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.

Lots of Games

Here are just a few random comments on some of the games that got played today (I wasn’t in all of them):

Carabande: We played on one track plus one expansion set, which is really the way to go. People get sucked into these huge track layouts because it looks so cool, but game-wise, one set and three laps really is ideal, and even that might be just a touch too long.

Atlantic Star: One of the few really good games for 6. On the one hand, it is pretty serial and so can be a touch slow, but on the other hand you get to groan as the good ships/actors you need come and go before you get a chance to snag them. And there are really painful choices almost every turn. A fun game, if not quite top-tier.

The Dream Game: I don’t know how many readers will be familiar with this, as I couldn’t find a reference for it online (perhaps it has a different “official” name?). This is a party game, the basic idea of which is that topics are chosen (say, U.S. Presidents), and then each player writes down some words for that category (say, Fred Washington). You then get points for how many other people write that word/name/phrase/whatever down, regardless of correctness or any other factors. Fairly weak as these things go, certainly nothing on Celebrites or Apples to Apples, two popular “gamer’s” party games. It lacks any inherent fun value. Play Personal Preference with a group of friends who all know each other, or Time’s Up/Celebrities with a mixed group.

The Wrath of Rohan: This scenario is one from The Two Towers, in which the Rohirrim attempt to run down the fleeing Uruk-Hai. Chase scenarios have issues by default, and despite promise, I think this scenario just doesn’t quite work after all – the Rohirrim just don’t have enough time to catch up and make things interesting. Not one I’ll play again without some modification, I think.

Titan: the Arena: Great game – simple, fun, yet subtle, and it has stood up quite well over time. Looking forward to the re-issue this summer.

St. Petersburg: This game is still holding up pretty well, and I like it. Sure, it certainly isn’t a top-shelf type game – not something that will still be played a lot next year – but it is fun and interesting, and it is at the right price point given all that. Tough choices throughout, yet not so tough the game gets bogged down.

Tigris & Euphrates: I played this with one friend who had played many times before and two more who had never played. I like this game quite a bit, but it is terribly difficult to play with people of differing experience levels. There is a couple-game learning curve in which you really just have no idea what you are doing and are just trying various things to see what happens (one of the great things about Settlers was that it was a subtle enough game to be quite engaging, yet familiar and approachable enough that smart new players who are paying attention can play well).

Game Night

Lots of little stuff today, almost an entire evening of filler – nothing that topped my play list, but some good stuff nonetheless:

Flaschenteufel has come out a lot recently, and we played with 4. Definitely a significantly better game with 4 than 3, I think. I did quite poorly this time – I started out well with this game, but it’s been downhill ever since. Maybe this should be telling me something :). This is one of those games that it’s sooo easy to make a mistake that you realize as soon as the card hits the table that you miscalculated and now you’re hosed. We played 4 hands, which probably isn’t quite enough; but the target of 500 in the rulebook is too much, I think – maybe 250 would be better.

Tichu is a neat game I think, but I’m not the huge fan that many in my group are. I guess my main gripe is length, not sure it’s something I want to play for the 90-120 minutes required for the hands to balance out. Somehow, it feels like I’m playing what I was dealt more than playing a game. I don’t want to overstate this point, because Tichu is a pretty good game, much better than any of the other “climbing” games I’ve played … just not one that blows me away, I prefer games that are a little more tactical.

I can’t think of anything at all to say about another Wizard game.

Pitchcar is the new edition of Carabande, and it appears to be generally superior in quality. I also like a lot that it has 8 different colors of cars instead of 4 colors each duplicated once. The tracks seem to be of nicer manufacture than the original, too. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite compatible; if they were, I’d pick up one, but I already own Carabande. I’m told the Pitchcar action set is missing the jump, but the jump was the weakest part of the action set anyway.

Feurio is another game that scores on its simplicity and approachability. Good lighter fare, neat and clever game, not to taxing. Better with 4 than 3. I can see the ceiling coming at around 8-10 games, though. Not too shabby, and it’ll probably come out occasionally after that, but not a real classic.

We then played Die Fugger again for the second week in a row with 3. It solidified in my opinion as a decent but not great little filler. Some tension, some choices, but a lot of luck of the draw and not as much control as you’d like. It also seems a touch bland. But it is easy to explain, short, and with some good stuff. One of Adlung’s more solid games, I think. Not worth the price from the US retailers I’d have to say, but get it as a throw-in from Adam Spielt or something.

We then had a really unusual game of Can’t Stop. The first 3 columns closed out were 12, 11, 10, and even at that point nobody had more than 5 clicks on the 7 column. More great filler.

Some other games that got played tonight included Breaking Away (great game, but the first time it’s been out here in probably 2-3 years; we used to play it quite a bit) and the Lord of the Rings Trivia Game. None of our real Lord of the Rings geeks were actually playing in it, though, so I think it resulted in a closer (and non-trivially longer) game. There have been some rumblings that the starting allotment of resourced might be just a bit too low in that game, especially if it’s a more casual crowd; that might be a nice way to handicap the game, giving double or triple the starting resources to the less-well-versed players. I’ll have to put a note in the box to think about that for next time (if I don’t put a note in, I won’t remember it until halfway through the next game I play).