Stone of Remembrance

April 30, 2012

April 30 Update

Filed under: Games, Newsletter, Travel, Writing — admin @ 17:40

This is my weekly post to bring you up to date on my world. I hope you find it interesting, informative, and/or entertaining. Last week I was recovering from a week at the Gathering of Friends (more below) and didn’t get to post the update; I’m back on track this week.

Writing Projects

1632 Novel

I am particularly occupied with a novel set in the 1632 Universe, for Baen Books. This is under contract and will likely be a 2013 release. It is set in 1636, and takes place mostly in the New World; this is a venue hitherto scarcely touched in the milieu, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to work with Eric Flint on this novel. Update: Eric and I are currently consulting on the book, and I hope to have news on this soon.

Elements of Mind

Two plus years ago I wrote a novel at lightning speed, set in the middle 19th century and dealing with the great pseudoscience, mesmerism. This novel has been well received by those reading it (or hearing excerpts at conventions). It is in an editor’s hands, and I hope to have good news on the subject in the next few months.


A Song In Stone is available in e-book form from Adams Media.

You can get it from, or from the Apple iBookstore.

My Dark Wing series will be appearing in e-book form in the Baen library later this year. Contracts for this effort have been signed; I will provide links when the e-books are available. Update: I have recently answered a few questions from a copy editor, who seems to be near the end of the third book, so I hope to have more news soon.

King and Country

The alternate-history novel (some of you may know it as the “Ben Franklin” novel) is on hold until the 1632 book is out the door. I want to get back to it later this year.

Other Writing

I contributed a short piece to Ring of Fire III, a collection of stories set in the 1632 universe. It’s only my second published short story. Torg say, short fiction HARD.

My most recent article in TROWEL Magazine is about Past Grand Master George M. Randall, and is entitled Apostle in the Wilderness. I will have an article in the summer issue on the ”Proceedings”.

Other Projects

Rails of New England was published last spring by Rio Grande Games and is getting good reviews from strategy gamers. Be sure to get the revised rules.

I will be at Origins at the end of May, working for Rio Grande, so if you’ll be there and the game interests you, come to our demo room.

Current Reading

I am still reading Gordon Wood’s history of the Early Republic, Empire of Liberty. It’s excellent, but will probably be the current book on the nighttable for the next few weeks. Update: Still working on it.

Gathering of Friends

I had a great time at the Gathering, and played a few games that I’d like to own. Here are a few capsule reviews. I added two albums to Facebook:

There are a number of excellent photo sets, far better than mine, that are also on Facebook.


Note: All pictures are from Boardgamegeek and credit goes to the original posters.


A set-collection, network-connection, card play game involving Africa, sort of. Someone compared it to Valdora, a game I’ve not played, but which shares the little wooden ‘books’ that hold cards you can buy.

Like most Schacht designs, it’s light and colorful. But I didn’t feel that there was a lot of game there. So we’ll likely Pass.

The City

A little Tom Lehmann card game. Simple, clever and fast. Our first game at the Gathering, and probably one I’d pick up. Buy.


Greg Daigle’s first published design. A good, well-designed resource manipulation game. It has three currencies: shells, fruit and . . . feet. Yep, feet. You use your feet to get to places where you can spend your shells. Fruit can take the place of either.

My first play felt fairly mediocre – another Euro. But I played it a second time and liked it better. We haven’t decided whether it’s one we’ll add to the collection, but it is clever and thematic and appears to have multiple paths to victory. Undecided.


Another game from Matthias Cramer, who brought us the tile-laying game Glen More in 2010 and the combat/competition game Lancaster in 2011.

There are some unusual elements here. Each player’s village is stocked with men and women, who must marry into other villages (no gettin’ down with your cousin in the cantons). Players therefore benefit from a sort of predatory cooperation. Once on a tile by placement or marriage, the meeple can be used to operate the tile – to produce or convert resources, or to do various other things. Players allocate actions up to the number of their deployed meeples on a number of characters, allowing building, waking up (did I mention that work puts you to sleep?), carrying goods to market, marrying, and midwifery (one child per season per married couple; they go off to school, and school graduates immediately enter the work force).

It’s quirky, and nowhere near as dark as Village; it has some interesting game to it, though I think it would be better with 4 than 3 – more choices, more paths. And, hey, look – Expansion Austrians offer yet another alternative! Who could ask for more? Undecided.

Kingdom Builder

A modular placement game by The Donald, about 20 minutes in length. I had somehow avoided playing this game; L. played it a couple of times and found it interesting; I played it once and while I would not object to playing it – it’s moderately clever, inoffensive, and obviously different each play – it’s game popcorn, and not very exciting.

The problem is that while Dominion is a diamond, this game is a cubic zirconia. It’s attractive, it’s very marketable, it’s accessible to a wide range of people – but it’s a cubic zirconia. Pass.

Last Will

Another Czech game, which was a near-final prototype last year. This game is based on the idea that players are trying to spend a certain amount of money in order to win a vast inheritance. The more dissipated you are, the better.

It’s very attractive and remarkably fun: given that it goes fairly quickly, I think it would fit with various game groups. L. and I both really liked it. Buy.

Mayan Age

Czech Games Edition has created some pretty damn innovative games, including the classic Through the Ages. Their new game, scheduled for a 2012 Essen release, is a Mayan-themed worker placement resource allocation game, with all of the usual tropes: victory point locations (temples), production (buildings), harvests to feed dudes, and the gathering of different kinds of stuff to build. The hook here is that the places where workers go are locations on interlocking gears, which all spin each round. It’s not just where you place your guys – it’s when they jump off the wheel. Buy.. We want this one.


The Donald’s other new game, produced by Scott Tepper’s Ascora Games. Players are mad scientists, trying to conquer the world (i.e., achieve a certain number of victory points); each turn a player chooses a role, allowing the increase of resources (hunchback minions, who have cute hunchmeeples; cards; or cash) or the addition of fiendish inventions that have all sorts of effects. In a sort of Vaccarino hallmark, each game is made different by the selection of two cards that provide rules for that game.

The art is charming; the hunchmeeples are amusing. The gameplay? Well . . . it’s important not to take a game like this too seriously. The game is a race, but falls short of our favorite race. L. liked the game more than I did, so we’re presently Undecided about this game.

Octopus Garden

It won a Canadian award. Yeah, baby. A simple placement game with a nautical theme. A little cleverness in selecting the right row or column – when there’s the right stuff there, and you have the right place to put it, and you have enough income in pearls to buy it . . . four game cynics playing the game at high speed didn’t give any of us a particularly warm feeling. Pass.

Sunrise City

A game I backed on Kickstarter that turned out to be a bigger part of my Gathering than I’d expected. The guys at Clever Mojo Games sent me an advance copy, and I taught it quite a bit during the week. It was generally received very well – the components are very pretty: thick building tiles, nice wood markers. While I wouldn’t rate it a 10, it’ll have a place on my game shelf for a while. We own it.


Most of my experience with Stefan Feld games has been dismal. I’m not fond of most of his games, with the singular exception of Castles of Burgundy.

This year I had a chance to play Trajan, a complex interlocking worker/resource game with an interesting selection mechanic – mancala, played on your little player board. Pick up the little blocks and drop one on each spot, and wherever you stop – that’s what you do. Figuring out what everything is seems to be the first step (there are a lot of somethings). Planning your action is the second. But the real key is to think two turns ahead. There’s a lot of thinking, and thus the game is long – especially for AP-prone players.

I think there’s a lot of game there, though. So call this a Buy. Maybe.


Your family members want to get born, live well, and leave a good corpse – in the chronicles and not in an unmarked grave. A little sociopathic. No, actually a lot sociopathic. The trick is not to get the stuff you want: it’s to make sure your dudes die at the right time. Don’t let them cling to life; arrange their little meeple deaths.

Not sure what to make of it, except that while it was clever, I’m not sure I found it that compelling. Probably a Pass.

Waka Waka

I am a big fan of Jambo, a 2-player game notionally based on African trading. It’s somewhat like a CCG, in that you get stuff into play and do things with it until one side or the other achieves a victory condition. But there’s no collectability; everything is already in the box. I had hoped that this game, visually similar to Jambo, would be a multiplayer implementation of one of our favorite 2-player games.

Not so much. It’s light and short, it’s got beautiful art (by Michael Menzel), it has Jambo’s parts: the resources, the gold, the cards – but it’s got more luck and less strategy. Regrettably, Pass.

Würfel Bohnanza

The bean game, as a dice game. I mean, ffs, does every game have to have a dice implementation? Apparently so. I hadn’t realized that the base game needed to be simplified or speeded up, but this version does make it a little faster. Dice are rolled, and each player can take advantage of dice choices to advance themselves along a development card, cashing out when the time is right.

It is reasonably good, though, and it has a small form factor. It’s probably a Buy, adding to our incomplete collection of All Things Bohnanza.

Facebook Updates

April 18: Watch the gears on Mayan Age, the new CGE release. (See above.)

April 23: Redshirt zombies. “He’s undead, Jim.”

April 24: Zen GPS. “If you aim for it, you are turning away from it.”

April 24: A strange little article on “gay to straight conversion”. Most interesting to me: the article indicates that facilitators ask clients if there’s any Freemasonry in the family; because, you know, that promotes homosexuality. Apparently.

April 25: An article about the TSA suggests a certain amount of Charlie Foxtrot inside the agency. Though written by a security pro, apparently some readers were unimpressed. I thought it was fairly compelling.

April 25: Dante’s Internet. Nailed.

April 26: An article about the New York City photo archive, of 870,000 recently released photos. The site wasn’t ready for social media to perform an inadvertent DOS attack, so it was down when I went to look, but it may be up now.

April 26: I found my parents in the 1940 census.

April 27: My friend and publisher Ian Strock gives his account of the flight of the Enterprise over New York City. Later on, the shuttle gets caught in his hair like a piece of dandruff.

April 27: The talking stone head is explained.

April 30: Smart phone versatility is enumerated.

Upcoming Conventions and Appearances

May 25-28, 2012: I will be an attending author at Balticon 2012 in Hunt Valley, Maryland. I have not yet received a schedule.

May 30-June 3, 2012: I will be at Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio. I’ll be working for Rio Grande Games.

June 30, 2012: I will be the guest speaker at Glenwood Lodge #65 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Looking forward to visiting the brethren there again.

August 30-September 3, 2012: I will be an attending author at Chicago Worldcon, the 70th Worldcon.

I have not made a commitment for a convention in the fall, but we are already signed up to attend San Antonio Worldcon on Labor Day Weekend 2013, and have presupported London in 2014.

Parting Words

I continue to appreciate the support and encouragement I receive from family and friends. The loss of a long time and close friend last fall reminds me as always how slender a reed life is, and how much I feel compelled (as the Masonic lecture says) to “contribute to the common stock of knowledge and understanding.” I try to say what I mean, to convey my affection rather than withhold it, and to be truthful and honest to those I meet as well as to myself.

Thank you for reading.

April 26, 2011

Gathering of Friends 2011

Filed under: Games, Travel — admin @ 11:39

I recently returned from the Gathering, an annual by-invite gaming event hosted by Alan R. Moon. If you’re a gamer, the one title of Alan’s you should recognize is Ticket to Ride – a series of clever, fast-moving games with a train theme. (There are more popular games, and there are train games that more accurately convey the railroad theme, but there aren’t too many more popular train games than TTR. At least one of the series belongs on every game shelf.)

The Gathering is an opportunity to get together with friends, to play the newest and most talked-about games (including pre-production and prototype games), and increasingly provides a chance for game designers to present their work to publishers. In 2009, the game that Greg P. and I had worked on for years, Rails of New England, was bought by Rio Grande Games, and it made its first appearance in published form at this year’s Gathering.

This year’s event was particularly special for me as it was scheduled on school vacation week. Our daughter was able to spend the week with friends on a trip to New York City, during which she helped baby-sit and corral two active little girls, which allowed L. to come to her first Gathering. (It was my tenth.) She’s been hearing about it for years, but this was her first chance to have the experience. Instead of the usual trip to Columbus, this year’s event took place on the American side of Niagara Falls, which was expected to be a step up in accomodation. The hotel where we’d previously gone was a Ramada near I-71, some distance from eateries and conveniences, and had presented other problems that made it no longer suitable as a venue.

The event now lasts 11 days. We had arranged to leave on Sunday morning, three days along; in past years I had usually arrived on a Wednesday, giving me four days to do everything, so this would be the longest Gathering I’d ever had.

Our trip to Niagara Falls featured rain most of the way, changing into snow west of Rochester. We drove through it – we’d made a stop for surprisingly good sandwiches at O’Scugnizzo in Utica, a serendipitous choice based on having located Florentine Pastry Shop on Roadfood; we wanted to try the ‘pusties’ – pasticciotti – little pastries with tasty filling. They were as good as advertised.

Rails of New England

There’s no way to convey how exciting it was to see Greg’s and my game being played by people all week. Rio Grande was able to obtain 16 copies of the game; they were all claimed within half an hour, and there were people other than me who were teaching the game by the end of the week. I’ve included a few pictures below showing it – I think it was one of the more popular new games at this year’s Gathering.

Larry Levy and friends tackle New England. He’s opinionated, you know.

UPDATE: Larry Levy’s opinion on the game is favorable.

The finished product on display.

Die-hard gamers come with their own currency.

Game Reviews

This Gathering was interesting for a number of reasons – the arrival of Rails of New England not least among them – but I’d like to concentrate on games we played. These are opinions only, of course, and your mileage may vary. Our favorites, however, are marked with a star (★). Hopefully this may be useful to someone.

Airlines Europe

Airlines Europe: Image by Matthias Wagner on BGG

One of our perennial club favorites is the Moon game Union Pacific, a rail-themed card drafting and connection game. It has the singular advantage that it is designed to play with up to 6. It’s been out of print for awhile, and its replacement has arrived in the form of Airlines Europe.

nstead of trains, we now have airplanes; in response to a long dialogue about some of the rules wrinkles in the original game, there have been some changes to the rules mechanisms. The scoring system is built directly onto the board, and there are connection bonuses for the smaller companies; but it’s essentially a re-themed Union Pacific. Interestingly, however, it only plays to 5.

Is it good? Yes, of course – it’s a nice, polished Moon design, with pretty components and user-friendly rules. The lack of a six-player version means that it has a deficiency which made UP attractive to our club – but it does fill a need for folks who can’t put their hands on a copy of the original. There is one interesting rules change that appears to be suitable for retrofitting to Union Pacific: in Airlines Europe it takes an entire turn to trade a stock share for an Air Abacus share – this could be adopted when acquiring Union Pacific shares in the older game. We’ll have to try it.

Cargo Noir

Cargo Noir: picture by Stephan Vornbaeumen on BGG

Not too long ago Days of Wonder was a lock for superbly-produced, clever games that appealed to strategy gamers and were attractive to casual gamers. Setting aside the Ticket to Ride and Memoir ‘44 franchises, it’s been a while since I’ve found a DOW game compelling enough to add to our collection. We have Cleopatra and Shadows Over Camelot and like them, but neither is particularly new.

Here’s a list of Days of Wonder games that were one-and-done for us:

  • Battlelore. While Memoir was interesting, this one simply fell flat. The magic system wasn’t enough to make it compelling.
  • Mystery Express. A deduction-themed game that, like Mystery of the Abbey, didn’t seem to have staying power. The latter we had and traded away, and it’s not missed.
  • Pirates Cove. A little too much of a luckfest for me, I think this game has a place for fans of pirate games, but not really for us.
  • Colosseum. Another game with really nice components, it felt like a full-color version of Princes of Florence – with more luck. Didn’t find it at all compelling.
  • Small World. This one is the closest to making the cut, and in fact we do have the iPad implementation, but we sent away its predecessor Vinci a few years ago.

So what of Cargo Noir? Well, it’s beautifully produced . . . which is really damning with faint praise. The board consists of locations on which tiles are placed; you send out boats with bribes (consisting of nice big plastic coins that stack) and wait to see if anyone gets in your way. Tiles you acquire, either in sets of the same or all different, are used to buy victory point or utility cards. Rinse and repeat.

I can see it as a nice gateway game, but I don’t think it even has TTR complexity. As nice as it looks, it’s a pass.

Die Burgen von Burgund

Die Burgen von Burgund

This is a new Alea release designed by Stefan Feld. I would like to state that I am sure that Mr. Feld is a great guy, and he’s obviously a clever designer. But his games are generally not ones I enjoy. If there is a poster child for this particular phenomenon, it has to be Notre Dame. I have played this game five or six times, and each time I dislike it more. When added to Year of the Dragon and Macao, neither of which did anything at all for me, I had low expectations from this new game.

What we have here is a tile-laying game, directed by dice rolls. Each turn two dice are rolled by each player, and each die allows you to do one of several things: claim a tile from the board and place it on your reserve, move an acquired tile to your own display, ship goods tiles, etc. Shipping generates silver tokens, allowing purchase of cooler tiles from the center of the board. There are numerous tactical options; the tiles are varied, and in addition to all-the-same mats there are a set of mats with different layouts; I suspect there is a lot of replayability because of it.

I enjoyed my single play of the game, not least because it was a chance to play a game with one of the most interesting Gathering attendees, Mik Svellov, whom I remember reading years ago when he had his own game review site. Mik taught the game to us and made it more accessible. If he were packed with the game I’d buy it in a second.

Overall, it is the least objectionable Feld game I’ve played, and would play it again but I don’t think we’d buy it.

★ Pergamon

Pergamon. My 24-point exhibition.

Stefan Dorra’s games have passed through our collection, but other than Hick Hack in Gackelwack they have mostly moved on. Kreta and Medina were both good but not great games.

This year’s Eggert release of Pergamon represents the most appealing Dorra game we’ve played. It’s archaelogically themed, and there’s a very interesting designer diary on BGG that we read before the Gathering. The tiles consist of two halves of archaeological finds – the right half of one item on the left of the tile, and the left half of another item on the right – so that they fit together. When assembled, they also indicate how old the item is. There’s a very interesting bidding/placement mechanism to acquire the tiles, and the decision when, and how much, to exhibit makes it tense and engaging.

Pergamon was L.’s favorite of the Gathering, and she scored an early prize table pick and got the only available copy. We’re going to enjoy this one.

★ Pantheon

Pantheon. Marching feet cross the Mediterranean.

I had the opportunity to exercise my German while learning and teaching the game Pantheon, a game about the ancient world. It’s played in six rounds, each depicting the growth of an ancient civilization. Each round, a set of tiles are laid out near the starting location for the civilization (marked above with the temple); players use their little “feet” meeples to go out and pick those tiles up and get neat prizes, and to build towers. At the end of the round feet disappear but temples remain. Players also acquire gods to worship, who grant single-use or continuing powers, and there’s a scoring after the third and after the sixth round.

There are some complexities in the game, particularly because there are three currencies – cards or tiles (in four different types), for constructing offerings to the gods; feet cards, for movement out from the civilization’s temple; and coins, for buying stuff. Remembering what you can spend and when takes a little time to get used to.

It’s a good, interesting game, though I understand (from reading and from other players) that there is the possibility that a round can begin and end before one or more players even get a turn. There’s certainly some luck: cards of the type you want may never come up, and tiles on the board and available gods are drawn randomly, as are the civilizations (six of the eight will come out in a game and each has a special power, but they can come out in any order. But it plays smoothly and fairly quickly, and we might want to get this one.

★ London

London: picture by Dmitriy Deputatov on BGG

Overall we like Martin Wallace games – well, me more than L. A lot of them deal with trains, of course, and most (though not all) have onerous rules for debt. I received Age of Industry as a Secret Santa present this year and had a chance to play the new Japan board during the Gathering, so Wallace isn’t a hard sell for me.

Surprisingly, L. found a Wallace game she really likes: London, a card-drafting and city-building game about the great city. On your turn you draw a card, and then have four choices: play cards in front of you, “run your city” (i.e., the cards in front of you) by activating any cards you’ve already played, acquire a district on the board (along with VPs and cards), or simply draw more cards. As the game progresses, you’ll play cards on top of cards that have done their duty, and, of course, you’ll acquire penalties. (Wouldn’t be a Wallace game if you didn’t.) They come in two flavors: debt, in the form of loans that can be paid back at a 50% premium; and poverty, which makes for agonizing decisions on what and how much to play into your city.

We both played this game multiple times, and I think we’ll buy it. It’s surprisingly quick – perhaps 90 minutes at most. Highly recommended.


Firenze. Hit me again.

Part of the charm of the Gathering is the availability of games you’ve never seen. Pull one down and lay it out, and next thing you know people will sit down and teach it to you, or you all learn it together. Sometimes it works and you get to play something cool that you might never have found otherwise.

Sometimes you find something like Firenze. So. Let’s build some towers. There are cards to buy on the bottom of the board, and they come with colored blocks; you’re trying to have enough to claim a spot on the correspondingly-colored tower. To acquire a card further to the right, you pay one block to each card to its left in addition to the cost of the card itself (the more expensive ones are to the right). So far so good, and the idea that you must add at least one block to each tower under construction in front of you or suffer a penalty is good too. In fact, it would all be fine . . . except that the cards have various powers and effects, many of which involve giving a smack to one or another player.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with smacking other players. “Take that” games are a part of the game landscape. But when I play a game like that, I want to decide when, to whom, and if possible how hard I’m going to deliver it. Our game often came down to, “I need those blocks, so I’m going to deliver this smacking. I don’t want to, but I need these blocks, see?” Whether you succeed or not depends on whether you manage to dodge these random attacks.

Once was enough. Skip it.

Road to Canterbury

Road to Canterbury. picture by W. Eric Martin on BGG

It’s not very often that you encounter a game based on a classic work of English literature. I think this is the first marriage of strategy gaming and Geoffrey Chaucer: The Road to Canterbury. Players are pardoners, looking to tempt pilgrims with the seven deadly sins, and then profit by offering them pardons. Each “company” – i.e., each color – will have a series of pilgrims, who have a “favorite” sin; each dies when s/he reaches seven sins, at which time there’s a chance to score by offering last rites.

The cards consist of sins, pardons, and a humorous set of (fake) relics that give special powers. It plays 2 or 3 and goes quickly. I don’t know if we’d buy this one, but it was fun to try. I don’t seem to be much of a pardoner, as my coin bag was pretty light at the end.


Kaigan: FInding “true compatibility”

This game is purportedly about surveying the land of Japan, with the objective to score points by completing map sections. There are two boards: on one there is a grid of 4×5 spots to place cards, and on the other a beautiful depiction of sections of coastline where meeples and cubes will be located. Each round players play cards, Coloretto-style, until they choose to claim a row; then cards are evaluated, column-by-column. Some cards advance scoring tracks, while others place meeples (surveyors) and cubes (score markers) onto the tiles. Then tiles are evaluated and scored.

It certainly all works and the art is nice. But I was uninspired, even though the two halves of the game actually mesh in a good way. My impression was that two game mechanics, each functional and well-designed, joined EHarmony, took the test and found enough points of true compatibility, and decided to settle down and have a game together. This, of course, is sarcasm. (What does superhero Captain Obvious wear on his chest? Why, the words ‘Captain Obvious’, of course.)

Did I enjoy Kaigan? Yes, but not enough to buy it. I guess I wished most that the tiles fit together somehow as part of the game. (I understand that they actually can be assembled into a map; but that has nothing to do with playing Kaigan). It’s just another game – and it doesn’t make the cut.


Survive: Save my meeples!

Not a new game, but a republished version of an earlier edition, Survive: Escape From Atlantis is a light game with a good-sized dollop of luck. Players seek to get their meeples off the sinking island in the middle to the four corner islands without being eaten by sharks or sea monsters. Capsized boats, whales and dolphins all play their part. Each tile removed from the island is either a keeper (to be played later) or an instant event that causes the board to change.

It’s not new, but the 2010 edition has beautiful wooden components and nice thick tiles. The only quibble is that some numbers on the bottom of meeples are a little hard to read. I wouldn’t be surprised if we acquired this game at some point in the future, though it’s not an immediate buy.

★ 20th Century

20th Century: Go green

Both L. and I had a couple of opportunities to play 20th Century, a tile-building game that presents challenges to each player to eliminate waste. The game has two auctions, between which tiles that players acquire are added to a layout in front of them. Features on the layout generate victory points, science points (used in bidding for tiles), and coins (used in bidding for catastrophes). And as you add tiles, you add waste that has to be dealt with.

There’s a lot of commentary on the game itself on BGG, and I refer interested readers to the link above to read extensive reviews. We liked it a lot and intend to add it to the collection. I believe there are different ways to approach the challenges the game presents and there’s plenty of replayability, so the game should have staying power.

A Few Acres of Snow

Quelques arpents de neige. Say that five times fast.

Martin Wallace has recently ventured into historical games, and this game he (without shame) admits as inspired by the recent spate of deck-building games, notably the one that begins with “D”. It’s about the wars between France and England over territory in North America, and uses a card deck mechanic; as you play the game, you build a deck of stuff – resources, military units, and locations. Cards have special powers, and there’s a historical veneer over all of it. It’s a clever implementation of a deck-building game for an entirely different purpose. During the week I played a prototype that was also a deck-building game – the latest from the Freitag Projekt – so it’s clearly something various designers want to try.

Does it work? Yes; my quibbles with it are the way in which the 75 years of history are sort of glossed over; I would’ve liked to see some sense of technological change, or some indication that the early part of the game felt like King William’s War and the latter part felt like the Seven Years’ War . . . so it’s not really a “wargame”, but it’s also probably not aimed at that market. I’d like to play it again but I’m not sure it’s a buy.


Greg Schlosser’s head hurt. So did mine.

I’m not a big fan of abstract games, though I do enjoy Ingenious as an exception that proves the rule. Still, the chance to play a game with Greg Schlosser was not to be missed. We took a crack at Uluru, a pattern matching game where you try to follow the locational directions for eight colored spirits, represented by pawns. Some want to be next to or opposite another figure; some want to be on one side or the other. It’s an interesting puzzle, and the object is to fulfill as many of the requirements as possible.

That was fine until the 30-second timer was turned over. Then my head, and Greg’s, hurt. A few rounds of this convinced me that there are people who like these kinds of games and are good at them; there are people who like these kinds of games and aren’t good at them; and there are people like me. Entertaining, but stressful. Pass.

Heavens of Olympus

Hey, let’s put on a show!

As demigods, we’re competing to create beautiful arrangements of lights in the sky to impress Father Zeus. Various gods are there to help: one builds the planets; one lights up the planets we build; one throws them into the sky; and one lets us screw around with their position. Picking the same divine assistance as others requires an additional payment of Power. More in an area of the sky is good; more in a specific orbit is good; dispersal across the sky is good; connected locations (i.e., constellations) are good too.

It’s very pretty and mildly thematic. It’s over in five turns. Nothing not to like, but depth is not a strong point. I’d say “pass”, but we have a copy from the prize table.


L. played this and liked it a lot. It’s the newest Rosenberg title; when I last put in a game order, I chose the terrific Navegador over it, in part because it’s the Portuguesiest. But Uwe Rosenberg has a pretty good track record, so we’ll be buying this one as well.

Commands and Colors: Ancients

Richard Borg watches his game being played.

We play an Epic battle each year, with one overall commander and three subordinates on each side. This year, Eric Brosius and Tyler Putman locked horns for the fourth time; the chosen battle was Hydaspes, from Alexander the Great’s invasion of India. There were plenty of elephants and Jim McCarthy was given command of some of them – a circumstance which has a long and chaotic tradition. The Indians – the side on which I played – was down early, having been crushed by Alexander’s Companion Cavalry (defeated last year by a timely First Strike card), but we made a brave comeback.

It all came down to one elephant, five dice, and Jim McCarthy. Two hits were needed – and rolled. Exciting as always.

The combatants. Jim is holding the winning elephant.

I think this is the most enjoyable way to play this game – it involves eight players, and though there’s some setup time, it still plays in 90 minutes or less. I’d like to do this more often at our club.


All in all, this was a wonderful week of gaming with friends, and L. had a great time. We both had ample opportunity to employ our German. We ate well going, coming, and on site – Japanese, Indian, Italian, as well as Denny’s and Tim Horton’s. We had the Seneca Casino across the street, but didn’t give them a dime.

We came home with games from the prize table and the math trade, as well as a few from the flea market. I have some insight for the next game and the pleasure of seeing Rails of New England in print at last.

Already looking forward to next year’s event.

June 29, 2010

Origins 2010

Filed under: Commentary, Games, Travel — admin @ 13:27

It has been an interesting spring and summer and has come in steamy hot here in New England. I haven’t sent out a newsletter in a very long time, and the blog has suffered from a lack of updates; lots of things happening offline.

Enough of that – here’s a report of my recent trip to Columbus, Ohio, for Origins 2010. When I was at the Gathering of Friends in April, I asked Jay Tummelson, the president of Rio Grande Games, if there was an opening for a ‘booth monkey’, one of those folks who demo games at the summer conventions. I was delighted when he said that he could use both myself and the co-developer of New England Rails (forthcoming from Rio) at Origins in late June.

On the Job at Rio Grande

Conventions are no mean undertaking. An exhibitor must arrange everything from hotels and travel to tables and chairs, making sure everything is laid out properly on the show floor – it’s an opportunity to meet current (or potential) customers and to give them an impression of your products. By extension, you are giving them an impression of your company. The responsibility for conveying this impression devolves, in part, upon the booth monkeys as well. Wear the logo shirt, become an ambassador.

Never a Fashion faux pas

Greg P. and I, pictured above in our fine Rio Grande logo shirts, had never done a convention together. He’s been a fellow traveler a few times, but we’d never been both on the spot. It’s been more than 20 years since I was in an exhibitor booth at a game convention; it was Greg’s first time. Neither of us had ever worked for Rio Grande before.

Rio Grande produces a lot of games. Many of its offerings are English-language versions of games produced by overseas companies such as Hans im Glück, Amigo or Alea; I joke that Jay has caused gamers to no longer need to speak German anymore. (Indeed, there’s a t-shirt that reads: All the German I need to know I learned on BrettSpielWelt.) Others are original with Rio Grande, such as our game and one of the current rock stars of the hobby game industry, Dominion.

What characterizes a Rio Grande game is nice presentation, good components and elegant game play. The gatekeeper of the Rio Grande logo, Jay Tummelson, is careful and judicious. He chooses games that he feels best represent these style. He also chooses games that he likes. He has quite a few years in the industry, so his opinions have weight. The success and popularity of games with that logo certainly validates them.

So. Back to Origins. We drove from eastern Massachusetts to central Ohio by way of friends in Harrisburg, so we left Tuesday morning and after an intermediate stop arrived in Columbus mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the day before the exhibit hall opened. Outside was beastly hot (and occasionally stormy); inside was cooler – and much louder, even though things weren’t going to get underway until the following day.

Calm. For now.

We were deployed near the entrance to the hall with a dozen tables. Other than Dominion, the games were Rio Grande’s new releases. Here’s a list:

Regrettably, Tobago wasn’t available. (That might be my favorite new Rio Grande release.)

Here’s the idea: a dozen games laid out on tables, ready to play. Gamers walk over and say, “I’d really like to learn to play Macao” (or Albion, or Havana, or even Dominion – yes, there were a number of people who hadn’t played it or even heard of it). The staffer’s responsibility is to sit down and teach the game, usually in ones of minutes, and get these folks playing the game. Not play the game; since there were twelve tables and only four or five staffers, it was important to be ready to jump to another table at any time. (I confess to making that mistake once or twice.)

Ones of Minutes

There are a number of pitfalls. First, staffers have to know the games. (We had the rules in advance, and had played a few of them; a few of us knew them all.) Over the course of a few days we became familiar with just about all, but there were times that it was necessary to find someone else to teach a particular game. Second, staffers have only a few minutes to get the players started: no half-hour rules explanations. Third, it’s necessary to quickly set up a game that might have been left partially played. In short: it’s necessary to get going quickly, engage the gamer competently, and know how to get back to the start position. Between 10 and 6, usually with an hour or two gap during the day, lather rinse and repeat.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

We each had our specialities. I wound up doing Assyria, Albion, Havana and Cardcassonne quite a bit, and never quite learned Krysis. We all did Dominion, and I think we all learned at least one game “on the fly”. We arrived early and usually left the exhibit hall footsore and worn out. These are indications that we worked hard and accomplished the task. The booth was busy all day, each day.

Evenings In New England

Each evening we were able to introduce New England Rails to new players. Our game is due for release in the fall; information about it right now is preliminary and general, and I am obliged to keep it that way until it’s actually in production. (Sorry.) I am pleased to say that the reception by new players was enthusiastic and (I trust) enjoyable.

Setting Up.

Two outcomes are important to note. First, this is a game that will be of interest to train gamers. Thus, we might be considered for Puffing Billy competitions sponsored by the Train Gamers’ Association. Keeping my fingers crossed on that one, because it will introduce the game to a wider audience – our best audience. Second, in the three games played at Origins, there were three very different game play outcomes, encouraging us that there was a lot of variation in the experience, making it interesting to replay.

Overall, we were pleased with the results. One of the games had our friends from The Spiel, Stephen Conway and David Coleson. I am still trying to determine what’s going through Stephen’s head in the picture below. By the way, you can subscribe to their Podcast on iTunes or through their web site; I learned Assyria by listening to an episode. And their philanthropy is much to be praised: The Spiel Foundation is a non-profit organization that donates games to children’s hospitals and senior centers.

“You Just Have to Play.”

Stylin’ As the Guest Speaker

On Thursday night I was the guest speaker at Arts & Sciences Lodge, a lodge under dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Ohio. My host was the lodge’s Secretary, Brother Chad Simpson, who is a part of the Grand Lodge staff (I met him in April when I dropped in to Grand Lodge, hoping to meet the Grand Master). As it happened, some time shortly before the Lodge of Table Instruction took place, the lodge’s Master decided to change the dress code from the customary suit (or tuxedo) to business casual.

No one told the guest speaker, as it happens. It was brutally hot outside, and it took me extra time to fight clear of downtown Columbus; when I reached the Old Hickory in Powell and was welcomed by the brethren, I was invited to take off my jacket and tie. Nothing doing. When you represent the M.W. Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, you might as well do it in style.

Do It In Style.

I talked about history and our fraternity, and also talked about A Song In Stone, which continues to be well-received in its new trade paperback edition. (Make the author happy and order one using the convenient link.) I sold a number of books, and turned some of the money received back to the lodge for one of their charitable endeavors.

I also appear in this picture at the head table. The Master of the Lodge is two chairs down.

By the way, this was a Lodge of Table Instruction. For my Masonic brothers: they did very little of the sort of thing we do in Massachusetts. When the toast to visiting brethren was proposed, I was called upon to give the response. We did it the way we do it. You would be proud.

This is an interesting lodge. It is comprised primarily of active Masons who want to enjoy the benefits of the Craft and learn from its teachings together. Asking men who belong to other lodges, have Masonic and other commitments, to join together to build a new lodge is a big thing – and if the rewards were insufficient it would be an imposition. In a time where membership is declining (though, notably, not in Massachusetts), it’s even more extraordinary. A&S has not yet received a charter; they’re “under dispensation”, which only means something to my Masonic friends – it means they have to meet certain criteria to achieve permanence. I’m certain they will.

What Else I Brought Home

In addition to Rio Grande’s fine offerings, I had a chance to walk around the exhibit hall a little and play a few games on my own. I brought home four games as well as some dice and a t-shirt for my daughter (”Fools! I’ll Destroy You All! Ask me how!“)

Founding Fathers

From Jolly Roger Games, Founding Fathers is a new game from Christian Leonard and Jason Michaels, who brought us Twilight Struggle and 1960: The Making of the President. (Christian has a cell phone with a custom shell featuring the 1960 art. I thought it was cool.) I haven’t played this one yet but look forward to it; my daughter’s taking American History in eighth grade this year, so maybe it’ll make an appearance as a teaching tool. It was very popular – the first copies were gone minutes after the exhibit hall opened on Thursday.

Tales Of the Arabian Nights

It was on sale at Origins, and I brought it back for L. We have the original game from West End, but this one is over-the-top better in production quality. It weighs about 40 pounds. Tales is a story-telling game that is part way between a roleplaying and a boardgaming experience.

It’s already got one play. L. and A. both love it.

Settlers of America

“Only Mayfair could marry a rail game and Catan,” Larry Roznai of Mayfair told me a couple of times. Settlers of America is a “Catan Histories” game like the Rome game that came out a few years ago. It should be an interesting marriage.

Duck! Duck! Go!

My good pal Kevin Nunn made sure I went home with a copy of this wacky rubber duck racing game. The most endearing part of the Duck! Duck! Go! experience is the way in which APE Games lets gamers customize their copy by selecting from a large collection of ducks to play with.

A. and I have already played it a couple of times. It’s not what you’d call deep strategy, but it’s thematically excellent and really well-designed.

Other Things

I happened to see a game of Agricola being played in the large gaming area one night. Agricola is a big game, subject to pimping – after all, I gave the nickname to David Fair’s amazing Agricola Reliquary a few years ago. But this one was really amazing. Each player had a full size table for his farm, and the main game itself – Major Improvements, Round cards, and supplies of resources – was held on a set of tables in the center.

Big Time Farming

A few years ago I made the acquaintance of Uwe Eickert at the Gathering. Uwe’s a fan of my writing, not least because I had a character with the same first name. He’s made a big splash with his World War II tactical game series Conflict of Heroes from Academy Games. These fine games were on display in the front of the Mayfair display area, and were drawing a regular crowd. Congratulations to Uwe and Academy for all their successes.

It’s All About Action Points.

Much of what you see at a convention of this sort speaks to emotion: hope, desperation, nostalgia, and in some cases derision. There are all kinds of people trying to sell their game idea, or sell their game, or sell something else to gamers (dice, equipment, even attire and furniture). In a few cases there’s something new and exciting. In many cases, it’s obvious that there is been a severe, even catastrophic, misestimation of what might be of interest. (There were some computer gamers showing off something that looked almost exactly like Rogue. I’m not making this up. On the other hand, there was a very interesting real-time computer game based on Philip of Macedon. I was initially put off, but a patient and very well-versed staffer showed me how much you could do with the game paused, making it far less of a twitch game. I don’t play those things at all – haven’t got the reflexes.)

As for nostalgia – one wall, just about floor to ceiling, was taken up by vendors of used and collectible games. It was the wall of nostalgia. There were things I hadn’t seen for decades, and lots of things that I’d seen altogether too often. The prices seemed surprisingly high, but I think it’s a matter of what the traffic would allow. There were also several vendors with huge tables spread with every collectible card game you can imagine, most of which are long since dead and gone – if Hieronymus Bosch were to paint the CCG purgatory, he could have used this scene as the model.

I had a great, and exhausting, time at Origins and in Columbus, and would gladly go again. But please – not for a little while at least. I’m very glad to be home.

January 1, 2010

NASFIC 2010 in Raleigh

Filed under: Travel, Walter\'s Schedule, Writing — admin @ 09:43
August 6, 2010toAugust 9, 2010

We’ll be in attendance at NASFiC in Raleigh, North Carolina, August 6-10, 2010.

September 15, 2009

Arisia 2010

Filed under: Travel, Walter\'s Schedule, Writing — admin @ 06:26
January 16, 2010 15:00toJanuary 18, 2010 15:00

I will be a professional guest at Arisia January 15-18, 2010, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge, MA. Gardner Dozois will be the editor/author GOH.

June 23, 2009

Walter Hunt Author Newsletter, Volume 6, Issue 2

Filed under: A Song In Stone, Commentary, Games, Newsletter, Travel, Writing — admin @ 14:58

June, 2009

Welcome to the second issue of my mailing list newsletter for 2009, intended to provide you with information about my work, my website, and my activities and appearances. It has been a terribly long time since the last one; I apologize for that, but it has been hectic, confusing, and busy. Things are still hectic, but there is at least some new news to report.

Books Update

The Dark Wing Universe

The Dark Wing series is mostly out of print.

The Dark Wing is available in Russian at Ozon and

The series is available in German from Random House / Heyne, available from

A Song In Stone

A Song In Stone has been placed out of print by Wizards of the Coast, but it can be ordered from No paperback edition is planned, but it has been exceptionally well received despite a lack of publicity.

I am considering the idea of making it into a podcast book. To that end, I am looking for a partnership with someone who possesses the necessary expertise to make it a product that meets or exceeds my audience’s expectations – and not just a recording of me reading my own work. It deserves better than that, and so do you.

I am doing all I can to promote the book by personal appearances. I have received a number of invitations from Masonic organizations to give a talk on Rosslyn and on A Song In Stone; when I appear, I have copies of the book with me to sell. I have already redirected some portion of receipts to Masonic charities such as the Knights Templar Eye Foundation, in part due to the efforts of my friend and brother Bob Winterhalter. To my Masonic friends: if you know a Masonic body such as a Lodge of Instruction that would like to have a speaker, and would permit me to sell books, please contact me and let me know. The same goes for educational institutions such as colleges; I’m more than willing to put miles on the car.

What it means to my other readers: if I could send a copy to the many people who have taken an interest in my writing over the last several years, I would – but it’s neither practical nor profitable. If you can’t afford to buy a hardcover, or prefer not to purchase books in that format, I understand. But your local public or college library might. In the acknowledgements to A Song In Stone, I thank the reference librarians both at my public library and my college library for their generous assistance in research. I have placed a copy of an extensive glossary to enhance your reading pleasure.

King & Country

As reported previously I’ve been working on some short(er) material set in the King & Country alternate history timeline. The short(er) work has a good chance of appearing in print soon; more news as I have it. More information on the background on the main site. The novel is now about 40% complete. I was recently told by a historian (of whom I’m a great fan, and who gave me a few minutes of his time when he visited Newport, RI to give a talk): “you know the history well enough: time to write the story.” So I’m doing just that. You will like this book, I hope.

Other Writing

I have been developing a proposal for a book set in the nineteenth century that deals with the mesmeric movement. It’s got an outline but isn’t quite a proposal yet.

Other Projects

I am pleased to announce that after more than twenty years of evolution and development, the New England railroad/business game I developed with a long-time close friend has been sold to Rio Grande Games for publication in 2010. Many, many people have playtested this game over its many years of life, and I hope to include all of their names in the rule book. Rio Grande is an outstanding company that sets a very high standard in production quality, and it will be an honor to have a game with our names and Rio Grande’s name on the box.

Upcoming Appearances


I will be at Readercon in Burlington, Massachusetts, July 10-12 as a participant. This literary convention is one of the best events on the speculative fiction calendar, and the Saturday night entertainment is not to be missed.

I will be at Confluence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 24-26. I was recently asked to be a judge in the PARSEC short story contest, and I was asked to be present when we give the awards for the best stories.

We will be in attendance at Montréal Worldcon August 6-10.

I am intending to be at one of the middle state conventions – either Capclave or Philcon – later in the year.


I will be at both Boston conventions in January and February. I have been invited to RavenCon in Virginia in April.

We will not be at Australia Worldcon. I’m expecting that we will attend Raleigh NASFiC in early August.

Worldcon Bids

The 2011 Seattle Worldcon bid has been withdrawn, which is unfortunate. The only standing bid is for Reno, which we have presupported.

There is only one bid announced for 2012, Chicago (as I reported on my blog several months ago.) There is a Texas bid for 2013 that will be having a bid party at Montréal Worldcon.

What I’m Reading

I read the Economist, a weekly news magazine. You should too.

During our visit to Amsterdam I bought Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies, one of the group that helped conceal eight Dutch Jews for two years during the Nazi occupation – until they were sold out for thirty pieces of silver. This book was not a literary masterpiece but was compelling and moving; I cannot speak too highly of it, or in praise of the woman who wrote it. She’s still alive as of this writing, having turned 100 this year. It is a personal account of a terrible time and a monument to indomitable spirit that fascism and hatred could not crush.

I have just finished reading The Lunar Men, an account of the “Lunar Society” – a group of five polymaths and natural philosophers (Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, James Watt, and others) whose interaction sparked a generation of inventors and thinkers. It’s a great read.

I would also like to put in a plug for my good friend Lawrence Schoen’s first novel Buffalito Destiny, which I had a chance to read and blurb. His work in short fiction should whet your appetite for this entertaining longer effort. BIG CLOCK! (If you don’t know what that means, count yourself fortunate.)

On a much lighter note, my daughter read The Lightning Thief in sixth grade, and it was a great romp. (She chides me that I never read fiction anymore.) There are other books in the series, and an author website with a study guide and everything. Despite all of that it’s an enjoyable read.

I recently received the newest book in the Schlock Mercenary dead-tree editions, The Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance. The cover features a worried toaster on a counter in front of a group of heavily armed individuals. I met the author of this brilliant webcomic, Howard Tayler, at Denver Worldcon last year, and we talked writing and plot late into the night. He’s a terrific guy and has even given me props in his blog. I have it on RSS feed.

I also have Erfworld in my RSS list. It’s another webcomic that’s hard to explain: you have to read it, and read it carefully, in order to get what Rob Balder and Jamie Noguchi are doing. I’ve met Rob (but not Jamie); what is it about webcomic authors being great guys? I don’t know. If I could draw I could be one of them :)

Final Thoughts

Thanks to everyone for their continued encouragement and support. Having a chance to write professionally means I get to do what I truly love, and I hope you will always feel that your confidence in me is well-placed. Keep reading, and keep in touch.

Feel free to forward this to anyone who might be interested.

Content © 2009, Walter H. Hunt.

April 23, 2009

Gathering of Friends 2009 – In Brief

Filed under: Commentary, Games, Travel — admin @ 07:54

This has been a busy spring. I suppose that’s a good thing in a way: too many projects, too much opportunity; there are talented people who aren’t finding enough to do right now. Still, it means I’m behind on almost everything, including this blog. But even though this is late – by at least a week – I think it’s probably still worth recounting my recent trip to Alan Moon’s 20th Gathering of Friends, recently held in Columbus, Ohio.

The Gathering is a gaming get-together held in a hotel. It runs non-stop for ten days and is invitation-only, and is the source of envy and even lampooning by others; but it’s a great event, a chance to play with people I only get to see once a year, and to see what’s new from Essen and Nürnberg. Speaking German isn’t so much help these days thanks to Rio Grande, but it still helps, as sometimes I’ll see something that doesn’t hit the English-language game sources for several months, or even a prototype that hasn’t made it yet. (In past years, I got to see Dominion before it became a phenomenon, and tried out Uwe Eickert’s excellent WWII combat game Conflict of Heroes when it was in prototype. I also played Pandemic as a prototype a couple of years ago, but I actually haven’t played the finished version yet. So it goes.)

I usually bring a list of what’s new, and try to get in a play of as many such games as I can to see what might be worth buying. Our game collection is already quite big, but you know, nothing succeeds like excess. Usually there’s one game that is a big hit, a surprise small press sleeper, and some solid-but-I-don’t-have-to-buy this ones. This year was no exception, other than the big hit. I played several other games that aren’t listed below, and a few neat prototypes I can’t talk about, but these are the highlights. Hope you enjoy.

Some folks were excited by Eggert’s Castle for All Seasons, which I test-drove last year, but I continue to be unimpressed. There’s nothing I can say to heap further praise on Race for the Galaxy beyond the fact that L. and I have gotten it to the table at least 300 times since we first got it almost a year and a half ago, but I can’t say much about the upcoming expansions – not just #2, due this summer, but the prototype-only #3. I don’t think that it’s jumped the shark yet. (But there’s still time.)

I guess the most well-received new release would have to be Days of Wonder’s Small World, a fantasy retheming and reworking of Phillippe Keyaerts’ Vinci, a civilization building game that lasts an hour instead of eight. We sent our copy packing – it just didn’t get played enough; but Small World was getting enough compliments that I thought I’d try it.

Here’s the concept. Instead of creating civilizations, picking attributes, spreading out and then choosing to go “into decline” when there’s nothing left to do, you pick a fantasy race consisting of two attributes, one the race/nation type (Amazons, Dwarves, Sorcerers) and the other a modifier (Flying, Hunted, Annoying – well, maybe not Annoying.) This part is clever: they exist as thick tiles that fit together and are chosen in pairs. There’s a selection mechanism similar to Vinci that lets you pick a combo that’s not immediately on offer. Off you go to conquer the map (there are different ones for each number of players); so many races, so little time. VPs are secret and the game lasts only 10 turns. The graphics for Vinci were ugly; Small World’s are garish, though the production value is great. It was fun and I’d play it again, but don’t think I’d buy it.

Small World: So Many Races, So Little Time

If I were to pick a favorite new game from the Gathering, it would have to be the latest in the cooperative-game genre, Asmodée’s Ghost Stories. This isn’t quite new, but it was my first crack at it. It plays best, perhaps only, with four players, each representing a Taoist monk with color-specific powers, fighting against the forces of a nasty demonic villain who sends legions of nasties toward a village before coming on stage himself at the end of the game. A gaming vet friend at the Gathering was down on it, describing it as “Lather, Rinse, Repeat” – but I got to play with three people who made it enormously fun. We played with the upcoming expansion and won by the skin of our teeth at the very end. There was a 3-D model on display but I didn’t get to try it. This might be a buy, if not for us than for the club. It’s hard, and it’s fun, and it looks like it has enormous replayability.

Ghost Stories: Cooperate or Die. Or Worse.

There was a time when Alea could be counted on to provide a cool new “gamer’s game” every year. Some of them, like Puerto Rico are perennial favorites (and PR would still be #1 on BGG but for those darned kids and their card games). But they’ve turned in some clunkers too. This year’s offering was light almost to the point of irrelevance: Alea Iacta Est, a dice rolling and allocation game. There’s certainly some strategy to it, but like the tile-laying game Maori, I don’t think there was anywhere enough game there to make me want to try again. I suppose that it comes down to being jaded, or refusing to be a part of the Cult of the New, but I don’t expect to bother with either of these. In the case of Alea, which has passed the relevance test a number of times, I confess to being disappointed.

Alea Iacta Est, Maori: Nothing New Here. Move Along.

The same is true of Ystari’s latest offering, Bombay, a resource manipulation and reallocation game. I have quipped about Ystari games in the past that they can all be described as “manipulating colored components into pleasing patterns” – at various levels of complexity; I’ve come to appreciate William Attia’s Caylus and we even own it, though I still think the fun is largely sucked out of it by people who are really good at it (i.e., not me). Our favorite Ystari game has to be Yspahan, which I’m also no good at, but L. likes a lot. The new one, though, left me unimpressed. The little plastic elephants are cute, with baskets to carry resource cubes on their backs, but that’s not enough to compensate for never being able to get back the time I spent playing it. On the other hand, as I told someone at the Gathering, at least it wasn’t very much time.

Bombay: Little Pink Pachyderms, For You and Me.

I played two licensed product games, one Cthulhu-themed (Die Hexer von Salem) and the other based on one of my favorite novels – The Name of the Rose. Neither made me want to go out and buy it. Hexer is a cooperative venture to get all of the nasties out of R’lyeh and close all of the warp gates before everyone goes mad or demons eat everyone’s face; it was difficult and frustrating, which might be true to the theme, but didn’t make it much of a game for me. Rose is a deduction game with two interesting mechanisms: first, you have cards that let you move any of the pieces on the board to increase “suspicion”, but no one knows which piece really represents you; and second, everything takes time, and it’s a Bad Thing to end the round, so you balance cost against effectiveness. But it comes down to a deduction game at the end – who’s the Red monk? Who’s the Blue? It’s like a long, fiddly, drawn out game of Mastermind. So I’ll pass on both.

And then, of course, there’s the big hit cooperative/competitive game – Battlestar Galactica. It’s a very faithful and incredibly nicely produced game about the TV series, in which some (but not all) players are good humans just trying to find a new home after the nasty Cylons blew up their old one. Halfway through the game, more people can turn into toasters; there’s lots of accusation and lots of analysis. Some game groups will do well with this: some will find it less compelling. I assumed it was basically Frackin’ Werewolf; unlike other games of its type, it’s not a cooperative game with a traitor mechanism, it’s a psychological exercise with an admittedly beautifully-executed and thematic game wrapped around it. I played it at 1 AM and wound up accidentally doing the wrong thing, which meant I spent a lot of the game in the brig. But I was, after all, a Toaster. So say we all. I’d probably like to play it again, and might buy it if it turns up on heavy discount at a bookstore as it did last Christmas. It was fun, but I liked Ghost Stories much better.

Battlestar Galactica: Yep, It’s Frackin’ Werewolf.

Last year I played and enjoyed Martin Wallace’s Brass, a moderately-complex game about rail and canal and industry in Lancashire. This year Wallace offered a simpler, gentler historical game about Cornwall mining – Tinners’ Trail. I’ve recently been reading a fantastic book called The Lunar Men, about eighteenth-century polymaths and scholar-inventors, one of which was James Watt, whose steam engines helped revolutionize Cornwall mining, so I was up on the subject. I don’t know if it helped me play the game, but at least I knew what an adit was. It’s vintage Wallace: there are limited resources, things have costs, there are dice to create randomness, turn order is important, and there are nice historical touches. I won, but only by a few points. One of the most interesting things is that things cost money – at auction or as a means of development – but at the end of each of the game’s four turns, you can use your existing funds to buy victory points, which is the only thing that matters to win the game. Nicely balanced. Don’t know if I’d buy it, but it was fun to play.

Tinners’ Trail: Martin Wallace Goes To Cornwall

For the second year, we had a chance to get eight people together to play an epic battle of Commands & Colors: Ancients. As with last year, it took place during the Friday night “Game Show”, an event I participated in once (and enjoyed not at all, not because it wasn’t well done but because it’s simply not fun for me.) This year featured the same overall commanders – Eric Brosius and Tyler Putnam – and the battle was Cannae, a big honkin’ army of Romans against a big honkin’ army of Carthaginians. Some of last year’s commanders came back to play again, and the Roman center was commanded by none other than the game’s designer Richard Borg, who provided a prototype of the new Epic deck for us to use. I sat to his right, and got to face Doug Hoover’s Carthaginian medium and heavy cavalry. Fortunately, Tyler didn’t have anywhere near enough action cards for his left wing, so a lot of the action was in other parts of the battlefield; by the time the horsemen came down on my position I’d gotten some of my better troops in line and they faced some stiff opposition. Borg, however, turned out to be unable to roll any hits on Jim McCarthy’s Carthaginians (who didn’t have any of those troublemaking elephants this year), and we dropped a tough decision by 12 to 11 banners.

I think this may be the most fun way to play C&C – big battles, three generals and one commander for each side. This is by far my favorite setting for Borg’s clever system; my girls like Memoir ‘44, but that might be just for the tanks. Give me a good old cavalry charge any day.

Commands and Colors: Ancients – 8 Players, Lots of Blocks

Romans, left side of your screen: me, Richard Borg, Joe Rushanan, commander-in-chief Eric Brosius; Carthaginians, Doug Hoover, Jim McCarthy, Peter Card, commander-in-chief Tyler Putnam.

The Saturday night festivities – prize table, awards, announcements – were long and involved; Alan is an impresario, and this is his stage (and his show), and is entitled to some reflection and reflection on what this event has become. There were some very nice videos made by attendees, and while my favorite didn’t win, I did appreciate and enjoy watching them all. This is an interesting community: gamer geeks mostly, very picky about what they like, but patient with newbies and usually willing to sit and play a game for the game’s sake rather than the desire for fierce competition (there’s WBC for that, after all.)

This year’s Gathering produced two very exciting results for me. One is still under discussion, while the other is a done deal. I don’t feel at liberty to discuss either right now, but I’ll have more details soon. (And there’ll be a newsletter soon too. Promise. Really. It’s coming, I can feel it.) I hope to be able to say that the several trips I’ve made to a gaming event are justified by these projects getting completed; my best pal L. has put up with the inconvenience and I can’t thank her enough. We’ll see soon enough.

I have already signed up for next year, and am looking forward to it. Thanks, Alan.

March 24, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 9/10 – Dortmund, Part 2

Filed under: Commentary, Travel, Writing — admin @ 13:57

I’ve gone to conventions with L. (and with A., since she was born) – but mostly I’ve gone alone since I became a professional writer. One of the things I have noticed is that they tend to run together after awhile: same panels, same panelists, same format. An hour, three or four pros or fans or whatever; introductions, plugs for new work, occasional grandstanding or showboating, a few witty comments. Dealer room; con suite and/or green room; art show, masquerade, gaming, room parties. Hotel rooms all look pretty much the same after a while as well.

Worldcons are the exception, of course, though the majority of those are a regional con writ extremely large, spread over several hotels, with many more room parties, dealers and attendees you might not normally see, a bigger masquerade, generally more more more. Denver last summer was like that, though like most Worldcons we got to see the location, not just the hotels where it was taking place. The Worldcon in Glasgow was a little different flavor (or flavour, if you like), from the parties to the onsite pub – but it was readings, panels, game room, group discussions, dealers, parties . . .

Dortcon was none of those things really. There was some steady programming – a filk track, for example, that featured a talented harp player and an American now resident in Germany; A. and L. both enjoyed that. There wasn’t a game room per se, but there was some sort of ongoing Battletech tournament that I studiously avoided. (Game conventions are popular in Germany, apparently, but it’s a different setting and a largely different audience.) Markus Heitz and I both had hour-long readings, in the main auditorium with a microphone, and Dieter Rottermund (the artist GoH) had a chance to show some of his recent work. (He’s very good. There was no art show, but there was a nice display of his work – mostly book covers.)

We were introduced at the opening ceremonies and given a minute or two to speak: forewarned, I was able to carry it off in German, much to the delight of the audience – it was ther first hint that I could speak the language. Each of the three of us had an hour-long interview with Arno; mine also featured another attendee, Dirk van den Boom, who spent almost the entire hour messing around with me (though he denies it). I refused to be panicked – we got to joking, and again I was able to carry on well in German, and received a lot of applause at the end. (They liked me – but better yet, they understood my German. I realize that I’m going back to that idea a lot, but I was really surprised both on Saturday and Sunday just how quickly it came back and how easily it flowed. Their expectations were low, of course, but I don’t believe they were humoring me: one of the litmus tests for me was always whether, if I’d begun a conversation in German, a native speaker would decide that he or she would rather practice their English on me rather than let me practice my German on them. If they replied in German it indicated that I was doing well.

The toughest challenge was Saturday night. I originally thought I was to somehow participate; but instead they’d chosen a sort of prose/poetry slam format. I sat in the back for three quarters of an hour or so and listened. There were a few very funny bits, but overall I couldn’t really understand it all. It was too damn fast. There’s fluency, and then there’s fluency. I couldn’t keep up. But by Saturday night I’d managed to hit every other mark; talking with fans, participating in interviews and discussions, and everything else.

It Was Too Fast (photo by Peter Fleissner).

There were only a few pros there overall: Heitz, Rottermund, myself, and a couple of others that seemed to be on hand to sell their books (they didn’t get interviewed or participate in panels, which seemed a waste of potential entertainment). It was really all about the three of us, with a few other presentations – one on Doctor Who, one on space travel, one on Jean-Michel Jarre . . . in some ways, the DortCon committee had organized a literary-only convention to suit themselves and had invited a few guests with star power to help enhance the program. Rottermund is very talented; Heitz is prolific and well-known in Germany. I was the recommendation of one of the committee members, who sold the idea to Arno and the others. (How cool is that?)

I think that from me they got more than they bargained for. They expected a writer whose work had been well-received in German translation. The group they’ve invited is a very small one: Norman Spinrad, Larry Niven, Alastair Reynolds, and most recently Nancy Kress – all very good writers – and me. Do I rank with them? In an absolute sense, no, of course not: but the DortCon committee chooses guests to please themselves. They aren’t primarily from Dortmund; Arno and Gabi are from Düsseldorf; others are from elsewhere. They have a Verein, a sort of association that is more like a club than a corporation, and that in turn is a member of a German club federation. They help vote for the EuroCon, and interact with other con groups (some of them attend the con in Leipzig, for example) but DortCon is largely about getting together every other year and having this literary thing with a German writer, a non-German writer, and an artist. It’s not a EuroCon, it’s not a Worldcon, it’s not even Balticon. It’s 15% the size of Balticon. It’s less than half the size of Readercon, which it probably most closely resembles, with its literary bent and Saturday night entertainment. But despite those figures, it’s among the largest cons of its kind in Germany at a little more than 200 attendees. It was good enough to make an online newspaper, though.

At the closing dinner Sunday night Arno and I discussed the con scene. He in particular, but both he and Gabi, are certainly SMOFs in the broad sense; Arno is an impresario, a master of ceremonies, a fan who enjoys being a fan in the best possible way. I cannot be sure, but as I said, putting us on a first name basis from the first made him very pleased.

The Impresario (photo by Peter Fleissner).

This points directly at my philosophy about this entire pro thing. I don’t think I deserved a spot at the table at cons until I became a pro, but if asked by an unpublished writer-want-to-be, I would say that the difference between us was that I was five books ahead. Until I reach the status of Larry Niven or Scott Card or Jack McDevitt, I’ll always feel that way. Maybe even then. It’s extremely gratifying to be recognized and appreciated for my published work – I’m proud of it. But perspective on these things is very important.

I’ll put up a final post with a few pictures from the con, along with some concluding thoughts. There are a few people who were going to post “after-action” comments on the convention, including Arno; I’ll put links to them. Watch for all of that shortly.

March 23, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 7/8 – Dortmund, Part 1

Filed under: Commentary, Freemasonry, Travel — admin @ 23:03

We arrived in Dortmund in the late afternoon and were met at the train by Arno and Gabi Behrend, the masterminds of DortCon, which was due to get underway with a dinner gathering on Friday night. They got us very efficiently installed in the Hotel Esplanade, across the street from the Fritz-Henßler-Haus, where the con was to take place; we had a little time to get ourselves organized for a visit to a German Masonic lodge – ‘Zur Alten Linde‘ – ‘the old lime tree’. I wasn’t sure what to expect: they’d made provision for L. and A. to come with me for a family evening, and I assumed that there would be a collation of some sort after the lodge meeting.

The Tree In Question

Instead, the lodge’s Master dispensed with the usual ceremony (a bit of a disappointment, actually: I’d have liked to see it) and instead had an open meeting with the members and their ladies all present. I had prepared a speech, and decided that, if I could manage it, I would give it in German.

And that was the first big surprise of the trip.

We’d been somewhat at sea in Amsterdam, since Dutch is definitely not German: it’s fairly readable, but absolutely unpronounceable (our Scottish friend says that in order to speak Dutch you have to have a lot of phlegm. She’s right.) In Köln we’d gotten on fairly well at restaurants and in shops, since both L. and I had been in Germany as students. It was a long time ago, but it came back more quickly than I could have hoped. In Dortmund, though, I was facing a real challenge: not just ordering dinner or buying something at a department store, but actually giving a presentation in a language I hadn’t spoken every day for at least six years, when we’d last visited Germany for the Junior Year in Munich reunion.

I’d written the speech out in German, with the aid of a dictionary, and it was fairly good; simple, but not much different from the sorts of presentations I’ve been giving in lodges over the last year. And it went well. Really well. I was very nervous, but my diction was clear, my grammar acceptable, and I dealt well with questions. The lodge’s master was right next to me and helped with the occasional vocabulary word, but I was able to respond in German, intelligibly. They understood what I was saying; we had a few humorous moments; they were interested, friendly, inquisitive. It wasn’t all that much different from an English-speaking lodge. Except that it was a German-speaking one.

Afterward, we went to the apartment of a lodge member and had a little social hour. This brother is a Bezirksbürgomeister, a sort of sub-mayor; he’s a philosopher, an artist, and a science-fiction reader :-) who has all of my books and was particularly interested in A Song In Stone. In addition to being a Freemason he’s a member of Schlaraffia – a German-language fraternity that is even more tradition-filled and even more obscure than the Masons. (I’d attended a Schlaraffia meeting in Wellesley a year or so ago; they’re always conducted in German, even in non-German-speaking countries. It was great fun, but this is an organization that is quickly working its way toward obsolescence by its very nature. A shame, really, but they have to decide for themselves how to go forward. I just don’t have the time to commit to it.)

It’s hard to communicate what a rush it is to tackle something as scary as speaking a foreign language in public – and succeeding at it. The excellent experience at ‘Zur alten Linde’ was an encouraging indication of how the weekend would go.

The next morning we had breakfast with Arno and Gabi and took off to see the town. We went to a natural history museum a little way out of town, which A. really enjoyed; L. liked it too, but it was definitely chosen with our daughter in mind. We then found our way into the pedestrian zone of Dortmund, not much different from most German cities; our first stop (at Gabi’s eager suggestion) was a Belgian chocolatier, where we bought some great presents for folks back home; then we had a nice lunch, and went back to the hotel.

That evening there was a dinner (a sort of ‘pre-con’ meeting) with the principal con committee folks, as well as our friends M. and T., who had come up from Munich to be at the con with us. M. was on the Junior Year program eight years after me, and we’d met at the reunion in 2003; at the time she seemed more cynical and less happy than I thought she should be: but this time she’d brought her friend T., whom I immediately dubbed ‘der berühmte T.’ – “the renowned T.” – since I’d heard a lot about him. They were great together, obviously very close. M. seemed very, very happy.

As for the committee . . . I met a number of folks who seemed to know my books. (How cool is that? As I always say, it’s the third coolest thing, after L. and A.) There was a considerable amount of eating and drinking; nothing wrong with that. The committee folks, including Arno and Gabi, seemed very pleased that L. and I could speak German, and as the evening went on, it was clear that we were not only capable of speaking the language, but actually were pretty fluent. I’m not surprised that most guests from overseas aren’t fluent in German: there are 100 million native German speakers in the world – 1 1/2% of the world’s population, if that – and it’s not what you’d call a trivial exercise to learn any foreign language, let alone an inflected one with some serious grammar issues. It’s easier than English, but only because it actually has rules (rather than mostly exceptions). I guess I’m not even surprised that most of their overseas guests don’t speak any German, or even make much of an effort.

They, on the other hand, were stunned and really very pleased. Again, my fluency was interrupted by occasional missing vocabulary words, but most of the committee and regulars spoke some English and some (like Arno) were actually quite capable. Considering the level of English some people speak in America, they’d get on quite well.

That, along with putting myself immediately on a first-name basis with everyone (Gabi started by addressing me as ‘Herr Hunt’, and as far as I could see spent the entire con addressing Markus Heitz as ‘Herr Heitz’; I immediately insisted on ‘Walter’, and first names for L. and A. as well) placed us on a friendly footing from the start. I perceive that as having been a critical part of the congeniality that I enjoyed the entire weekend.

It was unlike any con I’ve ever attended, and I’ll tell you all about it in the next entry. Dortmund is not exactly a tourist destination, but my memories of it will always be very good.

European Tour Spring 2009: Your Gaming Interlude

Filed under: Commentary, Games, Travel — admin @ 22:46

If Euro games hadn’t become quite so easy to get in the United States due to the valiant efforts of Rio Grande Games and a bunch of retailers; and if it wasn’t for the dissemination of info by the Geek, a trip to Europe for us would have been all about scooping up lots and lots of Eurogames to take back home. With a limited amount of luggage space, though, it was hard to take advantage of the amazing selection – and there are lots of games we could have bought that are just as readily available back home. But imagine walking into a department store in the USA and finding a display like the one shown below. It was like being a kid in a candy store.

The Candy Store

That was the main wall. There were four smaller aisles, and a big display of best selling games, including Settlers, Keltis (the Spiel des Jahres), and other titles that Eurogamers would recognize. We took advantage of a sale – lots of things were marked down: sometimes as much as 40% or 50%. Our collection is already fairly big – so we settled on the following:

  • Siedler von Catan – Deutschland: a fixed board with twelve beautifully-sculpted famous buildings from various places in Germany; hadn’t seen it in the States.
  • Alhambra: a non-first-edition copy, at about half price, with currency in green color (to replace the dark brown of the first edition we have. They had the enormous box with the base game and the first four expansions, but that would have been too much to carry and was big and bulky.)
  • Volle Wolle: A Zoch small box game that L. and A. really like and that I’d somehow overlooked;
  • Sushizock im Gocklewok: The new Zoch tile-and-dice game that belongs to the Hickhack and Heckmeck family, something I’d actually been looking for; and
  • Siedler von Catan: das Würfelspiel: the Settlers dice game, which certainly isn’t Settlers, but for 5 Euros on sale it was hard to pass up.

A friend was also able to deliver me three copies of the EnBW edition of Funkenschlag (Power Grid), with the Baden-Württemburg special map. One is for our collection, one is for MVGA, our game club, and one is – for trade or sale. (Drop me an email if you’re interested.)

It’s reassuring also to have one’s impression of a game reinforced. I acquired a copy of Elasund, a Settlers building game, gave it a few plays, and sent it away because I was fairly unimpressed by it. Turns out they can’t give it away at Kaufhof in Köln, and that they bought a whole pile of them. 10 Euros will barely get you a beer and a sausage in Germany (though they’ll be a good beer and sausage, to be sure.)

I’d Rather Have the Beer and Sausage.

We only poked our heads into a couple of actual game stores, one in Holland and a few in Germany, and mostly saw the array of Carcassonne and Settlers games: didn’t see a copy of Power Grid, Puerto Rico or Agricola anywhere.

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