I recently returned from the Gathering of Friends, an annual invite-only convention organized by game designer Alan Moon; many of you probably read some of Dale’s posts from early in the week. It is my favorite event of the year. I tell my non-gamer friends that it is much like summer camp for me – I get to see friends from all over that I don’t otherwise see (including many Opinionated Gamers) and I get to have fun all day and late into the evening. As an introvert, large game conventions can be overwhelming to me, but I know enough people here that I am reasonably comfortable, and the people that are here are a pleasure to be around.
Over the course of my six days there, I played 25 different games, with a total of 30 plays, with 22 different people. Here are some of the highlights of my week.
Mark Jackson reviewed this for the blog way back in May 2021; you can read all the details here. I thought the game sounded intriguing, but it fell off my radar until New Year’s Eve, when my friend Bob brought it to our house and I got to play; I loved it immediately. It’s simple enough to explain and play, but there is so much going on here that you are immersed and involved the entire time. The game can be played in both basic mode and advanced mode, and there is an expansion that adds some new tiles as well as upgraded player boards. It also has the distinction of being good at all player counts. It’s a bit like Carcassonne in that you are playing tiles and there are placement rules, but the scoring is completely different and there is a lot of tension involved in construction, design and meeting the goals of the clients who asked you to build this course for them in the first place.
I bought it not long after playing it in January, and figured it would be a good game to bring along. Our copy was in play a lot, and at least two separate people offered to buy our copy. I thought that was funny, since it’s easy enough to buy it, or at least it was, since it is apparently now sold out for the US. Apparently people had trouble finding it because it is only available from Thematic Games and you have to google the title just right. Go to https://www.thematicgames.com/store.html if you want to know more about buying it.
Ark Nova was definitely one of the hot games of the con; there was almost always a game of it in play. I only played it once, to teach it to three friends who hadn’t tried it. It’s holding up really well for me, although I do think I prefer it with two or three players rather than four; it just felt like it was a bit too long before it was your turn again, although maybe that would be less of an issue with more experienced players. You can read my full review here, or if you prefer you can read Brendan’s full review here. It still draws me in, and I still want to play it again soon after we finish.
When I opened my copy I was very surprised to see that someone had upgraded my Break marker to a cool little Starbucks mug, which is both more thematic and more functional than the marker that comes with the game. Thanks, Geoff and Scott!
This is one of my favorite card games, and I feel like everyone I teach it to is immediately intrigued and wants to play again. James Nathan reviewed it way back in 2020, and you can read the full details here. It is a climbing card game, where you either have to play a higher set of cards than what was previously played, or you have to give that previous player a point and you have to pick up a card and add it to your hand. When you picked up that hand, you couldn’t organize or reorder it; your only choice was which side of the cards you would choose to have active. When you pick up a card from a trick, you can flip it to either side, and you can add it anywhere in your hand, possibly improving your chances for future plays. However, when the round ends you get negative points for the cards you have left in your hand, so you have to balance hand improvement with trying to go out first. I played this several times, mostly with people who haven’t played before. Aside from the game being really fun, it is also fun to watch people figure it out.
I am very surprised to learn that we have never reviewed this game; when it first came out in 2013 two different groups I play with were obsessed with it, and it has held up well. It’s a trick taking game, but has a slight twist in that you are not allowed to follow suit. The highest card played wins the trick and a scoring card (which has different points depending on the suit), except in one case – if one of the three lowest yellow cards (all with an image of Super Potato Man) is played on a trick with one of the three highest red cards, the yellow card wins. Play until someone can’t play a different color when necessary, score and start a new round. It’s great, plus it is fun to say Potato Man in a superhero announcer sort of voice.
This is an old, old racing game from way back in the last century – 1993 -, although if you’ve played Ave Caesar it will feel familiar to you. Each player is trying to be the first to cross the finish line, but the course is full of bottleneck stops that can throw a wrench into your plans (heh) when another player ends up on the spot, most likely intentionally, because this is definitely a “screw you” sort of racing game. Good-natured grudges have been held for years related to this game in our group. It’s always a good time. This is a game that I cannot imagine will ever leave my collection, even through there are plenty of other racing games out there.
This is another old racing game, although this one is from 1995. It comes in a tube with several large course maps rolled up into it, as well as some dice and some small miniature cars. On your turn, you roll one, two or three dice, flip them to the side you want, and then move that number of spaces. What? That doesn’t sound exciting to you? Well, let me add a couple of key pieces of information. Every track has curves where your speed must be controlled when entering those spaces, so you can’t use a die with a number higher than what is listed to move into or on that curve (2, 3, or 4). One of the dice only has ones, twos and threes, so it’s safe, but you are taking a chance if you roll the others with a curve coming up. Once you roll them you have to use them, and once you place them in the box on the board you have to use them in that order; any errors and you get a flag. Oh, and I almost forgot – you are doing all of this in twenty seconds or less. All of it – roll the dice, choose the sides, place them on the board and move, all while that annoying little timer starts to beep to let you know you are almost out of time. If you don’t finish in time, you get a flag. Too many flags force you to use the pit or potentially to go down in a blazing, flaming pile. It’s a lot of fun, but also somewhat stressful; my fitness watch repeatedly suggested to me that I relax and consider doing a deep breathing exercise during this game. HA! We were doing the most challenging course, so there was no time for breathing or meditation. It’s a lot of fun.
I won the very first time I played (which was probably a decade ago), but since then have been Sunday driving along on every course, always finishing, but usually near the back of the pack. I felt more confident this year, or perhaps just more devil-may-care, but I managed to pull out the win! I look forward to my next win in 2032. . .
always make cookies to share with friends; I neglected to take pictures of most of those, since I was so busy putting them into individually wrapped packages, but this year I made mocha chip, ginger molasses and bourbon vanilla shortbread. The latter seemed to be the most popular, although I think they could have used a bit more bourbon; clearly more experimentation is needed.
I also received several food gifts from friends. Jeroen and Biance always bring stroopwafels, which are one of my favorite things in the world. Next time I go to Essen I think it will include a pre-Essen excursion to the Netherlands. Yes, I know they sell them at Costco. No, they are not nearly as good.
Dale brought me Crispy Ramen Snack – Tonkotsu flavor. Dale is known for sharing, um, interestingly flavored snacks. While I have not quite recovered from the pine tree flavored chips, I am usually willing to try most things he offers. I haven’t tried them yet, though; perhaps this weekend.
And for you Letterkenny fans, my friend Tim brought me some Puppers. And that’s what I appreciate about him.