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.

Origins Report – RPGs

Although Kim and I are primarily board gamers, over the past few years the focus of Origins has slowly been shifting to RPGs for us. The good reasons are that we’ve found a group (Amorphous Blob) that generally runs events that we really enjoy and because as we’ve become more experienced we’re enjoying the RPGs more. The unfortunate reason is that the situation with board games (wargames in particular) has been slipping a bit.

This year I had signed up for a record for me of 14 hours of RPGs: two D&D events, one Arcana Unearthed, and one Paranoia. Due to my illness, I was only able to make it to one of the two D&D games and the AU, and was really only able to fully participate in the AU.

P6300034The AU game was the personal highlight of my shortened con, though, as it was being run by Monte Cook, the designer. The adventure he ran was a heavily modified version of The Severed Oath, a module available on his web site. The theme remained similar, and it used the same characters, although the details were altered enough to make it unrecognizable. I played the Mojh Mage Blade Karzagedaren. Kim played the Giant Champion of Life Tor-Gerren.

I had a little trouble working with the Karzagedaren character – he was supposed to be a strong-willed, impatient warrior – but I found it hard to find his zen. I, like others I’ve talked too, have been drawn to the Mage Blade class because it’s the sort of spell-slinging warrior you always wanted but just flat-out can’t do in D&D. But I actually wonder if it’s one of the weaker classes in AU from a roleplaying perspective. Compared to the wonderfully thematic Akashic, Greenbond, Oathsworn, Unfettered, and Champion (just to pick a few) with their easy roleplaying hooks, the Mage Blade is a little generic.

Kim had better luck with her Giant character – Tor-Gerren was a noble sort and had some good roleplaying tie-ins in the adventure, so she was able to really get into the character. It helped that she was devastating in combat, as she had enough Giant racial levels to become Large, which means a longer reach and bigger, more damaging weapons. Of course, when it came to time to sneak around a bit, that’s a bit hard to do when you’re 12 feet tall and wearing Full Plate. And the 20 foot movement was kind of a bummer.

I had a good time with this, and it was a pleasure to meet with Monte Cook (and get him to sign our Arcana Evolved book!). He also introduced us to Tact-Tiles, which are a great alternative to the traditional battle mat. He has his own writeup of Origins on his website, which is a good read.

My other event was a D&D adventure from Amorphous Blob, which was more in the roleplaying/humor vein. A Wizard hires the party (which is all 12th level – I was a Ranger 8/Arcane Archer 4) to rid him of a pesky dragon that has taken up residence in the mountain next door. However, the more the party delves into the problem, the more things are not as they seem. For one, there are large numbers of demons wandering around for some reason. It turns out that this is more in the way of a suburban squabble over a fence than anything else, and the Wizard (who might be a weasel) may have summoned a high-level Demon Prince from the Abyss to kill the Dragon, but there was a miscalculation of size which left the huge demon bound and trapped in a tiny room from which he could not escape, but the gate to the abyss was jammed open, letting smaller demons through. The party had to sort out this mess, eventually convincing the Dragon and Wizard to make up and combine their might to seal the gate and unsummon the Demon.

This was an amusing and very entertaining adventure, and I had the opportunity to play with some very good roleplayers who really got into it. I think there was all of about 1 combat sequence which lasted only a few minutes (it was amusing too … we had to take down two Demons, so all the spellcasters in the party just took a couple rounds to pour every enhancement spell in their arsenal into our Dwarven Warrior, who then single-handedly ran screaming towards them and took them out with a few quick axe blows).

I had to bail on the Paranoia game unfortunately, but Kim played and had a very good time, so she’ll be running a session or two for our local buddies sometime soon.

I didn’t buy any new RPG books at Origins, as GenCon is where most of the new RPGs get debuted it seems, but I did pick up a set of Tact-Tiles, and I added to my collection of Iron Wind Metal’s Arcana Unearthed figures a few minis appropriate for my current game. Iron Heroes, the next “Variant Player’s Handbook” from Malhavoc (Monte Cook’s label) which will be released later this month, looks extremely promising and might be something to move on to in a year or two. But for the moment, between Arcana Unearthed, Paranoia, and D&D, I’m pretty much set.

Origins Report – Wargames

Last year I ranted about the state of wargames at Origins and the fact that CABS seems to be mismanaging them to death, and said I’d run my own events. Which I did. It turned out to be a bit of a saga.

The whole point of this exercise was to get a couple events going that would be differentiated from CABS, so I was disappointed when the prereg program for Origins got screwed up and all the wargames had their descriptions dropped and replaced with “NULL. CABS” (as I mentioned last year, virtually all CABS events are fictional, which I assume most people know at this point). Fortunately the online program was still OK. Fast forward to the event … I arrive Thursday morning with about half an hour to spare. I get in line at the “Game Masters” queue. I stand there for about 15 minutes and, I kid you not, it does not move. Figuring at this rate I was going to be there for hours, and I don’t really need a “Gamemaster” ribbon, I go right to the preregistration queue instead, which takes me under 5 minutes. Dana Lombardy, from L2 Design Group, was behind me in the Gamemasters line … hopefully he had more luck. Anyway, I get the onsite program, and look for my event to see where it’s located. “CABS War Room”. OK … but there is no map in the program indicating which of the many rooms that might actually be. After being misdirected a couple times, I finally find it, virtually unlabeled, in the most obscure corner of the convention center. Every other event type has a front desk with someone who actually cares and coordinates the events, manages table setup, etc., but not CABS, so I just pick a spot by the door.

I give folks about 20 minutes, but nobody shows up for Rommel in the Desert. I didn’t expect a huge turnout, but was a bit disappointed that I got nobody at all. However, given the difficulties, I’m not sure it was a huge shock.

After this, I was ready to just say screw it, I am not dealing with wargames at Origins again. There are tons of other things to do which are not completely screwed up. This year the War Room was even more anemic than last year, with barely enough draw to eclipse the Star Fleet Battles area. I doubt wargames at Origins will recover until they are wrested from CABS (personally, I think the vendors – GMT, MMP, Columbia – are going to have to take charge; I have to assume that the fact that few if any of their games are getting organized play and visibility is not helping sales).

However, I came back for my Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage event the next day, because I knew I had a few pre-reg online signups. We ended up with 6 at start, which worked out quite well. I put the two newbies at one table, then we drew lots for the other two games. As luck would have it, I was the only one in a game that was a mismatch, with my Carthaginians winning early on about the end of turn 7 when the Romans could not remove a PC, but just a little bit after this another player showed up, so I was able to match him up with my opponent. The other two games were quite close – Kim’s game came down to a card play on the last turn (her Romans won due to a last minute Celtiberian defection). The newbie game took quite a long time, so I don’t know how it ended up.

Even though my game was a mismatch, it was still fun and I think my opponent learned a lot (primarily, that the Romans can’t be that aggressive early in the game … things don’t get truly desperate for quite a while). Kim enjoyed her game quite a bit, and I think the new players (one of whom I ran into at our friend Mark’s Carabande game) did OK. So despite my previous vow, I will probably end up running Hannibal again next year.

There were a handful of interesting new releases in the dealers’ room, and I ended up buying:

Triumph of Chaos: This is a new game of the Russian Civil War from Clash of Arms built on the Paths of Glory engine. I’m really trying to not buy these new releases until I get the rules or some early reports, but they had a good convention discount, and despite being burned multiple times I’m still a sucker for these card games, I guess (although I almost certainly would have waited if it was from GMT). The core rules look very sensible, but I am a bit scared of all the special rules for the 18 different factions.

Fire in the Sky: Another game with a minimalist cover (I like it), this new MMP release is interesting in that it’s an import of a popular Japanese game and so may, unlike many games these days it seem, have had some adequate playtesting. Another game I might have held out on, but they had a nice discount. I’m looking forward to playing this one, as it looks interesting and unusual, and the system looks quite clean and professional.

ASL Starter Kit #2: On the scale of wargames these days, the ASL Starter Kits are ludicrously inexpensive (only about $20). I wasn’t hugely excited about the first, infantry-only one, but now with some guns I’d like to give it a spin sometime. I’d like to have a good tactical WWII game that isn’t out of hand, complexity (ASL) or playing-time (TCS) wise, and ASLSK looks reasonably promising. Why no concealment rules, though? That’s a head-scratcher.

Speaking of which, Band of Heroes, the WWII “sequel” to Lock ‘n Load, wasn’t at the con – Mark Walker said sometime around late August. I’m still torn on pre-ordering it. Unfortunately, the graphics and graphic design for the new game weren’t that impressive, which is unfortunate given the now much higher price point. I like Lock ‘n Load quite a bit so I’ll probably end up buying it, but it’s not a done deal.

I passed on GMTs Men of Iron. I’ve liked Cataphract and The Devil’s Horsemen, but the $65 price point on Men of Iron (no convention discount) seemed truly excessive for what, 5 small battles? Most of which are probably unbalanced? I also saw a few folks playing a very nicely produced Gazala game … but then I saw the Avalanche Press logo, so I passed.

So, some good new releases, and with Shifting Sands hopefully being released at WBC, this year could end up being a pretty good year for wargames. But the genre continues its slide towards oblivion at Origins, which is a shame, but there is still WBC and MonsterCon is going strong, so you’ve got some options.

Origins Report – Board Games

Palazzo: This was my first game of the con. After my Rommel in the Desert fell through, I headed straight to the Dealer’s Room. I was there a little early, so after fleeing in terror from some sort of bizarre Origins Awards ceremony, I went straight to the Rio Grande/Decision Games area to give this a try. I liked it a lot. I think the most notable thing is how it manages to find a nice balance between control, randomness, complexity, and game length. It’s a short, simple, and somewhat chaotic game that nonetheless has plenty of interesting choices, good for the times you want a fun game with some strategy that isn’t going to hurt your brain. Not as good as San Juan, but certainly at least as good as anything else in the low end of alea’s range (Royal Turf, Edel Stein & Reich, Louis XIV).

Tower of Babel: This was about my 5th play on this game, and I still like it a lot, for a lot of the same reasons I like Palazzo, plus the advantage that as in Modern Art, you’re always doing stuff. Having played Ticket to Ride recently, I sometimes find it frustrating that that game seems to be “think … sit around … sit around … sit around … think ….”. Tower of Babel is a much more continuous experience. Combine all this with a game that has considerable subtlety, and I think it’s a winner. The first game I played, I focused on the huge points available for the chits, which was good for a win. But as I’ve played more, it’s become clear that there is a lot more to the game than that.

Although it didn’t bother me much, Kim had a real problem with the graphics of Tower of Babel. Compared to the colorful and elegant graphics of classic Hans im Glück/Knizia games like Samurai, Tigris & Euphrates, or Amun-Re, the graphics on Tower of Babel are flat, colorless, and cold. The board is also much too large; the smaller-size box (like Saint Petersburg or Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers) would have been more appropriate in my opinion.

Revolte in Rome: I didn’t get a full game of this in, as the dealer’s room was closing just as Kim and I were hitting the mid-game. This is a pretty straightforward dice game. You’ve got six numbered slots in front of you into which you can play cards with special powers. Each turn you roll three dice and can use the numbers rolled to activate cards in the matching slots. You can also use the dice to draw cards or take income. You then try to whack your opponent. This seemed kind of neat to me, but it didn’t quite grab me. It’s a long-ish game, similar in flavor to (although much less involved than) the Settlers Card Game, and about the same length. I’d like to give it a try again, but I felt the price point, even at $25, was a bit high. I’d pay $10-$15.

Arkham Horror: This is a new Fantasy Flight release, I think available for the first time at the con. As I mention in my recent Shadows over Camelot review, meaty cooperative games are few and far between. I came in really wanting to like this. Unfortunately, the demo situation was suboptimal and we were not taught the game very effectively. Still, even once we got started, I had a hard time liking the game. It’s got the usual wonderful Fantasy Flight physical components, and it seems like it’s also got the classic Fantasy Flight lack of development: it didn’t seem like there was a lot of tension or much in the way of interesting player choices. My suspicion is that the number of players makes a huge difference here – I suspect the “sweet spot” is somewhere around 4 (we played with six). Like Doom: The Boardgame, it seems poorly scaled for differing numbers. There was still some cool stuff about the game, and the atmosphere is much better-done than in the wretched Betrayal at House on Hill (which won an Origins Award, by the way). I’d still like to try it again, but it’s been bumped down my play list.

One of the very cool things about Origins is that every so often you randomly run into interesting people. Richard Launius, the designer of Arkham Horror and nice guy, stopped by our game for a while. We also got to play a prototype game with Richard Garfield and his daughter, also very pleasant folks.

The Motley Fools’ Buy Low, Sell High: This is a remake of the old game Palmyra. When I first played Palmyra some 7-8 years ago, I wasn’t that impressed with it; but when I got a copy of Buy Low, Sell High “for free”, I figured I’d give it another shot. I enjoyed it. The new theme works better for me, the game is simple and plays quickly, and like most Knizia games is it more subtle than it appears on first inspection, and that’s always a good sign. On the other hand, it’s over-produced; this is a small card game in a huge box with custom-made plastic bits, and with a correspondingly high price tag. I liked it, but I’m not sure it’s worth the price or the space it takes up on the shelf.

Dealers’ Room: This was the thinnest year in memory for board game purchases. The only traditional board game I bought was Palazzo. I wanted to buy Arkham Horror but couldn’t do it after playing and in light of Fantasy Flight’s track record. Mayfair didn’t have much new except a Phalanx game, but I need another Phalanx game like I need hole in my head. None of the new Queen games from Rio Grande were really grabbing me. Face 2 Face had the new edition of Rheinländer, but I sold my copy of the original years ago because it could never get any traction and got only a handful of plays. So things were a bit thin overall on the board game side.

Next up: wargames.

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 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.