Origins Wrap-up

We didn’t go back to Origins on Sunday, instead staying home with Kim’s family and doing a couple games with Kim’s dad and our friend Mark. Wings of War came out again and was enjoyed by all. We also tried Maharaja, which showed promise, but seemed a touch thin with 3; I look forward to trying it again with 4 or 5.

As always, I bought a few games at Origins. Here is the damage:

  • Maharaja – Normally I would have waited, but Rio Grande was requiring a $25 purchase to get a copy of the Puerto Rico expansion, so I bought it.
  • FBI – same as above. Any game in which you play a law enforcement type wantonly locking up innocent suspects has to be good.
  • San Juan expansion – Although not a huge fan of the expansion, it’s nice enough and I’m glad to have a professionally-printed copy. That, and I got Andreas Seyfarth to sign it.
  • ANZAC Attack – The new Lock ‘n Load expansion. Haven’t had a chance to dive into it yet, but I like the new counter style. Whatever happened to names like “Crescendo of Doom”, though? ANZAC Attack? That’s pretty weak.
  • Wings of War – After enjoying my demo with the FFG folks, I had to pick this one up, perhaps because I really didn’t expect to like it. This rates as my “find” of the con, the game I probably wouldn’t have otherwise played, but enjoyed quite a bit.
  • Doom Cubes – One vendor had some Doom Cubes for Dicemaster at $3 a box, so I cleaned them out. I think that was 4 boxes.
  • Victoria Cross – This is a new block game covering the ever-challenging battle at Rorke’s Drift, and is published by Worthington Games, a new company. It qualified as my speculative purchase. It looks short-ish, simple, and people were having fun with it. I look forward to playing it, but it is an unknown.
  • Time Agent – Actually not a new purchase, but Tom Lehmann had donated large quantities of old games to the prize table at The Gathering, and Mark picked up a copy for us. Of all the old TimJim/Prism stuff, this is the one I was most interested in going back to give another shot. If I get one play out of it, that’ll be OK.

Not bad. I was proud of myself, in previous years I would have bought GMT’s new Downtown, which looks rather cool, but the insanely lengthy rulebook drove me away. I was also sorely tempted by MMP’s ASL Starter Kit, which I saw a surprising number of people carrying around, and For King And Country, but I easily resisted even with their convention discount. I also had little trouble resisting buying any old games (Russian Front was the closest call, and it wasn’t really that close), as better deals can be found on eBay. Crazy Egor’s pricing “strategy” is, well, pretty crazy. And I never play those games anyway. I’m still trying to fit in Air Assault on Crete and/or Invasion of Malta sometime, and it doesn’t look likely. I also resisted buying a promotional miniature for Mongoose’s new Babylon 5 space combat miniatures game, or any RPG sourcebooks at all. I also didn’t buy any dice, even though there were some very cool-looking ones.

Hey, being able to resist buying games I am never going to play is a moral victory for me.

Leaving Origins is always slightly sad. While this was not my best Origins ever, compared to going to work every day, it’s a big improvement. I could easily have used another few days of Origins before going home.

Still, all told, there were enough disappointments this year to require some questions be answered before going next year. The two MECCG events are usually the highlights of the con for me, and with one falling through and one being awkward this year, that was a real hit. Fortunately, both should be back next year.

The sad state of affairs in the War Room was expected, but still unfortunate. I think, though, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. Next year, I promise to run two events. The four choices I’m seriously considering are Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Lock ‘n Load, Europe Engulfed, and Wizard Kings. I suspect Europe Engulfed will be too time-consuming given I like other games, so I suspect I’ll be going with a single-elim Hannibal event and a Swiss Lock ‘n Load. Both should be doable in a 6-8 hour slot, with some time discipline. More details will be forthcoming. If you would attend such an event, please let me know and give me some feedback on time slots you’d prefer. If I think of anything else good I might run, maybe I’ll do another poll.

The final disappointment was, of course, the cancellation of the one Amorphous Blob RPG event I had signed up for. This was just bad luck, but the lesson here is to sign up for two.

In the end, we decided we’d be back, most likely, although the final decision will wait to see if I can pull together my events, and also until we get our pre-reg booklets and see what things look like. It’s not as easy as in the old days to just show up, fill your schedule, and have a good time. But on balance, there is a huge amount of good stuff at Origins, and as a gamer it’s hard to miss.

Origins – Day 4

Gettysburg: As it turns out, I finally did get about two hours of traditional wargaming in, a pick-up game of Gettysburg that I chanced into. Late Friday I saw that CABS had finally put out two signup sheets, for Columbia games, so I somewhat optimistically put my name down.

Lo and behold, when I got in Saturday morning, someone had taken me up on my offer of a 1PM game. So I decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a teaching game (my opponent had never played before and hadn’t read the rules), and we played only the first day. I played the Union, because I think the Confederacy are much easier to play your first time. For some reason, I have a hard time engaging on this game, and I had decidedly mixed feelings in the end. I probably should have treated it more as a teaching game, and cut it short at a half-day or something, 45-60 minutes. I like the Gettysburg system, but somehow playing only the first day seems to lack closure, especially for the Union whose only real hope is to extend the game into a second day – I don’t think they can achieve any kind of victory the first day. Next time I play, I definitely want to at least leave the option open of continuing if the game is close … but this is not a viable option if your opponent hasn’t even read the rules going in. Gettysburg isn’t a very complex game, but it’s complex enough you don’t want to dive in to a 6-plus-hour scenario your first go through.

Wings of War: I admit I had low expectations on this one after the Wreckage disaster (there are some similarities in the systems – distant cousins, perhaps) and reading through the downloadable rules. So many air combat games are a tedious exercise in guessing if your quarry is going to turn left or right, getting a shot at if you win the virtual coin toss, and then circling around endlessly trying to set up another guess. Oh, for some workable “tailing” or “advantage” rules. Wings of War seemed like it was going to be solidly in that somewhat uninteresting camp. This is definitely not so, however, but I’m a little hard-pressed to explain why Wings of War succeeds where so many have gone before and failed. I think it boils down mainly to good old-fashioned skillful execution. The planes are all very nicely differentiated through their maneuver decks, the fast ones vs. the maneuverable ones vs. the rotary planes that turn in one direction much better than the other, and the whole system is incredibly simple and transparent. It seems the scaling and maneuverability is just right, once you make a pass, you’ve turned around and are back in the action in no time, unlike Wreckage in which once you veered off in the wrong direction it took absolutely forever to get back into the game. The level of damage infliction is just right too, it takes a bit to inflict enough damage to knock out a plane, but no so much the game drags, and there is sufficient variance in the damage deck to make things tense. Overall, the game is extremely simple (less than 5 minutes to explain), very fast, and it seems like you’re making real choices instead of just guessing. Very refreshing, one of the best dogfight games I’ve played, and most enjoyable. I’m definitely looking forward to the next release, and might even buy a second copy of the base game to get more planes and maneuver decks.

Corsari is a rummy-type game that I got to play in the Rio Grande area, and got to play another game with Andreas Seyfarth. I was carrying around business cards with the URL of my blog at the con, and I felt foolish afterwards for not at least mentioning it, trying to convince him to check it out. I’m not a very good self-promoter, something I suppose I should try to get over. Corsari is not bad for a rummy-style game, interesting but I can’t see it being good enough to break into the mix of card games we play, so I wasn’t tempted to pick one up. If your group plays predominantly card games, though, check it out.

Middle-Earth CCG: For the past 4 or 5 years there have usually been two events for the Middle-Earth CCG, usually a pretty standard sealed deck game, and then a more off-beat game. These are run by fans that love the game and have stock left over which they are willing to share. Last year was a Fallen-Wizard sealed deck game, which almost (but not quite) worked. This year was a Balrog sealed deck game.

If we cast our minds back to 1998, the year Middle-Earth: The Balrog (henceforth MEBA) was released, you will recall it was on the heels of two rather weak expansions, The White Hand and Against the Shadow (the latter was the expansion to facilitate Minion vs. Hero matchups, a scenario which never quite worked rules-wise, and then The White Hand devolved into combo-intensive non-interactive “squatter” decks which were incredibly boring). MECCG seemed on its last gasp. What more could they possibly do? Then, ICE came up with this new set, which featured this fascinating “what-if” scenario. The Balrog was a Maia, right? A peer to Gandalf and Sauron and veteran of the War of Wrath? What if he got bored hanging out in the basement of Moria and decided to assume his rightful place in the world? And what if ICE decided to ditch the whole “collectible” tag and go with only fixed sets?

So we got this set, which was a great set and took MECCG out with a bang. It added fewer rules or new concepts than any previous set. It tweaked the game in interesting ways to make one of the most unique sets. The Balrog himself played very differently from Ringwraiths or Wizards or Falled-Wizards. Unfortunately, it was also the trickiest set to play, because the Balrog required a lot of card manipulation (moving cards between the sideboard, play deck, and discard pile) and also the greatest familiarity with the card set, because there were so many “mission” cards (card which required set up for a payoff) and comparatively few “general utility” cards. So it was a tough set to approach.

I like the Balrog. But as sealed deck, and with a couple too-inexperienced players in the mix, and getting stuck in another teaching game, the event just didn’t quite work for me (MEBA is brutal to teach with. Challenge Decks are much superior). Next year should be a better year, though, as we’ll have both the standard Sealed Deck event (which we lost this year to a scheduling snafu), and then we’ll be ditching the obscure formats for a more usual Challenge Deck tournament, which is an awesome format.

Origins – Day 3

One thing you may notice here is an absence of any traditional wargames from my schedule. No Columbia games, no Europe Engulfed, no Ardennes ’44, no Lock ‘n Load, no OCS, no Barbarossa to Berlin or Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. The simple reason– as arresting as this may sound – is that there are virtually no scheduled wargame events at Origins, the largest and most all-encompassing of American game conventions. The people who run the War Room, CABS, have gone with the “bring a game and try to find someone to play it” model, which on the one hand makes their job of organizing the “event” extremely simple – trivially simple, actually, as they provide no coordination whatsoever – but on the other hand it more or less ensures the hemorrhaging of players to other, more reliable events, or other cons, or to not coming at all. Sure enough, the War Room was looking decidedly thin and slightly sad this year, even more so than last year, as there was almost as much table space dedicated to leaving unplayed games set up as there was to actual game playing, and of the rest of the space, a significant fraction of it was dedicated to eurogaming (the most commonly played single game seemed to be Goa) as the local CABS folks more or less treated the area as their own pick-up game room. If I travel 2500 miles to a con, I want to be able to schedule, and apparently lots of other people agree with me, judging by how few were present here. Usually Columbia runs a fairly reliable area – if you show up you can get in a Hammer of the Scots or Wizard Kings or something else short-to-medium-ish – but neither Grant nor Tom were in attendance this year unfortunately and they left things in the hands of CABS, not a very smart move if you want your games played.

However, I did get to play a pre-production copy of War of the Ring in the Fantasy Flight area, part of the main boardgame hall. The copy was still a little rough – the cards were paste-ups, and the rules were still in single-sided, double-spaced, no illustrations rough draft format, if that gives you some help on when you might expect this to show up in retail shops – but everything was there and it was good for a go.

I think I can say two things for sure about War of the Ring: firstly, it doesn’t suck. Secondly, that it’s still a ways away from being the ultimate Tolkien game, and it’s not truly top-shelf. Somewhere between, say, 4 and 8 on the 10-point rating scale. Beyond that, I am still rather conflicted, and so what you’re going to get is, to some degree, waffle. So here you go.

The core wargame here is an Axis & Allies/Risk derivative game, although with a few twists. There are only two unit types, standard footsoliders (hits on 5 and 6, absorbs one hit) and elite units like Warg Riders, Oliphunts, and Cavalry (also hits on 5 and 6, downgrades to standard on the first hit it absorbs, and more critically some event cards have effects tied to elite units). Only 5 units can be used in combat at a time, although the excess may absorb losses. This gives combat a definite Risk/A&A hybrid feel, simpler and more attritional than A&A, but less tedious than Risk. I must say this lack of any unit differentiation – no, cavalry doesn’t move any faster than infantry nor is it any more potent; no, the Elephants and Trolls are not very impressive in combat without fairly uncommon combat cards; no, the Free Peoples and Sauron’s armies do not handle any differently – and the fact that combat resolution is rather simplistic and mostly a matter of pushing around big stacks all were rather disappointing.

The most interesting and successful bit of the core design is the dice that control your strategic options. Each action die has a bunch of faces on it, including Recruit/Diplomacy, Move/Attack, Leadership (used for activating armies with leaders or moving the fellowship, which works as a slightly more interactive Anakin track a la The Queen’s Gambit), Card Action (draw or play), and Wild (for the good guys) or Ring-hunting (bad guys). Each impulse you use one of your dice and do what it says, until both sides are out of dice, when a new turn begins. The good guys start with 4 dice, the bad guys with 6 (perhaps 7? My memory is hazy), but you can add dice in various ways (the bad guys for example get one each for bringing in Saruman, The Witch King, and the Mouth of Sauron). This is nice and produces some turn angst, as you try to figure out the best way to spend the dice you’ve got. The only snag is that you roll the dice openly, so your opponent can sometimes know for certain that you can’t move any more armies, for example, and so can act more freely than otherwise.

The other kind of neat aspect of this is that Sauron has to choose how many dice to allocate to prosecuting the war (i.e., rolling normally), and searching for the Fellowship. In practice, this doesn’t work quite as well as one might hope, because the decision is done openly, and in order to make much of a difference to the Fellowship’s progress, Sauron will have to apply enough dice so that he has little chance to accomplish much on the board, and once they Free Peoples see 3 or 4 dice stacked up they simply don’t bother to move the Fellowship that turn and instead concentrate on Sauron’s poorly-defended outposts like Moria or Carn Dum while his armies are paralyzed by a lack of action dice. In general, the ability to see your opponent’s capabilities in these matters openly, and the fact that you as a player have to trade off moving Frodo with, say, having Aragorn counterattack at Helm’s Deep, is thematically rather unconvincing. But more on this later.

The flavor of the game is provided by the event cards, which give you many of the events from the books, albeit in a slightly disjointed manner. Each side has two packs of cards, one with “army” events and one with “character” events. You get one from each pack by default each turn, and you can play them or draw more with your card action die results. Each card has two events, a general type (which costs an action to play) and a combat type (which is free). These actually work rather well, but only up to a point. On the one hand, it’s fun to slap down a card and watch the Ents overrun Isengard. On the other hand, they have a very “take that” feel, which can make the theme feel a bit pasted on. For example, for your Oliphunts to work any differently from regular Orcs in battle requires playing a specific card. With some events (like the aforementioned Ents), you end up knowing they’re coming eventually, which can have some good effects (forcing Saruman to act quickly because you know he’s on a short leash, thus generating this “historic” course of events even if for very wrong reasons), but it also can feel a bit awkward. It’s top-down design, as it were – stuff from the book happens, not because you as a player are put in the position of the actors in the book, but because the game makes them happen. Most things that happened in the book will happen, and you expect it. Since so much of the charm of the book is the drama of the improbable and unexpected, this is a shame. The events tend not to flow but to simply happen: “Hey, the Balrog popped up! The Ents are rampaging! Oops, they’re gone now”.

However, by far the worst offender on the theme front is the concept of the Fellowship military victory. This requires the Free Peoples to take two Evil strongholds (to be clear, this really does mean just two strongholds – not two more than they’ve lost). Often wargames have some sort of auto-victory that should never happen, but is included for historicity’s sake and to keep one side honest. This is not the case here. The Fellowship military victory is not a stretch, but a constant threat to Sauron and is quite obtainable even in a nightmare Free People scenario of a completely overrun Gondor and Rohan and a stalled out and mauled Fellowship. This is because it can be had by sniping at the flanks, which are often surprisingly poorly guarded – Moria, for example, can be cleared out by the Rivendell and Lorien Elves if Sauron doesn’t pay attention, since the Orcs there are surprisingly paltry, the Balrog doesn’t exist even to defend Moria except through usually unavailable cards, and Rivendell and Arnor can crank out new Elves and Rangers at almost the same rate as Sauron can crank out Orcs. Odd. None of these are game-breakers from the usual standpoints of balance, interesting decision making opportunities, etc., but this is a game selling itself on theme.

So as I say, I am conflicted. The underlying wargame is decent and appears rather well-balanced, if not as fundamentally interesting as I’d like (although as a fairly serious board wargamer, my standards are high). The cards are nicely thematic at times, but at times also feel a bit too much like a take-that card game. The roll-dice-for-actions system is nice and generates tension and tough choices, but the fact that they are rolled openly makes things occasionally awkward and the system itself tends to limit strategic choice and flexibility to some degree. The problem of the victory conditions, the rock against which every attempt to do this game eventually breaks, hasn’t been swept aside just yet, and here clearly represents game system necessity. The theme really just doesn’t feel like it runs that deep, and the game feels constrained to follow the events of the books.

So despite some interesting stuff, and some nicely flavorful cards, for me there just is no “wow” factor here. It was an enjoyable enough time, and I would play again … but I would have wished for more, and I just don’t know if the game is quite there.

Now, having said all this, the caveat of course is that these are ramblings based on only one play of a preproduction copy, and even that not under ideal circumstances. We had two players on a side, but basically that just meant we discussed and decided on courses of action as a team, which never yields good results – as evidenced by the fact that no Army I know of uses a co-generals model. There is really no way to divide responsibility here, you can’t just say “you take Arnor and the Fellowship, I’ll take Gondor and Rohan” – the game just doesn’t work like that, the real money is in deciding where to use your activations, not in the tactics of moving the pieces around once you’ve decided. My ally and I were at loggerheads on a number of such decisions which could not be satisfactorily resolved, so … this is really a 2-player game.

The game bears watching, and I fully intend to play it again once it comes out, to give it another fair shot. For one thing, all other considerations aside, I have been taught rules incorrectly countless times at Origins, and even small mistakes can make a big difference. But my initial impression was that it didn’t measure up in either gameplay or theme to the previous champion in the “licensed game with lots of plastic” arena, Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit. Keep an eye on it given the decent fun factor inherent in the Axis & Allies-style design (A&A has always been plagued by inadequate playtesting, not a failure of the fundamental design), and the amusement factor in plopping down cards that say “Ents Rampage!” or somesuch. For me, though, while I still look forward to the release, it’s dropped from “most likely buy” to “may buy, but the price is high and maybe we could split a copy”.

Medici: I played with 4 as part of the Kniziathon, although not as serious contestants (the competition started much earlier, Kim & I just wanted to play some Knizia games). Medici is a good game, but it doesn’t shine with fewer than 5 or 6. Not enough competition, I think. There is better stuff for 4. I got to play this with Joshua Alderson. You may be disappointed to learn that he just isn’t that cranky in person. Not cranky at all, in fact. A very enjoyable game.

My last game of the day was my only RPG session, a D&D adventure titled “Plague on Barsoom” run by Amorphous Blob and set in the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books (I later learned that this was not really D&D, but a heavily customized variant for the setting). Sadly, the GM had come down ill and we were unable to play.

So Kim did something that I wasn’t quite able to bring myself to do, and that was get into the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game at the next table. I went back to the Rio Grande area to play some more various euro games. I think she made the smarter choice, as it turns out.

I gather that Buffy uses something called “Unisystem”, a rather simple RPG system. It’s still attribute/skill based, but much simpler than D&D. For one thing, skills are very broad-based. In D&D, they are pretty specific and are things like “Hide”, “Move Silently”, “Spot”, “Use Rope”, “Escape Artist”, and such … some 20+ skills in all. In Buffy, you’ve got only a total of about 15 skills, covering “Crime”, “Doctor”, “Languages”, “Science”, and the ever-popular “Getting Medieval”. This makes things a lot easier. Then either the “depth and detail” or “morass” (your choice) of the d20 combat rules have been largely dumped in favor of playability and bringing back some speed and tension to combats.

Now, Buffy as a TV show is pretty entertaining but as an RPG setting it might leave something to be desired. I mean, how many plots are there really? For this session, the players were actually playing low-level flunky Vampires, who needed to retrieve an ancient relic in order to resurrect some baddie. Yeah, that’s original. But as with the TV show the play’s the thing here, not the plot, and the group I gather had a lot of fun with it. Getting into the spirit of Buffy, especially the rather typecast bad guys, isn’t too hard. Especially when you’re pretty sure all the PCs are going to get slaughtered by Buffy and the gang when they show up. I think of the 5 PCs, there were 2 survivors – the ones who ran away.

Talking with Kim immediately afterwards, it was a real gut check on why we were investing so much time and energy into the overwrought D&D. She’s since backed off on this position a bit, since D&D is of course a much more versatile system (although the Buffy RPG does have a spin-off Angel RPG, which I hear is much more broad-based), and Buffy – largely due to the somewhat limited nature of the theme – is more of a one-off system, something you play the occasional adventure of on a lark.

Anyway, I was kicking myself for not getting into this game, because Kim had a lot of fun and I think I would have enjoyed it. I got to play some more Saint Petersburg (and meet Jeremy Avery, another very nice guy who I enjoyed gaming with) and San Juan, which was fun, but is something I get to do plenty of at home. Next con, I’ll make room for some Buffy.

Origins – Day 2

I am happy to say I’ve actually met quite a few of the high-profile game designers, both euro and wargame, including Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, Francis Tresham, Alan Moon, Grant and Tom Dagliesh … if you go to a few of the bigger cons, it’s not hard to find them and chat. You know what always strikes me about them? They all seem like such regular guys. In a hobby that doesn’t always seem like it’s dominated by mainstream types, most of them are friendly, forthcoming, easy to talk to, and normal, whatever that means.

This was the 30th Origins (somewhat amusingly, all the merchandise was emblazoned with a 30th Anniversary logo, but of course the 30th event and the 30th Anniversary are a year apart – this was the former), and one of the themes was “play a game with the designer”. So we signed up to play Manhattan with Andreas Seyfarth. After some difficulties with the space, we finally located him and a place to play. Our fourth and a copy of Manhattan evidently had more trouble, so we started in with a 3-player San Juan. Andreas was a real pleasure to game with. When I met with Klaus Teuber and Reiner Knizia, I had no idea what to talk about with them. I mean, it seems so boring to say “Hi! I love your games!”, although admittedly you have to go with that at some point. I assume that I am like most people who write about games – I’d like to design a game someday and feel like I should get some tips from the masters, but I have no idea where to start. So this time, I just gave up and went with playing and enjoying the game. That’s why I’m in this whole business after all. So that’s what we did – played, chatted, commiserated about jet lag, swapped some gaming stories, and some fond memories of Puerto Rico, San Juan, and Manhattan. Andreas is a true gamer and a great guy, and playing a couple games with him was the highlight of the convention for me.

It turns out our fourth was Tom Vasel, of BoardGameGeek, so once he tracked us down and a copy of Manhattan arrived, we played that. Manhattan is a very good game, although decidedly less friendly than San Juan, but still a good time was had by all. For the record, Andreas crushed us all in both of his games.

After this, Kim went on to her D&D game, a swashbuckling genre game run by Amorphous Blob, who run generally excellent RPG events, and Kim and I have both had tremendously positive experience with them – the only problem is that their events fill up quickly, so you have to be fast. After only fair experiences with other RPG events, and no interest at all in the various “Living” settings that seem to attract the power gamers, we now sign up for their events exclusively. Kim is happy to report that this adventure did not disappoint. They also seem to draw a good crowd, one whose RPG expectations are in line with our own.

I had observed several games of Marco Polo, but never played prior to now simply because the 8+ age rating is a huge red flag for me personally. But this is Knizia, so I gave it a shot. It’s not bad, but I didn’t find enough there to engage me. It then didn’t help my estimation of the game when I won handily. It’s pretty much a classic race game, drafting and all, but with the catch that each space on the track has a very different cost, so you need to predict which spaces you’ll have to pay to enter and which you’ll be drafting through, and try to optimize your had to cover various different costs without a lot of duplication. Solid and a quite functional game – as one would expect from Knizia – but dry and a bit simplistic.

The last event of the day that we had scheduled was Hollywood Lives, a board-party-LARP hybrid game from Kevin Jacklin and Reiner Knizia. Each player plays the role of a Hollywood celebrity producing and starring in movies. You buy scripts, negotiate roles and salaries, produce and act in a 3-minute trailer for your fellow-gamers, earn money, and vote on Oscars. It combines the free-form party-game aspect of LARPs with the more structured context of boardgames. Not being a hugely outgoing person myself, I was both nervous and excited about this one, but it unfortunately requires 10 players and we only had 6 (perhaps in part because the event was scheduled in a remote and hard-to find location, although a quick query to the information booth and we had no trouble). Too bad. However, I was intrigued and will likely order the book and try to run a game at home.

Coming up tomorrow … Nexus and FFG’s War of the Ring! Plus the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, and the death of wargaming at Origins.

Origins – Day 1

Origins is always a good time, although it has cooled off a bit from the thrill-a-minute event it was in and around the late 90s, when the Middle-Earth CCG was still in print and drew significant numbers of players, when organized wargaming still existed, and when the boardgame companies were doing a better job organizing play. Back then I had no trouble filling my schedule wall to wall. It hasn’t been quite as successful for me in recent years and even with picking up some RPG events I haven’t been able to fill my schedule quite as tightly as I would have liked. It’s still a very fun event, though, and the one place you can meet lots of industry types from every corner of gaming, meet all the people who have been just email addresses and avatars until now, and generally play just about anything.

Ever since Avalon Hill was sold and the wargame side of Origins went down the tubes, Wednesday nights have been a bit thin; the last time I remember getting good mileage out of a Wednesday night session was back in 1998 or so when there were Successors games. We did pretty well this year, although it was mostly pick-up games.

Carabande was an event run by our friend Mark, and we played just a short track (one basic set, no Action set), which worked out quite well. After playing big tracks for so long, you forget what a good game just the basic game is, and of course my rule of thumb is that shorter is almost always better – compared to the vast number of games that would be much better off shorter, the number of games that would be better if they were a bit longer is miniscule (Sumera? A Game of Thrones maybe?). We used the Audi-branded version which, interestingly, does seem to have different properties than my original Carabande – the track seems a little higher-friction. Not sure this is better, but interesting for a change. We played two games back-to-back. I seem to recall I did poorly in both.

This was about my third playing of St. Petersburg, and I must say I’ve been surprised the extent to which I’ve been taken with it. I knew it was a solid game, but I really didn’t expect it to take off quite as much as it has. I don’t think it’s so good that I’ll still be playing regularly in a year, but still, I’m impressed. Tension, tough and interesting choices, neither too heavy nor too light, just the right length … good stuff. Maybe even better than San Juan, although it lacks the variety of decision-making that San Juan has.

As I mentioned previously, I had been informed that Goa was broken. So I figured well, if that’s true, I better find out. So this game I went all-out for the Exploration strategy, advancing that track at the expense of all else. And I won. Interestingly, though, this did little to convince me that Goa really is unbalanced. Firstly, I found that yes, as suspected, it’s impossible to simply “max out the Exploration track”; for that you need boats, and plantations, and colonists, so you still have to have some balance. And even playing this strategy, and managing to play a fairly well-executed and more or less significant mistake-free game I thought, most of the margin of my victory could be ascribed directly to a few errors in judgment made by other players. So I remain unmoved by any claims that there is any unbalanced strategy. I’ll agree that the Exploration track is important, no question, and you want to be drawing a few cards. But it isn’t the be all and end all, that seems clear.

Bay Area Games Day XXXIII

Dos Rios: I got this game for a couple reasons. Firstly, it is unique, which always is worth a try for me. Secondly, nobody else was buying it. Thirdly, I had a discount coupon from Fine Games. Probably the first two would not have been enough but for the third, given the price point. Anyway. Dos Rios is a bit hard to explain because it is, in fact, pretty unique, but here goes. It’s basically an abstract positioning game masquerading as an economic game. You have pieces you move on the map each turn, trying to get them in position to score. Each turn, some types of terrain will score for the pieces occupying them if they are fed by the river. Unfortunately, the river is a moving target – as players build dams, the course of the river can change. Obviously, there is a bit more to it than that, but that’s the broad outline. There is a good review here.

The main complaint is that it’s a bit dry (ha ha), and the fact that you can do a lot on your turn and there is little strategy or planning for future turns means it can drag at times – not a game to place in the hands of your local victim of analysis paralysis. It is somewhat reminiscent of Tikal, not only for these reasons but also because Dos Rios features a Hacienda that is very reminiscent of the Tikal’s Base Camps, with similar trade-offs (up-river positions are better, but harder to get to, like the deep-jungle positions in Tikal, and you can use your Hacienda/Base Camp as a teleporter).

Dos Rios was decent I thought. Not much better than that, and I’m not sure I’m that thrilled with my purchase – I certainly don’t think I could recommend it at the $50 retail in good conscience. I did enjoy it well enough, and it’s certainly worth a play or a few plays if someone else in your group has bought it, but I have a hard time seeing it getting the 5-10 plays I hope for out of a big game and it didn’t seem to quite capture the mix of being unique and interesting to keep on the shelf even if played infrequently (like, say, a Mammoth Hunters or a Bohn Hansa are for me).

La Strada: I am of somewhat mixed minds on this one, having now played it twice. On the one hand, it is quite short and pretty neat. It boils down the low-end railroad games to the fundamentals of competing to connect cities. You’ve got choices, and there are strategy elements. It’s nice filler. The only question is, then, is it really filler? It’s about 20, maybe 30 minutes, but even there it might be just a touch long for a lightweight game. And it’s just a bit on the expensive side too. So I’m not sure. It’s not as engaging as Ticket to Ride, and Ticket to Ride is not that much longer. On the other hand, having bought both Dos Rios and La Strada, I am definitely happier with the latter purchase.

Middle-Earth CCG: I love MECCG as one of the best medium-complexity games ever made, and certainly the best collectible game, but I eventually wandered away from it. Part of it was that the later sets (particularly Against the Shadow and even more so The White Hand) suffered from significant quality lapses and degenerate deck archetypes, but part of it was that while I always looked forward to new expansions, eventually the weight of the large card set caused significant problems.

The problem was that the constructed deck play environment shifted from emphasizing balanced decks and skilled play to less interactive, massive-combo decks. I saw decks that could score lots of marshaling points if the cards came out in the right order, but would rarely chance the opponent’s hazard deck. This leads to what is for me a much less entertaining game.

Still, I’ll rarely turn down a chance to play, so when I got an email from a fellow-fan the day before games day I threw a couple pre-constructed challenge decks into the game box. My opponent wanted to play a constructed Minion deck, which I thought would be fine, so I pulled out my Indur minion Challenge deck (I’ve always preferred like-alignment matchups). Unfortunately, my opponent was playing a deck built around amassing a huge, untouchable company of 6-7 Ringwraiths, which would then go to Bag End and play a bunch of point cards in one turn then run them all the way back to Barad-Dur the next, all with essentially zero risk. I think less than 10 hazards in total were played all game, for me because there wasn’t much point, for him because (I’m guessing) he was too busy hoarding the massive numbers of resources required to try to pull this off.

I still enjoyed the game – but different people and different groups have different play styles. I am much more of a gamer, I want to make the strategic and tactical choices and manage the resources, while some people love looking for the ultimate power-combination that makes tactics irrelevant. I’m not sure these play styles are entirely compatible, so if you’re looking to get into MECCG, look for someone who shares your outlook. Fortunately, with the sets still available these days (The Wizards, The Dragons, Dark Minions) it’s not much of an issue.

I’ve actually never played two of Columbia’s games, War of 1812 and Quebec. So I was glad to finally take 1812 out for a spin. We decided to use the optional simultaneous move-plotting rules, which I can now recommend, as they add tension and are a big time-saver. I liked the game, although I was not blown away. It’s very simple, highly playable, and short. It’s got a very nice historical flavor for a low-end game, and it cleanly portrays how much things were driven by control of the lakes. It’s perhaps a touch heavy on the bluff and guess at the expense of tactics, which can be fun but usually caps the replay value. However, there were definitely enough strategic options that I would play again, I enjoyed the game, and – did I mention this? – it’s short. So not one of Columbia’s best, but an impressive design for 1972 and a win, on balance.

Memoir ’44: Not truly great, but fast and fun. It is an improvement on Battle Cry in a few ways, including a number of minor but successful tweaks to the action card deck, and critically a vastly improved historical flavor. The elite units, the interesting interactions between artillery, infantry, and tanks and occasional need for combined arms, and the more interesting and varied terrain all add up to a much more flavorful game than Battle Cry, which was in truth rather bland. The overall design of the card deck is still very retro, something out of the 70s or 80s rather than the post-Hannibal, post-CCG enlightenment, but can live with it. Sure, the game is still awfully random – maybe even unhealthily random – but it’s clearly a significant improvement over Battle Cry in this respect, there are reasonable choices, it’s tense, it’s got a fun factor, and did I mention it’s short?

Dicemaster

I like dice games, even though it’s a difficult category with few good entries and only one that I know of on the “gamer’s game” level. This is why I so wanted to like Railroad Dice, and why its mediocrity was such a disappointment to me. However, if it got Dicemaster – one of my favorite rarely played games – off the shelf, the total experience can hardly be considered bad.

Dicemaster is a game from the final days of ICE, and was codesigned by Kris Burm and Jean Vanaise. The basic idea is that you are traveling along an adventure path, fighting monsters and gathering treasures. Each turn you roll a subset of the action dice available to you to determine what you can do, which actually run quite a large range of events that help you or hinder your opponent. It’s actually a modestly complex game, perhaps on the scale of the most complex euros like Die Macher, with a variety of different procedures for fighting different kinds of monsters and a large range of various types of dice for resolving game events. Because of this, it’s actually not so much a probabilities game like most dice games because they are simply too hard to calculate or even get much of a feel for without doing some computer simulations. Instead it’s more of a resource management game with probabilistic elements – you never know exactly what you will be able to do, and need to work your probabilities mix to your general objectives by choosing the right dice to roll each turn and the right dice to have for your pool in general. There are also some tactics to managing your dice pool, as dice can enter and leave throughout the game and you need to keep your options open generally.

I rather like Dicemaster. It’s not an every-week kind of a game, I think because it’s a touch repetitive and maybe a touch too long, although I suspect this is for good reason as all the probabilities need to balance out so the game doesn’t feel like it’s just random (although I should mention that playing it again, I discovered a rule that I had been misplaying for ages which actually shortened the game significantly, down to about 1 hour, which is fine). And ICE came through again on the rarity issue, the rare dice are not so much more powerful than the commons or uncommons, just more specialized, so you get dice in about the proportion you need them, and you don’t have to buy a ton (as always though, more dice means more options and a richer experience). However, it’s a bit problematic these days to acquire, because while the starter sets are ludicrously cheap (less than $5 each for the two base sets plus the Wilds of Doom fixed expansion, which adds a lot to the game), the expansion dice fetch a modest price on eBay – occasionally above retail, in fact, and one of the problems with Dicemaster originally was that it was a bit expensive at full retail. You can find them from dealers and at flea markets and cons and such at good prices, though, and commons at least can be gotten cheaply online here – a lot of the price spike for booster packs is driven by the desire to acquire the handful of ultra-rare dice, I assume. The base set plus Wilds of Doom is a quite solid game, but for real replayability you need the boosters.