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.
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.
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: 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: 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. My 24-point exhibition.
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. 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: 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.