As I drove away from the Gathering of Friends earlier this week, along quiet, winding stretches of rural route 219, it dawned on me that I was driving away from the heart of my gaming universe. The Gathering is a place where I have been fortunate enough to forge wonderful friendships with an incredible group of people from across the world that share my overwhelming passion (some might say obsession) for obscure, bizarre, and convoluted board games. I only spend a few, fleeting days of each year at this magical analog gaming nirvana, but it is nonetheless the indisputable heart of my year. I can only hope that you, dear reader, have found the route to the heart of your gaming universe, whether that may be the magnificent BGG.CON, Geekway to the West, KublaCon, your own kitchen table, or even the patch of floor beside your toddler’s budding Haba game shelf.
I arrived late on Sunday, April 14 after a long drive with no plans of playing any games until the following morning, but I was swept into a series of games with friends I had not seen in a year before I could hardly put my bags down. We started with On Tour, one of the innumerable new games from the truly exploding roll-and-write genre that I played over the course of the week. I am personally fairly picky when it comes to this genre, enjoying the likes of Railroad Ink and Penny Papers, but generally passing on the more mathy entries. While the company was divine, the game was a poor fit for my teacup with its clever, but infuriating, exercise of positioning a growing series of random numbers across a map in a hopefully ascending path.
Repos party game Just One and Iello bluffing gaming Nessos quickly followed. The former is a surprisingly entertaining and challenging cooperative word game, while the latter seemed (at least on first blush) to be nearly a re-theme of Kakerlaken Poker. After these first three appetizers, I was lucky enough to snag a seat for the evening’s main course of Wingspan. There were only two copies at the convention and they were basically in constant use for the entire week. Everyone had to play the completely sold out, New York Times featured latest and greatest from Stonemaier by Elizabeth Hargrave. While many of my fellow attendees seemed disappointed with the game’s underwhelmingly simple core, I think there’s a beauty there that merits further exploration. I went on to play Wingspan three times over the course of the week, and I think it’s a thoroughly enjoyable 45-60 minute, three-player “Super Filler” game (but there’s not enough meat on those dainty bird bones for a 90+ minute, five-player game, which is what I think many folks unfortunately experienced). I described the game to a few friends as a mash-up of Hansa Teutonica with friendly Innovation and an ornithology degree, which caused most people to roll their eyes at yet another one of Talia’s nonsensical, idiosyncratic gaming analogies.
I closed out the night with Hadara, generously taught by Aldie himself. Hadara, more properly known as 7 Wonders: The Board Game, is a civ lite card drafting game that would have sold innumerable more copies if the publisher had licensed the 7 Wonders name. If you enjoy 7 Wonders, but want a very slightly more involved board game, then run don’t walk to buy Hadara (with my permission to write it’s true title on the box with a sharpie marker). I, for one, do not enjoy 7 Wonders — preferring instead to have unique leaders and wonders in my civ games, with the narrative force of my beloved Through the Ages.
I kicked off the work week with Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal, one of the seemingly thirty million different games that Wolfgang Warsch has designed in his unbelievably prolific year as a newly world famous game designer. As a huge fan of The Mind and Illusion, I have to try any new Warsch game that I can get my hands on, but Die Tavernen turned out to be a complex deck building, dice drafting game of upgrading your deck of bar patrons and staff, along with the various components of your tavern board itself. The disinteresting downtime between turns left me cold, along with the fact that I generally feel unfulfilled by pretty much all deck building games that use it as anything more than a sideshow (think Few Acres or Vlaada).
I was headed to eat a sensible lunch when Nathan and Becca cruelly force-fed me maple cookies so that I would play Uwe Rosenberg’s Spring Meadow, apparently the conclusion to a tile-laying trilogy of which I was completely unaware. This Blokus-like (or perhaps Tetris is really the better analogy) was entirely unlike Uwe’s oeuvre to which I had been exposed, most notably the kitchen-sink complexity of Ora et Labora. I can see Spring Meadow appealing to many puzzle-inclined gamers (who will enjoy the game’s clever catch-up mechanism and adorable gophers), but you have to remember that I’m the one that super glued all of my Blokus pieces to the board in order to stop playing it…
The afternoon continued with colorful dice-drafting in pleasant Sagrada and teaching KeyForge, which I strangely prefer to play with a deck-building draft that I’ve developed to give the players more control… and fun! Otherwise the game feels too simple and out of your hands. After forging some stained glass and some keys, I relaxed with children’s dexterity game Build or BOOM with Friedemann, Henning, and Jesse. Friedemann’s limitless capacity for childlike wonder is unendingly heart-warming and a regular highlight of my gaming year.
I began Monday evening by learning Tiny Towns from Adam. This was a cute little resource gathering, city-building game that suffered from the same issue that I’ve always had with otherwise unrelated Dominion. Both games seem to reward analyzing the starting setup for any given game, picking a combination that seems ideal based on the available paths for that particular play, and then tirelessly running it into the ground as hard, fast, and mercilessly as possible. I doubled my opponents’ score with this tried and true (and boring) approach, completing my one and only visit to this tiniest of towns.
Next up was an absolutely wonderful Phil Walker-Harding prototype that I sadly cannot talk about, but which was my favorite game of the 2018 Gathering as well and which all publishers to date have mistakenly and unwisely passed on, in the humble estimation of this entirely non-business minded gamer. This game is pure fun and some day I hope (and expect) that everyone will be playing it. The next prototype was a CGE one that I can talk about called Letter Jam (perhaps working title) that is definitively a mash-up of cooperative Scrabble and Hanabi. This was a very clever and brain-bending word game that will appeal to countless people (and could even, dare I say, be the next Codenames). But this grumpy gamer prefers Decrypto, heresy I know.
The long and winding day came to a close with Draftosaurus, Planet, and Bosk. I was surprised to enjoy all of these, although each seems to be a very near-miss for gaining a spot in my already-too-large collection. If Draftosaurus was a tad simpler for my toddler (or he was a tad older), Planet had a slightly less puzzley scoring system, or Bosk was a bit less of a spatial abstract then perhaps I’d be a proud new owner of any or all of these three (gorgeous in their own way) games.
The week truly began on Tuesday morning with my first of many plays of Root. I learned Root back in September 2018 as a side show at the Netrunner World Championships, and I had enjoyed it an impressive 19 times since then. But that was all prelude to my 6 plays of Root over the past week! This is one of those all-too-rare games that gets better and better (and better) with every play, as you learn, explore, and appreciate the nuances of each faction. The closest analogue is Avalon Hill’s 1979 Dune board game (which I played five times back in 2007-2008, but which takes six people and an entire day). Root gives you that inter-faction asymmetric warfare among completely dissimilar player powers in a satisfying 90-minute package. If your group takes 3+ hours to play this gem then I’m sorry to say you’re doing it wrong. This is a proverbial knife fight in a phone booth (belied by adorable art), and you need to be clawing and scratching (and pecking, if you’re the Eyrie Dynasty) your way to 30 points as quickly and furiously as you can. I hope you appreciated my use of a thesaurus for “fast” in the preceding sentence to avoid any Vin Diesel montages getting stuck in your head.
My fun-filled Tuesday continued with back-to-back games of Hansa Teutonica. Much to many people’s extreme consternation and confusion, I love playing the same game back-to-back, especially when it’s as fantastic a game as good ol’ Hansa T (not old enough for Rick Thornquist’s tastes, but an oldie for this proud millennial). The tension, pacing, and highly interactive blocking of Hansa Teutonica have made it a perennial personal favorite for the past decade. Afterwards I learned a set collection puzzle prototype and a dexterity tower-building prototype, followed by the new game hit of the con for me — Phil Walker-Harding’s Silver & Gold. This quick flip-and-write puzzle game disregards my previous comments about Spring Meadow, but there was something magical about this little game that drew me in and kept me coming back for more. I plan to happily add this to my shelf alongside Railroad Ink for those times when I do want to arrange Tetris shapes on a desert island (even though my top five desert island games would still be War of the Ring, Through the Ages, Netrunner, Twilight Struggle, and Antiquity). Speaking of which, next up was my 19th play of epic favorite Dominant Species. This multi-layered area control, worker placement game shines with just three players, all of whom embrace the super-powered card effects and repeated cone analysis math checks
I closed out the night with yet another roll-and-write Hex Roller, yet another trick-taker Krass Kariert, yet another social deduction prototype, and another trip to the islands of newly beloved Silver & Gold. With fantastic and memorable plays of Root, Hansa Teutonica, and Dominant Species, it would be hard to call Tuesday anything but a resounding triumph
While many of my fellow attendees were endeavoring to learn all of the new games and try all of the tantalizing prototypes at a furious pace, this day is going to look awfully familiar to anyone that has read the preceding paragraphs. I started off with the perfectly pleasant Krass Kariert and Flotsam Flight because I was promised Wingspan by my fellow players afterwards. My second play of Wingspan solidified my curiosity for this title, which I will probably purchase some day when it’s not the price of your first born on eBay (remember, he did play Carcassonne with me after all). The morning closed out with four straight plays of a fantastic dexterity prototype that will hopefully be published some day soon
I began the afternoon with back-to-back plays of Yellow & Yangtze (the sequel to Tigris & Euphrates, which all of the #coolkids seem to call E&T because of its German title). I was very happy to subject another group, including my new pals Brent and Aeos, to my penchant for repeated plays, but I’m not ready to declare Y&Y better than E&T. Unlike most everyone at the convention who quickly pronounced their preference for Knizia’s revised implementation of his landmark 1997 accomplishment, I would need to play it more to come to any conclusion. I’ve played Tigris more than 100 times over the years, and it has truly stood the test of time. I am happy to say that I am impressed with and intrigued by Y&Y, which I never would have expected after the debacles that were Ra: The Dice Game, Lost Cities: The Board Game, and Taj Mahal: Are You Seriously Touching This Classic?! (just kidding). Yellow changes Tigris far more than I would have expected; it’s not just about the hip new hexagons (N.B. Parker Brothers and Julian Courtland-Smith got there decades ago, Reiner). The dramatic weakening of external conflicts, the enormous strengthening of blue tiles, the perplexing change to wild treasures, and the far less static monuments (along with the new all-too-static tile display) are some of the biggest changes. Although my favorite change was the introduction of a slight catch-up mechanism in the fascinating new utility of leaders off the board. This is definitely a game that I want to keep playing, although whether it can stand up to 100+ plays is to be determined. Check back with me in 2029 on which game is better
Hump day continued with an uninspiring set collection, card drafting prototype, and a truly inspiring game of Root, in which I loved playing as the lizards. These fanatical reptiles (yes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to look up whether they were instead amphibians, but I’ll blame that on the Dominant Species artwork) are one of my favorite factions, although I also happen to really love the raccoon, otters, birds, bunnies, foxes, mice, opossum, beaver, wolf, skunk, and cats (all of them for those of you keeping track at home). Speaking of which, guess what I played on Wednesday evening after finishing Root… that’s right, another game of Dominant Species! What a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing game of speciation in the time of 90,000 B.C. I closed out the night with a newly fun Silver & Gold and always fun Time’s Up with, as it turns out, world’s biggest Avril Lavigne fan Phil Walker-Harding (look for the Cannonball Colony re-theme any day now)
Tried and True Thursday (the alliteration commitment is strong with this one)
I kicked off Thursday with the game that I’m currently calling my favorite of all-time: War of the Ring. This was an epic 2.5-hour struggle (the game does not take any longer than that, even with new players, despite common misconceptions) wherein Frodo limped across the finish line at 10 corruption after suffering a hugely successful “Breaking of the Fellowship” while in Mordor. The narrative force of this game is unrivaled. In contrast, my next play was a return to the riverbed of Yellow & Yangtze, which has an entirely different sort of narrative arc with its growing, shifting, and collapsing empires of tiles (although much less collapsing than Tigris due to the weakened impact of external conflicts)
So, confession time… remember how I said that I’d never design a game? I don’t have the patience for it and I prefer to enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors. Well, it turns out my brain had other plans, and has independently started developing a complex 3-4 player Supreme Court themed card-driven board game inspired by Twilight Struggle, Founding Fathers, and Through the Ages (along with little bits of El Grande, Santiago, Stephenson’s Rocket, and Terraforming Mars). Adam and Jordy were kind enough to test my new, untitled prototype with me and they gave me some wonderfully helpful feedback and ideas. I highly doubt the world will ever see this game, but I’ve enjoyed my first four plays and will likely continue to work on it for the foreseeable future
During the evening I learned and played new roll-and-write Cartographers, obscure Japanese card game 5 Colors, and other roll-and-write Dungeon Academy. I enjoyed the uncommon complexity of the scoring system in Cartographers (vaguely reminiscent of the third Penny Papers). I also enjoyed Dungeon Academy with Debbie and Jeff, although I’m torn over whether to purchase this fast-paced speed puzzle roll-and-write because I’m worried there’s not quite enough long-term depth there for my tastes (although the artwork and presentation are phenomenal)
I closed out the evening with a late-night game of Root and three straight very late-night games of Captain Sonar. I had great fun playing as the otters in Root (having now used the expansion in 10 of my 25 plays). This was an exceptionally close game of Root with the players stacked at 29-28-27-26 points right before Brent’s Woodland Alliance narrowly completed his violent insurrection against the collapsing Marquise. I was so happy to get to introduce more people to the rowdy fun of Captain Sonar, which I only learned back in January, but which is a blast as a silly Hunt for Red October inspired team game of Battleship for young-at-heart grown-ups
Friday I’m In Love
As The Cure sang 27 years ago, “Friday never hesitate, You can never get enough, Enough of this stuff, It’s Friday I’m in love.” Unsurprisingly, I kicked off Friday with another game of War of the Ring. It’s true that I can never get enough! This time Devin’s hyper-aggro Free People stormed Moria and Umbar for their target four victory points, but not before the Shadow reached ten points simultaneously and triumphed. The order in which the event cards come out in War of the Ring is one of key ingredients to my having enjoyed 56 remarkably unique plays of this gem (and Denethor’s Folly proved very useful in the outcome of this particular play)
The afternoon saw me enjoying a new traitorous spin on Dixit with Obscurio, a revisit to Dungeon Academy, and another math-heavy roll-and-write in Dizzle. I’ve always enjoyed games with traitors (or cylons, as the President Roslin fan in me likes to call them in all game universes), having often proclaimed the need for a hidden traitor role in Artemis, so Obscurio was great fun! As these three games were wrapping up, I saw a stranger walking by with a copy of Wingspan and flashed him a thumbs up of approval. He invited me to join him and his friend, and I gladly made a couple new friends from Chicago while enjoying my third game of Wingspan for the week. My experience in the earlier two plays of Wingspan helped me to win by fully appreciating the value of laying as many eggs as possible on all of your birds and the way that the end of the game sneaks up on you with the accelerating final rounds
Friday evening provided me with an opportunity to test my Supreme Court prototype for a couple new victims – Brent and Ed. They both gave me invaluable feedback and suggestions, but more importantly confidence to keep working on this very rough, fledgling idea. After playing through my hideous game on poster board with index cards, I switched gears and played the completely gorgeous Dungeon Academy and Root yet again. The visual appeal of both games really puts to shame the aesthetic of late 90’s and early 2000’s board games, and thankfully there is solid gameplay and rules underneath the hood so they’re not just pretty to look at. Root, in particular, continues to amaze and impress me with the intricate interactions of its various factions and the ways in which various match-ups can play out
Friday night went very late with many repeated plays of a speed cooperative dice-rolling prototype (highly reminiscent of Escape: The Curse of the Temple), along with classic deduction card game Russian Fish, new-age Werewolf spin-off Gotterdammerung, and a 5:00 a.m. trip across the Canadian border for wonton soup. The border guard was rather perplexed, especially by a car of people from across the globe that professed to know each other through board games. You sometimes forget how unusually unifying this world of strategy board games can be until you have to explain it to a stranger so that you can buy some soup
The last day at a game convention is always bittersweet. It’s incredibly hard to say goodbye and get ready to return to the “real world,” but it’s also an opportunity to appreciate all of the people and games for one more full day. I kicked off the day by learning Architects of the West Kingdom with Martha and Ian. I have to say that I was very skeptical of this game because worker placement, resource gathering games usually pale in comparison to the wonder, depth, replayability, and nostalgia of Caylus. For some reason though, I really enjoyed Architects and even played it a second time right away, plus I ordered a copy (which is very rare for me these days with my ongoing effort to shrink my collection from 350 down to 150 games). Architects of the West Kingdom is not a traditional worker placement game because it does not revolve around prioritizing how best to block your opponents and avoid being blocked yourself. Most of the spaces can be visited by all players, so the game is more about maximizing the increasing marginal returns of repeated visits to the same space. The game has an interesting mechanism of capturing your own or opponents’ workers from the board, so there is some incentive not to excessively centralize your pieces. It’s entirely possible that this will end up like Village, which I played 7 times before selling, but I’m hoping to get 20+ plays out of it, and at least it’s got a leg up on the many resource gathering, worker placement games that I’ve passed on (Stone Age, Egizia, Pillars of the Earth, and many more)
Saturday evening saw me enjoying two more games of Root, bringing my total up to 6 plays of Root in just 5 days. I taught the game each time to at least one new player in every game, so I think I’ve got the explanation down pat. I was happy to get to introduce the game to so many new players, although I think it really takes a few plays to begin to shine, and I would love to play it with a really experienced group some day. New players really have to focus the bulk of their efforts on just understanding their own faction, rather than the nuances of all opponent factions. I’m hoping to bring enough folks into the fold so that someday I can jump right in to a game without any questions about what the keep does, how outrage works, when to trigger turmoil, or why that item card cannot be crafted
Saturday night was filled with party games and card games, namely: Just One, Inspeaquence, Celebrities, Say Anything, Team Play, and Ninety-Nine. My favorites were definitely Inspeaquence and Celebrities, which are two of the most enjoyable and fun party games out there for late night fun after a long day of architecting and rooting your way through the world of games. I want to close by thanking everyone that played games with me last week, and thank you, dear reader, for indulging the inchoate longing of this newly home, homesick gamer.