Ra vs. Beowulf: Smackdown

The challenger: Beowulf. Hero. Legend. Once swam in the stormy North Sea for five days – while carrying a sword in one hand and wearing chainmail. Tore demon-spawn Grendal apart with bare hands. Defeated Sea Hag in a day-long ordeal – underwater.

Reigning champion: Ra. Sun God.

Bets, anyone?

So, I had a chance to play both Ra and Beowulf in close proximity recently. Both are games that make my list of all-time classics. Both are auction games of a sort, although neither is straightforward as such (unlike, say, Modern Art or Medici). And both have had the same complaint leveled at them from time to time: they have too much luck. To what degree is this true? This is of particular interest to an auction game, because the fundamental, core issue that all auction games must wrestle with is not whether or not to have luck, but getting the impact of luck right. If we just auction off a lot of stuff clearly worth $15, that’s not very interesting (I bid $14.99!). But if there is uncertainty about how much each lot is worth, and factors that impact its worth that are random or concealed from the bidder (or known only to a subset of the bidders), then you get an interesting game – but one with some amount of luck. Getting the luck right, so that players feel that they are taking risks and not just being jerked around, is the key to success.

Interestingly, Ra and Beowulf use luck in almost totally divergent ways. In Ra, you know how much you’re bidding. You know how much the tiles are worth. But the flow of the game, what is going to become available for bid and the pace of those auctions, is random and rather fluid. In Beowulf, the lots available and the rate at which they come out are fixed and known to all. The variability is in the bids, and in what some of the lots (the scrolls) are actually worth. In Ra, you take a chance by holding out to see if something better becomes available. In Beowulf, you take a chance by pushing your luck with your bid.

The advantage of Beowulf’s luck is that it enables more long-term planning. By knowing, generally, what the future looks like but by taking a chance in the here and now, the game enables more factors to affect your immediate judgement, resulting in an evaluation process that must take into account a large number of factors. So, you take a risk knowing that the gold you may win will be quite valuable in the very near future to buy an All-Iron Shield that you can then use later against the Dragon; or you hold off knowing that the fight card will be more valuable later. Plus, by making the risks more numerous and more immediate, but less individually risky, there is more of an emotional charge on each one. The downside on each risk (getting kicked out of the auction with a scratch if you blow it) is rather significant but not severe, and the upsides of succeeding at any individual risk is modest (typically just one card), so it’s rare for an individual chance to be a game-breaker.

By contrast, in Ra the tension of each decision is more drawn-out. The decision to duck a bid, or to make a lot richer instead of auctioning, does not immediately reveal its brilliance or stupidity. If you crack now and buy a lot that does not have a Civilization tile, hoping you can get one later, the ultimate result of that risk may take the entire rest of the round to fully play out. Ra’s risks tend to be more nuanced than Beowulf’s “in or out” risks, and while the risks in Ra are unlikely to have immediate painful effects the way they can in Beowulf, you are also sometimes confronted with game-breaking risks (especially when the number of Ra tiles available before the end of the round grow short) that there really isn’t much way to properly assess other than by raw gut feel. If you take a risk and get cut off by the end of the round, ultimately acquiring nothing, this is likely to be a far more severe blow than any risk Beowulf could have hammered you with.

So, what does all this mean? I think luck becomes frustrating and problematic when it’s high-stakes, and when there isn’t a lot you can do to affect it. I think this sort of thing manifests itself differently in Beowulf and Ra.

In Beowulf, it’s not really a systemic problem per se, but because the odds of a risk succeeding are in the 50-60% range, you can see odd stuff in occasional late-game auctions when the downsides of a scratch can become negligible. It’s very frustrating to have set yourself up for a win in the Dragon’s Rampage episode, only to see a competitor take it away by succeeding in risk after risk because he’s in a position where risking has no downside for him (because one additional scratch isn’t going to matter at this point), and because he keeps getting lucky. It doesn’t happen a lot, because the situation where the one scratch isn’t going to make any difference and where the player succeeds in 5+ risks in a row are obviously fairly rare. And it’s likely to happen only the Dragon’s Rampage episode; timely play of the All-Iron Shield will tend to knock out gratuitous riskers in the final battle. But when it happens – wow, it’s frustrating. For the person on the receiving end, it’s like watching a car wreck.

In Ra, I think the negative impact of luck can be more systemic, and is related to the end-of-round, high-stakes, game-breaking type risks. If you have strong bid tiles, and if small auctions are coming up rapid-fire, and if the end-of-round is coming up quickly, you can end up facing a situation where you and one other player are dueling, trying to get a decent lot, while risking getting hosed by the end of the round. In this situation, through bad luck one of the two player can really get hammered. Obviously, how objectionable this is, is going to be decided by how often a player is caught between the bag and the end of the round.

With 3 players, I think Ra is brilliantly balanced, and this issue seems to hardly ever occur – if you’re picking blind at the end with tight time pressure, or if two players are staring at each other with a 12 and a 13 sun and playing chicken, it seems to be your own fault most likely. Almost all rounds will still end with the clock running out, but players are rarely shut out. But as the numbers of players increase, your turn frequency (and thus your control over events) goes down, and the length of the rounds does not increase proportionally to the number of players. So time pressure gets tighter, your ability to have an impact on the flow of events decreases, you get smaller (and therefore significantly more random) lots, and your susceptibility to the hand of fate increases quite a bit.

As a result, I think the impact of luck in 5-player Ra is much greater than in any version of Beowulf. That is to say, players are going to feel jerked around more frequently, at the expense of feeling like they were just knowingly taking a risk and happened to blow it. Beowulf seems to be scaled much more cleanly for the full range of players, while Ra is definitely a very different game with 3 or with 5 (I consider it possibly the greatest 3-player game ever, while I think it’s just a good game with 5). But Beowulf is a lucky game too, and the endgame auctions, where the one-scratch downside of risking in late-game auctions can sometimes be an insufficient deterrent to reckless risking, can sometimes play out in a way that isn’t particularly satisfying.

So when it comes to auction games, Ra and Beowulf are going to have to call it a draw I think (Beowulf is way ahead of Ra on theme, but that’s a discussion for a different day). I think 5-player Beowulf is much less lucky and has more player control and less frustration than 5-player Ra, but the sheer brilliance and perfect balance of 3-player Ra I think has to be judged to slightly outshine Beowulf, due to the latter’s minor faltering (which can sometimes result in frustrating runs of luck) in the late-game competitions.

Let me put it this way, though: if my collection could only include 5 German-style games, there is a strong possibility it would include both Ra and Beowulf.

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Lost Cities, Parlay, Havoc, Lexio

Lost Cities: I had a chance to play this with Rick Young, designer of Europe Engulfed, at MonsterCon. I crushed him. Like a bug. I always find it somewhat fascinating when people who play serious, heavy-duty, complex wargames, and play them well, can get tripped up by a simple little German game. Then again, I was apparently guilty of seriously underestimating this game myself. When Rick asked me if I had any tips, this sent me down a route of analysis that ended up with “wow, this is a way cleverer game than I think I gave it credit for”.

So, here are Chris’ Lost Cities play tips:

I think it’s important to realize that Lost Cities and Battle Line/Schotten-Totten are very different games. They look similar in some ways, and yet the crux of the matter is different in each case. Battle Line is a highly tactical game. Each card can be used in a number of different ways, and is not interchangeable with very many other cards in most important cases. And so you are trying to form powerful card combinations in critical locations, and you are trying to keep your options open. There is an element of risk, but since the chances of seeing any given critical card are only 50-50 and there isn’t much you can do about that, risk management is not a major element.

By contrast, Lost Cities is almost entirely risk management (with a small element of bluff). Each card can only be played in one way, and many cards of the same color are almost interchangeable. There are few tactics to the game. Instead, it’s all about figuring out which card in your hand has the best combination of risk to reward.

The risk calculations are made a lot easier because you know you’re going to see basically half the deck. So if you have a singleton white 2 in your opening hand, how risky is opening with it? You might think playing a 2 with nothing to back it up might be dicey, but it turns out that’s not really the case. There are 52 more points worth of white cards out there, and you’re going to see roughly 26 of them; so you should see some points. Plus, you’re keeping lots of options open, that is to say, you’re not decreasing the chances that your next draw will be useful by much (just three cards, the white handshakes, are now useless to you).

On the other hand, if you’re sitting on an 8/10 combination in your opening hand, playing the 8 is a terrible play for a lot of reasons. While 8+10 is 18 and only -2 points, the upsides are limited because your odds of getting the 9 are only 50-50. Plus, you’re making 9 cards unplayable by you, a significant fraction of the deck. The problem is that you can’t discard those cards either, for fear that they would be useful to your opponent! So it becomes a waiting game. When does starting off that color become a good risk? When you draw a 6? How about a 5? A 2 or a handshake would be a no-brainer to slap down, but the middling cards are much tougher calls. Holding 6/8/10 further strains your hand capacity, making it more likely that your other plays are risky too, and decreasing your odds of setting up other, lower-risk/high-reward plays.

Obviously, a sizable chunk of your plays in Lost Cities are going to be easy. Early in the game, a handshake, 2, or 3 in a suit you have a couple cards in is a pretty low risk with a good upside. In the middle game, a discard that your opponent can’t use, or a playing the next available card on a suit that you’ve already got going are both no-brainers. The game is going to be won and lost, though, on the handful of tough calls in which risks and rewards are harder to determine. When do you crack and start a suit with a middling card? How long do you hold out waiting for a handshake when you have a strong run in one suit in your hand? How long do you hold out trying to get the 20 point bonus for 8 cards in a given suit?

One could actually make a solid argument that this is a pretty well-themed game, in fact. I imagine that managing an expedition like this is all about anticipating and mitigating risks: how much planning do you want to do before you set out? How risky is the expedition going to be? What do you need to do to reduce the risks? Sure, it’s not Republic of Rome, but like so many Knizia games, it’s subtle, it’s there, and it makes sense.

Coming to terms with all these nuances has greatly increased my appreciation for this game, and my BGG rating has been increased appropriately. I’ve already been inspired to play it a couple times since, and hopefully it can come off the shelf more often.

And now for something completely different … Parlay. This is a word game of poker hands. In a nutshell, you’re playing a game with a standard 52-card deck, but each card has (in addition to its suit and rank) a letter, in the usual Scrabble-like proportions, and with numeric scores. In each hand, you’re aiming to both form a word and form a poker hand, simultaneously. The better your word, the better your score, but strong poker hands will entitle you to potentially massive bonuses. There is no betting or bluffing per se, but instead you stay or fold based on how strong you think your poker hand is. If you fold, you get your word score, if you stay in and win the poker hand, you can get a bunch of bonuses for word length, and then you double your score. If you stay in and lose the poker hand, you get nothing.

I actually think that Parlay is a pretty interesting and clever game. It does manage to capture much of the appeal of both poker and word games at some level, although the loss of any bluffing is kind of a bummer. And the game gives you a lot of different poker variations that you can use (five card draw, Texas Hold ‘Em, etc. – all seem to have their advantages, but drawbacks also, and none are quite ideal. Texas Hold ‘Em doesn’t seem to work as well for Parley as it does for poker).

The ultimate problem with Parlay I think is that it’s just really hard. Optimizing both a poker hand and a word involves juggling a lot of different permutations and a lot of mental gymnastics. The first few games, played fairly casually, were fun, but after getting familiarity with the parameters of the game it seemed to just become a lot of work. Too much work, really. I enjoyed a number of games, and got my $15 worth, but I’m probably about done with the game at this point.

Havoc: I’ll just add one comment to my previous write-up: this game is a lot better with smaller numbers of players, I think. I played with 6 not too long ago and found the game very tedious, very luck-heavy, and very long. Then I played again with 4, and was much happier – the pace seemed more appropriate, it wasn’t over-long, you could win without always having monster hands, and everything just generally seemed to click better. It’s still not a buy for me personally, but while I wouldn’t play the game again with 6, I would play with 4. I guess I’d have to flip a coin if we had 5.

Lexio: Lexio is a close cousin to Tichu – it’s a climbing game with similar hands but without a lot of the special rules. Really, though, the reason Lexio calls out to be played is because of the cool bits. The mahjong-style tiles are hefty and have a good feel, and are reasonably attractive.

Ultimately, I have to say that the game is just OK, though, and it’s hampered by completely opaque wrap-around ranking. 2 is high, 3 is low, 2 beats a 13 but 4 beats a 3. I’m still not sure I understand straights, which can “wrap around” the high value of 2 but not around 15 (so 1-5 is valid and, I think, beats 3-8, while 12 through 1 is not valid). All this confusion adds nothing to the game except confusion.

The game is ultimately very similar in feel to Tichu, but I like Lexio a little better just because it’s short. Tichu is an appealing game but the playing time of sometimes well over an hour really kills it for me personally, given how repetitive it is. With Lexio, you can play a hand in a few minutes and a satisfying game in half an hour or so. It’s not a game with much of a “wow” factor, I felt, but it’s short enough to be a nice change of pace.

I should also mention that it seems like Lexio is really meant to be played for money. It has a very convoluted scoring system where each player has to pay off everyone who did better, and get paid by everyone who did worse, all of which only makes sense to me if the chips are real money. But if you get a lousy hand, unlike in poker you can’t fold or otherwise manage your risks – you can just do the best with what you’ve got. This seems like it would make it a lot less interesting as a gambling game. But, I’ve never played games for money and have no intention of starting, so your mileage may vary.

ConsimWorld Expo, Part 3 of 3

Playing EuroFront II (and EastFront) at MonsterCon this year really drove something home to me, and this is the tension between “competitive” and “experience” games.

For me personally, one reason to play a game like EuroFront or Europe Engulfed is to experience the entire war. Each phase has its distinct flavors: the desperate early years for the Allies, the titanic mid-war clash of arms on the Eastern Front, the cat-and-mouse games in the desert, the logistics of the big amphibious assaults, and the Soviet late-war steamroller. If I play a strategic WWII game, I sort of want to experience all these different phases. Even if I just play EastFront, the whole war goes through a lot of different flavors (as I mentioned in my last piece), and I’d like to experience them all.

However, in a game of skill, we expect skillful play to matter, preferably a lot, and we would be disappointed if a brilliantly-executed Barbarossa didn’t convey a decisive advantage, or if mistakes in ’42 didn’t come back to haunt us. Between equally-skilled opponents, a tightly-contested game may well go right to the end, but it is far more likely that our own quality of play will derail the gaming experience at some point: the skillfulness of the game has made it more likely that we won’t be able to “experience” the flavor of the entire historical war.

Compare EastFront or Europe Engulfed to Here I Stand, which is a game that leans heavily towards the experience rather than skill end. In Here I Stand, skillful play is unlikely to pull you ahead because the other players will just beat you back. The system provides opportunities to thread the needle and come out temporarily ahead, but it also provides more than ample opportunity for the luck of the draw and the dice to dominate skill. And so everyone just goes along, hoping to make incremental improvements in their position, experiencing the flavor the game has to offer. A masterful Hapsburg player is not going to derail the experience of the game for everyone else by doing something so unseemly as quickly winning through his masterful play.

Like many of these hypothetical gaming trade-offs, calling it a trade-off is slightly deceptive. One can of course improve simulation value by removing rules and also improving playability, as games like Grant Takes Command and Breakout: Normandy demonstrate. And likewise, there are games that, it seems to me, manage to both provide a competitive environment while still giving you an excellent experience game: Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, Hannibal, Republic of Rome, Middle-Earth: The Wizards – maybe that’s why some of the card-driven games are so highly-coveted.

Regardless, the take-away message for me here was simply to recognize EastFront and EuroFront as the skillful games they are. It seems like such an obvious thing, but so many big or more complicated wargames these days are non-competitive, either because balance was considered secondary to historicity, or because they are definitively experience games, or because playtesting was inadequate, or because they’re so long that very few people can ever really become skillful with them. EastFront, though, is not like these games. So when tackling larger games in the Front system (i.e., trying to play more than 12 months), it’s so easy to be sitting at the end of Summer ’42 and having a desire to experience ’43, but in reality, once you get behind the 8-ball in this game, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you’re done. I think the smartest thing is to take it 6 months at a time. Check the victory points; if it’s close enough to continue (and the ranges in EastFront are usually reasonably generous), press on, otherwise, call it a game. It would be nice if a lot more of these bigger games had checkpoints that you could look up after 4 hours of play time or so and do a sanity check to see if the game has decisively swung one way or the other.

Origins ’06

Boardgames

My boardgaming was done mostly in the Rio Grande booth, where I played a number of new games:

Thurn & Taxis: This one I liked. It’s similar in feel to Ticket to Ride, but it’s more subtle, more nuanced, and more directly competitive as everyone is competing to fulfill the same goals, and late-comers get fewer points in general. It’s a second-tier type game for me, but it’s fun, compact, and short and gives you lots of decisions. I actually ended up playing this a few times. A buy, although it’s doubtful that it’ll still be played in a year, or even 6 months. There was some discussion over whether Blue Moon City or Thurn and Taxis will win the Spiel des Jahre, and certainly it would be unjust in my opinion if Blue Moon City were passed over in favor of T&T. But there seemed to be some consensus that T&T will prevail, because there is apparently a clause in the SdJ charter barring Reiner Knizia from ever winning. Me, I like to remain optimistic.

Rum & Pirates: Yes, it’s light, and absolutely nothing like earlier alea big-box games like Ra or Taj Mahal. But I enjoyed it. It’s a risk management game, as most things you do will get you points, but you’re making choices about whether to go for more, risker points, or fewer, more reliable points, as well as a variety of resources (gold, rum, and pirates). There is also a tactical game of moving pirates around (which affects which risks are available), and various risks have different synergies, or not. It’s not a taxing game, and thus really needs to be played at a brisk pace, but I found it fun for a light game, and light games usually are not my thing. There is plenty of chaos, but on each turn you feel like you have real choices and what you are doing is going to make a difference; and the large amount of die-rolling is fine with me because there are a variety of different (and fun) dice competitions and you can affect them all with rum tokens. Easily a buy. In all honesty, I think many readers will probably enjoy this one less than I did, but for me it was a throwback to the days of fun games like Merchant of Venus or Gangsters, albeit in a somewhat sanitized, scaled-back, somewhat less-thematic (but less-complicated) German package; but I’ve gotten a kick out of it each time I played it. It would have killed in 1993.

One caveat on the game, though: your first game is very likely to be a touch (at least) on the long side, especially with 5 players. It’s also a game where the playing time will drop off considerably once everyone is familiar with all the options. So if you want your friends to like it, the first time you play it might be wise to play only 4 rounds (or even 3 with 5 players) instead of the normal 5 rounds. Then once everyone has the hang of the game, you can play the “full” game. Otherwise the late game may feel protracted, and in my experience nothing will kill the desire to play again like a protracted endgame.

Masons: I had heard this was a possible win for people who don’t usually like Colovini games, a market segment of which I am a part. It doesn’t have the occasional Colovini contradiction of being a light game with almost unlimited opportunity for analysis paralysis … but nonetheless it did almost nothing for me. I think the bottom line here is that Masons is about managing chaos. Dice determine most everything that happens, and you are trying to use your couple of decision points to gently massage the board to match the scoring cards in your hand, scoring cards which rapidly cycle. I often like managed chaos games, but to work for me they have to have at least a minimally functioning theme for me to engage on (see, say … Rum and Pirates). Masons either has no theme at all, or where it has theme, it makes no sense. Not even close to a buy.

Robber Knights: Since I just anointed Rüdiger Dorn one of my most-reliable designers in my Geek of the Week thread, I figured I better check this one out – even though it was from Queen, which is a hit-and-miss label for me personally (mostly the latter). It was a bit disappointing. It’s a highly tactical, basically abstract game. You lay tiles to a build up a world sort of like Carcassonne (although there are no edge types, so you can play anywhere), but when you play a Castle tile, you can pour Knights onto the board to take control of nearby tiles. It’s a very clean, simple, smoothly-playing game which is not bad, and I’d play again … but it wasn’t really fully engaging either, and was not a buy. Nowhere close to being in the same league as Dorn’s previous games, in large part due to the thematic deficit. Not dissimilar in feel to Domaine, including being about the same length, which is a much more textured and interesting game. It also has a substantial bit of hidden complexity because the tile mix, which you are not likely to have a firm grasp on the first game or two, drives a significant chunk of the game’s tactics.

18Scan: We usually get together with our friend Mark from college sometime over the Origins weekend, and we have often played an 18xx game (since 18xx games were a staple back then). I have a new resolution on this point: no more gamekits. If I’m going to play 18xx, I’ll play 1825, or 1830, or 1853, or 1829 Mainline, but I’m not playing the gamekits anymore. The crux of the problem: the initial auctions. Starting back with 1870, I think that designers gave up entirely on even trying to make the baseline prices of the privates, minors, or whatever else is up for grabs in the start packet auction align with reality, instead relying on the players to properly price them themselves. So in order to make sensible bids, you have to either a) be prescient, or b) have played a couple times. Otherwise you end up with a game that is dumb, as players who get weak offerings are effectively knocked out 5-7 minutes into a 4 hour game. This happened to me, as I was consigned to last early and literally made not a single decision for the last 90 minutes of the game. I am not exaggerating here. Now, I’m not going to tell you that all the 18xx gamekits are bad – while it’s true that none I’ve played have been even close to professional design standards, this is not really surprising, and maybe not even relevant for their market niche. I actually think 18Scan would be appealing to those who play 18xx a lot. But unless you’re going to play it at least 3-5 times, forget it.

That was about it for boardgaming. I wanted to play Cleopatra and the Society of Ancient Architects; despite the negative buzz, I was somewhat optimistic I might like it well enough … but not optimistic enough to buy before trying. For some reason known only to Days of Wonder, however, they had only a single demo copy available of their big new release, and I was never able to get into a game. Confidence was not inspired. I wanted to try Bison from Phalanx/Mayfair, but didn’t find the time. I did end up buying the Paranoia Mandatory Bonus Fun Card Game though, even though I didn’t play it, because I like Paranoia and I thought it sounded cool. It looks like they’ve done a good job, and I’m reasonably optimistic.

I don’t do wargames at Origins anymore, but I picked up my copy of Shifting Sands and the new WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin updated card decks. Shifting Sands looks great, and I look forward to playing. Having the somewhat unhealthy amount of errata for Barbarossa to Berlin incorporated into the cards will almost certainly help that game hit the table more often. I also bought the new MMP reprint of Afrika because it was so cheap ($24), but I wonder if that was a mistake. The supply rules, while simple, are head-scratchingly bizarre. Why even have supply points when letting everyone sit around doing nothing costs exactly the same amount of supply as a full-on offensive? And the use of the rounding rule here is very, very strange (why say that one point can supply a group of ten units, then point out that you can use the rounding rule to round a group of 14 units down to 10, thus meaning that one point can really supply 14 units?). Perhaps play will clarify, or a fan will fill me in in the comments section.

RPGs

I played two RPGs at Origins: Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu. I had signed up for some Star Wars d20 which was a highly-anticipated event for me … but sadly, it was cancelled.

Paranoia: We played a modified version of the first part of Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, a classic adventure from Paranoia Flashbacks. It was fun, and the GM did a good job. But it reminded me that Paranoia is actually tough to do well; you can’t just give people lasers and trust them to generate some fun when they point them at each other. For example, in the traditional hose-job on the way to the briefing room, you can’t just tell them to report to a nonexistent briefing room, you need to also give them some avenues of approach that look promising (although they all are, of course, dead ends), and you also need to make it clear that they will be terminated if they don’t get there on time and don’t have a scapegoat. The scapegoat bit is important. It’ll help if the Computer calls them up frequently to ask how they’re doing. The Paranoia mantra is fear and ignorance, but that means what it says: you need both. Ignorance alone is not that interesting.

It also helps if you can use the opening scenes for players to contact their secret societies to get their own personal missions, which traditionally involve killing or otherwise behaving in an unfriendly manner towards other players. It’s good for the players to have achievable objectives they can set up while being screwed on the way to the briefing room. Things got a little messed up here because we had so many players (9, I think), so the starting 6-pack of pregen characters got duplicated and had all their names changed, so when my secret society missions says “you might want to kill Tex-Y-DBF”, and you look around the table and Tex doesn’t exist, the game has lost something.

Anyway, the first third or so of our adventure (the briefing room hose-job) didn’t work so well and wasn’t terribly entertaining, but after that things got rolling and it was a lot of fun. Clones were terminated; computer property was destroyed, sometimes in spectacular style; Communists were eliminated; treason was committed. Nobody escaped unscathed.

Call of Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu was cool to play because it’s so different from the usual roleplaying games. It’s not about problem-solving or character-building in the traditional sense. It’s all about playing the role of an investigator in an interesting story who is going insane in hopefully entertaining ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. Like all RPGs, I assume Call of Cthulhu comes in many different flavors – more or less distant from the original inspiration – but the genre seems much more about the flavor and ambiance than the usual D&D hack-fest. We had a great group, a very good GM, and a story that was very true to the Lovecraftian spirit. I enjoyed this a lot, and it was my favorite non-CCG event of the con.

A lot of the RPG events at Origins were overbooked both last year and this year, and as a consequence the games Kim and I played in averaged 7+ players. Paranoia had 9, CoC had 7, and Kim’s two D&D events both had 7. If I may venture an opinion, 7 players is too many for any RPG, even Paranoia. Fortunately, it sounds like Amorphous Blob (who runs the RPG events I primarily aim for) agrees and is going to be more strict about capping their games at 6 players, even if Origins over-sells them.

CCGs

Middle-Earth: the Wizards: What more can I say on this game? The one or two sealed-deck Middle Earth events are usually the highlights of Origins for me for a few reasons: a) MECCG is one of my all-time favorite games; b) I enjoy the sealed deck format because I think it really challenges players used to constructed deck, and because I can win reliably; c) the company at these events is usually (not always, but usually) of very high quality; and d) it plays into my fond memories of the tournaments ICE used to run in the mid-90s, which I enjoyed immensely.

True to form, the event was still great fun, and probably even better than it has been in recent years because the numbers of players was respectable, the quality of play was good, and we were avoiding the bizzaro formats (Balrog and Fallen-Wizard sealed deck) of previous years, formats that were good for a go but ultimately too weird. It was ironic that my one and only problematic game at Origins (excessively whining opponent) was in MECCG – but it wasn’t enough to put a damper on the overall experience.

Origins Overall

As for overall impressions of Origins?

Well, for one thing, the dealer room felt flat. Wizards, Decipher, Eagle, Reaper, Games Workshop – none were present, and there were several big holes in the hall where a big vendor would have been in the past. The Fantasy Flight and Days of Wonder demo areas were tiny. Columbia, GMT, and MMP were there, but had no demos. This all is not good. Mayfair and Rio Grande did have respectable areas, though, and it looked like Fantasy Flight might have been running more games in the main boardgame hall.

The CCG hall felt almost vacant. While in previous years it had been teeming with Magic and Lord of the Rings (Decipher) players, this year it was Pokemon and that was about it. That’s still a good number of people, but just a fraction of what it’s been in the past.

RPGs are more or less what they’ve always been since I’ve been watching, and all the games I’ve been in were over-subscribed. I wish there were more “other” games – there were no Iron Heroes or Arcana Evolved games, for instance, Star Wars d20 games were very thin, and I have no great enthusiasm for RPGA – but Kim and I have had no trouble at all getting into high-quality, well-run roleplaying events with excellent fellow players in recent years, and they remain the high points of the con for us.

The Puffing Billy area in the main boardgame room was well-attended, with probably 100 players. Richard Borg had a good slug of folks going with Memoir ’44 for a while, and Mayfair’s Settlers tournament drew well. The miniatures area seemed about as well-attended as always.

CABS’ war room and board room were decently attended, at least by recent historical standards. The board room (for general boardgame play) was up to maybe 50 people when I was stopping by; not bad, but for reference I doubt they out-drew our local Bay Area Games Day (Origins is, after all, supposed to be one of the premier gaming con in the nation). The war room probably had a similar or maybe slightly smaller number, with less fluctuation due to the longer games being played. In a sign of the times, I don’t think I ever saw more than two copies of any individual title being played at once, and many games were left out set up but unplayed, a wargaming ritual I could live without. The splintered nature of boardgames at Origins (the vendor demo areas, the “tabletop” gaming hall, and the CABS area) is a recipe for some confusion.

As an avid boardgamer, I’m not quite sure what to make of the boardgame situation. It seems to me that boardgames at Origins have been holding at a fairly modest level the past 7-8 years, at the same time that boardgaming in general has seen apparently explosive growth. Part of this seems to be the disinterest on the part of the companies themselves in organized play, perhaps because while games are more plentiful now, they also in general seem to be thought of as more disposable? Back in the late 90s, before they got bought out, Avalon Hill would make some effort to put together good events for their games, and as a result I have very fond memories of playing Acquire, Hannibal, and Successors in well-organized events. The CCG folks have always recognized good, well-organized events at cons as their life-blood, and Iron Crown and Wizards always invested a lot of effort in them. For boardgames today, things are left in the hands of fans and independent organizations for the most part (Mayfair being the notable exception), and it seems to me that there is inadequate leadership and the incentives are either nonexistent or have gotten too far out of whack. The clubs are just individuals who don’t always have interests that are well-aligned with either those of the game companies or the attendees, so the results are predictably chaotic, and there is a lack of any accountability. If GMT had been using Avalon Hill’s playbook, they would have had a 2-hour tournament scenario available for Barabarossa to Berlin and run an event to publicize the new release, along with a pre-game teaching session. I would have made time for that event. But they weren’t. Instead, GMT just had one unpunched copy of the new edition lying around, and I didn’t see a single game of Barbarossa to Berlin being played.

I’m not sure what this means, ultimately, other than that I enjoyed the old situation (in which boardgames were more about scheduled, organized events and not just pick-up games) more, and this shift is primarily responsible for the fact that Origins is no longer a boardgame con for me. However, I may be more sensitive to these things because of both the much greater distance I travel to attend, and my more varied interests. I enjoyed playing Thurn and Taxis and Masons and Rum and Pirates and Robber Knights, but for me there is no reason to travel to Origins to play pick-up games. I go to cons to play something interesting, something unusual, something more competitive, something I couldn’t or don’t get to play at home. Origins currently is falling well short of providing this in the euro and wargame area, and is comfortably succeeding only in the area of RPGs and my favorite Middle-Earth CCG events.