Larry & Ben’s Excellent Gathering Adventure, Part 1

The 2022 Gathering of Friends ended a few weeks ago and what an excellent time of good gaming and good fellowship it was.  Here’s a summary of what was experienced from two perspectives.  Larry has attended many Gatherings over the years, although this was his first time back since 2017.  For Ben, it was his second Gathering.  These two friends drove up together, roomed together, and got to play many games, both together and separately.  We thought it would be fun to list our impressions of the games we played in one article.  For the most part, these are new and new-to-me games, but a few old favorites are also included.  The games are all listed in alphabetical order, with the year of publication included to help give you a point of reference.

As is always the case with the Gathering, getting together with friends, both old and new, is as much fun as the gaming is.  So, while most of our discussions will be about the games we played, we’ll also toss in a few other memorable experiences from the week.  Let’s start with a culinary highlight.

Larry’s Interlude #1:  Opinionated Eaters, Part 1

I don’t have nearly as many memorable food-related experiences related to the Gathering as most of my other OG brethren.  For the most part, I’m there to meet up with old friends and play great games, so I grab a bite whenever I can and get back to having fun as soon as I can.  But there were two meals that were worth discussing.  The first happened while travelling to the con.  Ben and I drove up from Virginia and since Pittsburgh is Ben’s old stomping grounds, we stopped there for lunch.  He recommended a place called Primanti Bros. that I had never heard of, but which evidently is well known by denizens of Western PA.  Checking out the menu, I saw a Kielbasa with Cheese sandwich which, for some reason, called to me.  It came with kielbasa and melted cheese (obviously), along with coleslaw and fries on the sandwich.  I like all of those things, but not necessarily together between two slices of bread.  But what the hell, when am I ever going to have another chance to eat a kielbasa and cheese sandwich?  So I went for it.  It came with a huge amount of sliced kielbasa between two really large slices of bread.  And it was wonderful!  The fries on it didn’t do much for me (after a while, I just picked them off the sandwich and ate them on the side), but, against all logic, the kielbasa and the slaw were great together!  It was ginormous and massive (I had to do my best Guy Fieri imitation to wrap my jaws around it) and messy as hell, but I loved it.  Definitely got the proceedings off to a great start.  Good call, Ben!

1846 (2005)

Ben:  This might be the shortest game of 1846 I’ve ever played.  The auction, which normally requires a long explanation, went smoothly and the board play was quick with decisive turns.  No one sat around staring at the board to count every stop or obsessed over the payouts.  Normally, my group plays 18xx once a year and rarely the same title twice.  But here, my two competitors were pros, who were clearly familiar with the game, and we finished up in only 2 hours.  Rating:  I like it.

18 India (2023)
Ben:  A surprise hit for me.  I am always timid about 18xx games because they take so long and I fear play marginalization.  I didn’t win, but this game has all the pitfalls of 18xx removed from the box.  There were no worries about mis-timing train rusts, having poor companies dumped onto you, or badly screwing up in an initial auction.  Based on my first play, it seems to be more about track building and optimization than timing and stock manipulation.  Rating:  I like it.

Larry:  I didn’t play this (I’m not really an 18xx-er), but I see from the Geek that the design is based on Tresham’s 1829 Mainline and not on more standard 18xx titles.  Tresham often focused more on track building than stock market shenanigans in his 18xx stuff and the unique feature in Mainline is that shares are randomly distributed at the start of play.  That always seemed intriguing to me, although the luck factor was a potential concern.  18 India introduces a few new wrinkles to try to mitigate the luck of the draw, so this might be a game worth checking out when it comes out late next year, particularly given Ben’s positive review.

Ark Nova (2021)
Larry:  Not a new-to-me game by any stretch, but this was the first time I’d played it with more than 2 players.  It was, in fact, my first game of the con, as two players asked me to teach it to them and I was happy to do so.  It was fun, as always, but it left me with the feeling that this was a game I don’t need to play with more than 2, due to its long duration.  However, I continue to hear tons of reports of games lasting only 30-60 minutes per player, while none of my 2-player games have lasted less than 2.5 hours.  It’s making me feel that we are somehow playing the game wrong, although for the life of me, I can’t imagine what we can be doing to make our games last so long.  More play is clearly called for; maybe we can get the duration down and 3 (and, my goodness, maybe even 4) player games will then be feasible.  Overall rating:  I love it.

Art Decko (2019)

Art Decko, Rio Grande Games, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

Larry:  Actually, we played Prominade, the game Art Decko was derived from, but the two games are almost the same.  Besides “Art Decko” is a terrific name and probably better known than Prominade, so I decided to list it that way.  This is an interesting set collection game in which the art that you collect can be saved for victory points at the end of the game, or used as currency (to take advantage of the fact that all the art increases in value throughout the game, although some more than others).  It’s a good design and one I’d like to explore some more.  Rating:  I like it.

Babylonia (2019)
Larry:  Many Knizia fans have hailed this game as one of the Good Doctor’s best, so I was happy to try it out.  But I suspected it wouldn’t be quite to my tastes and that’s how it turned out.  The game is pretty much a pure abstract and a wide open affair where you can play just about anywhere.  Neither one of those are things I look for in a game, so my lowish rating was no surprise.  In addition, Babylonia’s graphic artist was guilty of extreme thematic sabotage:  some hexes that are completely covered by water are considered land hexes and others are considered water hexes—the only thing to distinguish them is an almost invisible set of squiggly lines.  Ridiculous and completely unnecessary.  It’s a solid point salad game with interesting ways of scoring and seems to have some nice depth, but it’s just not the sort of game I’ll go out of my way to play.  Sorry, Reiner fans!  Rating:  Neutral.

Barrage (2019)
Ben:  This is one of my favorite games of all time and I was able to teach it to a group.  They started to get the flow of the game, but they were not efficient in play.  Still, it was great fun, as always.  Rating:  I love it.

Larry:  Later the in the week, I got to play this with Ben and Simon Weinberg.  It continues to be my favorite game released over the past 7 or so years; I just wish I was better at it.  It’s so good.  I got off to a decent start, but by the end of the game, Ben had crushed me, as usual.  Rating:  I (really) love it.

Batman: Everybody Lies (2022)
Ben:  This was my first play in the Detective series by Portal.  I can see why people like these group deduction games with group objectives and personal objectives.  But it was much more reading than I was prepared for.  Rating:  Not for me.

Blitzkrieg! (2019)

Blitzkrieg Box Front

Larry:  The subtitle for this tile-laying game is “WWII in 20 minutes!” and, rather remarkably, it lives up to that claim.  The players alternate placing land, air, and sea military tiles at different fronts of the war, with each front basically being a tug of war of influence points.  When the last tile is placed at a front, the player who has the most influence there wins it.  There’s a goodly number of special abilities to keep things interesting.  It plays fast, there’s nice variety, and some tough decisions.  It’s not really aimed at me, but it achieves exactly what it sets out to do and I enjoyed it.  A solid effort by the veteran designer Paolo Mori.  Rating:  I like it.

Blokus Dice Game (2018)
Larry:  This turned out to be my last game of the Gathering.  It’s a roll-and-write version of Blokus.  Unfortunately, I didn’t discover until halfway through the game that I don’t really remember how to play Blokus!  Needless to say, my play was very suboptimal, so I’ll hold off on rating it until I can get an informed play in.  But I did want to mention it because I saw on the Geek that this is a Mattel game designed by Brian Yu.  Designing a roll-and-write version of one of your company’s biggest sellers is a sure way of coming up with a hit and Brian was smart enough to realize it.  Good way to keep your bosses happy, Mr. Yu!

Brian Boru (2021)
Larry:  This is an unusual trick-taker from the talented Peer Sylvester.  In addition to the cards, there’s a board and various tracks and whenever you win (or lose) a trick with a particular card, you get to place tokens on the board or move up on a track.  Deliberately losing a trick is very much a viable strategy.  The ideas are good, but it felt a little off and I wasn’t sure if it had as much control as I usually like.  I’d give it another shot, but it didn’t really grab me.  Rating:  Neutral.

Ben:  A pure chaos trick taker plus area control.  Rating:  Not for me.

Caesar! (2022)
Larry:  This uses the same system as Blitzkrieg!, but, to designer Mori’s credit, he didn’t just give it a different, Ancient Roman setting, but changed quite a few of the details.  In this one, each tile is played between two adjacent territories, with the active player deciding on the orientation of the tile (which determines how much strength is applied to each territory).  I think it’s meatier and probably deeper than Blitzkrieg!, but the WWII game seems like more fun.  Still, these are two nice 2-player games.  Rating:  I like it.

Can’t Stop (1980)
Ben:  When you do everything right, you will only win like 50% of your games.  I like this for its speed and the fact that you can make fun of your opponents for their choices and rolls.  😊  Rating:  I like it.

Larry:  Best dice game ever, best push-your-luck game ever, and quite possibly, my favorite design from the great Sid Sackson.  Obviously, good fortune with the dice is vital, but good judgement is mighty important as well.  I make it a point to participate in the Gathering Can’t Stop tournament whenever I can, but this year, things did not go well and I was unceremoniously eliminated during the first round.  But it’s always great fun, no matter how well I do.  Rating:  I love it.

Capital Lux 2 (2021)
Larry:  I’d heard good things about this, but it turned out to be a disappointment.  Not much control, as the game state changed very rapidly.  Rating:  Neutral.

Ben:  I was looking forward to this as a fun card game and was left a little disappointed.  Very chaotic, but not in a way one can plan for.  Rating:  Not for me.

Cascadia (2021)

Cascadia, Flatout Games, 2020 — front cover

Larry:  This wasn’t a title I was itching to play, as it seemed awfully straightforward:  choose a terrain tile/animal tile pair each turn and add them to your display, using standard rules.  But I was pleasantly surprised how smoothly it played and that there were some meaningful decisions without it being close to being overwhelming.  Given its theme and its weight, this seems like an ideal family game, while including just enough meat to keep more seasoned gamers interested.  I can see why it’s so popular, although its elevated Geek rating (it’s currently ranked number 82) is a bit of an eyebrow raiser.  Rating:  I like it.

Ben:  I forced my group to play this since it’s been climbing in the rankings, but it looks so simple.  It is indeed an elegant and fun game.  More abstract than anything, but I enjoyed my two separate plays of it.  Rating:  I like it.

Larry’s Interlude #2:  A New Friend

Most of the OG writers are people I knew well before the website launched, which makes associating with these folks even more enjoyable.  But some of our members are people I’ve never laid eyes on, much less played with.  One of those individuals was James Nathan.  JaNate has a very distinctive style, both in his writing and in his approach to life, and I wasn’t certain we’d hit it off.  But on my first full day at the Gathering, I was able to play a few games with him and I found him to be completely delightful.  Not surprisingly, he showed me some of his beloved Japanese trick-taking games and even though there was a part of me that didn’t want to like them (the descriptions did not sound promising), all of them were well worth playing and some of them were really good.  And James Nathan’s enthusiasm for these titles certainly boosted my appreciation for them.  So not only did I get to try some truly weird, but very interesting new games, I also acquired a new friend.  How awesome is that?

Cat in the Box (2022)
Larry:  This mind-bending trick-taker was originally released in Japan in 2020, but I played the newer version, which is much easier to obtain.  Thematically, it’s a riff on Schroedinger’s Cat, in which you play numbered, suitless cards from your hand, declaring what suit they are as you play them.  However, all the played cards are tracked, which could lead to a “paradox” if you have no legal plays—this is a bad thing!  It’s clever and feels completely unique.  It may have a touch less control than I usually like, but it’s a game I’d like to explore some more.  Rating:  I like it.

Ben:  Fun version of a trick taker.  I found myself thinking about this more and more.  No suits on cards and you can say what it is unless you trigger a paradox!  Rating:  I love it.

Dice Realms (2022)
Larry:  This game where you get to modify your dice actually hasn’t been released yet (the issues with the production pipeline are affecting it even more than most games), but my old friend Tom Lehmann was there with a production copy.  It’s just as clever and well designed as you’d expect from Lehmann.  I had fun checking out some of the numerous varied setups.  I’m not sure I’ll be picking up a copy (it’s pricey and I’m not sure it’s a great fit for my group), but I enjoyed playing it.  Rating:  I like it.

Dune: Imperium (2020)
Ben:  Another game that my group has played plenty of.  I have decided that the cards swing the game too much for my liking.  I played twice, jumping out to a big lead based on positioning and card powers in one game and ending dead last with cards I couldn’t capitalize on in my second game.  Rating:  Not for me.

Larry:  I’m kind of in between with this game.  I certainly like it more than Ben does, but not nearly as much as some other members of my group, for which it is the Spice of life.  I played this once during the con and one of our opponents crushed us.  It was a deserved victory, as he played extremely well, but, pursuant to what Ben is talking about, it didn’t help my cause when folks I was in the battle with were playing 4 sword Combat Intrigue cards, while I kept drawing crappy Plot cards.  It’s a fine game, but probably not something I’ll be suggesting.  Rating:  I like it.

Everyone Does Not Come Out (2015)
Ben:  Japanese game from late in the con that I enjoyed somewhat.  It was a little dry and we all got eaten by a Golem but it was cute.  Felt like “Chase,” the game.  Rating:  Neutral.

Larry:  Oh, dear, this was pretty dire.  Dungeon crawl where you’re chased by a monster and, in our game, Things Happened, causing all of us to appear on the creature’s dinner menu.  Very little control, very few laughs, and very little fun.  I guess I’m proof that Everyone Does Not Like Games Like This.  Rating:  Not for me.

Free Ride (2021)
Larry:  Friedemann Friese’s latest is a middleweight train efficiency game.  You can build tracks and travel over them (or those of your opponents, but they get VPs the first time someone does so).  It’s pretty good, but I found I was spending most of my time scanning the cards that detail the routes and then searching for them on the board.  And this was with the board facing me and the cards right in front of me—it would have been an absolute horror if I had been sitting on the other side of the table.  Many fans of the game prefer to place tokens on the board to try to make things easier, but that would have taken time and distinguishing between 20 different routes would have been a challenge.  The game is a nice little exercise, but not enough to make up for the constant searches.  I actually think it would be much better as an electronic game, where the system did all the route identification work for you.  So not without interest, but not something I’m going to go out of my way to play.  Rating:  Neutral.

Ben:  A lighter Friese game that just felt boring.  No real fun in the turns.  Place track or move.  I went for deliveries and spent tokens early and ended well behind other players who just optimized paths and card choices.  Rating:  Not for me.

Ghosts of Christmas (2019)

Ghosts of Christmas Box Art

Larry:  Another innovative trick-taking game out of Japan!  I guess that’s not exactly news these days.  This is the rethemed version of the game originally called Time Palatrix.  In each hand, you can simultaneously play to tricks for the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, or Future (which is to say, the first, second, or third trick).  The determination of each trick’s led suit (and therefore its winner) is dependent on the results of earlier tricks (so you can’t be sure how the later tricks play out until the earlier tricks are completely resolved) .  I’d say the main issue is wrapping your head around the procedures, rather than something that will melt your brain, but there’s still plenty to think about.  Unfortunately, if you’re dealt a crap hand, I’m not sure there’s much you can do and there may be a bit less control than I’d like.  But I’ll be happy to check this one out some more.  Overall, I was very happy with the large number of innovative and new-to-me trick-takers I got to play at the Gathering, particularly since I enjoyed almost all of them.  Rating:  I like it.

Glen More II (2019)
Larry:  The original Glen More got a good deal of play when it came out about a decade ago, but it very rarely comes to the table these days.  Games with tons of modules aren’t usually my jam, but Chris Wray said this might be his favorite game of all time, so I was very happy to try it out.  It’s not making my all-time list, but it was very enjoyable.  We just played the base game, sans modules, but all of the modifications to the design felt like improvements.  Given how solid the original game is, it’s not surprising that the end result is so good.  This is a title I’d be happy to play quite a bit more.  Rating:  I like it.

Larry’s Interlude #3:  “Getting to Know You”

My first interaction with Simon Weinberg came about 10 years ago, when we were both writing for the old Counter game magazine (Simon was contributing far more regularly than I was).  A few years ago, he joined the OG stable of writers and we’ve corresponded a good deal since then.  I met him for the first time at the Gathering 5 or 6 years ago, when I shared a very nice dinner with him and his fellow game reviewing namesake, Simon Neale.

At this Gathering, however, we spent far more time together.  Simon’s a great guy, with a sly, very British sense of humor.  He and I also share the same tastes in games and it was a pleasure having someone to play my beloved heavy games with.  Simon is working very hard on game design (he just signed his first contract to get one of his creations published) and I enjoyed playing his prototypes and providing some comments which will hopefully help him improve them.  I think these games show a good deal of promise, as they’re full of good ideas, so his future as a game designer may be bright.  It was great hanging out with him and, if I may paraphrase Rick Blaine, “Simon, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

Golem (2021)
Larry:  This was the one game I wanted to play during the week and Simon Weinberg, who adores it, was kind enough to teach it to Ben and me.  There’s tons going on, so there’s a lot to explore, but I saw enough to get really excited about it.  The biggest surprise was that it’s not just a souped-up version of Grand Austria Hotel, but is, in fact, considerably more complex than that great, earlier game.  The marble selection (which basically replaces the dice selection from GAH) doesn’t seem as important as getting new golems out there and then controlling the beasties.  Ben and I have this on order, so we’ll soon be able to get it to the table ourselves and I can’t wait to play it regularly.  Rating:  I love it.

Ben:  A mega box and board game with my favorite designers on the box.  I greatly looked forward to playing this.  This is a very crunchy game and at times resembles GAH, but replaces dice with marbles on 3 big tracks and is a golem management game.  We got a few rules wrong initially, but I can see potential and puzzles.  Rating:  I like it.

Gutenberg (2021)

Gutenberg, Portal Games / Granna, 2022 — front cover

Ben:  This is a very solid and well refined euro with a clever start player/hidden bidding mechanism.  Rating:  I like it.

Horseless Carriage (Splotter Prototype)
Ben:  This was a real highlight for me.  I have always enjoyed the game space that Splotter games provide and co-designer Jeroen Doumen was patient and kind in teaching and showing his prototype.  I have high hopes for this game.  It might not be my favorite Splotter game, but it will be deeply competitive and engaging.  Rating:  I love it.

Homas Tour (1979)
Ben:  A rethemed remake of Um Reifenbreite.  We played a shorter race with different rules and it was fun.  Rating:  I like it.

Islands in the Mist (2019)
Larry:  A family game about exploring via hot air balloon that didn’t work for me.  My biggest problem with it is that your moves are largely determined by the random determination of which way the wind is blowing.  You can try to move in a different direction, but the cost to brake and then move against the wind is so high that you’re usually better going with the flow (literally).  This greatly reduces the level of control and makes it a pretty frustrating experience.  Nicely produced, but absolutely full of hot air for me.  Rating:  Not for me.

Isle of Cats (2019)
Ben:  This has the appearance of a light filler game, but it actually has some meat to it.  It’s also short enough to be family-friendly, while being spatially tricky enough to be a gamers game.  Rating:  Neutral.

Larry’s Interlude #4:  Opinionated Eaters, Part 2

My second memorable meal of the Gathering was at a restaurant called Savor, which is run by the local culinary institute.  Consequently, the chefs, servers, and staff are all students, learning the craft of the restaurant biz.  Ben and I ate there mid-week and it was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.  The highlight for me was a perfectly cooked steak, tender and completely delicious, and served with an amazing sauce.  Ben loved his salmon as well.  It was a fantastic experience and I fully intend on savoring Savor many more times during future Gatherings.

On that delicious note, we’ll bring Part 1 of this article to a close.  Check us out tomorrow, when we’ll describe the rest of the games we played at the Gathering, together with a few other interludes of things that happened during the week.

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7 Responses to Larry & Ben’s Excellent Gathering Adventure, Part 1

  1. Jacob Lee says:

    I like reading blurbs about lots of games. I actually don’t think I have the stamina to play many games in that amount of time, but I will read about them just fine. I also enjoy the food bits, too. I think it gives the feel of I’m reading about something that’s far away from where I live when I read about these foreign foods since I’ve never heard of Kielbasa.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Jacob, adrenaline is a wonderful thing. You wouldn’t think it would apply to gaming, but I find when I’m at the Gathering, it allows me to learn and play a huge number of games, stay up to ridiculously late hours, and wake up the next day after a small amount of sleep, eager for more. Maybe it’s not adrenaline as much as I just enjoy myself so much, but the effect is a very real one.

      And kielbasa is Polish sausage. It’s pretty mainstream, at least in the States, and can be found in just about any grocery store. I love it, but not everyone enjoys sausage as much as I do.

  2. leefisher says:

    Thanks these are great!

  3. huzonfirst says:

    Jacob, adrenaline is a wonderful thing. You wouldn’t think it would apply to gaming, but I find when I’m at the Gathering, it allows me to learn and play a huge number of games, stay up to ridiculously late hours, and wake up the next day after a small amount of sleep, eager for more. Maybe it’s not adrenaline as much as I just enjoy myself so much, but the effect is a very real one.

    And kielbasa is Polish sausage. It’s pretty mainstream, at least in the States, and can be found in just about any grocery store. I love it, but not everyone enjoys sausage as much as I do.

  4. Phil Bauer says:

    Thanks for the report Larry. Sounds like you had a great time. I have been to the original Primanti Brothers several times, mostly when my sister attended college in nearby Latrobe, PA. They have franchised the restaurant and have about 40 locations in and around PA. I tried the one closest to DC in Maryland a few years ago and it was so much worse than the original–if the name wasn’t on the sign, you would never associate it with Primanti Bros. So if you’re hankering for another kielbasa and cheese with slaw on the sandwich, go to the original in Pittsburgh.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Yeah, that’s something I’ve seen with other franchised restaurants, Phil. The original Ledo’s Pizza in College Park, MD is great; the franchised versions elsewhere are not only mediocre, but their food is completely different. I’ve been told that Uno’s is fantastic in Chicago and crappy elsewhere. So in many cases, all you’re selling when you franchise a successful restaurant is it’s name; the food that made it successful is secondary. Pretty sad.

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