Larry & Ben, Together Again: Our Second Joint Gathering Report, Part 1

Once again, our intrepid heroes, Larry and Ben, ventured to the far northern realms of Niagara Falls and a week of gaming bliss at the Gathering of Friends.  We got to meet with friends, old and new, had a lot of laughs, and played some great games.  Just like last year, we’ll be describing our experiences in a joint report.  The games are all listed in alphabetical order, with the year of publication included to help give you a point of reference.  We’ll also be adding our OG-style ratings for each title.  A weekful of gaming is too much to cover in just one posting, so we’ll relate the first half of our experiences today and finish things up on Friday.  Let’s get started!

Ben’s Intro:  Larry linked up with me after moving away from our game group last year. We drove to Niagara Falls and stayed for almost the entire con, having customary stops for food in Pittsburgh and the Niagara area.  We ate Polish sausages, Kielbasa, pork chops, pizza, and some dang good BBQ before heading home.  I took advantage of the Gathering to teach Larry games that he hasn’t had the chance to play in his “forever home”.

On the left, Larry gives his seal of approval for the spicy mustard at Gadawski’s, where we had our first meal in Niagara Falls. Our heroes got lucky, as it turned out this was the only day during their during their stay where the Polish restaurant would be open. The sausages were yummy.

Larry’s Intro:  The only negative about my wife and I moving to our new location was leaving my old games groups.  Specifically, I missed playing games with Ben.  But that’s what the Gathering is for!  So we made a point of playing a bunch of games together, including a lot of Essen titles that I missed out on, but which Ben was able to teach me.

Overall, there weren’t too many great new games I played, but there were a lot I liked a lot.  There were so many, in fact, that I’m inventing a new OG rating of “I Really Like It” to distinguish them from the mere Like’s.  With more play, some of these could easily graduate to games I love.

18 India (2023)
Ben:  My favorite 18xx game of last year was 18 India and I told myself I would play it if the prototype came out, and it did on the second day.  Last year, I played a four-person game in what felt like a quick five hours.  This year, we played a five-person game in approximately nine hours(!).  I played with Jeroen Doumen (half of the terrific Splotter design team) and a few others who knew the rules much better than I did.  The game was fun and I continue to be pleased with the map-based play.  However, the slow pace and losing one of my two companies in the midgame (due to the semi-random nature of the setup) made for an awfully long experience.  Rating:  Downgraded to I like it.

31 Fireworks (Prototype)
Larry:  Our first game of the Gathering was trying out Dale Yu’s trick-taking prototype.  Dale said it’s based on a version of Whist that’s only played in a single neighborhood of the US.  It’s a partnership game, where the two partners have the chance to show one of their cards to each other and this definitely affects the bidding and the play.  I thought it was pretty interesting and could well be worth developing and publishing.  We played a lot of prototypes during the week, so this was by no means an unusual start!  Rating:  I like it.

Ben:  Dale’s trick taker was very intriguing and fun.  It added a layer of strategy to ordinary trick-taker rules with various extra things to pay attention to.  I am not an avid trick-taker by nature (I prefer the meaty Euros), but I found myself thinking about this game over the week and wanted to play it more.  It would be my favorite trick-taker that I played because of its tactical nature.  Rating:  I love it.

Abluxxen (aka Linko) (2014)
Larry:  This was probably my most memorable game of the Gathering.  I really like Abluxxen, but it’s been a while since I’ve played it.  This was a rollicking 5-player game in which I started out okay, but then literally couldn’t do anything right.  Every play of mine blew up in my face.  The highlight (or, lowlight, from my point of view) was a meld of four 3’s which my opponents kept topping and returning to my hand.  I swear to God, they were pulling 4-of-a-kinds out of thin air!  The more things went bad for me, the more screaming and cursing to the card gods I did, which led to much hilarity.  It was so funny.  Experiences like this are why I love the Gathering, because they happen with a good deal of regularity and make for unforgettable times.  I will never look at a group of four 3 cards the same way again!  Rating:  I like it (but I loved this session).

Applejack (2022)
Ben:  An Uwe Rosenberg game that was actually not boring to me.  This is a tile drafting game where you manage income and scoring to build a perfect apple orchard.  The game is actually quite refined and tight and most of the players at the table loved it, pledging to buy it.  The turns are simple, but tricky to plan for and this might be my favorite of his since Agricola.  Rating:  I like it.

Atiwa (2022)
Larry:  More Rosenberg, this time featuring bat poop!  I wasn’t sure what I’d think of this new game of his, since it didn’t seem that different from his other harvest games and it was a bit lighter than I usually like (plus, needless to say, bat poop), but I did want to try it and I’m glad I did.  Even though there are plenty of options and a good deal to think about, the game has a nice open feel and some innovative touches.  It was just fun to play.  It’s probably one of my favorite recent Uwe designs.  Plus, it’s nice that the theme does a good job of publicizing the efforts being made to improve the environment of Ghana.  Still not crazy about the picture of the bat on the cover, but I’ll overlook it.  Rating:  I really like it.

Birdwatcher (2022)
Larry:  Pleasant family game that I’m certain was released due to the massive popularity of Wingspan.  Harmless enough, and absolutely beautiful, but not something I need to play again.  Rating:  Neutral.

Challengers (2022)
Larry:  So Ben loves playing this game with his son and insisted on showing it to me.  Just after we got started, who should walk by, having never played the game before, but Vlaada Chvatil!  Ben gave him a quick rundown of the rules and let him sit in for him.  I always enjoy playing games with Vlaada (in addition to being a world-class designer, he’s also a very good player), but even his presence couldn’t save this game for me.  It involves a little deck-building (which I suck at), but the play of the hand is pretty much on autopilot.  Really, really, not the game for me!  I’m convinced it will win the SdJ award, because the jury members seem besotted by it, but no collection of awards will keep me from avoiding it in the future.  Vlaada destroyed me in the game (no surprise there, and no dishonor, either) and didn’t seem quite as negative about it as I was.  Rating:  Not for me.

Ben:  Larry hadn’t played this presumed winner of the SdJ, so I brought it from home to teach him.  Having nearly a hundred games of this under my belt with my ten year old, I prepped the game and taught him and Vlaada, who played a single nine-round game.  Vlaada beat Larry very convincingly (Larry is terrible at deck builders of any kind).  I later had a chance to talk to Martin from Plan B games, who said that there is another version anticipated soon with more decks (cross compatibility:  yes!), trainer cards, and new ways of scoring.  I know this is not a gamer’s game, but it scratches an itch for shallow deck building that plays fast.  Rating:  I love it.

Ben poses with Vlaada, who’s still smiling, so it’s probably before we forced him to play Challengers

Dice Realms: Trade Expansion (Prototype)
Larry:  After missing connections for most of the convention, on my last day there I finally was able to spend time with my old friend Tom Lehmann and play some of his prototypes.  This is the first expansion to Dice Realms, Tom’s dice-building game that came out last year.  It includes several new dice lines, many of which have an economic aspect.  The new options are interesting and appear balanced, which isn’t surprising, given Tom’s usual meticulous attention to detail.  Rio Grande has already announced that this will be released sometime this year, so fans of Dice Realms have a lot to look forward to.  Rating:  I like it.

Earth (2023)
Ben:  I had a copy at home ready to be played, decked out with all the Kickstarter extras.  We sat down to a four-person game and it was woefully underwhelming.  I had in my mind that this was a card management game in the same category as Terraforming Mars, with tight engine building and card synergy.  But instead, this is a completely multiplayer solo game with loose scoring.  Many turns did not feel valuable or important and the cards were overwhelming with too many icons.  I had bought this for my family to play, but after our initial play, I sold it.  Rating: Not for me.

Larry:  This is one of the hottest new games of the past few months, but we all found it to be pretty disappointing.  There’s lots of details on each card and a ton of objectives that allow you to score, so anything even remotely like optimizing your plays seems impossible.  Just focus on a few things each game and hope for the best, which seems pretty unsatisfying.  It’s often compared to Ark Nova, but you draw your cards blindly in Earth, as opposed to the drafting in Ark Nova, which reduces the skill factor considerably.  It’s a fairly fiddly game as well, and a real table hog, which isn’t optimal for a game of this weight.  It’s not a terrible design by any means, but I think we were all hoping for more.  Rating:  Neutral.

Larry’s Interlude #1:  My Personal Best Designer of the Gathering

So we’re getting ready to enter the F’s, which means it’s Friedemann Friese time!  Friedemann couldn’t make the Gathering last year, but he got there early this year and I played a bunch of his prototypes.  And I liked every one, which is a pretty awesome achievement!  Not to mention, hanging out with him is always fun.  So, amidst all the excellent new stuff I got to try while I was there, The Man in Green was clearly my favorite designer of the con.  Thanks, Friedemann!

You can’t tell, because of the baseball cap, but Ben had also dyed his hair green for the occasion! Okay, maybe not.

Faiyum: Privileges (Prototype Expansion)
Ben:  I love Faiyum.  It’s a 2020 release that did not get the love it deserved.  It’s one of my favorite designs of Friedemann’s.  So when I saw a copy of a prototype deck for the expansion, I jumped on it.  Friedemann explained how he wanted to add a set of cards that didn’t change the base game, but also didn’t add any play time.  The cards give you one time and continuing abilities and you end up removing some cards from the initial deck.  It played like a fine-tuned machine and the game was super tight at the end like normal.  I still hold hope for some more varied scoring cards as well.  Rating:  I love it.

Larry:  Faiyum is my favorite meaty Friese game in quite a while, so it was great to be able to check out the new expansion.  It adds a bunch of new cards (using most of the odd numbers, of course).  Friedemann doesn’t want the expansion to lengthen or complicate the game too much, so the cards are mostly instant or ongoing effects.  It does just what an expansion for a good game should do:  provide some variety and spice things up a bit, without altering the already successful gameplay too drastically.  It made a fun game even better.  Rating:  I really like it.

Famiglia (2010)
Larry:  So Jonathan Franklin and I were chatting prior to the con, specifically about deckbuilding games such as Concordia (where there’s no shuffling, all your cards are available to you at the start, and you can take an action to pick them back up over the course of the game).  While speculating about the origins of this mechanism, we thought about Friese’s Famiglia card game.  It’s not strictly deckbuilding, but it’s pretty close and really did anticipate the kinds of actions that Concordia made popular.  Since we both like the game and it’s rarely played these days, we decided to have an annual Famiglia Death Match.  I managed to win our inaugural event, thanks to Jonathan drawing a bunch of crappy cards.  Better luck next year, Jonathan—maybe you can make me an offer I can’t refuse!  Rating:  I like it.

Five Three Five (2023)
Larry:  An interesting climbing card game where, uniquely, you can add cards to the high meld instead of just beating it.  It wasn’t the best new climbing game I played, but it was still fun and changed the way you have to think about these games.  This originally came out in Japan a few years ago, but a new English version was just released recently.  Rating:  I like it.

Larry’s Interlude #2:  A New Friend

As much as I love getting together with old friends at the Gathering, it’s also a great place to make new acquaintances.  Probably the new friend I spent the most time with was Ta-Te Wu, an LA native originally from Taiwan.  Despite a red badge which showed he was a first-time Gathering attendee, his name was so familiar that I was convinced I’d played with him before.  Turns out, he’s a game designer and one of his titles, Art Decko, was a game I’d played and very much enjoyed last year!  Over the course of the week, I played at least 8 games with Ta-Te, including some of his own designs, and very much enjoyed playing with him.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it again next year!

That’s Ta-Te sitting to Larry’s left in the lower left-hand corner of the photo. The game we’re playing is Revive.

FORK (2023)
Larry:  In this game, “FORK” is not a utensil, but rather stands for “Fox, Owl, Rabbit, Kale”.  It’s one of Ta-Te’s most recent games and he showed it to a bunch of us.  He bills it as a “Food Chain Trick-Taking Game”, with rabbits eating kale, owls devouring rabbits, and foxes eating the other two animals.  It’s meant to be a lighter game and is based on bluffing and blind card play (neither of which are among my favorite mechanisms), but the idea of inserting a food chain in a trick-taker is certainly a good one.  Hopefully, it will do well.  Rating:  Neutral.

Free Ride USA (Prototype)
Larry:  Last year, I played Friese’s middleweight train game Free Ride and had some severe issues with the components.  The game is based on European cities (using the local names), so locating these on the map is essential, but I found this very time-consuming and all that squinting at the map pretty much ruined the experience for me.  However, Rio Grande will be releasing a US version of the game this year.  Obviously, being more familiar with the city locations helps, but the real innovation was color coding the different regions of the US, together with the cards.  (Friedemann said the plan with the original Free Ride was to color code the cities, but that was changed at the last minute.)  This made locating the cities a snap and meant I could focus on the gameplay.  I can’t remember the last time my opinion of a game improved so much from one version to another.  I now agree with the view of many that Free Ride is a very clever, streamlined design, where you not only have to plot out your best path to the cities you need to deliver to (and plan what cities you’ll visit after that delivery), but you need to figure out what your opponents might do—either because they might swipe a route before you can get it, or to lay down track that they’ll need, so that they’ll be forced to pay you valuable coins!  All of this stemming from a very simple ruleset.  Now I can’t wait until Free Ride USA comes out and Friedemann mentioned that if the new game sells well, Rio Grande will consider a new print run of the European version that will include color-coded cities.  It’s amazing the difference that functional components can make!  Rating:  I really like it.

FTW?! (Prototype)
Larry:  This is a really elegant and seemingly straightforward quick card game from Friese that has more depth than is initially apparent.  It’s a rolling trick game and each card has a number on it.  On your turn, you either play a card with a higher number than the last played card or you play a card in front of you and take one of the played cards into your hand (this latter action resets the count to zero and allows the next player to play any card).  In subsequent turns, you can play any cards in front of you in addition to your played card, summing the cards together in order to beat the value of the last played card; if you do this, the card you played from your hand is the value the next player has to beat, not the summed value.  This continues until a player has only one card left in their hand.  They score the value of that card, while everyone else scores positive points for the highest card in their hand, but must subtract the values of every other card left in their hand.  That’s literally all the rules of the game.  It’s the scoring that makes this so interesting, as lower cards aren’t necessarily bad, since they won’t hurt your score as much as a higher card you weren’t able to get rid of.  There’s also some really interesting timing issues about when you take cards from the center of the table—sometimes, you’re better off doing so, even if you can play a card from your hand, just so you can set yourself up better to go out.  Terrific stuff and given that it plays so fast and is so easy to teach, it will work well for a lot of different groups.  Once it comes out, I intend to buy two copies—one for me and one to contribute to my game group’s collection, as I think it will be a perfect closer for our sessions.  Great job, Friedemann!  Rating:  I really like it.

Ben:  Larry said this is a good game so I cornered Friedemann and he gave me a very rough teach of the game with Larry there.  I struggled to understand the scoring, but we began to play.  Friedemann obviously was just messing with Larry throughout the whole game and ignored my terrible play.  Rating:  I like it.

Glass of Venice (Prototype)
Ben:  Ken and Joe Summa taught this heavy, heavy beast of a game to Candice Harris (from BGG) and myself.  It was still in prototype form, but had some neat mechanics.  It has a large three level rondel for your markers to perform actions.  When you move your marker, you choose an action that then activates dice of certain numbers on your board.  The actions themselves are dependent on the dice ranges you have.  So a ship action is shared with perhaps a buying action.  Shipping would use dice with values 1-3 and buying would use dice with values 4-6.  But you can pay to manipulate the dice ranges, eating away at the dice available to perform another action on the same action scale.  All of these mechanics are to help you circumnavigate the board, along with buying supplies and fulfilling orders to make different colored glass for scoring.  It was a long play and a long teach, but Joe helped me maximize my turns and see how the mechanisms could be manipulated to not pay taxes or turn in recipes for even more points.  We gave some feedback, but are excited to see how this game develops.  It’s certainly in the same realm of complexity and depth as Lacerta games.  Rating:  I like it.

Grand Austria Hotel (2015)
Larry:  Ever since the pandemic hit, Joe Huber, Simon Weinberg, and I have been playing a continual series of online games of Grand Austria Hotel, both because we love it and because it’s a great game to play online.  We thought it would be fun to actually play the game in person, so on the last day of the con, we were able to make it happen.  Joe was able to turn several jillion endgame points into a convincing win.  As always, it’s a terrific game (the fact that we’ve played well over 30 games online shows how replayable it is) and being able to do it face to face made it that much more enjoyable.  Rating:  I love it.

Hanamikoji (2013)
Larry:  Chris Wray was astonished that I’d never played the older card game Hanamikoji, which he feels is one of the great 2-player games.  So he taught it to me and I played a game.  Midway through the game, I realized I had played it earlier and thought it was pretty good.  You need to anticipate what your opponent will do, but despite limited information, you know enough to do this fairly well.  It was a fun game and although my opinion of it isn’t quite as high as Chris’ is, I was glad I got to reacquaint myself with it.  Rating:  I like it.

Hegemony: Lead your class to Victory (2023)
Ben:  This was a super highlight of the trip for me.  It’s an asynchronous four-person class-based economics game.  The version I played was properly pimped out with extra bits and nice pieces, but even without that, the gameplay was tremendously fun and intuitive.  Briefly, there are four classes in the game:  unskilled labor, the middle class, the capitalists, and the government, and they each work like cogs in the machine to score.  Each turn you play one of seven cards, either for its face up effect or a base action, until you have played six of the seven.  Turns are quick and you need to watch what everyone is doing.  When everyone works together, the game works flawlessly.  But when someone tries to get ahead, the machine breaks down, leaving each class to respond in painful and expensive ways, hurting the synergy of the economy.  We only played 3 out of 5 turns in about 5 hours with a teach, so the first plays are long but fun.  Rating:  I love it.

Holly Oak (Prototype)
Larry:  This is another Tom Lehmann prototype that I got to try.  Holly Oak is a fairly straightforward trick-taking game with one interesting innovation.  The suits are themed around the four seasons and if you don’t have a card in the led suit, you can either sluff off a card or play a card in the next season of the year (so with no Spring cards, you could play a Summer card, and so on).  This immediately changes the active suit to that new suit.  You’re trying to win certain point cards in tricks, so the goal is to manipulate the active suits to allow you to do this well.  It plays very nicely and is thinky without being brain-burning.  I mentioned to Tom that I hadn’t seen the idea of suits shifting in a specific order in a trick taker before, which was surprising, since it seems like an obvious idea in retrospect.  He said he had been working on the idea in multiple prototypes for a while and this was the first one that he’d been able to get to work well.  Rio Grande has already announced this game, so hopefully, it will be available later this year.  Rating:  I like it.

Hooky (2023)
Larry:  I agree with the consensus that this was the game of the Gathering.  James Miller was such a beloved figure in our hobby that that might be part of it, but mainly, it’s just an excellent and refined pure deduction game.  I don’t have much to add to the comments I’ve already made to our review of the game, other than to say that I’m delighted with how professional the entire production is.  It’s a wonderful version of a wonderful game, designed by a truly wonderful person.  Rating:  I really like it.

Ben:  I am not good at deduction games but this doesn’t dissuade me from trying and this is a fun letter-based deduction game covered elsewhere on Opinionated Gamers.  This was the most played game from what I could tell and is definitely a great design.  Rating:  I like it.

Jet Set (2008)
Ben:  One thing that Chris Kovak and I like to do at the Gathering is play older games that no longer get the love.  Previous plays include games like Um Reifenbreite.  He  taught me Jet Set, a title designed by a fellow Gathering attendee, Kris Gould.  This is a distilled route building and delivery game with tight money and scoring.  Rating:  I like it.

Kris Gould, posing with what’s probably his best design

Lacrimosa (2022)
Ben:  I’ve wanted to review this game but I haven’t gotten it to the table as much as I had anticipated.  This is a medium Euro about playing cards to perform actions and get resources.  It’s been covered before, but I wanted to teach Larry the game since the unusual theme stuck out and the high production value should be shown off.  We worked through a full three-person game.  It ended up being an enjoyable experience and scores were closer than expected but not where they normally fall.  Rating:  I like it.

Larry:  This is a gorgeous game and the theme is unusual.  Mechanically, though, I didn’t think it did anything that innovative.  It was enjoyable enough and I wouldn’t refuse to play it again, but I won’t be seeking it out, either.  Rating:  Neutral.

That’ll wrap things up for Part 1 of our report.  Check back on Friday, when we’ll finish up our description of our wonderful week at the Gathering of Friends!

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3 Responses to Larry & Ben, Together Again: Our Second Joint Gathering Report, Part 1

  1. cbrandt300 says:

    Super report, guys! I’m looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Bob Kamp says:

    A flip phone!!!

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