Stone of Remembrance

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.

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