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A week of Games, Games, OMG a lot of Games
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jducoeur
Got back yesterday from spending almost a week in Ohio at the Origins Game Fair -- I tagged along with mindways, as I did two years ago.

It was a generally interesting time, although I was more of a fish out of water than usual. Arisia and Pennsic are both huge, but I usually feel like I have a built-in social circle, since I know at least a few hundred people at each. This time, I was coming in cold, and was reminded of the fact that I get rather shy when tossed into a huge crowd like that. Fortunately, gaming encourages interaction, and Darker knows lots of people there, so I met quite a number of folks.

The trip itself was uneventful -- Delta continued to fail to impress me, as it generally has over the past 10-15 years, but at least nobody lost my luggage this time. We shared a room with Darker's friend Trey, a game designer from Texas; that worked out reasonably well, although rather reminded me of living in a dorm room.

Rooming with a couple of pros was interesting. Since my roommates were both game designers, most of the people I met were as well. Towards the end of the con, I discovered that one of the people I'd been playing with several times was the author of the popular recent game Walk the Plank; in passing, we casually wound up chatting with the author of Pirate Dice. It was a curious experience, being the token "end user" in the crowd.

Didn't hit any significant restaurants, but was reminded that, as city-center markets go, Columbus' North Market is right up there among the best. It has lots of interesting and high-quality food stands, especially:
  • Jeni's Ice Cream -- at least as good as anything in Boston, with a vibrant sense of experimentation. Their Bangkok Peanut was a particular favorite, described as "Pad Thai ice cream", which is bizarre but kind of accurate. (I don't often come across spicy ice cream, but it totally works.)

  • Firdous Express -- a fairly normal middle-eastern food joint, but their Low-Carb Salad wound up my standard lunch for the trip. (Greek salad with shwarma on top, dressed with tzatziki. Yum!)

  • Holy Smoke BBQ -- possibly the best pork ribs I've ever had: cooked to the point where not only was the meat super-tender, even the bones wound up soft and gnawable.

  • Taste of Belgium -- because very little beats a well-executed, fresh-made Belgian waffle: crisp, hot, gently covered with caramelized sugar.
Most of you probably don't get to Columbus very often, but if you do find yourself in town, it's well worth wandering there and getting some food.

The purpose of the trip, though, was to play board games, and I seriously got my fill. This is going to run a little long, so I'll put the details of what I played behind cut tags. Thanks to Darker for his listing of what he played, and his pointers to the relevant BGG entries (he was taking notes and I wasn't). Comments and questions welcomed, especially while the games are fresh in my mind...


Spirit Island -- this is Darker's upcoming game (the official announcement should be soonish), and was somewhat the point of me tagging along. Since the game is getting announced soon, it is getting a lot of demo'ing and late-stage playtesting, so I helped out in both respects. I played a couple of demo teaching-level games with newbies, putting on my Infectious Enthusiam hat. (One relatively easy win, one more challenging one.) And the three of us played a couple of games at medium-advanced difficulty levels -- we won both, but both were *quite* challenging.

I'll burble more about Spirit Island when it is officially announced, but suffice it to say that it is one of the chewiest and most interesting cooperative board games ever written. It is *deeply* interactive between the players -- it not only allows but really demands a high level of working together -- and the mechanics are complex without getting fiddly. Excellent game if you're prepared to work closely with your team.


Argent: the Consortium is Trey's upcoming game, which has already been Kickstarted (quite successfully) and is moving towards publication. We got to play with the newest proof copy, which was the first time that Trey had gotten to see how a lot of the look and feel was coming out.

The Kickstarter and BGG details are worth reading, but the tl;dr is that you are playing department heads of a magical university. (No relation to any other magical school we might name.) It's largely a worker-placement game -- you have a set of five Mages/students, and each round you place them in various rooms which give rewards. Those rewards are resolved at end-of-round, so there is quite a bit of tussling over who goes where in the rooms. You are battling for influence over the deans of the school, as well as for various semi-secret goals that get resolved at the end of the game. (Finding out these goals is one of the more important but expensive things you can choose to do.)

Argent is a little on the complex side, and I was initially taken aback: there are a lot of elements, and I felt a hair overwhelmed at first. Gradually, though, I internalized that no individual aspect is terribly complex, and there aren't many *bad* decisions to be made, so I played our initial five-player game rather tactically while I got a sense of how it worked. Our second game (just the three of us), I had a better grip on what was going on, and managed to edge out a hair's-breadth victory over Darker. (Trey was a tad under the weather and exhausted -- we were playing from 1:30-3am -- which I think contributed to my win.)

Overall, it's quite a bit of fun. I haven't decided whether I'm picking up a copy myself or not, but I'm seriously considering it: it's quite a good 3-5 player game, although one you have to set some real time aside for.


Paradox was my surprise winner from the convention. The pitch is basically "Humans invented time travel, and broke the universe. Now they're trying to use time travel to fix it." That doesn't really convey the feel of the game, though.

Basically, Paradox is a game of three closely interlocking mechanics. On the one hand, you are drafting what amount to time segments of planets -- for each planet in the game, there are Past, Present and Future cards, and you are trying to make sets of those by first drafting and then "saving" that time segment. Once you've drafted a card, you have 2-4 rounds to rescue it.

Then there is the Time Vortex track. This represents the time storm that is gradually eating the galaxy. Every time someone saves a time segment, the Vortex moves around the track (how far depends on the segment), and stomps another world. If a world is stomped at game end, it is worth fewer or no points, so you need to put a good deal of effort into shielding your target planets, or fixing their timelines if they have been stomped.

Finally, there is a truly unique resource-gathering track, which is used to gather the resources you need for both of the above aspects. It's hard to describe, but it is vaguely like a physical representation of Bejeweled -- you have a 5x5 grid of tokens representing resources, and you do pairwise swaps to make columns or rows of a color in order to capture that resource type. There's nothing terribly deep about the mechanic, but it is a fun puzzle game, and more strategic than it looks at first glance.

I found the game tight, fun and fast-paced. While it is very turn-based, it is designed to minimize waiting time: you can play the drafting game and the resource-gathering games simultaneously, so you wind up with some players doing one while others are doing the other.

Definite winner in my book: it's the one game I firmly decided to Kickstart when that opens (supposedly soonish), and I look forward to playing the final game when it is released.


Cataclysm is a prototype social-deduction game that Trey is working on; in the same general category as The Resistance (which I haven't played), but trying for more depth and complexity. We spent a while playtesting it, and more time discussing it and coming up with suggestions for tweaks and improvements. It's going to take more polishing yet, but it's shaping up into a solidly interesting game, which I suspect folks will enjoy.


Commedia: this was a prototype microgame by Brad (Trey's publisher, who we spent a good deal of time hanging out with). Yes, it is Commedia dell'Arte, the Card Game. The mechanics are quick, simple and clever: one player is playing Tragedy, the other Comedy, and you take turns manipulating the cards to make your side of the story win. Nothing terribly deep -- it's at the same complexity level as Guillotine, if a hair more strategic -- but it's a fast, fun filler game for two players. I might well pick it up if it gets to publication.


Alchemists: I don't believe this one is in BGG yet, but is apparently in the pipeline for production. It's a moderate-complexity game with some unique mechanics. You are each playing alchemists, competing essentially for influence within academia. The way you achieve this is by conducting experiments with your various resources, puzzling out the alchemical components of those resources, and publishing theories about them.

The unique bit is how you conduct your experiments. This is a hybrid board/cell phone game, with an Android app deeply central to it. The alchemical structures differ for each game, and only the app knows exactly what is going on. So to "experiment" on your resources, you basically line them up and have the app look at them with the camera; it then tells you what the results of your experiment are. The overall system is completely internally consistent, and the core of the game is basically doing the logic puzzle of figuring out the implications. The app also has modes that allow you to sell your creations for gold, and to debunk other players' theories.

Very unusually, I succumbed to fairly horrible analysis-paralysis with this one, because at its heart this game is *highly* analyzable. (In most complex games, I just shrug at the first game, play purely tactically, and go very fast.) Indeed, I suspect its biggest problem is going to be that there is probably a pretty straightforward ideal play, and knowing how to do that analysis is going to be very important in the game. I won a pretty smashing victory, through a little luck (my choice of initial resources worked extremely well in the logic puzzle) and managing to debunk nearly every other theory on the board, but it took a damned long time to do so.

Haven't yet decided how much I like this one. It's rather fun in its own way, but the logic puzzle is a bit of a brain-burner to do well, at least at first. And the current state of the app is unacceptable: none of us could get it running on our own phones, so we had to share the very cheap and slow one that the demonstrator had with him. But assuming they work the bugs out, it's a solid and slightly unusual game, and should be fun if you enjoy the logic-puzzle aspect.


Smash Up: this is a cute little battle game, whose quirk is that each player is working with *two* decks, shuffled together, each of which is strongly themed. So in our demo game, I played with Magic Users and Robots.

Overall, my review is, "it's okay". Nothing terribly innovative, and the gameplay isn't especially deep, but it works fine. I think the BGG rating (7.02) is a tad high, but it's a pleasant enough light game, easy to play tactically, and there is probably a little strategy in the deck drafting once you know them all fairly well.


Subdivision is apparently popular and highly-rated, but I don't see it. The three of us played a game, and I was left pretty cold. The core notion is that you start with a big hex board that represents a suburban subdivision; you do a fairly standard draft with hex tiles to put on it, but roll a die for each draft, which dictates your options for where to place your next tile.

Overall, the mix of luck and strategy was exactly wrong, IMO. On the one hand, the way the game works almost dictates some optimal strategies. (We all agreed that the "highway" part of the strategy is wildly overvalued -- it's one of the least interesting bits, but accounts for the vast majority of the score. We decided that it's just broken: instead of getting massive points for putting hexes next to a highway, you should get deductions for *not* doing so.) It was telling that our final scores were something like 117/118/119: it's way too optimizable to be interesting.

On the flip side, it's also *very* luck-driven: between the tile drafts and the die roll that dictates how you must use your tiles, I found it to be something of an exercise in pointless frustration.

One of my least favorite games of the con -- I have no idea why people rate it so highly.


On the other hand, despite losing rather badly, I enjoyed Castles of Mad King Ludwig (by the same publisher as Subdivision) quite a bit. This is also a physical-layout game, but *far* more interactive, and more fun to lay out. The high concept is that you are each building a castle out of *very* irregularly-shaped pieces -- none of these easy hexes. Point-scoring is rather subtle: each tile is worth a point or three in and of itself, but the game mainly hangs on the way that the pieces interact with each other. For example, the Bowling Alley is worth several points, but *subtracts* points for each sleeping or living area it is next to. One of the dungeon rooms is worth an extra point for each sleeping room in the castle. (The implication apparently being that you sleep better knowing that your enemies are safely locked up.)

Also, instead of the tile selection simply being a draft, it is instead a marketplace. Each turn, one player is the Master Builder, gets to assign the prices to each of the available tiles, and gets the income from them. A lot of the game hangs on this pricing: not letting the other players get what they need too cheaply, but still making sure they pay you well. (Eric felt that this marketplace would work better if it was less constrained; I suspect that he is correct, so long as all players know the game decently well.)

Not my favorite of the weekend, but a solidly good game. I gather that it is being released later this year; it's worth keeping an eye open for.


Cavum: reasonably good game, although I did *especially* badly at it. The premise is that you are playing miners, competing to find gems inside a big mountain range and sell them at market. Most of the game consists of laying down hex-shaped path tiles with various numbers of entrances and exits, representing the tunnels; "finding" veins of gems inside them (the players get to decide where these veins are); and then, once per round, doing a run from one of your stations to another, picking up all the gems you can along the way.

I confess, I didn't entirely love the game, but that is probably colored by me failing to grok how deeply the coopetition runs here. On the one hand, you have to work hard to block the other players' paths, dynamite out from under them, and grab gems before them. OTOH, you have to be constantly trying to claim-jump every other vein, constructing elaborate paths all around the board to do so. The players who really got it were quite effective, managing to hit most of the veins most turns; I didn't really start to get the hang of that until the last turn. (And I never quite got the pacing right. This is exceptionally subtle: you must make exactly 11 moves per round, but you can do 1-4 of them each turn, so there are subtle trade-offs in how you pace that.)

I didn't precisely enjoy it, but I *do* think it's a good game. I suspect I may enjoy it more after another try or two.


The Duke and For the Crown: neither of these was an Origins discovery -- Darker brought them both with him -- and they're quite different in many ways. But they are conceptually joined, in that they are both excellent reworkings of chess with modern board-game play.

The Duke is the more straightforward of the two, and less like chess. Superficially it resembles chess, but you have a bag full of tiles. Each turn, you either move a piece, or draw a tile and set it next to your Duke (the King equivalent). None of the pieces are exactly chess pieces -- indeed, some are much more complex than anything in Tamurlane's Chess -- and they have a weird tweak: each piece is two-sided. After you move it, you flip it over, revealing an alternate version with different moves. So you have to keep in mind that, after you move your man, it will move differently next turn. (To make this manageable, each side shows exactly how the piece currently moves.)

The Duke is fun, fast, and tricky. Eric and I played a couple of games while waiting in the airport, and it was great for that. You have to pay close attention to the board, since it is very easy to sneak in a checkmate. It turns out to be much less frontal than chess: not only can many of the pieces jump in various ways, the Duke itself acts as a sort of limited rook (it slides laterally one turn, vertically the other), so it winds up traveling all over the board. Good stuff.

Then there is For the Crown, whose elevator pitch is "Chess plus Dominion". The surprising part is that this isn't an over-simplification: it is *exactly* Chess plus Dominion, and even more surprisingly, it largely works. You have a deck of cards, which both allow you to take complex actions and can be sacrificed to "train" a piece to enter the board. Each turn, you can buy a card; these cards include the usual chess pieces, as well as lots of variations. (Nothing as wacky as The Duke's pieces, but most of the interesting period variant pieces show up somewhere.)

There is a deep tension between the Chess and Dominion sides: your hand can be used to drive both aspects, and you can't neglect either. (For example, the Rook card is also the value-3 Treasure -- essentially, the Gold. Do you keep it for the treasure, or sacrifice it to get a Rook?)

Eric and I played a game shortly before Origins, and Trey and I played during it. My general conclusion is that (unlike the Duke), it demands a measure of chess skill to play well. Both games were long, but Eric beat me pretty solidly in the first because he's reasonably good at chess strategy; I eventually beat Trey, but only through a grinding war of attrition, because neither of us is terribly good at chess endgame.

Which is better? Depends on your taste. The Duke is more accessible, and less demanding -- it's a bit better suited to a tactician like me. For the Crown is a lovely strategist's game, adding new layers to chess while maintaining the essential feel of the classic game. The Duke is on the quick side, often done in 15-30 minutes; both games I've played of For the Crown took 1-2 hours. I'd say that both are excellent, though, and worth trying if you like chess at all.


Fairy Tale (A New Story) is apparently a slightly expanded reissue of a popular older game, and was the only thing I actually bought at Origins. It is a very lightweight "filler" game, well-suited for 2-5 players who have fifteen minutes to kill.

Be prepared to spend your first game trying to figure out what's going on, but the game is really pretty simple. Each round, you deal five cards to each player; you do a standard pass-left draft to pick your hand for this game. Then you reveal cards one at a time, mainly trying to make synergies between your cards. For example, some cards are only worth points if you wind up with the most red cards; others synergize with specific other cards; others multiply (for example, each Homesteader is worth the number of Homesteaders you have). Some cards let you mess with other players a little, but there isn't a lot of complexity here -- it's simply quick and easy game, worth having in one's back pocket.


Hanabi has been gradually infiltrating my friends' gaming circles, but I hadn't played it until Origins. It's rather delightful -- a cooperative game of Indian Poker, where you are trying to help each other work together to play essentially solitaire.

The core game is trivial: play cards one at a time to the tableau, to try and build colored piles in numeric order. There is only one problem: you can't see your own hand. So on your turn, you can either play a card, discard a card, or give a hint to another player. The hints are *highly* constrained, which leads to a complex dance of giving each other enough information to know what card to play or discard. (We actually got into a bit of an argument about conventions, sparked by the fact that I didn't know *any* conventions and was simply doing the most logical thing I could think of at the moment. This led to a meta-argument about the fact that discussing conventions at table was arguably illegal table-talk.)

Surprisingly enjoyable: I wouldn't have thought this one was my cup of tea, but it's a very good game -- thinky, but not excessively so, and intensely cooperative.


Noir is another game from Brad (see Commedia, above) -- he pulled it out when I had half an hour to kill before we left for the airport. It's a good, light deduction game, in which you are all playing spies trying to find each other in a crowd. The "crowd" is a 5x5 grid of cards; each player is one of the people on the cards. On your turn, you can investigate the people who are near you, rearrange the board in specific ways, or accuse someone of being a spy (based on who has investigated where).

It's nothing complex, but as billed it's a fine filler game for 3-8 players. As written it's a bit simple and analyzable; Brad apparently has some expansions which shake things up and make the deduction process trickier.


The surprise hit of the con for me was, of all things, Monopoly Deal, which Trey kept in his bag and which we kept pulling out during downtime.

I would not expect the phrase "card game based on Monopoly" to presage anything other than doom, but this turns out to be a solidly good lightweight filler. It's extremely straightforward: you have a hand of cards, and play two of them on your turn. Some are locations you can build, some are Rent cards that let you charge the other players, some are shenanigans that let you steal/trade cards from other players.

There's no subtlety to it, but it's a good low-investment time-killer. It is surprisingly true to the board game: almost every space on the board is represented in the cards, and the mechanics flow naturally from the original. But it's actually a lot more fun than the original, probably because it takes a *lot* less time -- a dull one-hour board game turns out to be quite a decent ten-minute card game. I'll likely pick up a set for myself, and possibly just keep it in my backpack now and then.


Finally, I should quickly note a couple of games that were played along the way that I already knew. I finally got to try out Innovation: Figures in the Sand, the second expansion to Innovation, which I've been fond of for a couple of years now. Figures in the Sand is a tad fiddly -- I agree with Darker than including all the new rules from Echoes of the Past along with new ones over-complicates things -- but the new mechanics are interesting. I don't know that I like it any more than the original, but it provides some new toys to play with, and is worth pulling out now and then.

And the three of us played (and inadvertantly demo'ed) Fealty, Eric's first game and still one of my very favorites. You should go buy it if you haven't already: it is the deepest strategy game I know that can be played in under 15 minutes. And if enough copies sell, they might actually bring out the expansion someday.


There are probably one or two others that I'm forgetting, but that's most of it. Questions and comments welcome...
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Thanks for the reviews! There are a few that I'll need to check out.

Subdivision is apparently popular and highly-rated, but I don't see it.

Suburbia is a popular, highly-rated game; Subdivision is its new, not-yet-published cousin. While its rating on BGG is 7.38, that's on only 12 ratings, and one of those is a perfect 10 from the publisher. (None of the other ratings are higher than 8.)

BGG ratings nearly always trend downwards over time, for a variety of reasons; I'm pretty sure this will be no exception.

And the current state of the [Alchemists] app is unacceptable: none of us could get it running on our own phones, so we had to share the very cheap and slow one that the demonstrator had with him.

I dropped the publisher a line with some of the thoughts we had over the day or two after playing (wanting a means to avoid streaky ingredient luck, etc). In his reply, he mentioned that even with the current build of the app, that the phone he had was the slowest one imaginable, and it's much faster on most phones even in its current incarnation.

Take with the requisite grain of salt, but if they get the app wrong this game will tank hard at the retail level, so I suspect they're motivated to get it done well. :)

Argent is a little on the complex side, and I was initially taken aback: there are a lot of elements, and I felt a hair overwhelmed at first. Gradually, though, I internalized that no individual aspect is terribly complex, and there aren't many *bad* decisions to be made, so I played our initial five-player game rather tactically while I got a sense of how it worked.

I'm still figuring out how best to teach Argent (for when my copy arrives), and I suspect that one key to it is presenting a useful mile-high overview. It probably wants to communicate:
a) It's a worker-placement game, and each type of worker has a special power.
b) What you said above re: "there are complex systems, but they can be reduced to a number of fairly simple elements(*)".
c) The game is decided by the 12 voters, each of which goes to whomever has most of a thing. Most voters are hidden.

(*) = I think part of the reason the game is overwhelming is that you can either reduce the complexity to a number of fairly straightforward sub-systems - mana, gold, items, spells, int/wis and spell research, supporters, etc - or you can reduce it to a number of fairly straightforward rooms where workers take actions... but there's a many-to-many correspondence between rooms (actions) and sub-systems, so it gets all convoluted.

I think part of the reason the game is overwhelming is that you can either reduce the complexity to a number of fairly straightforward sub-systems - mana, gold, items, spells, int/wis and spell research, supporters, etc - or you can reduce it to a number of fairly straightforward rooms where workers take actions... but there's a many-to-many correspondence between rooms (actions) and sub-systems, so it gets all convoluted.

Yep. I would probably focus on how the various Mages operate first, and simply underline that each room, top to bottom, is basically in the order Excellent, Great, Good, Okay. While it's not a *winning* strategy, I would bet that you can do not-terribly (and learn the ins and outs) by just optimizing for the highest seat you can get at any given time, mixing up the rooms you are in as much as possible...

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