By Nathan Beeler
“And then Amazon said, let there be games, and there was Asmodee, and it was good.”
Continued from Part One
Most Seattlites will surely have noticed the substantial glass balls that have sprung up in our downtown area recently. Many will even be aware that they were built as a part of Amazon’s area campus and can be seen to contain a great deal of greenery inside, to the point where they resemble the suitably artistic series of conservatories that they are. Otherwise, the interiors of the structures likely represent something of a mystery to locals not affiliated with the online retail giant, and are thus unable to easily get inside. They certainly did for me.
So it was with that in mind that our hosts wanted to wow their collected board game media by taking us inside their top secret glass globes (or Spheres, as I then learned they were officially dubbed). At the entry point Jonathan Franklin and I and the rest of the media present were issued a second set of visitor passes. We were told by a severe security guard that we could take pictures of anything in the building except the security station. I thought this was a notably odd restriction, since her station was the only thing that was easily accessible to the public in the entire structure. But it was a simple enough request that we all complied without a fuss.
Once through the gates, our group was met with a rush of sensations: a wave of moist heat; the sound of water falling all around; lush greenery in every direction including up. Gene Wilder sang “Pure Imagination” to us from the vantage point of my childhood, and I climbed the stairs into the great glass greenhouse with a smile.
Games, we were told, were being set up on the fourth floor. We climbed our way along the three story wall of exotic plants, past workers busily lounging at tables, and through a side jaunt to see a corpse flower, bursting at the seams and ready to bloom. Apparently, this biological phenomenon only happens once every seven years for the rare species from Indonesia, and we were warned it was due to happen at any moment. While the bloom’s powerful rotten meat smell would undoubtedly have ruined our evening in the Spheres, some small part of me hoped that it would happen anyway, just for the once in a lifetime experience. That did not happen (and still hasn’t as of this writing).
The Spheres tour was quite the impressive appetizer, and it served to set a jovial mood for a buffet of new Asmodee releases waiting for our group to dive into. As previously mentioned, Asmodee representatives were on hand to demo and play several new offerings with us, as were several Amazon folks. Up front I want to say, everyone was really fantastic. I’ve been in several demoing environments over the years, even on the retail side. Demoing is something of a grind in my mind. And yet, these people were bright and energetic, fully engaged. They gave their games the best chance to shine. So kudos!
To the game tables. First up for me was to be one of the two offerings near the front of the room, a dexterity game called Tokyo Highway. As someone who doesn’t follow the business side of the games market, and who is a founding member of the Cult of the Good/Old, I didn’t even realize this wasn’t part of the new hotness that filled the rest of the space. In fact, it was a game that had come out a couple years prior; that’s well past retirement age for most board games today. I’m taking that as the main reason no one else sat down to play it with me (I had showered and used deodorant, I swear, just as all good gamers always should).
With no critical mass, I got up and moved to the party game at the next table over — Just One. Being an avid party game fanatic, it didn’t seem like it would be a problem that I had missed most of the rules explanation. The only thing I really didn’t pick up on was the scoring run-down. But like a lot of great party games, scoring was incidental for Just One. They weren’t even tracking it that night, and when I played it with a group of friends later we abandoned all scoring after the first game. It’s all about the activity.
Just One is a cute little co-op, with the players giving one clue word each to get a guesser to say a target word. The trick, and what elicited all the laughter and groans, was that the clue givers showed each other their clues before they showed the guesser. Any non-original clues had to be erased from all the nifty little dry-erase easels that come with the game. So if the answer word was “Amazon”, three people writing “River” would eliminate that from the pool of clues, and the guesser would never see “River”. The effect of this was that sometimes people got too clever or too obscure to really help the guesser. It also sometimes meant that even semi-obscure clues could be eliminated if group-think sent multiple people to the same head space. The game really worked well that night, and I believe it will work well in any large group setting.
Afterward, a large chunk of that table moved over to sit down to Shadows: Amsterdam (though there is no colon on the cover), another light party-ish game that is most easily summed up as speed Mysterium meets Codenames. Two clue givers use cute Dixit-like cards to navigate their team around a board, with the aim of hitting known goals and avoiding traps. If that seems like a fine but not exciting way to meld those mechanisms, I would say it is. What gives Shadows: Amsterdam a little extra oomph is the real time speed aspect. That oomph could seemingly also break it for some people. I enjoyed it enough to try it a second time, just to see what it was like as a clue giver. I still think it’s fine, and will probably give it more plays.
I believe at this point there were people hovering around Tokyo Highway so I went back to try it. I adore interesting dexterity games, even though I am terrible at keeping a steady hand. Tokyo Highway is definitely interesting. And makes for a great photo op. Through an opponent’s spectacular attempt at greed and ambition on her final play, I managed to just barely not come in dead last. I had a great time, and it seemed like everyone else did as well.
On to Orbis, a lightning quick game of ancient gods and their worshippers. A game where you build your triangle of land and put your image at the top, once you decide which god you are. A game where you drop worshippers on nearby grid spaces as you pick up a land piece, either because you are clumsy and they fall off, or because they are fleeing your might and, well, clumsiness. Ultimately, it’s a game where you win by making the prettiest arrangement of land bits from the muck of chaos. At least that aspect was thematically solid. It worked fine enough in that three player game, but not as well in a later two player game at home with my wife. Some have compared it to Splendor and Century: Spice Road, and I can see that if I squint. Will definitely try again.
Somewhere in here the globe lights in the room started to dim. I heard someone say that the plants needed their rest and we would remain with mood lighting for the rest of the night. But then I heard someone else say that we had more time in the building. The room kept getting slowly dimmer and dimmer, until the mood was simply ludicrous. People soldiered on using their cell phones as torches until eventually the lights were finally brought back up to full and the entertaining evening continued.
Next I walked over to a demoer and was given the elevator pitch for an interesting looking game: Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr. While it did sound like the title was trying to do something novel, which I applaud, the base mechanisms smacked of Pandemic. I don’t have any love for Pandemic and its ilk. So poor Billy’s fate wasn’t gripping me at that moment. I took a pass, but may yet come back to it at Sasquatch.
As I backed slowly away, I stumbled into another table and I was given another a pitch by another of the super friendly demoers from Asmodee. This time I was told about KERO. A few sentences in I said, “This sounds suspiciously like Space Truckers.” Thankfully, the demoer knew I meant Galaxy Trucker, and he agreed that it had a lot in common. Being one of my least favorite games that I’ve played more than once, I politely waited for an opening in the spiel, then I ducked behind the nearest moving player and shadowed their movement until I was certain I was clear.
A table full of players were nearing the end of Treasure Island, so I stood and watched a bit of that. From what I could gather, one player (the demoer) was a captured Long John Silver. He was being forced by the other players to give hints about the location of his buried treasure. Based on his hints, they were all working independently to go around and dig up places on the island looking for it. But there was a catch! Long was untrustworthy. He got to tell exactly two lies out of the series of facts he gave. People seemed unsure how to draw logical conclusions, or at least to my outsider eye they seemed to be flailing wildly. There was probably more to it, in fact I’m certain there was. But that aspect, plus a bit of fiddly measuring of objects and lines on the board, made me glad I hadn’t ended up at the table proper-like. I will say Treasure Island had some truly attention grabbing bits, like a giant suction cupped compass arm. And by itself, any game where you can draw directly on the board has a peg-leg up on its competitors. Still, I think it’s not for me.
Finally, near the end of a long day and a long evening, I got to sit down and start a game of The River, the one non-party game I most wanted to try that night. It’s got worker placement and tile placement and resource management and a lot of other things that are a solid start towards a game I could enjoy. And I was enjoying it, when the lights started dimming for the second time in the evening. This time it was real, and it was the building’s signal that we had to go.
Everyone helped to pack up and we slowly made our way back down to the street, our bags full of wonderful swag, discussing gaming and Amazon’s role in its future, among other things. As mentioned in Part One, we’re still not entirely sure what the point of the whole day was, from Amazon’s point of view. I’m not even entirely sure the organizers knew. To me, it had the feel of putting people in a room and seeing what happened. Or maybe there was indeed a greater point than just playing some new releases a week or two early. Either way, I had a great time at the event, and am keen to see what Amazon has in store for the world of board gaming now that they’ve got their smile trained on it.