was a great week of games, food, fun, and friends… and I’ve already pre-registered for 2019!