For me, it ended with a whimper, not a bang. At about 9.50pm local time (I’m in South Africa) I found myself visiting various gaming tables to find I was the only person there and typing into the void that was Discord, asking plaintively “anybody here?”. Finally Joe Huber took pity on me and responded and we had a good chat before he had to leave.
It was not all like that. Life did intrude yesterday – with a visit to the hospital and watching a soccer match where my favourite team, West Ham United, held the giants, Manchester City to a 1-1 draw – but I played Polynesia and Anno 1800 and enjoyed both. Both games have been written up by Simon Weinberg, with whom I played, so I’ll only make general comments. I found Polynesia somewhat dry and mechanical although I thought the tension created by the diminishing number of actions one can take each phase – from 3 to 1 – quite tense. However, for some reason I was allowed to operate almost alone (in a 4 player game) in a corner of the board so interaction was minimal for me. As for Anno 1800, you have to overcome the game visuals and the sheer quantity of information to absorb at the outset, and then I think there is a good game here. It reminds me a little of Nations, but the focus is exclusively on technology and production, and so depending on your gaming likes, you could find the building of a very specific resources engine (I need coal and cotton to build clothes and I need clothes and beer to build…Er not sure what…) either irritating or satisfying. I’m on the fence at the moment but willing to give it another try.
I decided to play face to face this morning and that says something about Spiel Digital. Battling screen fatigue, RSI and the various interface issues did not offer enough of a draw to keep me there. After physical games of 7 Souls, Res Arcana and Parks, and another visit to the hospital I was back to play Furnace with the two Simons. This is an elegant and streamlined engine builder played over 4 rounds, where a tableau of production cards is created by each player by auctioning 7 cards at the beginning of each round. For the auction each player has 4 discs numbered 1 to 4. In turn order you put 1 disc on a card following 2 simple rules – you can’t put two of your own discs on a card and you can’t put a disc of the same value as another disc on the card. The highest value wins the card to put into ones tableau and the losers get compensation in the form of resources or processes to convert resources into other things. The tension between wanting the cards and sometimes wanting to lose the auction makes for some wonderful moments. Well worth getting if it ever makes it into general production.
I ended with a game of Castles Of Tuscany. It feels very similar to Castles of Burgundy but is simpler and plays faster. It has the same tile laying mechanic as Burgundy and the same area completion points scoring, but it has some neat bonuses associated with each type of landscape that makes the gameplay a little different. I don’t think I’ll be buying this while I still own Burgundy as it is not different enough. One thing I can say is after 4 days of using Tabletopia I really am quite adept at the interface and I’ll definitely be spending more time here during the year, playing games online while I wait for the physical copies to arrive.
I’ll end with some initial reflections on Spiel Digital:
While the organisers deserve much praise for putting the convention together in a really short space of time it doesn’t approximate a live convention. As Joe said yesterday, the games are secondary to the human interaction and this was largely lacking except when actually playing. And even then, with no video turned on one was almost always talking to disembodied voices.
The theme worlds interface wasn’t bad but in other events I have attended there was a networking lounge where you can ‘walk’ around and when you arrive at a table, the video automatically starts. Tables generally have between 4 and 8 seats. Probably the technology is not there yet but in the near future I can imagine a series of these interlinked lounges where you can stroll around and drop into a table or booth, and automatically join a conversation or watch a demo or even join a game. As an aside I briefly tried CGE’s 3D world and found it really underwhelming. I strolled around for about 5 minutes seeing very few people and not really wanting to just jump into a chat. If they had had tables set up with their games it would probably have been different. Maybe they did and I just got it wrong, so take these initial comments with a pinch of salt. Having said that, major kudos to them for investing in creating it in the first place. That could not have been cheap or easy and it deserves recognition.
Joining a game at Spiel Digital was not difficult but it is clunky. First you go to the game page. Then you have to go to a gaming table and separately open a communication channel. Was this everybody’s experience? Surely the tech is here to allow both to happen simultaneously? And while the programmed events were clearly laid out, and you could easily check out what was happening next and in the future, I must confess I only discovered that full functionality on the 4th day! That’s my fault for not fully exploring the whole spiel digital site, being distracted by the theme worlds and finally using just the simple game or publisher search function. If there is a next time, I will go straight to the event schedule, as it also listed the times game demos were taking place at those tables/sites that were not manned continually.
It was also somewhat disappointing but understandable that so many games that were available online here have not completed production and delivery yet. In fact I only bought 2 games – Dwergar and Paris – whereas these are the other games I would have bought had they been available: Renature, Whistle Mountain. Arkwright Card Game, Furnace and Polynesia. And as is my wont, I would have probably vacillated for 4 days about Lost Ruins of Arnak and then bought it late on Sunday!
As I type, my right arm is protesting. Yes, RSI is a real potential problem with online conventions and playing multiple games via Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator one after the other. I’m planning to write about my experiences with all of the online game platforms during lockdown and beyond, so here I’ll just make a few initial comments.
Firstly, I thank both TT and TTS for existing during lockdown and also for giving a passionate gamer who lives at the tip of Africa a chance to play games I would otherwise have to wait months for. That said, the interface still has its issues. It may be the way the modules were built but, for example, in a game of Lost Ruins of Arnak none of us could stack cards into our decks from time to time….so no shuffling could take place. Games take longer as players drop pieces, pieces fall over, cards have to tucked under cards (try that one) and so on. And in the games that take up a lot of table space or have small components you have to set up and keep scanning multiple camera angles. Also there is screen fatigue. Sitting on ones butt for many hours each day on consecutive days has its limitations and even if I had not had things to do during the day I don’t think I could have spent more than the 4-6 hours I did spend in my chair. While the attraction of the game playing did not wane I found myself less and less willing to explore the theme world or the game pages for any length of time.
Spiel 2020 is now over fro me while my friends in America are just starting the final day. Again, congratulation to Merz Verlag is pulling this off but I hope it doesn’t have to be repeated and that we will all be in Essen next year.