Welcome to the second half of Larry and Ben’s detailed report of their wonderful week at the Gathering of Friends. When last we left our likeable loonies, they were languishing with Lacrimosa. Let’s see what’s next on the docket, starting with the M’s.
Larry: Ta-Te taught us one of his more successful games, Macaron. This is a trick-taker with a few tricky rules. The players need to predict their scores each hand. Each won trick gives you a point, unless it contains the allergen suit—but some cards cancel the allergen, allowing you to score it. You’re trying to come as close as you can to your predicted score. This has some nice features, but I didn’t necessarily feel in control. I also may have been spoiled by all the new trick-taking games with crazy rules; Macaron felt a little safe when compared to them. Still, it’s a nice game and very attractively produced. I can see why he’s had success with it. Rating: Neutral.
Magic Trick (Prototype)
Larry: Speaking of crazy ideas…So this is a prototype by that lover of trick-takers, Chris Wray. It uses a deck where the backs are colored to match the suit of the card, but the rank is only shown on the fronts. An opponent sorts your cards in numerical order, but all you can see are the backs. As you play cards, you’ll need to deduce what you’ve got, based on where the cards are in your row and what others have played. Eventually, you’ll have to predict how many tricks you’ll win, so make with the deduction, buddy! This seemed impossible at first, but after a few plays, I began to see some strategies. I still think it’s crazy, but it’s an audacious idea that leads to a unique game, and those need to be treasured. So, great job, Chris! Rating: I like it.
Larry’s Interlude #3: An Interesting Guy
Timm Metivier was another first-time Gathering attendee who I befriended during the convention. Turns out, he’s extremely well connected to the hobby. He runs a very successful board game café/game store in Las Vegas called Meepleville and has served as the showrunner for some of the Dice Tower West conventions. He’s also a former air traffic controller, comedian, and magician. Needless to say, he has some very interesting stories to tell! We played quite a few games together (my first game with him was Magic Trick, which, in retrospect, was a natural for him) and I found him to be a good player and a great person to hang out with. I hope we get to spend a lot of time together next year as well, Timm!
Larry: I’m a Feld fan, but the online rules for this game (one of the few titles from his new City Collection from Queen that isn’t a redesign of one of his earlier games) did not excite me. It seemed like it would be a bunch of disparate mini-games, all tied together with an uninteresting drafting mechanism (as opposed to a game like Trajan, where the mini-games are tied together by that great Mancala-like process). But I did want to try it out, and all I can say is, I’m sorry I doubted you, Stefan! This was really enjoyable. Yes, the mini-games are all independent, but they’re also quite different and figuring out which ones to emphasize and how is not easy. There’s also tough decisions about which Action tokens to take each round. It was thinky, but also had a nice fun factor. I’m not completely convinced the cube tower is necessary, but it adds a bit of randomness without detracting from things, so it didn’t bother me. It’s nice to see Herr Feld is still capable of creating a good meaty game these days and this is one I’d like to explore some more. Rating: I really liked it.
Minigolf Designer (2020)
Larry: Patrick Korner suggested we give this a try and I was very surprised how much I liked it. You’re drafting tiles and playing them to your grid, with the goal of constructing a 9-hole Miniature Golf course. There are some objectives, including trying to get as close as possible to a total par of 36 and so on. Needless to say, the combinations of tees, greens, and fairways that are available to you don’t always give you what you want! This is one of those nice games which can be played for fun or more strategically and coming up with a good score is by no means easy. Plus, the theme is very attractive and a nice change of pace from building cities, castles, and other standard Eurogame fare. Maybe not a hole-in-one, but a very good suggestion, Patrick. Rating: I like it.
Nuts a GoGo (2021)
Ben: [James Nathan box of fun] I don’t know why I like this chaotic frantic piece grabbing climber game. You reach in, grab 1 or 2 pieces out of a box with hundreds of pieces of various shapes and sizes and fill a very tiny cup. Then you show your piece and see if others around the table also have the same shape. If they do, they stay in the game until the last person is standing. This is a fun filler with absolutely no staying power, but I could not help smiling hugely when we played, particularly when Larry threw all his pieces on the ground “accidentally”. Rating: I love it.
Larry: So this is a game. It’s real time. It’s dexterity-based. It requires good spatial perception. Strike 1, strike 2, and strike 3! Is it over yet? Rating: Not for me.
Ben: [James Nathan box of fun] Partnership trick taking team game where (after a card passing phase) one partner plays a number card and their teammate plays a suit card, or vice versa. The two are combined to make the card played to the trick. It reminds me of a twist on Teamplay. It was really fun to play and watch teams try to cooperate to win tricks. Rating: I love it.
Ben: I sat down with Ken Hill, formerly from Rio Grande games and Eagle-Griffon games, and he introduced me to his protégé and game “fine-tuner”, Joseph Summa (the same Ken and Joe that taught me Glass of Venice). The two of them taught us the rules to this mancala-based nautically themed game. It was an interesting race-based achievements game with a puzzly mancala that you manipulate to extract optimized turns. The pieces were nice but the board color theme was an extremely washed out green and grey, and with white pieces, it didn’t not pop out to me. The gameplay was intriguing, but ultimately very abstract and borrowed some Scythe-style categorical scoring. Knowing how the scoring functions and where to point your boat is a big advantage for experienced players. Rating: Neutral.
Path of Civilization (Prototype)
Larry: This is a Civ-Lite game by the designer of Turing Machine that is scheduled to be released at Essen this year. Each player has a hand of 5 multi-effect technology cards; these come in different categories, and each has its own specialty. Every turn, the players simultaneously assign two of their cards for their left-hand effect, two of the remaining ones for their right-hand effect, and then discard the last card. Effects include improving your abilities and setting yourself up to buy leaders, wonders, and to add to your military. Then, you purchase a new technology card to replace the one you discarded; with the proper preparation, you can buy higher level cards, which have more powerful effects. The game plays very smoothly, because much of the action is simultaneous. There’s a reasonable amount of indirect player interaction, but no direct attacks, as you’d expect from a Euro. Thematically, this has a Civ feel, with appropriately named leaders and wonders, but it’s still fairly abstract, so base your expectations on that. Civ games are among my favorite themes, so I was inclined to like this and I did. It delivers a game of nice scope in a relatively short timeframe and it looks as if there will be a good deal of replayability, because of all of the options included in the base game. Rating: I really liked it.
Poison Ivy (Prototype)
Larry: Our good friend Simon Weinberg has been trying to get some of his designs published for a few years now. I got to play one of his games this year, a simplified Climbing game (currently called Poison Ivy) with an interesting twist. I quite liked it and I think there was some interest in it. Good luck with the publishers, Simon! Rating: I like it.
Res Arcana (2019)
Ben: I taught this game to Phil, another new attendee of the Gathering. Phil had wanted to play it and I really like the design. It’s not new and we had to pull out the expansion stuff to play the base game (rather easy because of the design of the cards). We played a quick game to ten points. This is a game I don’t own, but it’s relatively quick and I like to think about it often. Rating: I love it.
Larry: This was one of the new games I was most anxious to try out and it didn’t disappoint. It’s something of a kitchen sink design: a little exploration, a little deckbuilding, and a little engine building. But it all hangs together really well and, best of all, is just fun to play! It’s another game that features multi-effect cards and uses them very well. The game is slickly designed and seems to be properly developed. I played it twice and very much enjoyed both of my games. This was one of my favorite games of the Gathering and I hope I’ll be able to explore it some more in the near future. Rating: I really like it.
Ben: Larry and I reviewed this game in the past but I wanted him to play it with the advanced setups. I taught the game to Vlaada and we played a 3-player game. This again is the theme-less track-climbing manipulation game. I think we all enjoyed this game very much. The game plays in a reasonable amount of time and did not overstay its welcome. Vlaada did exceptionally well besting my highest score. It continues to be a great medium euro with a lot to think about. Rating: I like it.
Larry: This game isn’t quite as themeless as Ben makes it out to be (it’s set during the Industrial Revolution and the labels attached to the tracks make at least a little real-world sense). But yeah, it’s tracks, tracks, and more tracks! Moving to certain spaces on some tracks allows you to advance on other tracks or have similar positive (and sometimes negative) effects. The object, of course, is to best manage these cascading effects. With 10 separate tracks, it’s hard to wrap your arms around it all, but with experience, you can begin to develop some strategies. So a game I need to play some more to truly appreciate, but I enjoyed what I’ve seen so far. Rating: I really like it.
Rolling Heights (2023)
Larry: This is the game where you get to roll your meeples: depending on how they land, they either do normal actions, double actions, or no actions. Given that somewhat bizarre mechanism, you’d expect this to be pretty light (at least, I did). But the game is actually fairly involved. There are different colors of meeples and they do different things, so it’s kind of a dice building game, with the meeples serving as dice, of course. This is a city building design, so you’re trying to construct buildings on the board, each of which has different building requirements and which gives you different rewards when built. There’s actually quite a lot going on. Our game was dominated by end-game points, but now that I know about that possibility, I’d certainly pay more attention to this in the future. It’s yet another game from designer John D. Clair, who’s been on quite an, uh, roll these days. Rating: I like it.
Schotten Totten (1999)
Ben: Filler game I played with Simon Weinberg while we waited for some games to be completed. This is the older card game where you battle over a set of positions. I had played the Battle Line version and this was no different. Good fun light game. Rating: I love it.
Secret Identity (2022)
Larry: My last game of the Gathering was a party-style title in which you are secretly given the name of a celebrity and have to get the other players to guess who you are by using cryptic drawings. I’m pretty terrible at games like that and my score showed it. Frank DeLorenzo pitched a perfect game, as everyone guessed his identity in all four rounds, which meant he had good luck in the drawings he received and was good enough to take advantage of it. Really impressive, but I it didn’t improve my feelings about the game. Rating: Neutral.
Seven Prophecies (2017)
Ben: [James Nathan box of fun] I finally got to sit down with James Nathan and play his box of unusual trick takers. In this game, you predict how many tricks you will finish first, second, third, and last. Then you play it out across 7-10 rounds where the trump suit changes but is predetermined before the game. Rating: I love it.
Shiju Torite (2023)
Larry: Yet another innovative trick-taker from Japan. This one really pushes the envelope, as you openly draft your hands. In addition to the normal cards available, there are goal cards you can take, which you’ll score for if you meet their requirements. Needless to say, the goals run the gamut from traditional to kooky. With all the cards face up, including the goals, it doesn’t seem as if it should work (and, to be honest, it might be really fragile), but my game was very thinky and, despite my doubts, it was a design I couldn’t stop thinking about. Could be great, could be broken, definitely worth checking out. Rating: Who knows what it’ll wind up being, but for now, I like it.
Ben: [James Nathan box of fun] Another trick taker where you draft cards beforehand. Cards drafted are colored blue, red, or yellow with numbers 1-5. The gimmick is you also draft the scoring cards at the same time which will change what you want and what your neighbors want. Rating: I like it.
Larry: This was one of the most played games of the Gathering and I’ll be damned if I can figure out why. It’s basically a cooperative and restricted form of Password, in which the clues must start with letters shown on the active cards. The restrictions made it play pretty slow, to my way of thinking, but to tamp things down even further, the clue-giving players are encouraged to cryptically discuss different potential clues (such as “I have a 5 letter R”), in the hope that the guessers can make sense of all this gobbledygook. This happens just often enough to keep the players doing it, but most of the time, it just drags things out. Nevertheless, this was very popular with some folks—I’m not sure Aldie played much of anything else while he was there. Probably I’m just not seeing the joys of this game, but I think I’ll stick with the classic featuring Allen Ludden and Betty White. Rating: Neutral.
Space Station Phoenix Expansion (Prototype)
Ben: I hadn’t played Space Station Phoenix before, but I love me some meaty Euro space themed games, so we got a teaching of the base game and some additional content being tested. This was one of the highlights of the show for me as I really enjoy deck destroyers and optimizing play with some tableau building. The new content does not radically change the base game, but adds new things to score. This was certainly in my wheel house, as I like this style of game a great deal. The speed at which you use your or your neighbors’ resources is an interesting strategy that would change how the game is played almost every time. Rating: I love it.
Larry: An interesting WP game, in which you have to destroy parts of your starting ship (for resources), but this tends to also eliminate useful action spaces. So it’s a race to build the new ship fast enough to give you spaces you can use. Complicating things is that opponents can pay you to use “your” spaces, which is a bargain you’re almost always unhappy with. A promising game, and the expansion seemed well thought out as well. Rating: I really like it.
Splendor Duel (2022)
Larry: I’m not a fan of Splendor at all. It doesn’t engage me and I actually find it to be pretty boring. But this 2-player version of it from Bruno Cathala, along with Splendor designer Marc Andre, has been getting praise, so I gave it a shot, and I like it much more than the original game. Superficially, it’s like Splendor, but it didn’t feel much like it to me, which was a good thing. There’s a good deal to think about, but the game moves along well and provides a very nice experience in just 30 minutes. This is definitely one to add to my list of 2-player games. Rating: I really like it.
Switch & Signal (2020)
Larry: I’m not really a lover of cooperative games, but the premise of Switch & Signal had always appealed to me, so I decided to try it with 2 players. The players are attempting to set the railroad switches properly to keep the trains moving to their intended destination and avoid crashes. The game’s physical solution to emulating 3-way switches is clever and wonderfully elegant. The game itself is pretty good as well. It’s a nice challenge and I really appreciated playing a co-op that didn’t follow the Pandemic model, as so many of them do (not that I mind Pandemic, but it was nice to see something different). Our game came down to the last action and, against all odds, we actually had a chance to pull it out, but luck finally deserted us at the end. I’m glad I got to check this out and I’d be happy to play it again. Rating: I like it.
Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theatre (2017)
Ben: I like logistic and planning games and had been asking to learn this one with Phil. We sat down and played it through the morning of the flea market and it took us quite a while. The turns aren’t bad once you remember everything, but the game is a little heavy about how to do what you want to do, with all the logistical rules making it a puzzle. It was a bit heavier in rules than I was expecting, but Phil (The British) crushed my independence movement just as we declared. Rating: Neutral.
Larry’s Interlude #4: Opinionated Eaters
I ate a lot of good food during my week at the Gathering, but overall, it didn’t quite stack up to the culinary delights from last year. There was one outstanding exception, though. Someone had left a brochure in the main game room for a restaurant called Horny Hog BBQ. Not only is that an attention-getting name, but I happen to love good barbeque—particularly ribs. On our last evening of the con, with nothing else planned for dinner, I asked Ben and Phil if they were willing to try out this new place. They were game, so we trundled out to a small establishment on one of Niagara Falls’ many rundown side streets. The other two guys were swayed by that day’s special of Beef on Weck (an upstate New York delicacy of roast beef on a salted bun), but I stuck to my guns and ordered the ribs. Oh…My…God! Those were the best ribs I’ve had a quite a while. Cooked low and slow, the dry rub was so good, I didn’t even bother adding sauce to them. Even as I write these words, a month later, my mouth is watering just from the memory of it. Ben and Phil loved their Weck, as well. You can be sure that next year, no matter what else is in our plans, I’ll be taking at least one trip to get me some Horny Hog!
Team Play (2015)
Ben: Team Play is a team-based game where you can pass cards, meet objectives, and draw cards to try to outscore the other team. This is a great game. It’s super fun, super quick, and an excellent filler. In case you can’t tell, I like this game a lot. The only sad thing is I can never find a copy. So when I saw one there, I grabbed a group and taught it to them. I see CMYK is going to reprint it and this has me very excited. Rating: I love it.
The Green Fivura (2022)
Larry: It’s finally time to talk about my two favorite new-to-me games of the convention. The first is this unique trick-taker by the master of that genre, Taiki Shinzawa. The thing that grabs your attention is that the back of each card shows a Green 5 and, if the circumstances permit it, you can play a card either as its face value or as a Green 5. This rule adds a great deal of subtlety to the play of the hand and mastering the different uses of the Green 5 is a genuine challenge. But it’s the victory conditions that make this game great: you keep track of the card you used to win each trick and add their values together at the end of the game; the player closest to 25 without going over, wins. This gives the game a wonderful “Turn 0” phase, in which you try to plan which cards you’ll win tricks with in order to get to 25. Naturally, things rarely go as planned, so you’re often scrambling to make things work out. This plays pretty well with 3, but IMO it’s much better with 4. At last year’s Gathering, I discovered Texas Showdown; this year, I found another great trick-taker. Finding two such games in two years makes me a very happy card player! Rating: I love it.
Ben: A trick taking game where the back of every card is a green five and under certain circumstances, could be played to influence some tricks. I found it clever initially, but after repeated plays, it didn’t grab me much. Rating: Neutral.
Larry: I’ve spoken many times on these pages about my love for designer Simone Luciani, and I’m particularly smitten about his joint efforts with Daniele Tascini. Needless to say, Tiletum was a must-buy for me. I hadn’t had the chance to play a complete game of it prior to the Gathering, but I was lucky enough to play it twice during the week. The first game, with 3, was good, but it dragged a bit—if you’re not familiar with the title, AP can be an issue. My second game, though, was with 2 and it was excellent. I loved the planning, and the cascading actions—a hallmark from these designers—were great fun. The different dice colors are definitely hard to distinguish, but I solve the problem by taking one of each of the leftover dice and plopping them down in the middle of their respective piles of resources. This was my favorite new game of the Gathering—to the surprise of no one, I suppose—but it’s still nice when your faith in your favorite designers is rewarded. Rating: I love it.
Trick Builder (Prototype)
Larry: This was the last of Friedemann’s prototypes he showed me. It’s still in its early stages—he hasn’t even given it an “F” title yet! It’s a deckbuilding trick-taking game, which is definitely a combination worthy of Friese’s renowned imagination. My play was promising, so I’ll be very interested to see how it turns out. Rating: Incomplete, but for now, I like it.
Turing Machine (2022)
Ben: This was a game that I have on pre-order and was very intrigued to hear about it after Essen and its high initial hype. We got a fast teach and began to play. A couple things struck me about this game. First, it’s much shorter than I thought. You can figure out the codes in just a few quick rounds of play. Secondly, the interpretation of the advanced cards is not straightforward. I am not sure if we needed to understand something additional from the rulebook, but the way the cards were written, a positive outcome from the cards would need interpretation to understand. Rating: I liked it, but I am leaning towards Neutral.
Larry: The first thing I have to mention about this is what a marvelous job they did with the physical production of the game. It seems almost magical that they could get that much information on the cards and then be able to accurately reveal whether your guesses are correct or not. That said, our gameplay didn’t quite match the cleverness of the components. Some of the questions were confusing and it seemed as if luck played a larger role than I like to see in deduction games like this. There’s also no interaction, so it’s literally multi-player solitaire. Given that, and the fiddliness of waiting for opponents to finish using clue cards, this would play better as an electronic app, but then you’d miss out on the game’s best feature, the very cool components. I’m kind of torn by this and my feelings are pretty much the same as Ben’s. Rating: I like it (but yeah, it might wind up being Neutral).
Larry: I’m a big fan of Matthias Cramer’s games, but the titles of his that grabbed me came out 7-12 years ago. His more recent 2-player game of Watergate intrigued me, but I was always a little wary of it, because it looked kind of abstract. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about, and this is really good. It’s effectively a 2-dimensional tug of war between the investigators and the Nixon player, with thematic cards being used much as they would be in a stripped down CDW (card-driven wargame). So you get the deliciously hard decisions of a CDW without all that nasty death and atrocities. You could argue that the Watergate years (which I lived through) were just as horrific, but the well-chronicled investigation had an undeniable fascination and the game does a good job of relating the history of the events and the individuals involved. It was yet another excellent 2-player discovery for me in a convention that was full of them. Rating: I really like it.
Larry: Woodcraft was one of my more anticipated titles from this year’s Essen fair. This was my first chance to try it, but I’m afraid we didn’t play it under anything close to optimal conditions. None of us were that clear on the rules and there’s a lot going on, so that was a problem. We also played it with 4 and there’s a fairly strong consensus that the game doesn’t work that well with that number (due, I assume, to the pretty extreme downtime). It’s a shame, because the basic concept of working with wood boards, including dividing them up and gluing them together, is a very good one. However, like many of Vladimir Suchy’s most recent games, it feels a bit overwrought, with lots of side actions that don’t feel essential to the heart of the game, including all the add-ons to the central rondel mechanism. It also yet another game that desperately needs a good player’s aid. I suspect with a better understanding of the rules and only 3 players, this is a game I would like, but I also doubt it will ever become the favorite I was hoping it would be. Rating: I’ll charitably give it an anticipatory I Like It for now, but honestly it’s incomplete.
Ben: So I need to give an asterisk rating here. I did not think I would like this game based on the rules (which I read last year) but I wanted to try it. Our teacher of this game set a new record that only the micromachine’s voice actor could perhaps beat. The game was fraught with rules clarifications and repeatedly correcting each other’s actions. I became a little grouchy and did not enjoy the experience. This is a game that sorely needs player aids and some help getting started. The complexity wasn’t too great once we got going, but no one was paying attention to each other and the turns ended rather quickly. Rating: Not for me.
WRAPPING THINGS UP
Ben: All in all, my third gathering experience was a good one. I got to Canada this time and saw the waterfalls from that side as well. The convention organizers did some improvements to how announcements got out and I was happy to see old friends and make new friends this year. There were many more unpublished prototypes that I got to play that I enjoyed, from folks like Greg Daigle, Ta-Te Wu, and John D. Clair. I sat in some pitches to publishers and listened to their feedback for designers and learned a little from that process as well. So another great convention for me.
Larry: It’s really crazy just how much I enjoy my time at the Gathering each year. Catching up on all the games I didn’t have the chance to play during the previous year is great, but so is spending time with old friends and meeting new ones. And the general vibe is just so amazing. Time, and the outside world, truly don’t exist during the week. You just spend your days playing great games, schmoozing with great people, and stuffing your face with (usually) great food. Hopefully, everyone reading this article has an event in your own life that equals that level of enjoyment, but just in case you don’t, I hope you could vicariously live through the experiences that Ben and I were able to have. And you know I’m already counting the days to next year’s Gathering!