The Gathering of Friends XI
Each year April heralds two important events in my life: the ending of the fiscal year and the staging of Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends. Technically its invitation only but it doesn't appear to be too hard to get an invite. (Knowing someone who's already attended helps though.) This year it ran April 18 - April 23, 2000 and for the first time was held in Columbus, Ohio. (It had been in the Springfield, Massachusetts area the previous ten years.) I don't imagine that it really matters where its held though as most everyone stays bunkered down in a windowless hall for six days playing games. Many attendees consider it the best convention they've ever attended.
If there was anything perceptibly different this year it was definitely the number of prototypes available. There were a couple of big-wig game publishers in attendance and lots of demonstrations. I believe this is something that Alan is very keen on and most likely will increase in importance over the next few years. (I'd like to note that one point Alan stresses every year is that discussions about such unpublished designs be limited. Apparently there's some concern about the secrecy of such things and the inherent copyright problems. To be honest I can't see that its that big of a problem in such a small industry but I'm certainly no expert on this and, more to the point, my paycheck doesn't depend upon it. For this reason I made sure to ask the designers of any prototypes for permission to write about them and so their inclusion here shouldn't be seen as flaunting this request.)
There was always plenty going on and lots of discussion but I imagine that most readers are specifically concerned with the new games being played. Fair enough and so here are (most) of the newer games I got to try out, presented in chronological order for no other reason than that's how I wrote them down in my notebook.
(Fair warning: If its not already obvious any opinions I express about these games are based on a single play, often in an extremely sleep deprived state. One would be a fool to base a purchase decision solely on what I've written here.)
My gaming odyssey had a rather unusual send-off this year. I'm a member of the Gamers' Choice Awards committee (check out http://pages.about.com/strategygames if interested) and had been asked by Bob Schwartz to appear on his "The Board Room" internet show to discuss this year's nominees. The show was to "air" only a few hours before my flight was to leave but its such a unique forum that I couldn't say no. The experience was a lot of fun and certainly put me in the right frame of mind for a week of gaming. You can check out the show at http://bgamers.com.
As per usual there were delays at the airport and so I ended up spending an extra 3 hours sitting around in Toronto. Don't these people realize that I've got games awaiting me? The nerve! Well, I did manage to get there and the fact that I'd been awake 30 hours at that point and travelling for the last 12 would seem to indicate that a few hours rest were in order. Perhaps to a normal individual but gamers can hardly be considered "normal" so off to the conference room it was!
TAXI - This was a Joe Huber prototype about (you guessed it) taxis. Players are driving their three cabs around a gridded city picking up fares and dropping them off. The mechanics were fairly straightforward and I think Joe's got the movement rates very finely tuned so that you're always a few points short of that ideal move. While I liked the game it seems to be missing that special ingredient, there was nothing that jumped out as being particularly clever or inspired. He may already have the solution: we played the simple version where you were free to move however you like along the city streets. In the "advanced" version the streets become one-way only and I would imagine delivering those fares would becomes something of a nightmare. I'm not sure if this is enough to make the game a good one but I would like to try it out again which says a lot.
ESCNAPUR - I was initially uninterested in this game but had subsequently heard some good things about it and so was looking forward to giving it a try. I'm glad I did before I bought a copy because I was very disappointed. The nominal theme is about uncovering treasures in an ancient South American city. There are a number of different mechanics at work but the problem is that they don't integrate all that well with each other. There are "footstep" tokens which allow one to move about the board, key cards that allow you to open treasure rooms (sometimes requiring pairs of cards), bidding cards to auction the treasures once found and money to pay for the bidding cards. The basic idea of the game is that you use the footstep tokens to move to a treasure room, use the key cards to open it, and then the bidding cards to gain the treasure hidden within. Further, there are draw chits which show a number of elements on them. At the start of each players' turn you draw two chits. One you'll keep for yourself and the other will be auctioned off to another player. The currency for this auction can be anything in the players' possession including the items on the chit itself. (e.g. "I'll give you 2 footsteps for that 3-footstep token.") Overall the game played very awkwardly, there was no unifying mechanic and it felt as though it was designed by a committee. "I know, let's throw in an auction here!", "Let's add an arbitrary value to the tokens and allow the players to trade in 12 points worth of them." Ugh. The only thing of interest was the Buddha mechanism. One of the nicest pieces I've seen in any games, this little 3-D figure is given to the player in last place. Any points he/she scores are doubled. (Which usually entails passing the figure to someone else.) I've heard that this doesn't work that well in practice as the figure just rotates around the table as everyone leapfrogs each other in score. Hard to tell in our game as I spent the last three-quarters of it playing Buddha. This was another problem I had which is quite likely to have been due to poor play on my part: I was in a position such that I was effectively out of the game. I had keys for several treasure rooms but they were across the board. I had no footsteps to reach them and no way to actually acquire said footsteps. The only real currency I had were the keys themselves which I couldn't afford to give up. As such I was left to hoping that on my turn I'd turn over lots of movement points. It wasn't to be and so I spent the last part of the game watching other players beat me to the treasures.
PORT ROYAL - Another themed trick-taking game, are there no end to these? The most unique thing about this is that the theme actually feels appropriate to the gameplay which I found to be highly unusual to say the least. The card play is somewhat standard trick taking with a few twists thrown in. The first unusual bit is that the winner of each trick wins a "booty" card and these are laid out face up for all to see. I liked this as it gave you some semblance of what tricks you wanted to win and which you wanted to avoid. The Booty cards themselves come primarily in four varieties; rum, tobacco, gunpowder or food (biscuits as Andy Merritt calls them) and these range in values from two to twelve. The idea is that you want to acquire as much of each as possible but if you collect more than 18 points worth of any of them then that particular ship sinks (its overloaded) and is worth nothing. There are also cards that increase or decrease the holding capacity of a ship or double the value of its contents etc. Play is in a series of six(?) rounds with seven card plays per player each round. There are, of course, a lot of little rules that I've glossed over but the point is - is this a good game? I've already gone on record as stating that trick taking games are not usually my cup of tea (despite the fact that I'm finding more and more of them that I'd be willing to play) so Port Royal already has an uphill battle. There's nothing really wrong with the game itself, I enjoyed it (winning helped) but rather it was the pace that ultimately dooms it. It took the four of us an hour and a half to play. The problem is that there's only half an hour of game in there. It's not that we were playing slow but it just didn't move fast enough. Worse, it didn't seem as though simply playing fewer hands would help much (although that'd be a good start). Sadly, I can't see many people wanting to play this in favor of the many, many other similar games out there, there's just too little bang for your buck.
DEMOCRAZY - This is apparently a simplified version of Das Reglen Wir Schon. I haven't played the latter so I can't comment on any differences. Democrazy is an aptly named voting game intended as a very light and fun time-waster rather than a serious game. Each player is given a set of laws, some permanent, and some temporary that they propose to the group for adoption. These usually revolve around the acquisition of multi-colored chips, which are used to determine victory in the game. For example: "All yellow chips are worth 2 victory points" or "Each player passes his hand of law cards to his neighbor on his left". After a player has proposed a law it goes up for a vote, if it passes the law takes effect. The laws can get downright wacky: "Players score the points of the player to their left" or "Players are penalized if they vote with their right hand". Also included are blank cards for players to make their own laws! Clearly the game is meant to be played in a footloose manner and if done so (preferably with lots of players) it works quite well. I particularly enjoy the more bizarre rules just to spice up the game. If you spend too much time trying to actually win the game I fear that you've missed the point. In one game I was cheerfully getting rid of my chips as fast as I could. This led to several players openly questioning what I was up to. I wasn't really up to much of anything besides having a good time but some were shocked when I pointed out that I was in fact winning at that point with the current set of laws in effect (with but a single blue chip)! The oddest moment of all had to be when the "Players with blue eyes receive 5 VP's" law was proposed. Frank DiLorenzo (of R&R games) was playing and received a few double-takes when everyone realized that he's got one blue and one brown eye!
KARDINAL UND KÖNIG - An interesting little game. Players use cards to place castles on a road network running across Europe. Points are gained by having the majority of castles in a region as well as their longest connected string of castles. Players can also place ambassadors in regions but these are only scored at the end of the second round (the game only lasts two rounds). Scoring here requires that you have the majority of ambassadors in two adjacent regions. There are a couple of things I really liked: First off, the scoring is unusual, the winner of a region receives points for the total number of castles there. Subsequent players receive points for each castle of the player ahead of them. (e.g. Al has 4 castles, Bob has 3 and Chris 1. Al gets 8 points, Bob 4 and Chris 3.) This means that its often best to actually compete with someone as everyone involved benefits. Contrast this with Taj Mahal where the best "strategy" is to not have anyone compete with you for a particular influence marker. Lately I've found this mechanic highly annoying where a single player performs well in a game simply because he's had no competition. Since this is determined more by what your opponents do than any action on your part its as if the winner of the game is the player that everyone else least minds winning. It's nice to have a game that rewards being active rather than passive. The second thing I like is the speed at which it plays, about 45 minutes or so. There are plenty of games out there that are similar but none packs so much into such a short playing time. I believe this to be a real middleweight hit.
LEGENDS OF CAMELOT - An Alan Newman prototype and one of my favorites of the show. It falls into the El Grande style of game where you're trying to get the most Knights into various regions on the board. Its currently being reviewed by Stefan Brück of Alea so I can't say too much about it but suffice it to say that I found the game very enjoyable. There were one or two mechanics I wasn't fond of but they seemed easily changeable without affecting the rest of the game. There was one particular mechanic however, which worked very well and despite the fact that I've seen it in another game works much better here. Hopefully this'll see publication before too long.
HOLLYWOOD LIVES - Now this was a game that I would have thought would have had many more participants: a Reiner Knizia prototype! I suppose that the low interest level was that it was a party game. (I'll give you a minute to let that sink in: Reiner Knizia, party game.) The game is designed by the master himself and Kevin Jacklin who was there in person to run it. The game itself is a cross between a live action role-playing game and charades! Players become actors and/or producers in a 1950's Hollywood setting. Fame and fortune are the goals as players negotiate to produce and star in three minute "trailers" for a variety of movies. The annual Academy Awards provide further incentive to the players. Overall, I enjoyed the game, as did most everyone else (from what I could tell anyway). The biggest problem I had was not knowing how the game "worked" initially. It was somewhat difficult to know what you were supposed to be doing or how the game should be approached. Were we playing? Competing? What? I suppose that a lot of this has to do with my inexperience with live action role-playing. I've never been in one, I suspect that most of the others hadn't either and this led to some awkwardness. Once we got underway producing our plays things got a little easier. The main difficulty was in knowing just how much you could perform in three minutes. The game took place over two "years", each year being a separate round of play. The second was much smoother as everyone had a good idea of what was expected. "Screening" the other plays cleared things up a lot. I liken the experience to playing Charades: At first everyone is a little nervous and embarrassed to be performing in front of an audience. After the first time though you get into the swing of things and can't wait till your next turn. The problem with Hollywood Lives is that there are only two rounds and each lasts a little more than an hour or so. As such I'm not sure where the game will fit in the scheme of things. You really need to have played before in order to get the full experience but its not something that can easily be picked up as with more traditional party games. Still, it was an enjoyable experience. I think our numbers were less than ideal as there were only eleven of us and the plays are designed to be for five actors each. This meant that one player had to go it alone each year after being unable to negotiate a part in the other trailers. I feared that this might lead to defections from the game but was very pleasantly surprised when I saw the trailers that were produced. Very courageous to have to write and star in a solo production and my hats off to Bruce and Alyssa! At the risk of bragging I also am very proud of the fact that I was twice voted Best Actor (once in a tie with Bruce Whitehill) and so managed to become the most famous actor in all Hollywood! This meant that I was able to keep the Oscar replica that Kevin provided. Without a doubt my happiest moment of the week, I'm the king of the world!
SCHOTTEN-TOTTEN - This was another game that I was very anxious to try. Many people had been comparing it to Lost Cities (both are by Knizia) and suggesting that it was more strategic and enjoyable to play. The theme is entirely superfluous so I won't even bother describing it. There are 9 "stones" being fought over, the battles being 3 card poker hands (more or less). There are a number of suits each containing values 1-9. On each turn a player may claim a stone (more on this later), play a single card and then draw a card. A player wins a stone when he or she builds a hand that the other player cannot beat. That last part is important, it's not necessary to actually beat someone, but to simply show that you cannot BE beat. Let's say I've laid all three cards down in one battle and have a straight flush showing. You've got the red 5 & red 6 cards down. If the red 4 and red 7 are already in place in some other battle I can then prove that you can't beat my straight flush and therefore I may claim the stone. Since you're fighting over all nine battles simultaneously there's a real desire to avoid committing oneself until you see what your opponent is up to. If you start building a straight on one stone he'll know that he needs a straight flush to beat it. The game ends once someone wins three adjacent stones or five stones overall. To be honest I found it difficult to analyze the gamestate particularly at the start. It was difficult to know what to play and so forth. Once things got underway and the hands started to form it became a little easier. Part of this problem was in remembering the exact ranking of the hands. (Which I believe is slightly different from regular Poker.) As it was I needed constantly recheck the reference sheet. This should become less problematic with more play though. Overall, I felt a little disappointed but I suspect this was because my expectations were so high. I can see why the comparisons to Lost Cities where made as many of the mechanics and decisions are similar but I find the weight of the games to be different enough that I wouldn't group them together. Lost Cities is, to me, a very light, breezy game that can be played entirely casually and enjoyed as such. This is not the case for Schotten Totten although I do think it's a good game.
TWIXT - Hard to believe but I've never actually played this Alex Randolph classic despite owning it several times. I brought a copy of the game along for David Bernazzani hoping to get a game in with him. Unfortunately we didn't manage to find the time. (One of the strange effects of the Gathering - there are so many games and so many players that its difficult to find time to get half the things in that you want to.) I did corral Greg Schloesser into a game and although he did warn me that he'd played the game a lot, his "aww shucks" charm was disarming. Well, let me tell you, he absolutely took me to the cleaners. I'm not talking some simple little beating; it was an absolute rout! It went beyond the ridiculous and entered the realm of embarrassing. By the time six pegs had been placed it was quite clear that Greg had wrapped up yet another game. Humbling for sure.
MIT LIST UND TUCKE - Another trick taking game, this one somewhat similar to David and Goliath. Cards are in four suits numbered 1-20. First card led is trump and there's no need to follow suit. Only three suits may be present in any trick. The high card collects three of the played cards, the lowest gets the rest. (I can't remember if it's always three cards the winner collects or if its dependent on the number of players, we played with six.) The clever part is in the scoring. Two suits (your choice) count positively and are multiplied by each other. e.g. Five reds and four blues gives you twenty points. The other suits count negatively as they DIVIDE your score by their number. So if you had also received two greens and three yellows your ultimate score would be four. (4 * 5) / (2 + 3) = 4. Making things worse is that you must decide which are your "bad" suits as soon as you get a fourth suit. This is a bad thing as you'll soon find yourself eating plenty of these all to the delight of your opponents. Nothing like throwing a drowning friend an anchor is there? This falls into the growing category of trick taking games that's simple enough for me to get my head around and one that I feel I can actually play at a competent level.
AQUARIUM DERBY - A Frank Branham (of The Gaming Dumpster) prototype. If it's a game by the Moo-man its going to having interesting bits and this was no exception. The pieces were glass blown crabs, fish and my favorite, the octopi. Obstacles were 3-D sprigs of seaweed. Definitely the most commented upon game bits-wise. The game itself owes a lot to Roborally in theme if not actual mechanics. As the name suggests the players are little fish trying desperately to complete a circuit of a small body of water. Of course, being little fishes means that they're constantly at the mercy of the currents as well as being pushed around by each other. The novel mechanism is that you must plan your next turn at the end of your current turn so the best laid plans can go horribly awry as you are subsequently pushed around. Fortunately there are action points you can use to prevent things from getting completely hopeless. The game was very well received by all I talked to, all the fun of Roborally with none of its problems and playable in about 45 minutes or so. I myself had some problems visualizing how the movement worked and so didn't get into the game until it was almost over. No one else had the same problem so I suspect that it's just me and not a problem with the game. I wanted to give it another try but was unable to. (So many games, so little time.) Frank suggested that he may try selling the game in kit form. If so, I'm sure he'll post something to that effect on The Dumpster. (http://www.neonate.org/index.html)
ISI - This was my surprise hit of the week. I needed to play it as it had been nominated for a Gamers' Choice Award in the two-player category. I had Ben Baldanza send me a copy of the rules a couple of weeks earlier so I could familiarize myself with it. It seemed interesting but nothing too Earth shaking. Ben and Marcia and I sat down and played a few games and I was VERY impressed. The board is made up of 32 colored squares laid out in a random pattern. There are five of each color and seven black tiles, these are the cities. Two matching cubes are placed on each of the colored squares (but not the cities). Players alternate moving their pawn around the board. As they land on a square they collect a cube if any are left. This represents scouting that particular type of terrain. Once a player has collected a number of cubes these can then be used to build roads between cities on the board. In order to build a road you must pay cubes that match the squares over which you're building. The game ends once the last of any color cube has been picked up. The scoring in the game is a little tricky: First you must determine which is the "capital city". This is simply the city that is connected to the most other cities. The winner is then the person that has connected the most cities to the capital city. The most connections a city can have is 7 but as it's possible for more than one player to connect the same two cities ties can occur. (Trust me, it's a lot easier to see this with an example in front of you.) In the event of a tie the player that has connected to the most cities wins. (Again, trust me, this is different from the above criteria and easier to see with an example.) Failing this it's the player that has the most trade routes in total on the board. I played three games with the Baldanzas and all were very enjoyable. The last one was a particularly interesting one. The three of us openly played the last several turns to see what the best possible moves were. It ended up taking about another seven or eight turns and came down to the third tie-breaker! Ben managed to ultimately win by ending the game with 15 total trade route "sticks" to my 14, one turn before I would have been able to lay another four sticks! Excellent stuff! Now to see if I can manage to acquire a copy as it was a limited run of only 200. There's a multi-player version coming out cleverly titled Morisi that I'll also be looking forward to. About the only complaint I can make is that the components are quite plain, I'd love to see it with fancy graphics on the tiles.
BAMBUTI - Yet another game that had little interest for me but was receiving very good word of mouth. This time its about battling African masks! Each player has a hand of cards in several suits numbered 1-10 in each. At the start of play each simultaneously lays down five cards in a line. The middle card must be the highest with the cards to either side descending in value (ties are okay). As cards are played this basic construct must remain valid. This creates fives battles as opposing cards compete with each other. The tricky part is in how the values of the cards work. The low card is worth whatever its number is, the high card is worth the DIFFERENCE in their values. (e.g. 8 vs. 6. The 6 is worth six, the 8 is worth two.) The number of points for winning a battle is the difference between these two. (So in the above example the player with the 6 would score four points.) So the general idea is to place cards that are just below the value of your opponents cards. Of course there are a few wrinkles tossed in: first off you can play cards on your opponents stack but only if it meets the regular criteria AND matches the color of the existing card. Also when opposing cards are both the same color then the normal winner and loser are switched. (I THINK this is right. I'm a little fuzzy remembering how this rule actually worked.) Scoring occurs for all five battles simultaneously and at various points in the game: 1) Each player has two scoring cards that can be played at any time. 2) Whenever a player creates a symmetric pattern of colors with his five cards. (e.g. Red, Blue, Yellow, Blue, Red) 3) At games end (once both players have less than 5 cards each). While I can find no real fault with the game I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. It was interesting enough but nothing all that exciting. At first I thought that the scoring would be extremely troublesome but it didn't turn out to be so, it was quite easy to figure out which cards beat which and by how much. The one big complaint I have is that several times you're forced to help your opponent as every card in your hand increases his score. There's something about this situation that infuriates me in a game, more so when its due to the random cards in my hand than through any clever play by my opponent. Interesting but not great, the extremely cheap price suggests that you just buy it if you've got any interest in it whatsoever.
PIRATENBILLIARDS - I'd heard much about this game and was eager to try it. It's a dexterity game that's quite unusual: The board is a wooden table with a grid of wooden compartments. (It looks like you'd store eggs in it.) The bottom of this grid is stretched canvas and small colored balls are placed into these compartments. Each player is given a little wooden mallet and these are used to hit the balls from beneath the table. The taut canvas causes the balls to bounce up into the air and hopefully into another compartment. There are various different games that can be played along with slight variants for each. The simplest one is to try and get your balls into your opponent's end-zone. Should you hop one of your balls into one containing an opponents ball you capture that piece. If you knock one of your own balls off the table completely its removed from the game. I must admit that I was extremely under-whelmed by the game. First off, control of the balls seems fairly difficult, after a bit of practice its possible to reliably hop from one compartment into an adjacent one but this struck me as rather boring. Very rarely were there spectacular plays made or astonishing moves that all players could cheer. Just very pedestrian moves and quiet play as players were slowly eliminated. Contrast this with Carabande where you can attempt long odds shots bouncing off walls all to great rounds of laughter. It might not be any better of a game but it sure is a lot more fun.
DIE FURSTEN VON FLORENZ - Easily the hit of the Gathering. Most people I talked with said it was their favorite new game and I'm inclined to agree with them. Players are city planners trying to build the most pleasing environments in the hopes of attracting the most productive workers. There are various criteria for determining how much work someone can produce including the type of buildings, amenities and "freedoms" a city contains. The game tends to be a little more complex than the regular German fare and there are a number of various mechanisms in it. Happily most are pretty straightforward and even better is the fact that the theme feels somewhat integral to the mechanics. It makes sense why any particular rule is the way it is. (Still, this is only relative and you'd never mistake this for any sort of simulation.) What I found strange about the game upon reflection was that it's almost entirely solitaire! It didn't feel this way during play. Each player builds upon their own city plot that has no connection to any others. The only real interaction in the game is the auction at the start of each turn. Here one of 5 (or is it 6?) items are offered for sale: Parks, woods, entertainers, architects, etc. As the same items are offered each turn even this has less interaction than you might expect. So why is the game so fun? To be honest, I'm not sure. The various mechanisms mesh well together and there are plenty of different strategies that players can employ. I think its that last little bit that's the key - players can try various ideas they have for how their city should evolve. Despite this and the fact that I really look forward to playing it again I expect that it will have a short lifespan. The game will probably be played many times but before long players will become more aware of its solitaire nature and abandon it in favor of more involved games. Further, I should note that the components contain a fair amount of German text on them. Nothing that can't be overcome but something to be aware of considering how lucky we've been with recent language neutral releases.
MORGENLAND - (Also being released as Aladdin's Dragons by Rio Grande) Oh my. This was a rather, umm, interesting experience to say the least. This is the game that was originally released in a self published version by Richard Breese as Keydom last year. The game has undergone much reworking and is up to the usual beautiful standards one would expect from Hans im Gluck. Simply gorgeous pieces and artwork from Doris. The game retains the basic flavour of Keydom but has been much streamlined and simplified and plays in about an hour. The main difference is that there are many different types of artifacts and that the acquisition of each one confers the player with a special ability. Furthermore the goal of the game is to acquire as many as possible rather than a complete set of four as in the original. I believe that the game itself is a good one and I have only a few complaints to make against it. First off the central mechanism is the placement of 8 tiles with values 1-9 (3 is skipped). The problem is that you have very little idea what the other players are doing so its quite difficult to make any sort of informed decision regarding how to place your own tokens. In some ways I can dismiss this as simply a characteristic of the game rather than a fault. If you like games in which you have to make "dumb guesses" as to what to do fine, if you don't then Morgenland won't be for you. Personally, I can accept it so no problem there. The second point is one that I do consider to be a problem with the game, namely that the rich get richer. As I stated each artifact that a player collects confers a special ability. Two of these include the ability to double a tokens value or to "Magic Carpet" an additional 3-value token onto any location once all tokens have been revealed. These often mean that a player that has them can wrest control over an area from a player that doesn't. As the game progresses the leaders can pull away from the have-nots. In many other games this sort of thing self balances as the leaders fight each other but this isn't possible in Morgenland. As I stated token placement is blind which means that you can't tell which area a player is really after and which they're only placing a minimal presence in. As such its somewhat random who you "fight" with. This brings us to the game I played. The first few turns went fairly well. I was definitely weaker than the other players but nothing too troublesome and I felt I was still in the running. This couldn't be said for the rest of the game as I did NOTHING from then on out. That's right, nothing. No, I don't mean nothing particularly useful or interesting or even affecting the game, I mean NOTHING! Another player bested me in every single area that I placed tokens in. Unbelievably frustrating. What was worse was that on many occasions I lost due to the tiebreaker. You see one of the areas allows a player to choose the turn order for the game. The disadvantage of going first is balanced by the fact that if there is a tie for influence then the earlier player wins it. I was on the losing end of this at least four times in one turn. When I fought for control of the player order area the above mentioned Magic Carpet artifact stole it from me. The one time I managed to win an artifact space I had insufficient money to actually buy it due to being shut out getting jewels earlier in the round. For three turns (the game only lasts five or six) I accomplished not a thing! On the final round I decided that damn it, I was going to do SOMETHING. I didn't care what it was, the game had been long lost to me at that point, I just wanted to feel that I was actually playing. So I placed five of my tokens in one area and three in another. More than enough you'd think to win both. Well, think again. The 27 points worth of tokens I had placed were enough to win one of the areas, that is, until another player said "Hold it, I think I'll play my Doppelganger artifact to double my 9 token and take that area myself!" Of course I lost the other area as well (I did, after all only have 18 points of influence there!) Unbelievable. It was probably one of the worst gaming experiences I have EVER had. I had to restrain myself from uttering profanities during that final turn and upon the games completion I decided that a nap was in order. Hopefully this was a once in a lifetime occurrence and I think it says something about the design that despite this I'm still planning on purchasing a copy (and even looking forward to playing it again).
MARS COLONY - A Kris Gould prototype although one in which he professed is simply for his own pleasure and not something he's looking to publish. It's essentially a Settlers clone about colonizing Mars. Very attractive game with striking graphics, if nothing else it was very pleasant to look at. Resources were represented by small plastic "rocks" instead of cards and somehow it just seemed right that this would be what resources on Mars would be. Whereas in Settlers a single hex will produce, here ALL "hexes" of a particular type produce at the same time. While there are quite a few changes to how everything works the biggest was that each "resource pod" (settlement) only produces for one of its adjacent resources (hexes). However, you're allowed to change which resource each pod "points to" at any time. I'm not sure that this idea works that well in practice. The problem is that you need to pay close attention to the draw deck to see what has yet to come up. There's no point in ordering a pod to produce metals if there are no more in the deck to draw. Worse, I found that it slowed the game unnecessarily. The most cumbersome part of Settlers is often the initial placement of settlements. This is necessary as each player must evaluate what each vertex is worth to him and what sort of strategy to attempt. Fortunately, this only happens once at the start of each game. In Mars Colony you have the ability to do this every turn. (According to Kris you can do this on ANY players turn, not just your own, we actually played that you could only do it on your own turn.) So what ends up happening is that you spend a few moments going over each of your pods figuring out how to orient them so that you have the best chance of getting what you want. To me this was too cumbersome and delayed the game too much.
DIE KAUFLEUTE VON AMSTERDAM - This was the other "big" game at the Gathering (Along with Die Fursten Von Florenz.) A Knizia game is always a welcome site especially one that appears less abstract than most. The theme is that the players are controlling merchant dynasties operating in the city of Amsterdam throughout its history. The board is divided into several sections: The city itself, the rest of the world and a shipping display. In some ways the game is a tile laying one with these three areas interacting quite nicely with each other. The shipping display shows four goods and displays how many of each type of good each player has. The world is divided into four regions, each with several different goods available. Placing a tile on one of these spots allows the player to further advance the appropriate ship (building a spice plant in the Far East increases the number of spice ships you operate). Placing a token on a space in Amsterdam (also divided into four areas) allows the player to advance ANY ship of his choice (its presumed he's setting up a trading house in that particular good). The game itself is card driven. Each player acts as Mayor of Amsterdam on his turn, drawing, in order, three cards. These cards have various effects: Advance any combination of your ships three spaces, Place any token in the Americas region, Open a spice house in region 1 or 3 of Amsterdam, etc. The clever bit is what you do with these. You draw the cards one at a time and must select one you'll perform yourself, one you'll throw in the garbage and one you'll auction off. The auction is the interesting bit (quite literally). The game comes with a large plastic "auction clock" used to conduct an (appropriately enough) Dutch auction. The clock starts at a value of 200 Kroners and slowly counts down. Once the price has gone low enough someone will tap the clock and pay the indicated price. Its a clever bit and probably the main reason the game has garnered as much attention as it has however, I'm left wondering if it's worth all the fuss. It didn't really feel all that exciting or interesting a mechanic and added nothing to the game. In Teufel's Kuche is another game that has an entirely excessive randomizer for resolving battles but in that game it adds tremendously to the fun, here it doesn't. This is a minor quibble though and not really any impediment to the games enjoyment. Scoring in the game is also triggered by cards. Scattered throughout the deck are hourglass cards. Whenever one of these is turned over the turn marker is advanced which often triggers some sort of event. Sometimes everyone gets to place a free token on the board, other times scoring takes place. Scoring can be either the City, the World or the Ships. Its done in a manner similar to Acquire where the player with the greatest presence in one area receives a certain amount of cash, the second player half that much. As you can easily see what type of scoring will be coming up next, its easy to plan your moves accordingly. A nice touch is that the scoring track is designed to roughly parallel the events in Amsterdam's history, clever! Overall, this is a good but not great game. I really like how the various mechanisms mesh with each other presenting a unified whole. My biggest problem is that you can too easily calculate what a particular action is worth. There's no point paying $150 to place tokens that will only return $90 to you.
CELEBRITIES - What would a Gathering be without at least one game of Celebrities? For those not in the know Celebrities is a structured, three round version of Charades where the players try to guess the names of celebrities and are more and more restricted in the types of clues they can give each round. (A commercial version called Time's Up! has just been released, designed by Peter Sarrett and published by R&R games.) Nothing really new to report but I feel compelled to relate one exchange: Frank Branham (he of The Gaming Dumpster and somewhat macabre sensibilities) and myself were partners. Frank was giving clues and I knew that the answer was a Teletubbie. While I knew what they were I had no idea of any of their names. I managed to suggest "Tinkle-Winkle" when Frank gave me the final piece of information I needed: "Make it cuter!" Tinky-Winky! Great fun. If you haven't already, give it a try.
PUZZLE HUNT - The center piece event of the Gathering, this year run by Aaron Weissblum and his wife Kate Nordstrom (who do this for a living). Teams of five or six compete to solve a series of puzzles which often include travelling around the hotel and the surrounding grounds. The puzzles themselves are usually of the wordplay variety and are alternately maddening and extremely clever. The interesting thing is that you're often given no clue how to solve them or what you're being asked to do. This can be quite frustrating as you simply stare at the sheet wondering what the heck it is that's required of you. It definitely helps having a diverse group as what seems impenetrable to some might come easily to someone else. The real bonus of this is that once you DO figure out how the puzzle works there's a real sense of accomplishment. I found much more satisfaction solving these than I ever have completing a crossword or anything else which I already knew how to do. Even cleverer is that the solution to these puzzles are usually further instructions. For example, one puzzle might lead tell you to "Order Merlin's Mirror". If you went up to one of the organizers and asked for this you'd be given a little kit that you'd have to figure out how to use. Quite often these included a hotel room key. Once you got there some bizarre device awaited you and you'd need to figure out its secrets to move on. Sometimes you even needed to run around the hotel grounds discovering hidden clues. I still wonder what passing motorists thought of the hotels scrolling marquee making bizarre pronouncements such as "Buzzman says Easter Eggs are Illegal in Ohio". Without doubt the best of these surprises had to be the storage locker across the street from the hotel. Upon opening the garage door one was greeted with hundreds of objects hanging from the ceiling (from different colored strings of course, hint, hint). Wonderful! All in all, a great event. The only downside is that it tends to be a rather long event and many participants begin to run out of steam towards the end. It normally takes about five hours for one of the groups to solve the overall puzzle and this is, for me, about two hours too long. As such I start to lose interest in completing it. Still its a very enjoyable couple of hours. My hats off to Aaron and Kate for running a wonderful event! (I've since talked with Aaron and he states that this hunt was abnormally long and the average time is about 2.5 - 3 hours. Sounds perfect to me.)
ROSENKÖNIG - Another in the Kosmos two player line, this one from Dirk Henn and is a remake of his earlier Texas. The board is a simple, featureless grid upon which the players move a King figure. This is accomplished via cards which allow him to be moved either one, two or three spaces in one of the eight compass directions. Unlike most games these cards are placed face-up in front of each player. On his turn a player simply selects a card and moves the King to an empty space placing one of his tokens there. The King cannot be moved to an already occupied space unless a Paladin card is played (each player starts the game with four of these one-use cards). In this case the existing token is flipped to its appropriate side. Also unusual in this game is that you either play OR draw a card but not both. You're limited to a hand of five cards and you're often forced to draw as none of your cards are legal plays. The game ends when one (or is it both?) players have no legal plays or all the tokens have been placed. Players score for having connected regions of tokens, squaring the number in each. (8 connected tokens would be worth 64 points, 11 would be worth 121.) I hadn't heard many good things about this game but I was still intrigued enough to want to give it a try. Unfortunately I have to agree with the most everything I heard about it. The main problem is that you can see everything that your opponent is capable of. In fact, the gameplay usually goes along the lines of examining each of your cards followed by what response this allows your opponent to do with each of his cards. I enjoyed this mechanic throughout the first part of the game but quickly became tired of it as the game went on. The main reason was that your options rapidly diminished as the board filled up and especially so after all Paladin cards had been played. While this meant that it was fairly quick to analyze all the possible moves it was far from fun as the best choice was usually quite obvious. I think I'd enjoy the game if it finished in about half the time, at least enough to want to play it, as it is I've got no strong desire to do so. Now I must mention that Joe Huber (my opponent and teacher) is a strong advocate of playing the game using the four player rules from Texas. The only difference is that you play in partnership and are limited to three card hands. He states that everyone that tries this enjoys it more than the original. I'll take his word for it (since everyone I talked to agreed with him) but partnership games have never been a favorite of mine so I suspect I've played my last of this one.
ZIRCUS FLOHCARTI - Very simple melding game involving delightful illustrations of fleas in a circus. Cards come in ten suits numbered 1-7. The gameplay is quite simple, draw a card and then meld if possible. The drawing of cards is somewhat interesting though. You may repeatedly draw cards from the face down deck adding the card to those already drawn. You're free to stop at any point and take any displayed card. However, if you should draw a card in a suit matching any of the existing cards you turn is over WITHOUT taking a card. Once you've taken a card you can display any meld you want, melds being triples of any number (regardless of suit) and are worth ten points each. At the end of the game the highest card in each suit still in your hand is worth its face value. The game ends once the deck is exhausted or someone stages the "Gala". This is a meld that contains one card of each suit and is worth ten points plus the value of each card in it. I'm told that anyone that puts on the Gala is likely to win the game which is what I managed to do in my first game. So there you have it, very simple card play, nothing too taxing but a game you can easily introduce to your non-gaming friends and have a great time playing.
As always there were tournaments run throughout the week although only about half as many as in previous years. I believe that Alan felt that too much emphasis was being placed upon them and so that was the reason for the reduction in their number. I can certainly see his point, I don't particularly care for them and I didn't play in any this year. On the other hand I think there are more than a few people that DO enjoy them and so hopefully a nice balance has been struck. (While I didn't play in any tournaments I do have a tournament related experience to relate: On several occasions throughout the event, often VERY late at night, a call for a game was made. As the brain cells were already taxed, Can't Stop was often the choice. Twice I played games with Joe Huber and once with Dave Sidore. Dave is somewhat notorious for his demonic luck at the game having won last year's tournament and Joe Huber was this year's winner. Well, your humble narrator managed to complete the week undefeated at this game and while official recognition seems unlikely I can take a certain satisfaction in this. Any claims as to the inherent luck in Can't Stop shall be dutifully ignored.)
So that was it. I managed to play 45 individual games over the week which represents about 20% of my total gaming for the whole year. Not bad and yet there were still many, many games I wished that I'd had time to try. As I only managed about 12 hours of actual sleep during the course of the week I suppose that I can be forgiven for not getting to them all. There were a few games that I managed to observe that stuck out particularly for me:
Laguna - Sort of a timed maze/puzzle game about traversing a reef-filled lagoon attempting to get your people to the central island. I suspect that it'll appeal to the type of players that appreciate Ricochet Robot (and repel those that don't).
Ohne Furcht Und Adel (Citadels) - This game was EVERYWHERE and I would hazard it was the most played game all week. Despite this I still somehow managed to miss out completely. Part of this was by design however. I've seen the artwork and it truly is gorgeous, I'm a sucker for a pretty game and so there's no doubt that I'll be purchasing a copy (a really low price doesn't hurt either). Since there's such a premium on time I wondered how much I should devote to a game that I've already made my mind up about (at least as far as whether or not to buy). (Repeat Chorus: So many games, so little time.)
If there was a prevailing theme or idea this year it was, without doubt, the rise of the prototypes. They were everywhere. This was due in large part to the number of gaming big shots on hand checking things out. In attendance were Bernd Brunnhofer of Hans im Gluck, Stefan Bruck of Alea and Gerard Mulder and Karin Hallebeek of Jumbo. I had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Stefan for an hour or so at the airport and was happy to hear his thoughts on all this. The most amazing tidbit was that he saw far more here than he had at Nuremberg! I was a little shocked but I can believe it. There are both plusses and minuses to this though. Its certainly a thrill getting to see games in prototype form prior to their release. (I must admit that I purchased Willi, a poorly received game, simply because I had played the prototype last year.) One of the downsides is that by their very nature prototypes are a mixed bag. I was fortunate that every one I played I enjoyed on some level but several people stated that they had played some downright stinkers. I can see their point but I think that problem is pretty easy to address, just don't play them! There's enough going on that you can always find someone up for a game that you are interested in. The bigger problem is that it can change the whole tone of the Gathering if its not managed properly. The Gathering is meant to be a fun, relaxing week of gaming. Game publishing on the other hand can be a serious business. It's not too difficult for these two situations to clash with each other. An anecdote might help: I was asked to play one of Al Newman's prototypes along with Bernd Brunnhofer. I happily agreed and off we went. As we played I had some concerns about one or two things and brought them up during the game along with some suggestions as to what I thought would be better systems. I didn't really think there was too much problem with this as its how I've always approached playtesting. I got a sense that Al wasn't particularly interested in what I had to say. Not a problem, I can understand that he's played the game a lot and that I, with only half a playing under my belt, might be making suggestions that he's already considered and dismissed. Well, after the game was completed Al took me aside and explained the REAL problem. This had been a DEMONSTRATION game for Bernd rather than a playtest. As such, any discussion was taking away from the time Bernd was spending evaluating the game as it stood. Fair enough and I absolutely agree with Al, this was a rare opportunity for him to "strut his stuff". However, this is entirely contrary to what I feel is the spirit of the Gathering. The mood and atmosphere of a business-oriented game fair is very different from one centered on having fun. I think the idea of having prototypes at the Gathering is a good one but if it continues to grow in importance Alan will have to address this problem in some way or another. One possibility would be to encourage the majority of prototype playing to be done at the pre-Gathering Opening Days. (Or at least the more business-oriented aspects of prototype demonstrations.) I'll be very interested to hear in the coming weeks what others think about this issue.
So, overall how was it? In a word, excellent. As always I can't
imagine NOT going which just about says it all. While this report
has been very "game-centric" I should note that it remains the
people, above all else, that make the Gathering so much fun. I would
enjoy attending even if no games were played at all. The once a year
opportunity to meet old and new friends makes it truly a special
occasion. Having been three times now I suppose I'm a little less
excited than I once was, its hard to maintain the same level of
enthusiasm for something that you're so familiar with. What's been
especially exciting though is reading the initial reports from
first-time attendees raving about how its the best time they've ever
had gaming. I agree 100%.
This article originally appeared in Counter #9.